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Small Stream Trout fishing in Michigan

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Fall Trout Camp 2018

Natch fishing backwards

If there’s a story about trout closer 2018 it’s that we needed cold weather to get fish moving up the trout streams and it happened, at least on the Pigeon River. Feral and I fished the Sturgeon twice, saw one brown trout about 18 inches and a couple small ones and that was it. Feral was so discouraged he went bird hunting (partridge) for a good part of the closer. Lots of long walks with a vintage Montgomery Wards 20 gauge pump he picked up somewhere for two and a quarter. He was determined to add a couple birds to our annual trout dinner. Didn’t work, scarce birds, but fortunately Natch and I went over to the Pigeon River where we found some pretty good fishing.

First trip, funny story. Natch and I were on a sandy stretch of the Pigeon and he caught a nice brown about 16 inches. I took the lead and caught one 19 inches. He took the lead and stopped at a pool too deep to wade and told me to make a few cast with my lure figuring maybe a trout might like what I was throwing. So, standing behind me, he made a long cast back downstream to where we had just fished. See the photo above. 21 inch male hook-jawed brown. Now that I think about it, that story isn’t so funny. Two days later I caught another brown about 19 inches on a different stretch of the Pigeon and Natch pulled out another 21 incher. That’s a disturbing trend.

Luther with 19 inch brown trout

Denny came up for one night. We were happy to see him. That was last Friday and it started raining that evening about the time we started thinking campfire for warmth. I had pitched a screen tent in case of rain so we set up lawn chairs in there and drank beer to get warm. Natch brought some home brew whiskey kind of thing which I tried and liked but held off. Natch is ten years younger and has an iron stomach. I am usually surprised by the variety of things he can mix down there. Denny headed home Saturday. I think he’s been too accustomed to camping in a heated trailer with Mike, our departed and missed brother.

I fished a second stretch of the Pigeon with Natch on Saturday. We jumped in the river off the Shingle Mill pathway and fished upstream to the Elk Hill Equestrian Campground. It was a long and treacherous journey that produced a couple fish (my second 19 incher) but it was brutal walk back to the car across low ground with tight saplings and heavy grass, and a hill made for mountain climbers. If we ever try that again we will be spotting a car at the campground. Lesson learned.

Natch suits up, just off the Shingle Mill Pathway

Feral picking out a good lure on the Sturgeon

On Sunday Feral said he was bird hunting again so Natch and I decided to fish another stretch together. So far we had been catching plenty of fish and there was one more section of the Pigeon we were thinking about, with some dread. Downstream from Tin Bridge. There’s no fisherman’s path along the river. You bust your way through saplings and pines and tall grass that hides stumps designed to trip you up or put holes in your waders. The grass is waist deep and woven so tight you tear grass when walking through it. By the time we made it downstream to a bend that looked promising we had to drink half a bottle of water and eat a nut trail mix snack just to see straight.

Natch spent part of the walk in figuring out how to get me out if I were to have a heart attack. The answer: tie two logs together and lay me on top, push me off, and hope I float down to the next campground. No real chance of me making it but I appreciate the thought. Seriously, if you get hurt back in there it’s time to make peace with the world.

Natch’s second 21 inch brown

We hadn’t fished but one or two bends before Natch hooked up with another decent fish. It came from under a grassy bank. From then on I was determined to catch something over 21 but it never happened. I did catch a nice rainbow, about 16 inches. It was surprising because brown trout seem to take over and dominate streams. I should mention while Natch and I fished Tin Bridge, Feral fished the Pigeon where it crosses Sturgeon Valley Road and pulled out a 16 inch brook trout. So there you go, exceptions to the rule.

Luther with a Rainbow

Natch and I were gone so long Feral decided to drive over to Tin Bridge and look for us. We were a couple hundred yards downstream of the bridge when I heard a whistle. Knew right off it was Feral. He joined us and took the lead.

Luther and Feral below Tin Bridge

Natch stayed back and took some photos. I was hoping to see Feral catch a really good brown – this was it, the end of the season, last stretch. Didn’t happen but the closer was everything we could have imagined. Productive fishing, some great campfires (Natch brought a chainsaw), a fish dinner cooked up with cajun fish mix, beer, fall colors getting traction. Good conversation, lots of humor. Doesn’t get any better.

2014 Fall Trout Camp

Natch fishing the stretch below Tin Bridge

Natch fishing the stretch below Tin Bridge

In a strange turn of events Feral did not make it to trout camp this fall but that didn’t stop us other die-hards from converging on Pickerel Lake campground up in Pigeon River country. Natch, Mike, Denny and I worked in a few days of fishing. Mike and Denny stayed at a private campground with amenities, which was surprising, since he and Denny have a long history of camping at Pickerel. But they stopped over on Friday night for some campfire and music. Denny had his Martin and played some James Taylor and John Prine and I might have surprised them when I played “Norma Jean” by Elton John (a song about Marilyn Monroe) and a pop song called “Wake me Up” by Avici.

Natch arrived after dark and that was my chance to have him audition as bongo player for Rock Bottom and the Out of Tuners. Unfortunately Rock Bottom (Feral) was not present so he may have to audition all over again. The main thing is Natch kept reasonable good time with the two beer drinking guitar players and he drinks my brand – so he will be getting a very strong recommendation.

