Fichigan

Small stream Trout fishing in Michigan

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!

George and Deb

I took my brother-in-law George Nowicki to a secret fishing spot on the Pigeon River one time even though it was a crazy thing to do. George was an expert at anything fishing including the fine art of spin fishing brown trout streams. George fished fast, wading quickly upstream and tossing lures with precision. I could hardly keep up. When Feral and I fish together we are like old men, casting every hole at various angles and never in a hurry, so this was the expressway of trout fishing.

George caught several trout though I can’t recall the number or size. At some point we talked about my Grandpa, Jake Lucas, and George’s feeling like he was never really accepted by Grandpa as a member of the family. I was surprised by this, though had to admit Grandpa had his own peculiar way of seeing things. So George felt like an outcast, making the sharing of this fishing spot appreciated a bit more that it’s real value. George married my little sister, Deb, and my guess is Grandpa figured no man was good enough for her, but he was wrong in that thinking.

As it turned out my sister married a man of great character and strength. A kind man that adored her and supported her in sickness and health, a trial that took strength I can’t imagine. Deb had early onset Alzheimer and George contracted liver cancer while taking care of her. George passed away this week, within a month of Deb’s passing. Our whole family, and their many friends, are still trying to understand this tragedy.

Just after Debby passed I asked George if he found comfort in his faith, knowing he was raised a Catholic. He said over the years his faith had a lot more to do with spending time camping and enjoying the outdoors with Deb rather than formal religion. I could see the truth of this. They were always off camping somewhere, kayaking, hunting, fishing, morel mushroom hunting.. if it was a fun outdoor adventure, they had a story. Feral and I ran into them once in a while at campgrounds. Up at Silver Creek up by the Pine River, and at a couple different campgrounds in the Pigeon River state game area. It was always fun to see them. They’d invite us to supper, usually wild game like venison stew as in the photo below. They would load up a dutch oven and set it on coals, bingo, dinner ready later in the day.

I wish I would have spent more time with them but receive some comfort knowing they led the life that mattered to them, raised a wonderful family, and had many friends. They were loved and will be missed.

Gold in Them Thar Streams

I thought Feral was the champion of get rich schemes until Natch showed up at trout camp with gold panning equipment. Theory has it there is gold in all Michigan streams. Who’s theory, I don’t know, but we gave it a try knowing any glittering specks found on the bottom of a pan were worth $1244.00 per ounce, or about two cents a speck.

Natch dug a bucket of gravel out of a stream famous for trout. We knew from years of experience that trout like gold lures so it stands to reason that if trout like the color gold, the river probably had some. I watched from the bank as Natch filled a five gallon bucket with gravel and tried to carry it out of the stream. Not sure what the bucket weighed but the steam water level rose a notch up his waders with every step. Physically, Natch was a foot shorter by the time he reached the bank, and a good eighteen inches shorter by the time he reached the truck. I offered to help lift the bucket up to the truck bed but thankfully he was too much of a man to accept my offer.

We took the bucket back to our camp at Leverentz Lake and he didn’t mention panning for two days, or about the time it took to spring back to his normal height. To sluice gold you need some clean water so he backed his truck down the boat landing. Natch’s panning kit had three pans of various sizes and he passed them out and gave us some instruction for use. He showed us how to whirl water so the gold chunks would get caught on the pan’s built in ledges while the worthless rocky stuff flew out the sides. He made it look simple but for some reason all of my gold must have went out the sides with the worthless stuff. After one pan the novelty started wearing off.

Feral seemed like he was catching on, developing a rhythm and masterly technique. He called us over to view his pan. I could see a faint line of black sand at the bottom edge of the pan but nothing shiny. The reason he was excited was he was sure he was doing it right and if there had been any gold in the pan it would surly be laying right in the midst of the black sand. Uh huh, ok.

Feral lasted longer than I, but it was Natch who was determined, by sheer will, to find gold. He slowly emptied the 5 gallon bucket of rocks and gravel and when there wasn’t any more sludge to filter he lifted that bucket like it weighed a feather and put it right back in the truck. In retrospect, I am not sure if his main goal was empty the darn bucket or find gold, but I would not be surprised if he’s carrying a small vial of gold next time we meet.

The Creek

I fish a couple small streams properly named creeks because at summer levels you can’t navigate them with a toy boat. After a good rain that all changes. Water spills over to low swampy areas. The water turns to chocolate and any trout inhibitions about chasing lures disappears. If it is muggy, it is down right stifling along the creek. You can taste the humidity breathing. By early summer the vegetation is always thick and dangerous. Nettles and poison ivy in particular so when you land a trout and need to go to the bank to unhook or field dress it – beware.

Which brings me to last Saturday afternoon. We had a good rain in west Michigan on Thursday night. I guessed correctly my favorite creek might be flooded though it turns out not muddy, which can be good also, the trout can see lures from a good distance. That just means longer, more accurate casting is needed.

