Small Stream Trout fishing in Michigan

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Baldwin River

A week ago Feral called to report the Baldwin River was not just over the banks, but over the roads. They had ten inches of rain which put a real damper on the Trout-o-rama festival including blocked roads into and out of town. But that was a little over a week ago. I had the morning off so I drove up there with the idea of fishing the Baldwin if it was wadable. The weather report said possible rain and that was actually a bonus, not to raise the river more, but to get the trout actively feeding. Add rain, double your trout.

It rained but five minutes so it didn’t help. I caught one nice trout, about 17 inches, on the stretch below Bray Creek Campground. There’s a poorly marked walking trail which follows the hillside and drops down to the river in two places. I went as far downstream as I could figuring that would have the least overall fishing traffic. I would post a photo of the trout except the lens of my camera phone must have been wet so I have three fuzzy photos of a large blob surrounded by green stuff.

I didn’t see many trout. The stretch is mostly gravel and shallow. Casting the cover takes some patience and skill because the river is more like a creek, overgrown with lots of blowdowns. Still, if you can zing the lure into tight spots it can produce trout.

Feral and I have been threatening to go camping and trout fishing since the opener but this is the year where bad weather (clear skies and 90 degree temps) or various commitments keep sidetracking plans. I’m afraid to blink: the trout season closer will be upon us.

Tiny Spinners

Feral called me about noon on Tuesday which was overcast with a chance of rain. He said he was going to look for oyster mushrooms and maybe hit a trout stream. I asked if he’d like some company fishing so we met up on the Little South Branch (of the Pere Marquette). The stream was clear as glass and it was 2:00 PM with no rain in sight. So not ideal for fishing. I was surprised when he tied a small spinner. He mentioned that he had a bad luck streak going missing fish with minnow lures. They kept getting off or not getting hooked at all. He had sharpened the hooks and it didn’t help.

Spinners are good for hooking trout. The trailing treble hook is right where it needs to be when a fish strikes. Big spinners have lots of flash which can be enticing to decent size trout but small spinners may not look like much food so large trout may pass them up. Right away Feral started catching small trout that were clearly under the size limit. He kept at it though and soon caught a dinner trout about a foot long. But we weren’t seeing many fish and Feral mentioned once or twice he thought the Baldwin River was carrying some color, meaning stained water or even muddy. That translates to more aggressive fish so we cut out early and headed to the Baldwin.

There was a car parked at Bray Creek campground (where Bray Creek empties into the Baldwin) and we figured someone was fishing but didn’t know if they went upstream or downstream. As we talked, standing around in our waders, another fisherman pulled up and was wondering about our fishing plans. His name was Bill. He had driven up from Indiana and wanted to do some fly fishing. While talking to Bill two guys emerged from the stream, just finishing up, so Feral and I decided to head upstream and leave the lower river to Bill. Downstream there are a couple spots open enough to fly fish – if you know what you are doing. We suspected Bill knew what he was doing. He mentioned fishing until dark.

Going up from Bray Creek the stream is full of trees and branches leaning over the water, deep holes near impossible to cast and generally a challenge for spin fishing. Feral kept throwing the tiny spinner. The great thing about a small spinner is casting accuracy. Enough weight to bend the rod tip for underhand flip casts. So Feral zinged the small spinner into tight spots and caught small fish, finally getting a second dinner size trout about an hour into the stretch. As he put that one on a stringer I flipped a minnow bait in the exact same place he caught his trout and hooked up with another keeper. By then it was about 5:30 and I had a couple hour drive ahead of me so we cut out early (before reaching the bridge at 40th Street).

Back at the vehicles Feral left a note for Bill, the Indiana fly fishermen, to let him know how we did. We mentioned fichigan while talking earlier so maybe we’ll hear back.

Spring Steelhead in Small Streams

Mike with Steelhead

Mike scores a Steelhead on the Baldwin

Michigan has an early opener for spring steelhead and depending on how you look at it – it is either the most fun you can have or a good way to destroy your Chinese made fishing reels. Spring steelhead can run upwards of 25 pounds and aren’t shy about hitting lures. It is a science and passion for a lot of anglers. Depending on weather and stream conditions the spring steelhead spawning runs can overlap the opening of the general trout season so you might find yourself casting for a keeper Brown and think you snagged a beaver.

I remember the first time I saw Steelhead in a stream, on the Little Manistee back in the seventies, and it was spooky looking down and seeing these huge fish cruising right next to your legs. There is a momentary panic where you wonder if you are on their menu.

Mike and Denny, if they don’t head up to Pigeon River country for the general opener, will usually check the Baldwin for Steelhead. If they are there, they are game. I should point out that they don’t test their Zebco underspin reels against the big fish, but rather use Shakespeare 1810 reels (circa 1960’s) and stout seven foot rods, equipment more geared to hold and keep bruiser fish out of the log jams. As far as I know they toss lures, not spawn bags, the most popular bait.

The Baldwin River, north and east of the town of Baldwin, is a great brown trout stream in the summer. South of town it empties into the Pere Marquette River which is on everyone’s list as a great steelhead and salmon river. So the big fish take a left turn at the Baldwin and find themselves in some pretty small water comparatively – think 15 foot wide and a foot deep most of the year.  Lots of gravel and lots of tight cover. So hooking a steelhead and landing it on the Baldwin are two separate things.

According to Denny, and this sounds familiar, every year one of them catches all the fish and they go back and forth. The above photo, taken by Denny, is from May of 2010 – so that must be a Mike year, and he’s holding one that may go 12 pounds (best guess) which he may weigh in on if he reads this post.  I wish I could say steelhead was a priority for me, but I’ll trade them all for a twenty inch brown.

Against the Odds Trout

We had a short but interesting trout camp this spring made even more so by the flooded rivers. Not a typical high water mark – actual flooding. The city of Baldwin made calls to city residents to warn them. Small town goodwill!

After setting up camp Feral and I went out to inspect the local streams. The Baldwin River, one of Michigan’s great trout streams, is a tributary to the Pere Marquette. It usually runs one to three feet deep with scattered holes that might go above the waders. Since we knew it was flooded we went upstream where the river is typically brush congested and tiny – five or six feet across and a foot deep. We thought we might be able to get in and wade. There is an access point on Foreman Road east of town that Feral sometimes fishes so we pulled in there first.

Feral standing by the new Baldwin Lake

It was so flooded we couldn’t see where the normal river channel flowed.  We drove north on Foreman Road a little further and saw some guys at the bridge where the Baldwin crosses and pulled over just in time to see one guy running for his truck to get a net. We managed to get pictures of them landing a nice brown. They were pretty talkative and we got to know them a bit – Ron Walker and John Leitz, a couple retired guys that worked at the Fridgidaire Plant in Greenville. They had some good stories. They travel all over Michigan fishing for any game fish you can name.  I give them a lot of credit to doing whatever works including chunking crawlers off a bridge in a flood.

John Leitz and Ron Walker

I looked at their brown trout and my first thought was why does that fish look pregnant?  Its belly was that distorted (though it’s hard to see in the photo). After they unhooked the trout it regurgitated a handful of night crawlers. So if you wonder why it’s hard to get a trout interested in lures right after a good rain there was a graphic example. No room for dessert.

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