Mike warms up the bongos while Denny fingerpicks his D-35

Mike warms up the bongos while Denny finger picks his D-35

The fishing, ah the fishing. Fall Trout Camp is our chance to fish rivers that give up huge brown trout (in the 25 inch class). Giant browns move upstream in the fall but it usually requires blustery cold weather and rain. This year we had perfect camping weather. So camping was great….though everyone kept commenting it’s just not the same without Feral and turning to me for answers. I really didn’t have any answers but suggested next year we camp in Feral’s back yard if that’s what it takes to get him to trout camp. (Trout Camp… It’s not entirely about the trout.)

Natch on the Sturgeon

Natch on the Sturgeon

I fished a couple of stretches of river with Natch and let me tell you – when the going gets tough, Natch gets going. What you don’t see in this photo is the log strewn bottom and gale force river trying to drag him backwards. I often get out and go around this spot on the Sturgeon because the wading is treacherous. The other thing I wanted to say about Natch is he can really zing a lure into tight cover and that’s a requirement for small stream trout fishing. He uses a side arm cast rather than the “Lucas” underhand flip cast so it was interesting seeing him drop lures under low overhead branches and other tight spots.
Natch on Sturgeon 3
Notice the water line on Natch’s fishing vest.

Tin Bridge
I have been wanting to post a photo of the new Tin Bridge ever since the old tin bridge destroyed the frame, exhaust, and brake line on my old Nissan Pathfinder. (see post The Incident at Tin Bridge). The new bridge belongs on a superhighway! Strangely, where the blacktop ends the rutted two-track requires a 4 wheel drive monster truck for passage.

For those wondering about the Pigeon River and the Song of the Morning Dam a sign posted at the bridge indicates they are drawing the dam down to prevent any more accidental spills (the last one decimated the trout population for miles with silt) so measures are being taken. I fished a section called Cornwall Flats and the bad news is it had new levels of silt and the fishing was tough. I caught a ten inch brook trout and a smaller brown but I suspect it will still be a long time before the stream recovers. Areas that did not have silt last year have silt buildup this year. Maybe drawing down the dam isn’t the answer?

Cornwall Flats section, Pigeon River

Cornwall Flats section, Pigeon River

Notice the silt on the bank. The bottom of the stream was black from silt throughout much of this stretch of river. The water was clear so the black steam bottom made it seem like I was walking in a pool of India ink. A bit strange…

So no giant brown trout to report this trip – you’ll have to search the archives if you want to see photos of the real monsters that come out of the Sturgeon and Pigeon in the fall. Maybe next year it won’t be summer weather in late September. That would help.

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

 

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 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.

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.

2012 Trout Camp Closer

I hope to write a couple posts about this years closer,  but here are some highlights:

  1. Great trout fishing – 4 browns 20 inches, many others
  2. Brooks and rainbows
  3. Great camping weather
  4. Plenty of beer
  5. Met some nice people – Ray and Desiree, her older brother, and his crazy girlfriend
  6. Ray cooked best venison I ever had
  7. Feral sang the Mexican song with Luther on acoustic guitar, even Natch joined in
  8. Mike and Denny camped on the Pigeon but came over for the campfire
  9. Stories and banter that encouraged another beer
  10. Another beer
  11. Feral re-invents the blow gun
  12. Natch fished the whole valley in one stretch
  13. Feral and I saw a bull elk that filled a two track – half a ton?
  14. Saw a bobcat, countless deer and turkey
  15. Waders leaked but I didn’t get cold
  16. Caught two big browns following Feral – offered to take the lead!
  17. Best trout camp ever.

Feral landing a good brown

Odd angle for a photo

Natch working the bend at the top of the valley

Checking length against Feral’s marked pole

The one hour trek through bear country

Why we make a one hour trek through bear country

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.

Witching Hour Trout

Luther and Feral after dark

If you are like me it is hard to stop fishing as the sun creeps to the horizon even when you know that walking out in the dark will be a bad trip. If I am fishing with someone else, like Feral, it is doubly hard because I know if I fall into a beaver hole and break a leg he’ll get me out or at least can direct someone back to the spot. I imagine he’ll recast some of the better holes on the way out, but eventually someone will come for me.

It’s true you can catch big trout during the day, especially in stained or muddy water, but nightfall offers trout free rein of the stream. They stop worrying about Osprey or other predators. They like the cover of darkness and that’s when the larger fish move out to center stream and go on the hunt.

I recall a time on the Pigeon, before the fish kill from the Song of the Morning dam, when Feral and I did an evening stretch by walking down stream and fishing back upstream past where we had parked. It was getting dark and we didn’t want to stop even though we knew we would have to walk out through saplings thick as spaghetti growing in a mud bog with beaver holes (near the stream) that were hidden by lush tangled saw grass. The stream itself had beaver dams spanning the stream and places you had to climb out and try to slip back into deep water, then do a wader dance on tip toes to get to solid footing. I hope I painted that picture clear enough – some places aren’t really made for wading, and after dark you need a special mindset called denial.

We knew there was a nice bend upstream that held good fish and we were not disappointed. The bend had a straight section leading up to it that had overhanging grass and saplings but was clear and open enough for working good casts right to the bank. From there it veered slowly to the left with the same cover overhanging brush and some various stumps and trash that broke up the stream flow enough to be big trout holding places.

When Feral and I fish together we have a system where one guy takes the lead until he gets a fish, or for one or two bends, in which case he is embarrassed enough at not catching anything he reluctantly offers the lead back to the other guy. When the lights go down this unseemly gentleman behavior goes out the window and we scientifically determine who leads by reviewing who has done the best so far and maybe the other guy should get a chance. On this night it didn’t matter who went first because we caught several fish out of the same bend. It happens like that sometimes. The fish cooperate and the fishermen don’t fall in a beaver hole on the way out.

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