There’s a good technique I haven’t mentioned before on fichigan. It paid off twice on Saturday and here’s the idea. When the water is high, logs spanning the stream that are normally exposed, are submerged. These are good holding spots for trout and I typically cast to the back end (downstream side, note that I fish wading upstream) and hope the noise of the lure landing near the log will attract the attention of a trout. This often works, trout hear the splash and check it out.

When a river or creek is flooded and I can see the water running over the top of logs I cast over the log with a floating minnow, lightly jerk it a few times so trout below the log see it coming, then I stop winding and let the lure float to the surface so it goes over the log. As soon as it is over the log I start winding again and wait for an explosion.

You may not be able to tell from the photo but the trout in the net measured 22 inches. That was my first fish of the day. I admired it, took the photo, unhooked it and turned it loose. It took the lure within a second or two of floating over the log.

I moved upstream casting the bank and working the cover and came to another submerged log. It looked like maybe an inch or less water running over the log but that’s enough. I did an underhand flip cast placing the lure a few feet upstream of the log, twitched the lure on the surface, watched it float over and started reeling. Same thing, another explosion.

This one was smaller but probably 17 or 18 inches.

Here’s the other lesson about small creeks. I pulled him up on the bank and felt the familiar sting of nettles on my index finger. I stuck my finger in the soothing cold water and rubbed it on my waders to wipe off any oil or whatever it is that provides nettle sting. That helped. I released the trout unharmed and kept fishing. Later toward evening I noticed a small spot of rash on the wrist of the same hand. Poison ivy, but the patch is about the size of a quarter so I was lucky. Also picked up a tick, buried in my leg. Here again, I take precautions for that too. I sprayed my main long sleeve fishing shirt with Permethrin this spring, doused it good, but the tick likely fell in my waders and crawled up the leg.

Back to fishing. I caught several more trout, not large, but always exciting. I didn’t keep any but maybe next time. I only fished half the stretch. The last time I went up this “creek” I saw a two footer jump clean out of the water. I saved the last half of the stretch for the next downpour.

Trout Camp 2017

Natch on the Zinc

Our annual spring trout camp coincided with the Blessing of the Bikes in Baldwin, Michigan, an annual event that draws upwards of 30,000 bikers. I speculated ahead of time the campground at Leverentz would be filled up with big Harleys turning the campground into a motocross track. Cold rain dampened the biker turnout, only one motorcycle found the campground, a young couple that seemed leery of the loud and rowdy fishermen. So much for my imagination!

The cold rain helped the fishing. We fished the Pine, the Zinc, the Little South and the Middle Branch of the Pere Marquette. We caught decent fish on all streams. Natch took big fish honors with a 21 incher on the Zinc. I followed that up with one about 15 inches, shortly after tripping and going in for a swim. My leg was over a boulder and I couldn’t stand up so water poured into the top of my waders. That did it for my camera but Natch had his iphone.

One a single trip around Big Leverentz Lake Feral caught seven pike. He kept one for the skillet along with a trout from the Pine. We powdered then with shore lunch brand cajun fish mix and pan fried them while knocking down way too many Labatts. Before long the guitar and mandolin came out and Natch surprised us with a tambourine. We played the long version of Buenos Tardes Amigo (Ween) whereby the beer influenced the order and spontaneity of verses. It’s a long song anyway but we had no trouble stretching it to 20 – 25 minutes.

Feral on the Pine

We stopped into Baldwin to check out the motorcycles. Bikes were lined up on both sides of main street and vendors were set up to sell food, clothes, trinkets, beer, you name it. We saw a lot of tricked out bikes including a vintage Harley from the 1940’s. We had to hand it to the bikers that showed up despite the cold and rain. Most show up every year no matter what. Last year they had snow so at least it was a minor improvement this year.

Luth and Feral, photo by Natch

The Zinc River

Two honest fishermen

There’s a trout stream located near the middle of the lower peninsula that Feral and I have avoided mainly because of it’s reputation for pollution. I always imagined zinc-plated trout in a mud bath with toxic bubbles rising with every boot step on the sink-hole muck bottom. Feral suggested the trout would be surprisingly heavy from lead content. The Michigan DNR has an on-line publication called Eat Safe Fish Guidelines, with regional info on what fish from what streams you might want avoid, and it turns out with the Zinc River  we were worried about the wrong things. It’s the PCBs and Mercury you need to watch out for!

Zinc-plated Brown Trout

Feral and I could have avoided the Zinc River for the rest of our lives except for occasional rumors of giant brown trout. So, on a fluke, last weekend we decided to drive over and at least look at the river. It meanders through a local park so we pulled in there and were surprised to see a fisherman heading up to the parking lot. Paul, didn’t get a last name, wasn’t lugging any trout but was happy to discuss the river. He fishes it regularly and had some photos on his iphone. Some very nice fish. His goal: Catch a 30 incher.  Umm… that’s our goal.

