Pure Michigan!

In Michigan for the weekend, I had to get my obligatory Michigan fishing in. Saturday morning I waded the Thornapple River near Grand Rapids, but got completely skunked (and very very cold). It was beautiful, but I wasn’t able to find any fish. I decided to hit up another river on Sunday, hopefully I’d get into some fish this time.
It was cold, dark, and raining, and I left the house anyway. Mark told me about a great spot on a great river not too far from Grand Rapids- the Rogue River, and I was determined to check it out. It’s not every day I get the chance to fish pristine Michigan waters, and I knew there were fish in there I wasn’t likely to find at Busse or the Fox River. Fish like trout. Although I’ve gone salmon fishing a few times in the harbors in Chicago, I have yet to connect with one of those beasts. In fact, the only trout I’ve ever caught were 3 8″ steelheads at Burnham in the summer.
I threw my stuff in the Mini Cooper, plugged my phone into the aux input, and accelerated onto the expressway. I tuned my Pandora radio to Mos Def, but I wasn’t listening… I was fantasizing about the steelhead I was about to catch. Or kings. Or coho. I don’t really know. Following my GPS and the pin I’d dropped on the secret location, I made my way to Rockford, Michigan, and parked.
I got out of the car, and looked down at the river. My first impression was a little bit of terror: it looked super fast and super cold. Was I ready for this? This would only be my 4th or 5th time wading. And it was cold out, not to mention raining. Like usual, I threw caution to the wind, and suited up.
The cold-looking Rogue River, Rockford, Michigan
I headed down a path, walked under a bridge, and immediately noticed a ton of “PRIVATE PROPERTY: NO HUNTING OR FISHING” signs everywhere, all around the path. Mark told me the day before Michigan law allowed anglers to use a reasonable amount of bank to facilitate fishing public waters, so I wasn’t too worried about the signs. But I have to admit, every time I heard a branch crack or a squirrel jump I expected to turn around and see a shotgun-toting Tea Party member wanting me off his property.
Mark told me I should cross the river where there were a bunch of riffles, or a little rapids. I slowly and carefully made my way into the water a little upstream of the rapids, noting how much warmer the water seemed than the Thornapple yesterday. I’d been told the Thornapple was spring fed, and always super cold; either way, the Rogue didn’t seem so bad. Looking down into the water, I was absolutely shocked with the water clarity- I could see all the way to the bottom; the water was crystal clear! NONE of the waters I fish in Illinois are crystal clear like this. I don’t know if it’s pollution, or mud, or the type of bottom… But this was incredible. The bottom of the river was covered with rocks and millions of vibrantly colored leaves recently dropped from the trees. It looked like a quilt, a myriad of bright colors shining up from the bottom. But I didn’t see any fish there.
I snapped a Mepp’s gold Aglia onto my swivel, thinking that might entice whatever trout or salmon happened to be lurking in these waters. I’d recently read about maggots, skein, and even nightcrawlers being successful on the river, but I hadn’t stopped at a bait shop to get any of these things. Also, I didn’t have any bobbers. So I was sticking with what I had, which was an assortment of inline spinners (store-bought and homemade), crankbaits, and jigs.
The flow of the river was pretty strong, much stronger than any stretch of the Fox I’d experienced. I started to get nervous, but I persevered; maybe the rapids would be better, I thought. I looked downstream and saw nothing but white water, flowing quickly over big boulders. It was pretty exciting- looking around, as far as I knew I could have been in some remote stream in the Colorado rockies; with the boulders, the pine trees, and the knowledge that there were trout in these waters. The roar of the rushing water filled the air. If there were any cars or trains or planes around, I didn’t see them or hear them. I knew there were houses nearby, but I couldn’t seem them either. I felt like I was in the middle of nowhere, in a good way!
I stepped into the rapids, and quickly felt the pull of the current. At this moment I was incredibly happy to have my improvised wading staff. Although it was just a broom handle with a hole drilled into it, a rope threaded threw the hole and affixed to me with a caribeaner, it prevented me from falling over in the water. I wasn’t used to so many huge rocks, and it was challenging to navigate them while dealing with the very strong current. I took tiny steps, trying not to lift my feet too far off the bottom: when I did, they felt like underwater kites and were pushed by the current.
Every now and then I would pause, wondering if I should turn around and cross somewhere else. I looked around and realized I was already in the middle of the river, I might as well continue. I kept moving, slowly, every few steps almost falling over. I started to sweat. This was a workout- I could feel my entire lower body working to keep me vertical. I’d probably feel this tomorrow! Thank goodness for the wading staff. It saved me more times than I could count!
Finally, I was in a few feet of the opposite shore, when I almost stepped into a deep hole between some rocks. I quickly pulled back, using my broom handle to steady myself, the adrenaline shooting through my body. Whew! That was close! I paused, gathered myself, and carefully continued. At last, I was standing in a foot of water on the other side of the river. I walked downstream, closely following the shore, until I got to an island Mark told me about.
