Small Stream Trout fishing in Michigan

Archive for the tag “brown trout”

Catching a Lunker on the First Cast

Feral withLunker Brown

Feral loaned me some photos over Thanksgiving and a few took me right back to the stream. Several years back we were doing the trout closer up by Vanderbilt and we fished a stretch of the Pigeon that requires a lot of walking to reach. After the long trudge in we  decided hey, we made it this far, we may as well keep going a few more bends. Ultimately we knew it meant 3 hours of wading upstream to get to our takeout point, and another quarter mile walk through tangles back out to the truck. We went a bend to far, so to speak, and we found ourselves on a gravelly stretch that didn’t look to promising. Feral took the lead. There was a downed spruce angled back towards us, almost completely across the river. Feral moved up so he could run a lure in front of it. His first cast was slammed by the brown in the above photo. I believe it was twenty seven inches and that meant some soul searching.

We don’t usually keep big fish – the small ones taste better. Still, it was a trophy in anyone’s book and we could always grill it, or if he wanted to consider the idea, have it mounted. So Feral decided to keep the fish. He put it on a stringer and that is where the real soul searching begins because it meant lugging six pound of flopping lively fish while wading upstream through the most treacherous water we fish, over beaver dams, getting out around deep holes, etc. There is a little known formula: The weight of the fish times the speed of the river times distance = the actual weight of the fish, so about thirty five pounds by the time Feral crawled up the bank to head for the truck. There is a second four-mula that comes to mind: Four Motrin + Four Beers. Just the thing for a compressed main spring.

As far as I know that fish still resides in his ex-wife’s freezer. Once Feral stops having painful flashbacks of his longest ever trout stretch I expect that trout will grace the wall of his basement. Not over the workbench where he’d have to look at it every day. That would be cruel. In the furnace room next to the water heater.

Feral on the Pigeon

Feral pointed out in  his comment he thought the top photo was a brown trout from the Sturgeon River… and he may be right. The above photo is likely the lunker caught on the Pigeon.

Pigeon River Country Closer

Feral works a bend on the upper Sturgeon

Feral works a bend on the upper Sturgeon

The trout season came and went and I was fortunate enough to have several memorable camping/fishing trips this year with buddies that really bring something to the table – not the least a desire for adventure. For our trout season closer, Feral and I were joined by Natch first and Keith later up at Pickerel Lake which is centrally located in the Pigeon River State Game Area.

Natch is a trout camp regular having put up with Feral and I for something like a dozen years – so this year we told him he has graduated to “Honorary Member 2” not the least because he outfished Feral. I have asked Natch to write a first hand account of his trip to the Sturgeon River on the day we set up camp where he will hopefully mention those anglers whom he admires so much and have provided so much inspiration. It would be embarrassing, but not out of the question, for me to have to edit that kind of information in to his post. As a teaser, here’s a picture of the smallest of three fish, a twenty incher, he caught on a single pass at the river.

Natch's smaller brown trout

Natch’s smaller brown trout

The thing about Natch and Feral is they are both game for adventure and this year it was put to a test. I won’t go into a lot of detail here – look for a post later about Dog Lake Flooding, a pike haven of some repute. If the trip in to the flooding doesn’t destroy your truck, and you don’t fall through the floating bog mass, and the whitewater and freezing rain don’t exhaust your stamina, you might catch a… OK, I have said too much already. I’ll do a post with photos.

We also took the kayaks out on Pickerel Lake which was fun but not to productive. We caught a handful of bass and a couple perch but we had to work for those.

Luther and Feral at the boat landing

Luther and Feral at the boat landing

Natch on Pickeral with Feral in the distance

Natch on Pickerel with Feral in the distance

Natch pulled out Sunday night and then it was up to me and Feral to prove we could still catch a trout and fortunately The Pigeon River, recently decimated by a silt fish kill by the Song of the Morning dam, still holds trout if you know where to look and when to fish. In the fall, large brown trout move upstream into the decimated area and you might believe the fish kill never happened. Feral and I took a couple big trout – but we were amazed that Feral also caught two brook trout about 10 inches. I don’t know what that means but it could be the brook trout were hardier than the browns when the dam was opened.

