Fichigan

Small Stream Trout fishing in Michigan

Dark Mornings

OK, morning are dark until the sun comes up. And there is nothing foreboding or ominous about dark mornings to a fisherman. I didn’t mean it that way. Unless tripping on a tree root in your waders sounds ominous. Dark mornings are for when you just can’t wait to go fishing so you answer to an alarm clock, negotiate through the black cityscape toward the highway, push it up to the speed limit and maybe, if you are running late, the horizon starts to glow. This on a day off from work where you really would have appreciated some sleep.

The stream looks great in the dark, like a long black pool. You have to slide into the water from the bank so you sit down, push off, and hope your feet hit bottom. In the dark there’s no telling if the stream is high or if the spot you’ve chosen is deep. A little adrenaline rush. Suddenly you are where you want to be. Let the games begin. What lure to latch onto the cross-lock snap? Move out to the center of the stream or stay put and work the far bank? Is that a branch just below the surface and how do I work the lure close but avoid a snag? Your focus is sharp.

Trout are active in the dark, feeding in relative safety. If you have a camouflage jacket all the better because you want to be invisible. You move slow, picking your casts, dropping the lure in the best spots. When trout can’t see you they may strike your lure a second before it reaches the rod tip. An explosion that stops you heart.

Sometimes you see a fish follow the lure. Sometimes you feel a tug or jerk and see nothing: A fish hit, but the hook didn’t take. So you rest the fish. Good rule: count to a hundred and cast to the same spot. You only make it to fifty. You cast. If the fish did not feel the hook he will try again, usually more aggressive. If the second cast did not work you cast to a wider area, he is in there somewhere.

You move upstream, wading slow, being quiet. You hear trickling water where run off enters the stream off a steep bank. You place a cast to that spot because you once caught a nice brook trout there. No one home today. You move on.

Every sweeping bend, every stump, even the deep channel in the middle of a straight has a possible decent trout. When it is dark the odds rise in favor of a trout that is eighteen inches or better. By the time you feel morning warmth from the rising sun you have a couple trout for dinner. And a photo of the big one you let go.

Hess Lake

The other guys

Feral made a pitch to ice fish on Hess Lake last Sunday and I blame myself. If I hadn’t foolishly mentioned ice fishing in the previous post I could have done something more constructive like planting corn early. The mere mention of Hess Lake brought back memories from 20 years ago and slaying crappies – one after another. Can a lake change in twenty years?

Feral set the meeting time for 8:00 AM and I had to imagine his other fishing buddy, Chuck, a lake expert, shaking his head. Crappies, if I remember right, bite at night, in the dark. On the other hand, if we could find them, and drop minnows into their midst, it could be workable. My job was to pick up some pike minnows for tip-ups, Chuck and Feral would get wax worms and crappie minnows. I found a bait shop open in downtown Newago at 7:30, bought half a dozen pike minnows and mentioned Hess Lake to the store owner. Reading his expression was difficult, but not impossible. He had just sold me six pike minnows and now he didn’t want to be discouraging.  I mentioned crappies and pike. He struggled to think of something good to say.  I said I fished Hess lake a long time ago.  He said Hess was a great crappie lake twenty years ago. I knew he wasn’t lying.

Feral, Chuck and I had all found the same internet post about where to fish. Four hundred yards out from the boat landing, veer right. As it happens, two other ice fishermen headed out on the ice minutes ahead of us and it appeared they read the same post. Hess Lake is 755 acres, huge, so if these guys turned around, it probably seemed like we were following them. We ended up on the same acre, OK, 1/4 acre, but they were cool about it, even talkative, which is always a good thing.

If you can imagine 755 acres of ice and a total of five guys fishing on a Sunday morning you may understand a reality that slowly dawned on the five guys.

It actually started well, one of the other guys pulled out a crappie right away, within seconds of dropping a line. Great, right? Feral and I set out a few tip-ups for pike (one fish equals a whole meal!) and then started working on finding crappies, bouncing from hole to hole. I caught one decent crappie, 9 inches, and Chuck caught another. Not much shouting from the other guys but they were toughing it out. Tiny perch were biting, trending smaller as the hours went by, whereby the smallest perch might have brought some honor if we would have pre-thought having a smallest fish contest.

Chuck with a small mess of crappies

Luther scores big

About four hours in I started thinking about what I might put in a fichigan post. One idea was getting a ticket for loitering on Hess Lake. That had possibilities, DNR watching us with binoculars and wondering what we were doing out there. And not really wanting to walk the 400 yards to see if there was evidence of fishing (an actual fish).


