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Small Stream Trout fishing in Michigan

Archive for the category “Trout Advice”

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.

The Truth about Trout

Anyone with a stick, six feet of monofilament, a hook and a worm can catch a trout. I did, age 9, fishing the Baldwin River at Bray Creek campground. I lowered the worm down in front of a log so it swept underneath and was rewarded by a 12 inch brown trout. It was a thrill that kept me at it the rest of my life. If I remember right that was also the trip where I fell into the river and had only a single pair of pants so I had to sit at the campfire in a blanket while the pants dried out. The pants fell off a stick perch into the fire but were rescued more or less.

We were camping with my grandpa and grandma, Jake and Gladys Lucas and maybe because my brothers and I were such a handful Jake would send us on foot races though the walking trail at dusk to tire us out and thereby get a chance at some peace and quiet. He’d time us with a pocket watch and in my mind’s eye we ran those trails at about 30 miles per hour. One time I passed a deer fleeing wolves and was fortunate it didn’t follow because Grandma would have shot the deer and Grandpa would have had to wrestle it from the wolf pack.

Jake and Gladys Lucas

Jake and Gladys Lucas

Jake taught us how to appreciate the outdoors and even more important – how to earn money with honest work (mowing his lawn, weeding Grandma’s vegetable garden, shoveling the driveway in the winter). There was no free ride. We would go fishing on our camping trips but we had to cut our own fishing poles from saplings and dig our own worms. Jake was good for a hook and a little monofilament. It was one great adventure and the lessons we learned you don’t find in books or school.

Back to trout and truth. If an obnoxious nine year old can outwit a trout so can you! And you don’t need expensive equipment. My current rig consists of a 25 dollar Zebco underspin reel and a Gander Mountain cork handle spinning rod that cost about forty. My only real expense is lightweight Hodgeman waders which run about a hundred and now have so many patches that I am patching the patches with Seamgrip at five dollars a tube. There is one other major expense – fishing lures and count me in if anyone wants to march on Washington in protest. Or Finland.

If you decide to try trout fishing for the first time you could do worse than fishing the Baldwin River. Check DNR maps for access spots – but you can get in at Bray Creek campground and fish upstream or walk the trail downstream and fish back up. Catch it on a rainy day when the river is rising. Wade slowly upstream and throw a few casts at the tail end of each log or stump. Try to place a cast in front of cover at a 45 degree angle. Use small spinners if you want to catch a lot of fish. Use floating minnow baits and reel like mad if you want to catch bigger fish. Bring some bug spray for mosquitoes. Wear Polaroid sunglasses (make sure they are polaroid). They cut the glare on the water and that saves lures since you can see where you are casting. Then also enable you to see trout that follow the lure. If he doesn’t take your lure, count to twenty and cast again at the same spot.

I don’t think I’m up to saplings and worms anymore. Wading and casting cover for trout is a lifetime adventure with it’s own challenge: you need to become proficient at casting small lures next to the bank under overhanging branches at 30 feet. I suspect the satisfaction is not unlike a golfer that makes a 30 foot putt. Except I get fresh trout for dinner.

Wading Deep

Wading Deep

One of the interesting things about trout fishing is meeting whatever challenge comes up. In order to catch trophy trout you have to put yourself into a position where you have a genuine shot at getting a big fish to take your lure. It may be necessary to wade though deep holes, balance on invisible and unstable logs, lean into a hard current, and try to lob an awkward cast into thick cover while swatting that mosquito that is buzzing you ear.

Successful trout fishing is all about making the perfect cast and to do that you need to be in the right spot whether in the middle of the stream or near the bank. And you have to be on the move – continually working cover with a few select casts and then pushing further upstream to the next piece of cover. Generally you stay on the inside of bends so you cross the stream constantly. Imagine a shoot-em-up video game where you are constantly moving forward and blasting enemy that come into view. Sort of like that but you need to be as accurate with your casting as you are with your imaginary rifle.

But this post is about wading deep. If I take the route up through the stream that others don’t – I know may be rewarded. I am often on my tip toes in water so muddy or stained that my feet are my eyes. It’s ballroom dancing on a minefield. You learn to walk sideways in a fast current to reduce drag and gauge the steepness of the decline into pools and whether you can muster your way around some trash or blowdown to stay in the stream. Climbing up on the bank to go around blowdowns or deep pools is a last option – you want to stay in the water because that is where to make the next perfect cast. The one that takes a big trout.luther on Pigeon 2

 

If you teach a Girl to Fish

Someday they may bring you a fish and that would be great. Nothing like a fresh fish for the grill or skillet. I wish I would have spent more time fishing with my daughters but maybe the important thing is not the amount of time we spent fishing, but the fact that we did fish. Now, when they get the opportunity, it is not some foreign thing. There is fun to be had. My youngest daughter sent me this photo last summer when visiting her Uncle Bill. Her cousin Brent rented a charter on Lake Michigan and Lisa was game.
Lisa with Salmon

Lisa teaches outdoor biology and is our family’s world traveler including trips to exotic lands to catalog wild amphibians and reptiles. Handling fish? No problem.