Trout camp would not be trout camp if we didn’t play some guitar and knock down some beers over a campfire. Keith, another adventurer, came up Monday for one night – which is a good four hours drive both directions for one night of camping. Somebody conk me in the head with my guitar as I didn’t get a campfire photo of Keith playing. Keith is good enough to sit in with any world-class band and add killer lead guitar and he wasn’t about to pass on the chance to play with “Rock Bottom and the Out of Tuners” which is a name unfairly placed on Feral and I by jealous contemporaries who may not realize we own an electronic tuner.

We played some of our standards, like Buenos Tardes Amigo by Ween, but Keith really cooked when I started jamming the old JJ Cale song “Call me the Breeze.” Keith has some blues rock mojo and that took over. He played my old Les Paul Studio through a battery powered Roland Street Cube and rocked the campground. The other highlight was listening to him play my Martin acoustic including doing some of his own jams. A cold beer, an acoustic guitar played by a master, a warm fire… no further explanation needed.

Feral lights a fire with extra virgin cooking oil.

Feral lights a fire with extra virgin cooking oil.

Feral and Keith, morning coffee

Feral and Keith, morning coffee

I woke up a little before them, poured a coffee, and went down to the lake and took a few photos. Another reason why camping gets in your blood. I heard an elk bugle out past the lake through the fog.

Morning coffee, Pickeral Lake

Morning coffee, Pickerel Lake

So look for some more posts on the fall camping trip to Pigeon River State Game Area: Dog Lake Flooding; Natch’s account of 3 monster browns out of the Sturgeon, and some video Feral and I took on the Pigeon with big browns.

Summer Trout


Lake County had a downpour last Friday and I was concerned about driving up to fish with Feral Saturday morning because the rivers up there flood so quickly. I didn’t have to worry. The downpour brought the rivers and streams back up to normal shallow depth which is to say – not so good for trout fishing. The water was clear. You couldn’t tell it rained. I don’t know what the streams looked like before the rain but I suspect we could have picked trout like mushrooms.

We fished a stretch of the Pine River and Feral caught the “summer trout” pictured above but that wasn’t enough to convince us to stick it out for long. Normally deep (and treacherous) holes were wadable – up to a point. I crossed the stream in a deep spot and could literally feel cold water pour in my waders around mid-navel.  Good to know. I’ll have to dip them in the goop tank or buy new before fall when we do our “closer” up in Pigeon River country. Leaky waders in warm weather is one thing, in the fall it’s a curse.

The one (other) surprise Saturday was someone (Trout Unlimited?) added some log structure intermittently throughout the river. It didn’t help our fishing but I suspect when the rivers rise the new cover will hold fish. I appreciate their efforts even though the Pine does a pretty good job on it’s own of carving out new fish holding spots.

As a trout stream, the Pine is one of Michigan’s best naturally reproducing streams so tampering with it seems risky. I don’t know enough about stream biology to know if the work done to add fishing structure might not affect spawning areas but hope those who attempt to improve it fully understand they are tampering with mother nature. Most likely they are hoping to catch more “Summer Trout.” I can appreciate that.

Guitars, Morels, Labatt’s and Trout

Morels & Brown Trout

Trout camp doesn’t get any better. We scored on trout, mushrooms, and northern pike.  And entertainment. I invited an exceptional guitar player to camp knowing he would fit in with our strange group.  Keith H played in various bands around GR in the seventies and eighties, including putting himself though college doing gigs. If you were around then you might remember “Einstein” which played venues across the state. He hasn’t lost his touch. Toward evening we pulled out the guitars and he opened up with Superstition (ala Stevie Ray Vaughn version of the Stevie Wonder song). The cat can play.

Keith trades in the Lead Paul for a Strat

Keith trades in the Lead Paul for a Strat

Feral provided vocals and made up lyrics on the fly for some songs, and the melody on others. Natch tried to remedy that by looking up lyrics on an ipad and holding them up for Feral to read. Feral was seeing double from the Labatts and staying in time with Keith’s perfect rhythm probably seemed foreign to him after jamming with me for so many years. I played an acoustic guitar on some songs while Keith played the Lead Paul (pronounced “led” – like the metal) through a Roland “Street” which is a battery powered guitar amp and PA rolled into one. (Remind me to jam with Keith before beer o’clock).