Feral, ice dancing

When we finally decided to call it the other guys stopped over to chat and commiserate. I mentioned fichigan, posting a photo of them, and then blaming them for the fishing. That got a laugh. I give them a lot of credit: as we were leaving they set up some ice tents. Fours hours of tough fishing and they were just getting started. Sometimes the fishing does a one-eighty so it is possible they did OK. Really.

Cold Snap

Michigan has a long gap between the last day of regular trout season and the start of the next. I usually turn to indoor hobbies when winter arrives though Feral and I have ice fished a couple times over the last few year. Once on Leverentz Lake with his buddy Chuck, an expert on lake fishing, ice of not. A few days ago I tried to paint Feral and Chuck from a photo but my attempt at watercolor turned somewhat muddy from over painting. I may try painting this again in hopes of doing a better job. I will say this about the painting – it looks cold out there and it was. Feral and I set up tip-ups for pike and Chuck concentrated on panfish and perch. Chuck caught a mixed dozen. Feral and I got zip but enjoyed watching Chuck work his magic.

Feral and I used to write letters back and forth in the winter, snail mail, hyping the distant trout season. We’d add a photo or two from the previous season. Fun getting a real letter instead of email. I may start that up again. If he reads this post I may get an invite to ice fish, ideally on a sunny day with temperatures more toward freezing rather than the zero temps we have now. A nice mess of bluegills, crappies or perch would taste pretty good about now. A trout dinner is along way off.

The Tick

Last summer after a trip to a local trout stream I found a tick buried in my leg. I picked him off but a day or two later while showering I felt a tiny bump while washing my bottom. I figured I missed a tick and tried to see in the bathroom mirror but could not twist my body enough. I took a hand mirror and tried to double mirror the area but that was not working either. Then I remembered my camera phone! I took a photo and zoomed in and yikes! My immediate thought was “this is a photo no man should ever have to see.” Then I thought: I should send this to my wife, see if she recognizes this part of my anatomy. Fun right? I was tempted but thought better of it and decided not to hit the send button.

About two hours later my wife arrived home from work and went upstairs to change out of her work clothes. She came back downstairs wearing an outfit guaranteed to stop cold any possible thought of intimacy. I can only describe it as the cardboard box of woman fashion – absolutely no indication whatsoever of womanly curves and attractions.  At first I thought “what is going on.” Then I thought, “oh oh, I must have sent her that photo.”

It didn’t come up in conversation but later on it occurred to me there may be a huge market for woman’s “don’t even think about it” clothing. Hows this: A boxy sweatshirt with an electric carving knife emblazoned on the front. Stovepipe pants made of canvas ( lined with soft felt for comfort). House slippers resembling rhino feet. A warm snood with spiky hair curlers. I’d get the message. Might be a turn-on to some guys though.

Mike

I have held off doing a post about Mike, one of the trout camp regulars, mainly because he is more of a philosopher than a fisherman. After the sun sets, around the campfire, Mike is the guy with astute observations and philosophical ideas about the world. We try not to hold that against him. I am not saying he is not a great fisherman, of the people I fish with he is maybe the best underhand flip caster and my understanding is that his biggest brown trout surpasses my own, which I also try not to hold against him.

At some dark point in his life he started showing up at trout camp with golf clubs. Or a sketch pad on which he would draw Botticelli nudes. He briefly tried bass guitar, harmonica, and bongos but traveled to a different drum so it comes as a surprise he felt uncomfortable jamming with Rock Bottom and the Out of Tuner’s, the original “different drum” trout camp jam band.

I find myself revisiting some of the camping trips and stretches of trout water Mike and I fished together. Back when the steelhead were first introduced to Michigan streams Jake Lucas, our grandfather, took us on weekend trips to the Little Manistee / Indian Club in the spring. According to the the legend on the back of the photo below, Mike and I were good for a seven pounder each, Jake caught two eight pounders. Sound fishy?

Thinking back, seems like Mike was always Jake’s most apt pupil. And Mike was tough. He would go ice fishing or smelt dipping with Jake, deer hunting, Mike was game for whatever came up. And no complaints, which was a hit with grandpa.

I recall a trip up to the Pine River in Lake County, just Mike and I, whereby he waded without waders on a cold day that turned miserable. We fished upstream from the canoe landing off Edgetts Road. I was bundled up pretty good but cold rain started coming down. I kept asking Mike about heading back and finally he agreed. He had to be freezing! We decided to cut across country through some bad brush fraught with nettles and various prickers and by the time we got to the vehicle he was scraped up good but no problem. No complaints. So that is how I think about Mike, whether he is sketching a nude, is buried in a book, talking philosophy, or taking an afternoon nap. He’s tough. He paid his dues. He doesn’t have to prove anything at trout camp.