Feral and I did a small stretch on the upper river to see what it was about and the first thing we noticed was it looks like the Pine River.. Same nice mix of sand, gravel, clay, good cover. The second thing we noticed were the trout which were biting even though it was late morning and sunny. We caught a half dozen trout up to around 15 inches, didn’t see any lunkers, but we did see some good looking cover that could hold huge trout. We walked away with a different point of view. In the future, Paul needs to brush up on his lying skills, Feral and I need to do more exploring, and I ask you to please forget you read this post.

Opening Day Success

When trying to figure out a slant for this post Feral said, “We could call it “We didn’t get skunked” but then went on to say, “that’s about the lowest form of bragging.” I had to agree and laugh. Considering our haul, including morel mushrooms, I’ll try to frame the day in more glorious terms. For starters, we pulled nice fish out of busy crowded streams and Feral talked five morels right out of the ground. Even more incredibly, get ready for this, our waders did not leak. The measure of success keeps rising.

We started up on the Pine River hitting the most inaccessible spot we know and had a group of fishermen walk past us two minutes after we got in. They didn’t start fishing the hole right in front of us so we knew the river gods were smiling on us. The Pine was carrying some mud and wadable and we starting seeing fish right away. I had one about 17 or 18 inches make several passes at my lure, then caught one about 15.

After about a hundred yards we had to get out of the stream and could see the group of fishermen working a big deep hole up ahead…so we decided to hit our reliable mushroom spot.

Feral stops for a bite to eat

Normally our mushroom area has cars parked on both sides of the road but none today, a Saturday, so that was not a good sign. Still, Feral, using magic powers that escape me, started conjuring up some of these delectable treats while I went cross-eyed trying.


From there we went down to the Little South Branch of the Pere Marquette and parked between groups of campers. The Little South was high, clear, and wadable and we managed to cut off a fair stretch. Feral caught a good pan fryer and our casting was finally starting to get precision – dropping the lures into congested overhangs and being surprised by the fish we weren’t seeing. When the Little South is clear as glass the brown trout are buried deep beneath the banks. If you are not risking lures casting into deep overhangs your chances are slim.

We wrapped up the day with a cold beer back at the truck. Our “trout camp” weekend is still a ways off but it is hard to let the opener pass by without at least a day trip. No matter the haul, getting out sets the stage for another great year.

Jake Lucas flip cast illustrated

If you search for Jake Lucas using the search tool on this site you’ll get a bit of history. Part of his legacy, besides teaching so many of his friends and family his trout fishing techniques, was his patience teaching us all how to flip cast. As a trout fishing tool it’s hard to imagine not having this as part of the arsenal. I use it for 90% of my casts. The ability to drop a lure where you want it on a congested small trout stream makes all the difference. If you can master this – your success will improve.  If you click on the illustration it should be full screen, use your browser back button to return to the post.

Note that the cast is one fluid motion, using the wrist only – not the arm. There is a tendency, when learning this, to jerk your arm forward. Keep your upper arm glued to your side. For practice put on a practice plug and set up some targets in your yard, paper plate size, scattered about. Get used to stopping the forward motion of the lure as it goes above the target by pinching the line against the rod handle. This is fairly critical. Stopping the lure right above the target, on a trout stream, translates to dropping the lure into the stream just shy of the far bank, or piece of structure. Saves lures, catches fish.

The flip cast illustration shows a vintage Shakespeare closed face reel. One of the important design features is how near the reel body is mounted to the rod making the distance between the line and the rod handle minimal, in effect,  making it easy to pinch the line / stop the lure. Sadly, all of the close face spinning reels on the market, the trigger spins, have the the body of the reel mounted way below the rod.  It’s possible to pinch the line to stop the lure, but it is harder to do. If anyone working for a reel manufacturer sees this post I hope they will pass this information along to the design department – the reel body can be moved right up next to the rod. Thousands of Shakespeare reel fans will appreciate your efforts. The add below shows Jake with some trout and one of several closed-face reel models made back in the fifties and sixties.

Sadly, Shakespeare tried to reintroduce the model 1810 reel in the eighties or nineties, as the 1810 II. The marketing department and bean counters must have insisted the reel needed to be sold for under $30.00 because it was a shadow of it’s former self. If Shakespeare would have doubled the quality and price – they would have had a winner.

Cold Beer on Cold Openers

Natch with 2 beers

We used to do our trout opener up on the Pine River in Northern Lake County. There’s quite a lot of state land up there and you can pick up permits at any DNR station for remote camping. The river was at the bottom of a very steep hill and we would do some bait fishing on the slope because of a deep hole that held a lot of promise. It was a tricky climb down and a worse climb out so we would make sure to take several beers because there were no volunteers to make beer runs.