We camped at Big Leverentz and we had the campground to ourselves. It was almost spooky. If it was rainy I would understand but the weather doesn’t get any better in Michigan for camping – low seventies with a quiet breeze. Feral fried up some morel mushrooms on Saturday night – about 40 we found up by the Pine River. They lasted about five minutes because everyone was being polite. Icy Labatts and morel mushrooms. I don’t have to explain that to anyone.

Feral with the Mushroom bag

Feral with the mushroom bag

Big Leverentz gave up several nice Pike including one about 3 feet. Fishing for pike  always results in catching bass – they hit the same lures, so we caught and released a lot of bass including one about about 3-1/2 pounds. Natch caught bass almost non-stop on Culprit plastic worms, which is also a good pike bait. Trout fishing was also good. Feral and I went back up to the Pine to check again for mushrooms (found another 40) and took a couple of decent trout, two browns about 16 inches, which we cooked up on the last day. We lost other trout and saw a few that were in the twenty plus range.

Denny with Washburn

Mike and Denny came over from Bray Creek and we shared the fish and mushrooms with them as an evening snack. Denny had his Washburn acoustic guitar and played a song done by “The Band” and we all joined in. Can’t recall the name of the song but it was a nice way to cap off a great trip.

Rods and Reels

Shakespeare 1776 reel and hook jawed brown trout

Aside from the hook-jawed male brown trout in the above photo you might notice the rare left hand Shakespeare 1761 reel, circa 1960s. It belongs to Denny, one of our trout camp regulars. He has three of them which he manages to keep working, somehow. He doesn’t care to fish with anything else and I can relate, even though I have ventured to the dark side. Compared to the spin cast reels on the market today, the old Shakespeare’s feel like precision machines. No high tech alloys or injected plastic, just well machined pieces that fit together in a surprising bit of functional engineering. There is nothing on the market like it today, and even Shakespeare couldn’t get it right when they introduced the 1810II, a remake of their most famous closed face spinning reel from the 60’s.

When asked to recommend a spinning rig for small streams my answer is: I can’t. I have tried every brand of closed face spinning reel on the market and no one is producing anything that really works well consistently. I can’t depend on new spin cast reels lasting more than a season. Handles fall off. Pick-up guides stop working. Gears grind when there doesn’t seem to be a reason. I have tried the various “underspin” designs including those by Shakespeare, Pflueger, Diawa, and Zebco. For what it is worth I think the Zebcos are the most reliable maybe because they have a long history of spin cast reels going back to pushbuttons. Last year I used a 33 Gold Triggerspin and can say this: I caught a lot of big trout with it. I had to change line often because the tiny pickup pins wreak havoc on monofilament, but the reel was mostly trouble free.

This might be a good time to mention my total dislike of open faced spinning reels – the kind with the revolving bail and open spool. For the type of casting I and my buddies do – it is just not an option. It goes to the type of casting we do – we pinch the line against the rod handle, release the bail, cast, and stop the lure in midair just above where we want the lure to land. The small hole in the cover of the close-faced reels allows us to catch and pinch the line against the rod handle to stop the lure in flight. With open spools – the line is not available to pinch because it flies off the circumference of the spool.

I have a pretty good and inexpensive spinning rod that I bought at Gander Mountain, model GS Advantage IM6.  It’s light weight, stout enough to hook trout, and nimble enough to use an underhand flip cast to rocket lures across the stream into nooks and overhangs – places where trout like those pictured above like to hide. It has a cork hand with sliding rings that allows placement of the reel at the back of the rod where it belongs (for balance). See below.

Zebco reel and GS rod

So you can see I am not a purist and have visited the dark side. Tucked away in boxes somewhere I have a couple old closed-faced Shakespeare reels, similar to Denny’s 1761, I am saving for who knows what reason. One belonged to my grandfather, Jake Lucas, and I am afraid his ghost will come back and haunt me if I don’t take the same meticulous care of it that he did. He treated his equipment well – cleaning and oiling the reels often, placing them in a sock in an old cardboard beer case in the trunk of his 65 Chevy Impala. His rods were stored in hard cases. He would assemble what he needed/wanted when he parked at a stream side. He treated his fishing equipment like an old machinist treats his precision tools – with love and care. I should probably treat my $25 Zebco the same way but in the back of my mind I know it will wear out quickly no matter how many times I oil it up.