I wish my oldest daughter had been there too – I would have loved another photo!  As kids the two of them were competitive about catching bluegills out of Big Star lake and I expect Sara would have been in the hunt right along with Lisa.

Feral has a daughter also whom he taught to fish – not just boat fishing but wading trout streams. Patti has stopped by at trout camp a couple times and once asked to fish with me. We went to a mosquito infested spot on the upper sturgeon that can be described as difficult to wade and cast but that did not slow her down – she took a nice trout out of a hard to cast pool. Wow.

Patti with Brown Trout

So here is the message: If you are a young man with daughters please share your outdoor experiences. Don’t stereotype your young daughters as too feminine to enjoys the things you enjoy. Someday they may bring you a fish, and memories to last a lifetime.

Bank Fishing for Brown Trout

Natch and Feral asking for advice

Natch and Feral hanging on my every word.

Bank fishing is a very enjoyable way to fish for trout because it combines sitting in a chair with the illusion of doing something productive. Maybe you can relate to that. Here are some tips to make the experience memorable and with a lot of luck, catch a trout.

You’ll need at least two buddies who are more serious about bank fishing than you because someone needs to catch a fish, otherwise what’s the point? Study the faces above and try to find guys that look different. Maybe that nerd from work. Or that guy that drinks Pepsi all day?

The important details: If possible, cut your forked stick before you head down to the stream because that will allow you to set up in the best spot while your buddies are cutting their sticks. The best spot will be the one that is upstream of the big pool so when you cast your line it drifts to the middle of the pool so your buddies have to get their lines out of the way. If your line does cross theirs, shake your head and make a face to let them know you’re not used to fishing with amateurs.

If you get a bite (rare) or hook a trout (more rare) deliberately move downstream so they have to get out of the way. Add some excitement by flailing the rod so they understand they could get an eye poked out. Then let the the trout zig zag the whole pool so your buddies are relegated to strictly watching. This is your moment – put on a show! Caution: This can backfire. If the trout is under ten inches try to release it discretely before they get a look.

Between bites most anglers like to lie about the huge trout they caught in the very same pool. Believability goes up in direct proportion to the amount of beer in the cooler so if you are prone to reminiscing make sure someone, preferably one of your buddies, bought the right brand of beer and ideally carried the cooler down to the stream by himself. Make sure you do a few jerky spasms and mention your bad back well ahead of time, ideally back at camp when it’s time to gather firewood. If it still falls on you to bring the beer – make sure it’s not twist tops and that you have the only opener. Someone needs to regulate consumption. It’s for their own good.

A comfortable chair is a must. If you have a leather recliner that will fit in the back of your pickup and will roll down the hill to the stream – that is ideal. (If you have a winch you can use to get it back up the hill – even better). Barring that, try to avoid those confounded collapsable camp chairs that sit crooked on level ground. You know the type. You have to be a yoga expert to get out of them.

Tackle: Don’t use your good stuff. The chance of getting hung up on a log on the bottom of the stream is 100%. Breaking the tip off your pricey Fenwick rod is a loss no angler can afford. Now’s the time to haul out the garage sale surf rod with wrought iron core. Something with backbone. Grab a reel with light line – chances are you’ll only catch tiny trout anyway and light line has some advantages that go right to strategy.

Stream Strategy: When you get hung up on a log pretend it is a lunker and break your line quickly. It’s the big one that got away and your status as a bank fisherman jumps ten points.

Respect for Other Anglers

Luther on Sturgeon

Feral and I did a long walk into a remote stretch of the Sturgeon River near Vanderbilt a couple years ago to a favorite spot that gives up some big fish. We hit it just right. The river was up and stained, the cool fall weather meant big browns were moving upstream to spawn and we had the river to ourself. We put in on a straight section that held some good cover and right off the bat Feral landed a nice fish. I moved into the lead and caught the fish in the above photo barely two minutes later. We hadn’t moved upstream 10 feet and already had two nice fish. We looked at each other and grinned. We were in for one heck of a trip.

