Fichigan

Small Stream Trout fishing in Michigan

Archive for the category “Trout Advice”

Over the Banks

I can’t tell you how many times I made the drive, sometimes local, sometimes distant, only to find the trout stream over the banks. Doesn’t stop me from fishing but I know right away the odds are not going to be good.  Main problem: fish won’t see the lure cruise by in deep water, meaning 3+ feet , particularly if the water is stained or muddy. Trout hug the bottom. It helps to know the stream well so you can cast to shallow areas and increase the odds of fish spotting the lure.  I usually cast a large floating minnow hoping fish will see it wobble by. I put on a deep-diver, occasionally, selectively, if I am pretty sure I won’t get hung up on a sunken log.

So that was the scene on Saturday. I finished off a work project in the morning, threw my waders and gear in the SUV, and hit my local go-to stream for brown trout. No cars parked at the trail entrance so I suited up, sprayed on some deet, and made the walk downstream to my put-in spot. This stream is usually so shallow you can step in but to be safe I sat on the bank and slid in. About 3 feet deep. And dark, The lure disappeared less than a foot down. That said, right off I caught a fish about 16 inches. Started getting some follows too. Nice fish. They would porpoise near the surface at the rod tip.

I waded where I could but had to figure out as I went along where I could cross the stream to access the best casts and cover. So there was a lot of getting in and out, seeing if I could cross, and casting from the bank. I was seeing enough fish to keep it interesting and could feel a bump once in a while, fish bumping the lure but not getting hooked.

After an hour I had caught and released four fish and kept thinking – in one or two days this stream is going to be perfect. Easy to wade, clear enough water to see what I’m casting into, and ready to give up some huge trout. So I quit after about an hour, not really discouraged, but knowing the timing of this trip could have been better. I zig-zagged back downstream along the bank figuring that would be the easiest path back to the car. Not sure if I will make the trip again in two days but the whole summer is ahead. I hope to do a lot more trout fishing this year.

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.

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!

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.

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.

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.

Dinner Trout

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My wife has been asking me to bring home some trout for dinner so when I called up Feral to see if he wanted to go fishing last Saturday I told him up front that was the mission. We started on a upper stretch of the Pine River in Lake County which was not as high or muddy as we had hoped. Still, Feral caught a nice brown about 14 inches and I was surprised by a Brook Trout. We don’t keep brook trout, even for the skillet, under the assumption that releasing them may help the population. We catch one brook trout to every 20 browns so it is an event just to see one and appreciate the beautiful coloring.
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Feral kept the brown trout though. He too was thinking “trout dinner.” Feral has some markings on his fishing rod to confirm fish size which you can see on the photo below. If you click on the photo ( use browser back button to return) you can see his markings at 15, 20 and 25 inches. That’s not a hoax, Michigan streams give up brown trout that large, especially in the fall. As far as we’re concerned though, smaller trout taste better, let the big ones go.
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Feral mentioned the Little South Branch of the Pere Marquette River and the thought was maybe it received a bit more rain than the Pine, in which case the fishing might be excellent. So we headed south. The river was spectacular and the weather cooperated with rain and drizzle interspersed with bright sunshine, back and forth. The temp was around 70 so it was comfortable to wear rain gear.

We started catching fish right away and seeing some pretty nice fish, upwards of twenty inches, but the big ones seemed to be looking only, following the lure back or making passes without a strike. The better news was the dinner size trout, keepers around 12 to 14 inches, were hungry. Feral kept a couple and I kept three figuring that was about right for my wife and I.
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I cooked the trout on Sunday, September 11, a day of reflection and sadness for America. The horror of 9/11 still makes no sense to me. I spent part of the day writing an editorial, for my own sanity, just to try to understand, and part of the day watching Saving Private Ryan. When my wife came home from work at 5:00 I dove into cooking the trout. It was good. She said I need to bring home trout more often. I didn’t do well with table talk.

Muddy Waters

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A tornado passed though Grand Rapids on the 20th, this one was shrouded in torrential  rain. I watch the event unfold on TV. News 8 tracked the path using radar and maps right down to street level so even though sirens were blaring in my neighborhood, I was confident I was miles outside of the path. At one point, when the tornado was directly west of me, I looked out my front window and saw low gray rain clouds moving rapidly west, a phenomena in itself. The tornado was sucking the clouds out of my neighborhood. Fortunately the tornado damage was not bad – no lives claimed and mostly tree damage rather than homes.

Fast forward to yesterday, more rain predicted and cooler weather, good trout fishing weather. I checked the condition of the Rogue River using the home page link, “Daily Stream Conditions in Michigan.” It had a light blue dot signifying water level was much above normal which meant, in effect, that the Rogue River feeder creeks would be flooded. Time to hit a feeder creek.

As suspected, my target stream was high and muddy. I put on my biggest 3-hook floater minnow and worked my way upstream casting to the opposite bank as well as right up the middle. When the streams are muddy, fish can be anywhere. First fish, 20 inches. I netted it, de-hooked it, took a quick photo, measured it with a de-liar, and eased it right back in the water. Elapsed time, about a minute and a half. I try to move fast in order to make sure the fish is OK with minimal trauma and it was. It darted away. I’m glad I measured it. I had guessed about 18 inches.
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This particular stream is almost impossible to fish without a good drenching. It is normally so low and clear you are lucky to see fish and may swear it doesn’t support a trout population, let alone large trout. But when it is high and muddy, the dynamic changes, suddenly this sleeper comes alive.

I continued upstream and lost one about 16 or 17 inches right at the net, but made up for it with another the same size. I had a stringer with me and was tempted to keep it but I had only been fishing about an hour and if I keep fish for the skillet I would rather have a couple 12 inchers – better tasting to my mind. Nothing wrong with these trout though – absolutely beautiful stream brown trout. A little Cajun seasoning and a cold beer and no complaints.