I should attribute the fish in the top photo –  Mike, another trout camp regular, caught the larger brown and Denny the other nice one. Last time I fished with Mike he was using one of the defunct Shakespeare 1810II reels and a long rod I might consider for steelhead, though it obviously works well for stream browns.

Fishing Flooded Rivers

Natch on the flooded Pine River, early spring.

Natch on the flooded Pine River, early spring.

I can’t count the number of times I drove up to the Pine River only to find it so flooded that it was impossible to fish. But here’s the thing – I had to try. When a rain starts the trout slam the buffet and that means any lure tossed into the water. It can last for a day, but if it’s a downpour then it can be a matter of hours before the river is carrying so much mud it seems like Nestles has a chocolate milk factory upstream. When the stream muddies up – the fish are still active but they are at the bottom of the stream and your lure is coasting past them like it’s in an alternate reality.

Stepping into a muddy, flooded river qualifies as entering an alternate reality. You can count on the stream being twice as deep as you expect, plus six inches. If you survive getting in, triangulate your position before taking a further step so when you trip over the submerged bottom log you will have some idea of where you might get back out.  Experienced anglers have a special way to enter flooded rivers that reminds me of a scene from Romancing the Stone and a long muddy slide, though the chances of landing on Kathleen Turner seems pretty remote.

Back to the River. OK, you made it in, now what? Since it is almost impossible for the trout to see your lure, your best bet is to upsize. If you normally throw a two hook minnow bait, grab a #13 three-treble silver or gold minnow. Casting will not be pretty. Lob the lure like it has cooties and try to pinch the line before it reaches its destination.  This will straighten out the lure before it enters the stream which is the best advice in this entire post.  If a three hook lure enters the water at an odd angle, it will most likely catch the fishing line and retrieve sideways or backwards, which doesn’t catch a lot of trout.

Don’t have a #13 dredger? Try the biggest spinner in your tote. Ideally – fat blades with lots of flash. I like a gold color in muddy water, silver if the stream is more stained than muddy.  There is a good chance you will lose the lure but you need to weigh that against catching a big trout, which is very possible. The big fish are not timid if they think they are invisible. Here is a second good tip. Work the banks since the water is shallower at the edge. This bumps your chance of a trout seeing the lure. That said; cast everywhere because a stream bottom will have some shallow spots even mid-stream. Also, don’t be surprised if a trout takes your lure right at the rod tip. That’s when it gets fun.

Same Lure / Less Trout

I remember a few years back fishing with Feral on the Pine and watching him catch trout after trout. I tried a variety of lures including what he was tossing but caught zip. If you were to follow either of us up a trout stream there would be very little to tell us apart. We use the same underhand flip cast to get lures next to the banks and under low hanging brush. We likely follow the same path up the stream – crossing the stream in the same places, making generally the same casts. We move about the same speed – meaning we take a similar amount of time on a bend or piece of cover before deciding to move on. We both wade quietly. We toss the same lures including a variety of minnow baits from various manufacturers as well as spinners and what not. So when one of us catches a lot of fish and the other is relegated to watch – there must be something going on.

Our roles were reversed at our fall trout camp this year. ( see 2012 Trout Camp Closer for more photos) Feral and I decided to fish a remote spot on the Pigeon we call bear country because of the difficult walk in through tangled blow downs, bogs, beaver slashings, and eye level branches designed to remove your hat or smack the guy  following. Thick stuff where you can imagine a bear rising up to say hello with a loud grunt after you step on his toe. I fished this spot alone occasionally but its nice having some company during the walk in since the conversation is two-sided and there is always the chance of running into another fisherman who may not be talking to himself.

When we reached the stream Feral let me take the lead on a wide slow bend with a grassy undercut bank.  I made two casts and watched a V- wake come back with the lure. He took it hard and I was on to a twenty incher which put up a good battle. Feral was kind enough to de-hook and release the brown trout and that set the stage for the morning.  He moved into the lead and right off a similar size fish followed his lure back but didn’t strike. He didn’t rest the fish at all, which surprised me, but continued casting and moving upstream. We each caught some smaller fish and pretty soon we came to a familiar bend which I almost didn’t recognize.