Just then a couple fishermen appeared along the bank. They didn’t have waders. They saw the fish in the landing net and asked what lures we were using and we steered them in the right general direction figuring they would move on. The public water went for miles both directions. Instead they put on lures and started casting right in front of us. We spoke up and said we were fishing this stretch and would they mind finding a different stretch and they were indignant about it, like who did we think we were? They moved up another 30 yards and started casting again. I was angry but Feral brushed it off and figured why make a fuss – they are idiots or worse. Sometimes you run into people like that.

I hope it isn’t a symptom of a New Era. As kids, our Grandpa raised us to respect other fishermen on the river and that meant if you run into another angler you figure out what they are doing – then you adjust your plans around theirs. Don’t interrupt their fishing experience. They were there first, after all.

Later I tried to rationalize what happened. Maybe the two guys were part of the salmon crowd that fishes Michigan rivers. For that type of fishing anglers often stand right next to each other, elbowing each other out as it were, like it is part of a game. Which brings to mind a funny story.

Our Grandpa (Jake Lucas) tried every type of fishing including salmon. When salmon were first introduced to Michigan rivers he was in a crowd of anglers on the Betsy or maybe Bear Creek and an angler upstream had on a nice fish which broke his line. Jake could see the severed line floating down past him so he cast over it, snagged the line, then tied the end of the line to his pole. Then he fought and landed the fish. Meanwhile, the angler upstream was watching the event unfold. When he saw Jake land the fish he rushed downstream to his side and said, ” Man, I sure was lucky to get that one.”

Jake gave him the fish. I think he figured anyone desperate enough to make a logic leap like that needed the fish more than he did. I should take a lesson. Maybe those two guys on the Sturgeon needed a trout a lot more than we did. One thing for sure, their grandfather didn’t teach them to have respect for other anglers.

Pigeon River Brown Trout

Feral and I usually close out the trout season in the Pigeon River State Game Area mainly because there are two exceptional trout streams for brown trout, the Sturgeon and the Pigeon. We count on the weather turning nasty at the end of September but this year we had cold weather and low, clear streams. For big browns in the fall – it helps to have rivers at almost flood stage which triggers the spawn and movement of large brown trout into the upper stretches of the rivers. So we didn’t get our wish, but still caught a couple nice fish over twenty inches. Our cohort, Natch, upstaged us this year with a trip to the Sturgeon where he took even larger fish. No video, but a recount of his story with photos will be posted later on Fichigan.

The Zoppa Rig

Alvin, no relation to the chipmunk, provided a lot of entertainment at trout camp in the seventies but his influence on the world of fishing is only now becoming recognized. Maybe it was his supreme confidence about the sport in spite of his lack of the “latest greatest” equipment and lures that became must haves for lesser anglers. Alvin invented as he went along and I am convinced he would have been declared the winner of any Survivor show that included a place to fish. By winner, I don’t mean the guy that wins a million dollars, I mean the guy that makes the absolute best of where he is at, in effect, living off the land, in style. When the skinny survivors from suburbia get hauled back to the mainland, Al would decline the ride back and spend a few extra months enjoying the tropical paradise.

Luther and Al, late 70's

Luther and Al, late 70’s

As a fisherman, Al wrote new rules. His tackle box doubled as a tool box and carryall for odds and ends. When he opened it around other fishermen, there was a collective gasp as his peers tried to mind sort the congested mess of strange artifacts cobbled into a Rubik’s cube of pointy objects, rusted hooks, copper blades, smoking paraphernalia, and monofilament line bird’s nest. That’s where Al’s genius took over because in less time than it takes to read the bible Al would have a conglomeration of mostly fishing things half-hitched to the tackle end of a yard sale spinning rod he stopped to buy on the trip to camp.

There has been some speculation that the “Zoppa Rig” was invented strictly for Musky fishing on the Roger’s Dam reservoir, but now the word is out – The Zoppa rig can and has been used successfully for most every game fish in Michigan including all species of trout, catfish, bluegills, crappie, suckers and carp, as well as large and smallmouth bass. In the right hands (Al’s) the Zoppa Rig transcends species.  And that’s why it is so dangerous.

There are no known photographs of the Zoppa Rig but Feral Tweed did make a sketch based on memory. I concur on the accuracy but should point out that minnows or chicken intestines can be substituted for the two crawlers depicted in the sketch, though crawlers are the preferred generic for the widest assortment of game fish. Note also that the AC spark plug should have more rust and a silver key can be substituted for the gold key for rainbow trout.

Zoppa Rig

Al passed away several years ago but whenever Feral Tweed and I are hard pressed to figure out how to get a fish, when the fishing is shut down cold,  I will look over at Feral who will nod slowly and say “Yeah, it’s time for a Zoppa Rig.”

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