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I did catch some smaller fish, on my biggest lurer, two around 8 to 10 inches, and only mention it to anyone that may believe you need tiny lures to catch small trout. Just not the case. Trout like a big meal. Further, if you are fishing muddy water, best to fish a large or flashy lure because trout need to see the lure though the muddy haze.

After about two hours of fishing I was amazed to see a trout jump vertically clear out of the stream. I don’t know what he was after. The fish was two feet long, the largest fish I have seen in this stream. I was able to move into casting position and worked the hole as best I could. Even tried a second lure thinking maybe something different might entice it. Nothing. It’s a little hard to ease past a hole like that. By then I was almost up to the bridge. I placed a cast into some cover and saw a nice one make a pass at the lure. Couldn’t get him to do it again so I placed a cast right up the middle of the stream and saw a swirl. Maybe a nice fish. It hit the second cast but didn’t hook. I tried again and it hit the lure again and didn’t get hooked. So I put on a deeper diving crank bait and this time he was hooked.

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He was about 17 inches. I unhooked him with my long nose pliars right in the stream versus netting him. I should have been more circumspect and kept him because my wife loves brown trout. When she heard the garage door she came out and asked how I did. I told here I did well, listing the sizes, followed by, “I  didn’t keep any.” She said she didn’t want stories, she wanted trout.

Fishing theTributaries

Big brown 1

I had a very interesting time on a small tributary to the Rouge River this weekend. It rained Friday night so I was pretty sure the stream would be carrying some extra water which is really needed on water this small for spin fishing. It turned out to be my best day of fishing (so far) this year with a couple brown trout over sixteen inches and one over twenty. And several smaller trout. It was all catch and release.
I arrived about eight thirty in the morning and hiked into a normal put-in place which surprisingly was cleared away with a path right down to the stream. Someone had placed stair steps right into the river which was a shocker as I considered this section of stream to be “off the beaten path.” I tossed a lure from the top of the steps and right away a 16 inch brown came out from under a log for a quick look. After a couple casts he hit it and stayed on for about six seconds but managed to get off. So without even getting into the river I had some action.

The tributary

The stream, as I had hoped, was up and carrying a lot of mud. This was perfect as it allowed me to sneak up the river without being spotted by the trout and allowed me to make short casts upstream and perpendicular to the bank. On small water like this the trout often hit when the lure is at the rod tip. Explode may be a better word. I use an ultra light rod and spincast reel with 10 or 12 lb test Trilene XL line. In other words, a rod and reel that allows me to make pinpoint accurate casts into tight cover and monofilament line that will not break off on a huge trout.

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I tossed a variety of lures including a gold super vibrax spinner and several minnow baits of various sizes and styles. When fishing muddy water the main thing is the trout need to see the lure so something with a lot of flash is helpful. As mentioned earlier I caught trout of all sizes and that tells me this is a very healthy stream. Small trout, ten to twelve inches with go after the same lures as the larger trout so if you are new to spin fishing don’t be surprised if a tiny trout hits your biggest lure, or vice versa. If you try fishing the smaller tributaries to notable trout streams, and can time your trip so the water is up and muddy, you will be surprised by the size and number of trout available.

Holding 22 inch brown

 

 

Hook-Jawed Brown Trout

Feral with a hook-jawed brown trout, Pigeon River

Feral with a hook-jawed brown trout, Pigeon River

We don’t focus on catching on big male brown trout when working our way up a remote stretch of stream. Trout fishing is more than that even though the idea seems to pop up when a deep hole offers some hope. Catching a hook-jawed brown trout is a rare occurrence and should be. If it were easy there would be no magic. I took a friend /novice fisherman out fishing one time on the Pere Marquette and he caught a 21 inch male brown trout on his first trip and I thought: Oh oh.. this ruins it for him. It will be years before he catches another brown like this. That’s if he sticks with it. It would have been much better if he worked at it for a couple years so he could appreciate the event.

How magical is it? The lure stops and you realize there is some anchor heavy weight there and then the line starts moving and maybe you see the fish and maybe you don’t. You pray your line doesn’t break while computing the odds of moving whatever it is past the blowdowns and logs out to a clear patch of stream where you may be able to get the net under the fish and oops, did you did you remember the net? Things move quickly and the odds are not so great. There are a million ways to lose a good fish – even for those detail-oriented responsible anglers that oil their reels and change line often.

I was fishing the Sturgeon River up by Vanderbilt one time and the river was high and muddied up to where I could see about a foot into the water. I had been tossing big minnow baits, floaters, but knew if the trout were on the bottom they would have to be in pretty shallow water to glimpse the lure. So I put on a big spinner, a Mepps Black Fury which has yellow polka dots against a black blade. There was a fairly deep run off to my left and I cast above the run and wound the reel slowly so the spinner would go deep. The lure stopped. The pole did some slow bends and then I felt the fish rise toward the surface. The fish was coming up for a look.

Luther with hook-jawed brown trout, Sturgeon River

Luther with hook-jawed brown trout, Sturgeon River

It reminded me of a spotted leopard when it materialized into view. The colors were stunning and bright. My heart stopped and I knew that moment, that picture, would always be lodged in my random access memory. I can still see it.

Feral and I have caught a few monsters – and we are not alone in our group. Mike, Denny, Jake, and more recently, Natch, have had those magical days when the lure suddenly stops and they wondered how to get the lure off that darn sunken log. Then the logs starts moving. Two foot brown trout with hook jaws. If you have just taken up small stream trout fishing, streams the width of a two-lane blacktop and under, and have not caught a hook-jawed brown, your time will come. They’re in there.

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