We carefully waded along the shallow outside of the bend. The inside had the faster water, a deep trough, and buried log cover and frankly it didn’t look so great mainly because the sun was up and the stream was clear. There was a little cut-in at the inside bank and I watched Feral work it with no result. I was close behind him and made almost the same cast thirty seconds later and was rewarded with a second twenty inch brown. Feral watched me make the cast, saw the lure, and saw the trout take it. If that were the first time it happened on this trip he would have shrugged it off as luck, but I had done the same thing the previous day on the Sturgeon – caught a twenty incher following behind him.

I offered to take the lead so he could catch some fish, which was funny at the time. Lesser men would complain but to Feral’s credit he asked: What are you doing different? And that must be it – I was doing something a little different because I was casting the same lure over the same water. I couldn’t explain it at the time but maybe it was the retrieve. By twitching the pole as I wound the lure back I imparted a more injured look to the minnow lure. I learned this trick bass fishing a top-water plug called a Pop-R which is the only way to fish that bait.  There’s a rhythm to it. I think Feral saw what I was doing and I don’t know if he emulated it, but at the top of the bend he caught a rainbow trout about twelve inches.

It was a beautiful fish but I know exactly how he felt because I sometimes think about that trip up the Pine where he was catching the eighteen to twenty inchers and I was lucky to catch a small keeper. Fortunately for Feral, he’ll always be able to remember this trip up the Pigeon since his fishing buddy has a blog.

The Dog Dialers

Matt Hilliard, Dog Dialer

As Feral and I headed back to civilization from trout camp we passed over the Sturgeon and saw a couple fishermen on the north side of the road and both of us thought the same thing – good, looks like road fishermen wearing Cabella outfits. Not much chance they were hauling out large brown trout. (An observation born of years of experience). We pulled into the gas station/party store in Vanderbilt and cashed in a large cache of Labatts bottles and when I stepped outside I was surprised to see Feral conversing with one of the guys. They had just finished up a long stretch and did pretty well on trout and that just goes to show the value of angler profiling.

Feral mentioned fichigan in his conversation and Brett Sanders of Midland wrote to say hello and left an email so I followed up. Brett, along with Matt Hilliard, get together with a crew of devoted spin fishermen like ourselves for the closer, or “ender” as they call it. They go by the name “Dog Dialers” meaning they Dial (hook/catch) Dogs (good sized trout). They obviously know what they’re doing. Brett related their day on the Sturgeon in his email.  I’ll let Brett tell it:

“When Matt and I ran into you guys we had just gotten off of the upper Sturgeon and were heading to the West Branch. We had fished it once before, but it was quite a while ago and the water levels were a bit high. We hiked back into National Forest off of E Sturgeon Valley Rd and fished for about 4 hrs back to the road. Fish were active and decent sized. Matt landed the 17″er and shortly thereafter, I got bumped by one that size or bigger.

Then we went to the West Branch and just put in at a pull out spot just outside of Wolverine. We had similar luck in the West Branch. A decent amount of action and one bump from something 20″+. We had about 6-7 hours of fishing on the day. Totals were 4 7″-9″ each, 3 13″-15″ each, 1 17″er (Matt) and 2 missed that were or were pushing 20″. We’ll definitely be heading back up to the Sturgeon and would like to explore the Pigeon and the Black as well if you guys have any spots you’re willing to give up.”

Spots we are willing to give up? Whoa. (If they wanted to learn about some of our spots they should have pretended they were Cabella’s road fisherman). Too late now.  Here is a picture of Brett with brown trout measuring 23-1/2 (and more proof I should keep quiet about where I fish).

That said, it was great to hear from you guys!  If we run into you camping next fall maybe we can share some stories over a Labatts.