Temperatures on the opener, the last Saturday in April, are all over the place, but usually cold. We, Natch, Feral and I, and any other regulars, would cut some sapling forks and lob big crawlers with sinkers into the dark pool and then crack a beer. Funny what you remember but I recall the sound of bottles clanking in our pockets as we made our way down the hill.

A cold beer and expectation of a giant trout latching on to the crawlers was all we needed. We’d sip our beer and stare at the rod tips which slowly swayed with the pull of the current. If a trout picked up the crawler the rod tip would jerk slightly and then it was a gamble on the best way to set the hook. I would usually pick up the rod slowly and lightly feel the line for a familiar tap tap – then rear back.

We caught very few trout and could have learned a lesson from Jake Lucas, who used to go up small streams with a fly rod and 1810 Shakespeare reel, constantly moving and dipping a crawler in front of logs and other cover. As kids, Jake took Feral and I up mosquito infected feeder creeks and watched as he would limit out with crawlers in an hour. So we know how to do it proper, but bank fishing a deep hole with a cold beer has it’s own magic. A couple buddies hanging out knocking down a cold beer on a cold evening. You know you are alive. A good trout is a bonus.

Remote Camp on the Pine River

Your Michigan Recreational Passport

100_2916

The current governor of Michigan, Rick Snyder of Flint water crisis fame, made some sweeping changes affecting campers in Michigan when he first took office. All residents now need to purchase an eleven dollar recreational passport ( per vehicle) to access our state land and campgrounds. It was promoted as a way to shore up our natural resources with the attendant flag waving that usually accompanies bad news. The DNR did get an influx of money and I am the first to say that DNR has a history of providing valuable service as environmental watchdogs. Something else changed with the current administration however, and if I remember correctly, I believe the DNR now reports to the Bureau of Land Management which controls, among other things, permits for clear cutting.

All that aside, and I am not sure of particulars, I would like to relate some personal experience regarding the trickle down affect of the recreational passport. A few years ago Feral and I went up to the Pine River in northern Lake County to fish a stretch of river on state land. There is an access spot off Raymond Road which has a two track entering a big clearing which at one time had campsites managed by the DNR. Before reaching the clearing the two track spits and the right side leads to another two track that that parallels the river. All state land. Nice river access.

Feral and I usually park in the large clearing and walk the other two track downstream in order to fish back upstream to the large clearing. There was a large group of friendly campers there. We said hello and went fishing. Halfway through our stretch we could see a man fishing from the bank so we got out of the stream to go around him, so as not to disturb his fishing. After a subdued greeting he related this story. He and his sons had been camping in the same spot along the Pine river for 10 plus years on opening day, which was right up the hill. We knew the spot, but hadn’t camped there ourselves. A DNR officer told them they could not camp there because it was too close to the river and threatened them with a ticket if they did not pull their tent and move to the other side of the two-track. They moved but unfortunately there are no campsites on the other side of the two track, so they gave up a nice clearing with fire pit and pitched their tent in the condensed woods on the other side.

We felt bad for the man and his sons, expressed dismay, and continued on our way upstream fishing. When we exited the stream by the big clearing with the campers, they had a story to relate. It seems a DNR officer told them they had to leave. This group stood their ground explaining they had been camping there for years and saw no reason to leave. My understanding is the the DNR officer came back shortly thereafter and told them they could stay because the DNR previously managed campsites there. So far, so good.

Fast forward to the next year. The big clearing, this beautiful scenic spot, was clear cut. If you click on the photo below you can see the tops of some camper trailers in the clearing. They lined up their campers to try to block the view. You can imagine how they felt.

100_2927

The story does not end there. Feral and I went downstream like the previous year and came across the guard rail in the top photo. It was placed at the spot the man and his sons were kicked out of the previous year. There is a second, identical guard rail about ten steps to the right. The DNR made sure no one gets to camp in that lovely remote spot on the Pine River. Here’s a photo of the camp spot with Feral kneeling by the fire pit.

100_2919

 

I know, pretty nice. The river is over the hill, beyond Feral. In a nutshell, the recreational passport program and land management programs under Rick Snyder resulted in decimation one of the most beautiful spots I know along the Pine River, and almost as bad, placed ugly guard rails to make sure no one camps in what was once a nice spot enjoyed by the man and his sons for ten years. The guard rails, by the way, are of dubious use. Based on what we could see, it would not be hard to drive around them.

I don’t know which is more disgusting, ugly guardrails in the middle of nowhere or clear cutting a scenic spot used for decades by Michigan campers. These are the kinds of things I will be considering when it’s time to elect another Governor. That along with the poisoning of residents and deflecting blame.

Post Navigation

%d bloggers like this: