Fichigan

Small Stream Trout fishing in Michigan

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Michigan Brook Trout

Feral with brook trout

Feral with brook trout

I’ve been wanting to write about brook trout ever since I started blogging but the problem has been getting photos. Feral loaned me some of his and I found the one above which is a respectable brook trout for the water we fish. Generally speaking, brook trout reside far upstream from where we normally fish. They are more suited to the small headwaters where the water is colder. If we catch a brook trout on the lower stretches of a stream it will often be where a small feeder creek empties into a larger stream. Or where a small spring introduces cold water, sometimes trickling off a hillside.

Brook trout are more aggressive and less wary than brown trout. That works against them (vs fishermen) and may be one reason browns have taken over their territory. According to the Michigan DNR browns were introduced in our rivers in 1883 and say what you will, browns are great sport, run bigger, and are very abundant. That makes catching a nice brook trout all the more interesting. I probably catch one brook trout for every 20 browns. I always release them in the hopes the population will grow and I’ll see more of them. Feral releases them too.

We catch brook and brown trout on the same lures: minnow baits and spinners. If we were to concentrate on catching more brook trout, small spinners with wide blades would be the way to go. Blue Fox lures in gold or silver. Wider blade means more “hang time.” In effect, the trout have more time to see and catch the lures.

Mike and Denny, two trout camp regulars, often fish the Black River in the fall for brook trout. The Black angles through the Pigeon River State Game Area up near Vanderbilt. I fished it once with Mike and the stream was overgrown with a canopy of saplings and brush. It helped to be an expert at underhand flip casting because there is no way to overhand cast a lure into the trout cover. I am sure there are open stretches without so much canopy so that is a good excuse to do some exploring.

I am trying to place exactly where the above photo was taken and have concluded it is  on the Pine River in Lake County. The Pine may be one of the best naturally reproducing streams in Michigan. It’s landlocked with a dam so it doesn’t get salmon or steelhead runs and that may be the clue to it’s health. We catch browns, brooks, and rainbows out of the Pine which makes it interesting. A brook trout over 14 inches is an event that deserves a cold beer back at the truck. Of course, just getting back the truck also qualifies as a beer event.

Feral at truck

Feral tailgating the S-10, Labatts in hand.

 

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.

A Morel Dilemma

It’s January 6 and the temperature is almost fifty in Michigan. When I stepped outside I was transported to trout camp first by the warmth and then the earthy smell of spring. Reality checked my imagination but not my enthusiasm.  Spring brings the new trout season, and a backup pastime of Morel Mushroom hunting. Mushroom hunting finishes a close second.

We find the early black morels, and as the season progresses, the half-caps. We (Feral and myself) don’t have a spot for the later white morels but maybe that’s because we’re looking in the wrong place – we keep going back to the black morels areas. It’s vexing to think back to our grandpa opening the trunk of his 65 Chevy Impala and seeing two bushels of white morels. I don’t have a clue where he found the mother lode but it’s possible those days are gone, at least on public land. A good day for us is a few dozen two inch Black Morels to fry up with some trout. And that’s enough. We fry them in butter until they are about 25% of their original size and crispy. People compare the taste of morels to steak, but to me it’s more like eating bacon. Are we frying them too long? I’ve read you need to cook them thoroughly.

If you haven’t tried mushroom hunting here’s a good tip: Look for cars parked along the road in late April and early May. Most everyone expects to see other hunters so you will not be breaking any code. I have read books on morel mushroom habitat and what else I can add has very little value unless you are a naturalist with a degree in botany. Look near Elm and Ash trees, white barked trees like Birch, Poplar, and Aspen, and in evergreens like White Pine. Look where the sun is warming a hillside early in the season, and shaded hillsides late. Alongside water is good including drainage ditches along a road.

If you have never been mushrooming it’s wise to go with an expert the first time. It is encouraging to see someone else find some. If they help you spot some it will be much easier to gain some confidence – they are difficult to see, especially the black ones.  And the expert can cull your bag for the false morels, the poisonous variety that can wreck an otherwise nice meal.

The Incident at Tin Bridge

I was thinking back fondly on a strange incident at Tin Bridge on the Pigeon River in the Pigeon River State Game Area.  I had parked my 10 year old 91 Pathfinder at the bridge and fished a stretch upstream and when I returned to my vehicle I had to drive over the bridge, turnaround, and re-cross the bridge to head back to camp. At that time the bridge was in pretty rough shape with squared off logs laid sideways and apparently not firmly attached. You could hear a distinct thumping sound as you crossed but what was really happening down there was not clear. As I re-crossed the bridge the dull thump sound was replaced by my blasting exhaust.  A log had somehow knocked my muffler off – but that was small potatoes.  When I put on the brakes my foot went to the floor. I rolled to a stop and looked underneath. I could see a severed brake line with dripping fluid and the muffler hanging low. There was nothing I could do but glide back to camp. Fortunately it was all two-tracks and I didn’t meet anyone head-on.

Back at camp my buddies took turns surveying the underside and that’s where we first noticed the frame damage. The rear axle on a 91 Pathfinder has support members designed for stabilizing. One was definitely broken. The frame was fairly rusted out anyway so it was hard to gauge how much I can blame on the bridge. Still, this was serious. The frame needed work.

I started adding up the costs. We were out in the sticks and the closest town with any auto service was Gaylord, at least twenty miles away. It would be expensive to have the vehicle towed. The exhaust and brake line might run a couple hundred bucks. The frame was the wild card – I didn’t know if I could even get the frame fixed, or for what cost.

I fired up the Pathfinder the next morning and found that a car without exhaust is twice as noisy on a cold morning. Feral followed me in, wisely, since he didn’t want to provide brakes with the rear of his vehicle.  We took the old highway into Gaylord to avoid traffic. I used my parking brake lever to help stop – I can’t remember if I had a hint of brake left – that may have been the case. I think we pinched the severed line so the brake system held some pressure.

I rolled into a muffler shop near Main Street and they put it on the hoist. They did right by me – putting on a cheap muffler and fixing the brake line.  They also directed me to a place that might be able to fix the frame, a welding shop of some kind. As I recall, they were closed.  It was Saturday.

Meanwhile I had to formulate a back-up plan: just in case. I could scrap the vehicle or try to trade it in for something else providing a dealer would even take it. We did a little car browsing and I was feeling the pressure.  I really needed the frame fixed in order to avoid a “make-do” car buying experience.  Being at the mercy of a car salesman is low on my list of entertainment. I looked at a few older vehicles but didn’t see anything I would even want to consider.

On Monday Feral and I stopped at the suggested welding shop and explained the situation. The young fellow working there (alone) crawled under the Pathfinder and banged on the remaining rusted frame to see what he could find to work with.  He offered to weld some new pieces of steel onto the frame for $200. I jumped at it. He told us to come back at the end of the day. When we arrived later I could tell he spent more time than he planned but he was very professional about it. I looked underneath and could see he’d welded some new steel in place and listened as he explained the difficulty of making sure everything was aligned properly. By all accounts I had lucked on a perfectionist who took pride in his work. Bottom line: I was back in business for about $350 total car repair.

If nothing else, this is a true story about nice people in a small town helping out a guy with car problems. It could have been a disaster. I should mention the state has replaced the old bridge. The new one is an eye sore with heavy duty guard rails that belong on an expressway – not exactly what you want to see on a two-track out in God’s country… but I really shouldn’t complain. If anyone has a photo of the old bridge please send it to me and I’ll add it to this post. Thanks.

Quicksand in Michigan Streams

Everything I know about quicksand I learned from Tarzan movies. The main thing to know is: bad guys don’t make it out, but good guys and gals always do. If you’re a bad guy, please stop reading. Quicksand on a trout stream is a little different than sand bogs in Africa, but there’s some similarity. They are both camouflaged so you don’t see it until it’s too late and if you make it out alive you’ll have an interesting story to tell even if no one believes you.

Quicksand on a trout stream is harder to see since it’s underwater. The stream bottom appears normal except there is no visible hole (sand covers it) so you don’t know it’s here until you start sinking. In waders it’s pretty scary since swimming doesn’t feel like an option.

I’ve found quicksand on the Pine River in Lake County and the Sturgeon River in the Pigeon River State Game Area. On the Pine, the particular spot I know of is a few bends downstream from Raymond Road. The first time I ran into it I was alone. I scrambled to get out and it was like running in place up a sand dune. It was easy to see the exact spot afterwards because a cloud of light gray silt poured out like smoke.  An hour later, walking the bank downstream, the silt was still pouring out.

A couple years later I fished the same stretch with Feral Tweed and mentioned it to him right before we got there (it was hard to forget). I was in the lead and sure enough I stepped into it and the same thing happened. Here again, I didn’t see the hole – it looked just like the rest of the sandy stream bottom.  A film of sand over the hole made it invisible.

The Sturgeon River has at least one spot I know of in the section they call the Valley which is upstream of the notorious Ford property. The same thing happens, but without the silt pouring out. How dangerous it is I don’t know. You start sinking and your reactions take over. This spot is near the left bank (fishing upstream) opposite and below a couple giant evergreen trees that lean out over the water from right the bank. If the stream is low it’s easy enough to wade around (since I know the exact spot), but with high water I get out on the bank and get back in above it.

How prevalent and dangerous are these quicksand spots?  If you are careful wading, meaning testing each step which you should be doing anyway, then you will likely get off with a small adrenaline rush and some exercise. Best not count on Tarzan to rescue you. He’s busy.

Pickerel Lake

Natch and Feral check out Pickerel Lake

The Pigeon River State Game Area in the northern lower peninsula of Michigan is home to some great trout streams and also some nice lakes including Pickerel Lake which has a campground and boat launch (unpaved for row boats and canoes). There’s a sandy swimming area but it’s not a beach proper where the sand extends beyond the lake. Most people lay out blankets on a grassy area near the boat launch and swim there.

The lake has a variety of fish species including rainbow trout, bass, perch and bluegill. A couple of us trout fishermen stopped at the boat launch one night and talked with a guy who pulled up in his row boat. He showed us his catch and he had a respectable number of decent bluegills and a few trout.

The next evening, as a social endeavor, we decided to try fishing the lake from the shore which allowed us to gab while experimenting to see what might work for the trout. A pair of Loons was working the lake and having much better luck than ourselves – so we waded out from the boat launch and tossed our crawlers out past the drop off. We stripped out line and went back to shore and set up some forked sticks and waited. It didn’t seem like we had the right program until we got ready to leave and found three fish on our various lines including a bass, a perch, and a rainbow. By then it was dark but we learned a lesson – hold onto the line and feel for the strike.

Working the shoreline at Pickerel Lake

A year later we tried it again. This time we worked the shoreline by the campground and caught a respectable number of bass, bluegill, and a few trout. Here again it was more of a social engagement, lots of jabs, a cold beer, and a chance to fish a different way than the more serious solo trout fishing we do on the trout streams. The lake produces fish easily. Use crawlers or worms with or without a bobber. Someday I’d like to take a boat out on the lake and explore, fish the drop-offs, and cast for bass.

The DNR made some improvements to the campground a year ago in hopes of luring more campers. If you are thinking about checking out the Pigeon River area it is a nice spot to camp for fifteen dollars a night. There’s a ranger station further up Sturgeon Valley Road (turn left on Twin Lakes Road after you cross the Pigeon River) that provides free maps of the two tracks and hiking trails. Driving around in the morning or evening you can see deer and elk. I’ve seen some postcard bull elk just driving around.

Pickerel Lake is centrally located to some of the best trout streams in the state including the Pigeon and the Sturgeon. Fishing the lake in the evening is a nice change of pace from wading and casting streams.

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