Brett Sanders, Dog Dialer


Pine River, Lake County

Six Mile Bridge over the Pine River

Michigan has several Pine Rivers. The Pine River in northern Lake County holds some nice brown trout, rainbows, and the occasional brook trout. It gets fished heavily on the opener but through the summer you most likely will get the stream to yourself other than some canoeists on sunny days. Feral and I went up there this weekend mainly because it rained Friday and we hoped for a stained or muddy stream – something to help get the trout in a mood to chase lures. We parked at Six Mile Bridge and went upstream from there. The river winds though some private property but in Michigan that’s not usually a problem – just stay in the stream. (Rules vary by river.)

Fishing was tough. It looked like rain while we put on our waders so we took our rain jackets, but after the first bend the sun came out and we knew we would have to do some coaxing to get a fish. The water was low and clear. Feral and I changed lead every couple bends and tossed a variety of lures without seeing a fish. When that happens I start making dicey casts into thick overhanging brush and trees over deep water where it would be impossible to retrieve the lure should it hang up. Lost one lure but I managed to retrieve an expensive Rapala by breaking the lure off and then fighting my way though a tangle of vines on a sheer bank.  Not my best day of casting.

Feral wearing camouflage to up the odds

Clouds rolled in and clouds rolled out. When they rolled out the stream lit up like jewelry and even the polaroids didn’t help. We entertained ourselves talking about previous times up that stretch and where we had taken good fish so there were a lot of short conversations that petered out.

Pine River, summer of 2012

We did end up with two trout, a rainbow and a brown, but we tossed them back. Both fish were caught at the end of the stretch so maybe fishing would have picked up a bit. We stopped at an access point on a two-track that runs south off Six Mile Road and we had a long walk back to the truck.

When we reached six mile we saw a large dog on the road that was ambling away from us and Feral talked about how he was once harassed by a huge wild dog that closed in on him every time he turned his back to walk away. He threw the dog a fish and the dog took it and then left him alone. As he was telling me this some dogs started howling and running toward us from a house close to the road. Fortunately they were all bark and we diffused the situation by talking to them. The owner ran out and called the dogs. I think he was surprised to see two guys in waders walking down the road. Not a lot of fishermen hitting the rivers this summer. Might be the driest season on record.

Bass Lures for Trout

Trout have a reputation for being finicky and I can probably thank fly fishermen for that. Most published accounts focus on finding the one pattern that works for a particular time and place and that makes me smile since I have pulled junk out of my congested lure tote that resembles nothing a trout has ever seen and proceeded to catch trout.  One time on the lower Baldwin, in a good rain, I lost a favorite lure and had to try something untested. By chance I had a big-lipped deep diving crankbait with me and since the water was high and rising, I figured what the heck. My second cast brought in a medium size brown around 14 or 15 inches. The Big “O” type lure was mostly green and had a fish type pattern that was supposed to resemble a bluegill. Not much chance the trout I caught had ever seen a bluegill. I caught one or two more keepers on the lure before finally calling it a day.

I haven’t caught a trout yet on the #3 Sperm Whale pictured above but I don’t count it out. My reading is it’s a night lure and I know just the pool to try it on. It’s designed to wobble like a jitterbug and who knows what kind of leviathan it might call up from the deep. I’m half afraid to use it since it may be the only one like it in existence and I don’t have to tell you what the antique lure market is like.

One year Natch, our “wired” fishing buddy, hit the bargain bin at Wal-Mart on the way up to trout camp. He picked up some dollar bass lures of various strange patterns. He caught trout and what really amazes me is that for several years running he took “big fish” honors in our annual contest. I can’t say it was the dollar bass lures, we keep some secrets, but I know he experiments.

I recall another year when we trout camp regulars were disgusted by the rising price of our “standard trout lures” and experimented with new lures by Japanese companies. The Japanese get creative and have made a huge impact on the professional BASS tour. Some lures are reminiscent of their monster movies although this one reminds me of the Nautilus from 2000 Leagues under the Sea.

As you can see the lure has a perch pattern and I’m pretty sure the stream trout I fish for have never seen a perch.  Or the Nautilus. Feral and I ran into this lure by accident. He had invited a buddy from Alpena to go fishing and we stopped so the guy could buy a couple lures. He wasn’t a trout fisherman and chose this to our dismay. Once on the stream we watched him pull in trout after trout while we shook our heads and tossed old standards without luck. So there’s a good clue. Trout aren’t afraid to change their diet. Generally speaking – they are after an easy meal.

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