October Camp

October may be the best time to camp in Michigan. The fall colors are spectacular. Weather can be good or bad but if you pick your weekend it can be dry, seasonal jacket weather which is great for fishing, hunting, trail walking, kayaking, whatever calls.

Feral and I are trout fishing addicts and usually call it quits at the end of the regular fishing season, the last Saturday in September. Upon closer review of the rules and regulations I noticed one of our favorite streams, the Pigeon, has a section that stays open all year for rainbow trout. We decided to give try. I met Feral up at the Pigeon River State Forest Campground on Sturgeon Valley Road last weekend. The stream is closed there, but we knew some spots on the open water further downstream that hold good trout, down toward Tin Bridge.

It helps to have a 4WD vehicle to get back in there. I upgraded my trout car this year to a 2000 Lexus RX300, a short wheelbase, good clearance vehicle with 4WD or AWD, there is some confusion about which, but we had no problem getting to Tin Bridge, and also explored some other old two-tracks that were even more remote and less drivable. A Lexus trout car? Don’t laugh.

We hiked downstream from Tin Bridge and I must say the walk in is brutal. We followed the stream but there is no trail to speak of, so a lot of branch busting and detours away from the stream. We found some giant mushroom balls on the way. Feral said they are edible if you catch them at the right time, but these were past due.


We arrived at a nice sweeping bend with a deep undercut bank. No luck there but before long we were catching (and releasing) some decent brown trout, nothing huge, but up to about 16 or 17 inches. We didn’t catch a rainbow trout. The browns were all very dark colored, possibly due to the black silt problem from the dam spillage a few years ago.


On the second day we hit a remote spot accessible off of the Shingle Mill Pathway. We ran into a group of young backpackers with small dogs. The dogs had saddle bags! I guess they had to carry their weight, no slackers in that group. We followed the trail downstream and cut in east to intersect the river. There’s a nice mix of gravel and sandy areas including some deep bends. On one of those Feral was up ahead and had a huge trout, possibly a steelhead, follow his lure back, but the fish didn’t strike.

Scene of the crime

He motioned for me to cast up above him with my lure, thinking the fish might spot him if he moved. I made the long cast and sure enough, it slammed my lure, rolled on the surface, and broke off. (I had just put new 10lb test line.) Lost my favorite lure, but mainly felt bad for the fish. We both guessed it was a two footer, a brown. Hopefully he was able to dislodge the lure.

We caught more trout as we moved up the stream, or I should say Feral did. I held back, overthinking the loss of the big one. Feral was sticking his lure into pretty tight spots and taking fish. Again no rainbows, but decent browns which he released since they were not in season.

Back at camp we had campfires both nights. We usually scavenge for wood but I found a good deal on split logs just outside of Vanderbilt. Five buck for a nice load that lasted hours. We played guitar and mandolin the first night, running though a lot of classic Dylan, John Prine, as well as some newer songs that are good jams. The second night we talked for hours just staying up enjoying the fire. October Camp is on the calendar for next year. The woods were almost hypnotic with bright colors. Fishing was good but a rainbow trout for dinner would have been nice.

Fall Trout Camp 2017

In early September I start googling weather predictions for Vanderbilt, Michigan in hopes of cold weather for the trout closer, with rain. Maybe I jinxed it. This may go on record as the hottest September ever with temps in the 90’s. Global warming? Camping was tough. The only way to cool off was diving in Pickerel lake. Or setting up a lawn chair right in the water. Feral devised a minnow trap so we had bait for fishing. Pickerel lake has bass, bluegill, perch, and planted rainbow trout. We caught bass and perch, but minnows are a top bait for most everything.

Minnow trap from a gallon water jug

We did catch a few stream trout. Natch caught a couple dinner size browns, Feral maybe no, I caught a small brown and a fat rainbow about 17 inches. We worked the streams early AM but that didn’t help much. Normally big brown trout come up the Sturgeon and Pigeon rivers in the late fall to spawn… but it takes cold weather and rain.

Luther with a rainbow trout

Natch took “most bass” honors

Feral tried partridge hunting with his 22 but failed to see any on a 5 mile hike down the road and around the lake. He later commented that he should have taken two beers instead of his 22, he would have shot just as many.

Feral strikes a classic hunter pose

We stayed up pretty late every night and had a couple good guitar/mandolin/bongo jams. I learned a new song on guitar for the closer, “Everybody wants to rule the world.” Somehow the lyrics seem fitting for the political chaos going on, even though the words are pretty abstract. Feral did some impressive triple picking on the mandolin. Natch provided some rhythm which was impressive too, considering he was going back and forth drinking bottled White Russians and Bud Light all night. It may have been a political statement whereby he effectively diluted USSR influence on US politics. Regardless, the man has an iron stomach.