Here the bottom seemed much more sandy, and I sank in a little when I waded out to the middle. I was pretty sure smallies liked gravel or rocky bottoms (not sandy bottoms like this) but I wasn’t sure about trout or salmon. I was also pretty sure there weren’t really any smallies here, so it didn’t matter what I knew about them! I scanned the water, trying to make some sense of all the currents I was seeing. There was clearly one big current coming from the rapids upstream, clearly identified by a line of bubbles quickly traveling down the river. I wondered if any opportunistic fish might sit right in the slower water right next to the faster water (I think that’s called a seam…) waiting for a meal to go by. I cast my spinner upstream, and reeled it in right along the seam, just fast enough to keep the blade spinning.
I fan cast the area, eventually casting downstream and retrieving upstream. I’d had much more luck doing that for smallies, even though it didn’t make sense to me (if the fish are facing upstream, seems like they’d be less likely to see food approaching from behind). I got hung up a bunch of times- especially casting upstream- but managed to keep my lure. 
After a while, three guys in kayaks came down the river. Two of them seemed like they’d never been kayaking before, and were spinning around and bumping into each other. It was pretty funny. When they saw me, they tried to give me a wide berth, but were unsuccessful. I didn’t mind, I know it can be hard to control a kayak! I told them I hadn’t caught or seen any fish; one of them said there were lots of fish in this river. I just hoped I could find them!
I continued downstream, slowly wading and casting in what I thought were good places. Places where the water spun in a circle, seams, on either side of riffles, all around boulders; I didn’t see any fish jumping, and I didn’t see any fish under the surface. Although I wasn’t wearing my polarized sunglasses, I had no problem seeing all the way to the bottom. The leaf-patchwork and rock bottom was beautiful to look at, although there weren’t any fish. I was surprised I didn’t see any baitfish, especially in some slow moving water under tree branches close to shore.
At one point, moving to a good location, I had to wade through some deeper water. Until this point, I thought the water wasn’t too cold, and had even taken off my sweatshirt because I was too warm. There was a very particular point when the cold water swirled almost to my waist and I changed my opinion. I decided the water was extremely cold.
Over the course of an hour or two, I slowly waded downstream, and threw a variety of different lures. A few different crankbaits, some Sims spinners (they cast so nice, and seemed to reach the bottom more easily in the faster current. I’d heard trout and salmon might hang out near the bottom….), and some other inlines. I also threw a little homemade spinner that had a bullet weight for a body. It also was able to stay deeper, closer to the bottom, although nobody was interested in it. I wondered about color selection in this water; I was pretty sure in clear water, you should use more natural-colored lures since the fish can see them better. On the other hand, it seemed like most salmon and trout lures where brightly colored and absolutely NOT natural-looking. I’d have to do some more research about this.
Casting to many VERY fishy locations, I started to get frustrated. I hadn’t seen a single fish, certainly not any big steelhead or salmon swimming around. No fish jumping, no little baitfish swimming around. I did see some bugs on the surface of the water, but was not able to find any small fish eating the bugs. What gives?
Thinking I wouldn’t have any more luck, I decided to head back upstream toward the car. I could cast along the way, but I didn’t expect to get into any fish. I made my way to the shore, and started walking upstream on a path. The forest was extremely beautiful. Although the rain had stopped earlier, everything was covered in just enough water to make it shine and glisten as the sun shown from behind clouds. The leaves were tremendously vibrant, covering every square inch of the forest floor. The sound of rushing water was all around me.
I saw a guy fly fishing near where I’d originally entered the water. I had fished there, and got nothing. He was standing only up to his knees in water- could there really be nice trout or salmon swimming around right there, around his legs? I have a lot to learn, apparently. He said he had a nibble, but had only been there a few minutes. I told him about my skunk, and continued up the river. 
I reached the bridge, near where I parked, and noticed some interesting looking water upstream. Mark suggested the river downstream was better, but I hadn’t had any luck there. Maybe I’d try working some of the water on the other side of the bridge. Making my way along the path, I saw the river seemed to split; it looked like a little creek joined the river here. Hmmm, I thought, I think this kind of spot might have some fish…
Turns out, there was at least one fish here
The bank was extremely steep, and slippery from all the wet leaves, but I somehow managed to get down to the water. I stepped in, 4″ of water barely covering my boots. I figured I would fan cast the area before going deeper. Who knows…
To my left – downstream- the water flowed to a bunch of rocks, which after a small rapids traveled down and met the main branch of the river. To my right, the water was slow, a slow stream seemingly coming from the forest. Having lost my #2 Mepp’s Aglia on a branch earlier, I snapped on a #2 Black Fury. I’d had a lot of luck with these lures lately, even though I was pretty sure they were supposed to be best in low-light conditions. This wasn’t a low-light condition- it was about noon, and the sun was up in full force. The clouds were dissipating, and it was turning into a really nice day.