We packed up on Monday, a day ahead of schedule. We couldn’t face another afternoon of the blistering heat!

 

 

A Trout Fisherman is Born

Natch has this annoying habit of out-fishing Feral and I… and now he’s dragging his son into the picture! Following story by Natch.

Lucas with Shades

Trout report from up north this past weekend: Lucas (13) and I went up north to get some work done on our cabin but he convinced me to hit a trout stream instead.

Day One, Stretch Number One: First, we hit the Manistee River south of CR612 along Goose Creek State Campground. The plan was I would fish in the stream and he would follow/fish from the bank since he didn’t have waders. We saw a couple of small browns follow our lures but no real action – until some canoers & kayakers came along. I decided to get out of the way and up on the inside bank of the bend and enjoy the show. I could hear them coming for several bends up stream. The middle canoe, with two ladies, decided they couldn’t make the turn and go under a fallen tree that went all the way across the stream. Their choice – let the current ram them up against the tree and tip their canoe. Nice. The good Samaritan that I am, I waited for them to both get wet before I waded over to drag their canoe out of the water, empty it, and help them get back on course.

After this excitement I had Lucas cut through the woods to meet me around a couple of bends. We met up on a long, sandy stretch. He decided he didn’t like me being the only one having fun in the stream so he proceeded to wade into the river with jeans and indoor soccer shoes. After about 15 minutes of that and no fish to show for it, he decided the water was getting rather cold. We agreed that since it was only around 3:00 we should run to Jay’s in Gaylord and see if they had any waders his size. Out of the river, through the woods and to the truck we went. An hour later we were at Jay’s trying on waders. We found some Caddis neoprene stocking foot waders that fit just about right with some room to grow if needed. Now we had to find some boots. I really didn’t want to drop big bucks on wading boots that he might outgrow by next spring so we headed to Walmart for some inexpensive hiking boots.

Day One, Stretch Number Two: There was still plenty of daylight so we headed out to find a stretch to rip off and try out his new waders. We decided to hit Kolka creek in Frederic. It is a bit smaller and shallower water so I figured it was perfect for him to get his wading legs under him and see what he could do. On top of that, I’ve crossed that stream at least a 50 times a year for the past 15 years and kept telling myself I should jump in and give it a whirl. What better time than now? Let’s do it. We pulled way down a two-track to get to the stream and proceeded to put our waders on. Time to get in the water. We noticed a lot of bug activity on top of the water. The stream is shallow but there is some nice cover and rocky bottom. We saw a couple of small trout follow our lures back but I was only able to catch a 10″ brown. We ended up catching up to another fisherman so we decided to head back to the truck and hit a different river since there was still some daylight left.

Day One, Stretch Number Three: We had about an hour or so of daylight left so we hit the Manistee River again – this time closer to our cabin and quite a ways upstream from our first stretch of the day. We hopped in the river and proceeded to cast all of the holes and cover. We had a few come out and give it a thought but they weren’t overly aggressive. We pushed on upstream. Lucas wanted to keep going even though the sun was getting lower and lower. I kept reminding him that we needed to get back to the truck with a little bit of daylight to guide us out. We cast several nice-looking areas but we could only pull out another 10″-12″ brown. Time to head back to the truck and rest up for tomorrow.

 

Day Two, Stretch Number One:  Back to the same stretch we left off the night before. We had better luck today. We were seeing more and Lucas caught his first brown trout – a 13″ beauty. I took the hooks out and handed it to him so I could get a photo of him holding it, but my warning of ‘they are very slippery’ wasn’t convincing enough I guess. No sooner did I grab my phone to take a pic and the brown squirmed his way out of Lucas’ hands and into the stream. Good thing Lucas took a pic of it right after I took the hooks out.

Onward and upward to the next hole. I ended up catching a couple more, a 10″ and a 16-1/2″ brown as we progressed through our 3-1/2 hour stretch. I am still amazed Lucas made it that far because that’s about all I can take for a single stretch. It took us nearly an hour just to get back to the truck (fishing here and there of course).

Summary:  He is hooked.

One week later.. 15-3/4 ” brown trout, way to go Lucas!

Free Tent, Campsite 2, Leverentz Lake

Big Leverentz campground was full except for a tiny site sandwiched between others and campsite 2 which overlooks the parking area but offers some sense of remoteness, like the corner table in a restaurant. I brought a guitar and a mandolin and when Feral and I camp there’s a pretty good chance we’ll knock down a few beers and jam. Having a remote spot is good since there’s less chance we’ll disturb other campers. Conversely, other campers sometimes stop by to listen and sometimes we get surprised by very talented musicians that want to jam.

I stopped at a garage sale earlier in the week and found a pretty nice camp cot for ten bucks. I have one already so I called Feral to see if he was interested. He was so when I packed for the trip I grabbed an old tent large enough for two cots so he could try it out. The tent is made from thin nylon material and I had a vague recollection it may not be good in the rain so I checked the weather report before heading north. Weather dot com said 20% chance of rain and which I took to mean a 20% chance of rain rather than rain 20% of the time.

The fishing on Levernetz was good, pike and bass. Late afternoon it clouded up and around six some light rain went through. Feral and I set up a tarp between trees to provide a shelter for our camp chairs. The rain stopped and we cooked some hot dogs over charcoal to get something warm in our bellies. Beer was good, and we had plenty. We jammed till about midnight and from this high point on a hill we could see other campfires die out as we delved deeper and deeper into our catalog of obscure folk and rock songs. Then the rain hit. We packed up the instruments and ran for the tent.

My pillows were wet and I had a small puddle in the middle of my sleeping bag. This must have been from the earlier rain. Not a good sign since it was now pouring. Feral fared slightly better. The top corner of his bag was damp but the main body was dry. A puddle had formed near the door so we had to climb on to the cots and remove our boots carefully. I managed to get comfortable because one half of one pillow was dry. I fell asleep but woke up an hour or two later because the beer pressure was rising. My left arm was soaked which explained why I was a bit cold. I went out to find a tree and when I returned I lifted the sagging bulges from inside the tent and was rewarded by the ploosh sound of water cascading over the tent walls.

I woke up at 7:00 and was not shy about getting up (and letting Feral sleep in). He heard me rustle and asked if it was time to get up. Yes. Feral had a tough night. Water dripped constantly on his head. The rain had stopped and we had planned to break camp early as we both had things planned for Labor day. So we packed up quick. If you are fast there is a nice cabin tent at campsite 2, Leverentz Lake that is just the thing in dry weather.

The Middle Branch

The Middle Branch and the Little South meet up at “The Forks” to create the main branch of the Pere Marquette River. I remember going up The Middle Branch so many years ago at dawn with Jake Lucas, my grandpa, and right off the bat he caught a 19 inch brown trout. Minutes later caught another the same size. We hadn’t gone 50 yards! I was about ten years old, tagging along to see how it’s done. He was using something I hadn’t seen him use before, a lead-head jig with white horse hair. He called it a doll fly. About all you can do with something like that is toss it like a spinner and let it drop to the bottom, bounce it along, and hope for a strike. I’ve tried jig fishing for stream trout a few times over the years but never had any luck with it. In the hands of a master is all I can figure.

I had an errand to run in White Cloud last weekend so I packed my waders figuring it’s only another half hour north to the Middle Branch. Might as well try for a dinner trout or two. I checked the Little South and the Middle Branch. The water was clear, it was mid-afternoon, the exact wrong time to hit a trout stream. Still, worth a try.

The Middle Branch is a very interesting stream. It’s loaded with trout but difficult to wade and cast. Half the time you are in waist high water, sometimes on tip toes. That adds another dimension to the underhand flip cast I use for 90% of my casting. To cast in chest deep water I use what might be called a revolver cast where, with arm up high, I swing the rod tip in a circle to launch the lure. Hard to explain, tricky to do. The other problem is the stream is so overgrown that getting out to get around a deep hole is treacherous, and dangerous. My older brother ran into some poison ivy on this stream few years back.

About a 100 yards up from the forks I came to the first bend, veering to the left. At the bottom end there’s a sunken log all the way across the stream and I moved up to about ten feet of it and laid a cast up past the log into some cover on the outside bank. A sudden hit and I knew it was a decent fish. Unfortunately the trout headed downstream and went under the sunken log so my line was wrapped around it. I stopped him and watched him zig zag next to me. In this situation you can try to net the fish and cut your line, or move up to the log and try to horse him forward in front of the log, which I did. The other possibility is feed your rod and reel over the top and under the log and that’s fair play too.

But I netted it reaching over the log. Nice fish. I decided right then to keep it for Sunday dinner and it’s a good thing because I didn’t catch another one. Saw a few but with the sun out and clear water it was tough fishing.

She measured 18 inches. I fried the fillets up with cajun fish mix, made rice pilaf with fresh mushrooms as a side, and my wife threw together a fruit salad. We washed it down with an icy Corona with lime. I should have taken a picture of the whole meal. Now that was a photo!

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