I cast downstream, my spinner landing inches from the edge of the rapids. I reeled in a bit, and let it fall. I began reeling again, when I felt was was absolutely a hit. A hit!! This was no snag, this was a fish investigating my lure! After all that wadi
ng, crossing rapids, and I got a hit only a few feet from my car. Sweet!
I cast again, trying to get to the same spot. I got it pretty close, but no hit. I cast a third time, this time much closer to the original spot, not even 3″ from the edge of the rocks, the mini waterfall. I must have let the spinner fall to the bottom, because it got stuck on a rock or some leaves. I casually began to reel it in, ready to clean off the treble hook, when there was a splash, and I saw a fish. A fish! On my line! It wasn’t leaves, it was a fish!
Like a jolt of electricity, the adrenaline started pumping and suddenly I was completely focused on the task at hand. I had a fish on! There was NO way I was going to let this one get away. I quickly reeled, and soon realized it was a tiny fish on the end of my line. There was no real fight, it was like reeling in a bunch of leaves. When the fish got closer, I saw it, and literally yelped for joy. 
I knew it was a trout. I had seen pictures of this kind of fish, although I couldn’t remember exactly what type it was. As quickly as I could, I got the fish over land (I was only standing a foot from the bank) so I wouldn’t lose it. I had to get a picture of this one!
I dropped my rod, and held the fish in my hand, getting the hooks out of its mouth. I yelped some more, wanting to jump up and down with joy. “Holy $&*@” I said way more times than necessary. It was a tiny fish, and hadn’t given any fight to speak of; but I had caught a trout, on a cold Michigan stream, while wading. It was like some Hemingway novel, or some “Pure Michigan” commercial. It was awesome! I was beyond ecstatic. 
This was by far, hands down, the most beautiful fish I’d ever caught in my entire life.
I caught a brown trout!!!!
In my mind I tried to go through the thousands of fishing web pages I’d seen in the last few months, trying to remember trout identication, to put a name with this fish’s face. It definitely wasn’t a salmon or steelhead; I was pretty sure it was either a brook trout or a brown trout. I seemed to think one of those was the state fish of Michigan. This was great. Michigan is awesome. The night before, Claire and her family and I had gone to a Bell’s Beer dinner at the golf club. Besides drinking way too much delicious Bell’s Beer, I’d also won a raffle for a Two Hearted Ale baseball cap. Not only was that my very favorite beer, but there was a trout on the beer label- and the hat. Since I was wearing my new Two Hearted Ale trout hat and caught my first Michigan trout while wearing it, I decided this hat was now not only my favorite hat ever, it was my lucky trout hat.
I took about 60 pictures in quick succession (ok, more like 15) not wanting to hurt this little guy. He was such a good looking fish, and I wanted him to grow up to be a bigger good looking fish. Every few seconds he would squirm, and I could feel nothing but muscle on this fish. I wonder if that’s how all river fish are, since everything in their world wants to push them downstream. It’s like constant exercise- no wonder they’re all ripped!
After 30-45 seconds of pictures with my new buddy, I put my phone back in my waders, and bent down to the water, carefully putting him back in the stream. He didn’t do anything but sit in my hand, so I moved him forward in the water, running water through his gills. I’d heard of people killing pike by moving it forward and backwards in the water, apparently suffocating it (I guess gills don’t work backwards). I did my best to only move this trout forward in the water, reviving him. After a few seconds, he suddenly realized he was back in the water, and swam off.
I stood there, in awe of the amazing fish I’d just caught. Although it wasn’t a 10 pound steelhead, or even a 1 pound fish, I landed a trout while wading. I felt like a real fisherman- with waders, a thick unkempt beard, and a hat and an iphone library with trout on it.
I worked every square inch of the entire little stream, but was not able to locate any more trout. I really didn’t understand why a little fish like that would position himself so close to the edge of a little waterfall. Seemed like any momentary lapse in concentration and he’d be pushed over the falls by the current. I moved a little farther upstream, again going above my waist in very cold water. Again I didn’t think the water was cold until it reached a certain point. Now I was cold!
It was early afternoon, I was cold, and I was hungry.. and I’d had in my mind a completely successful fishing outing. I waded a roaring, rocky, beautiful Michigan river and caught a trout. That was really more than I could have asked for on a rainy Sunday.
I crossed the river, this time NOT at the rapids (which I found much, much easier to do), and reached my car. Very satisfied, I pulled off my waders, untied my boots, and broke down my fishing rod. A few short minutes later I was headed back down 131, the foot heaters blasting, my iphone photo library filled with pictures of a single beautiful trout.
Another shot of my first brown trout
(note the bell’s two-hearted ale hat, with a trout on it)

0 responses

  1. Of all of the fishing I have done in my life, nothing is more exciting than catching trout in a small river or stream! It really does make all other fishing boring. Weird I know. Congrats on your first man!!

  2. Of all of the fishing I have done in my life, nothing is more exciting than catching trout in a small river or stream! It really does make all other fishing boring. Weird I know. Congrats on your first man!!

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