Each hour spent fishing is and extra hour added on the the end of a fisherman's days

Tuesday, June 16, 2009

Dreams Of Big, Evil-Looking Muskies

imageIt’s already started. A dream came wandering through my brain last night, and there I stood, knees braced against the stern, and a rod bowed almost double from the force of a big muskellunge. It was taking line, and then began circling back to stare at me with an evil look on his toothy shovel-shaped face.

The dream had some basis in fact, and it was three years ago when I first fought and lost a huge Lake St. Clair muskie that wouldn’t come up off the bottom for the longest time.

Muskie dreams are just what they are: dreams of big nasty-looking, toothy fish. Most dreams have some basis in fact, and occasionally my muskellunge dreams contain combined elements from two or three different unforgettable fishing experiences.

What causes these dreams? Beats me, but I suspect it comes from thinking of fishing for them.  Two years ago, I tipped an old buddy—Larry Ramsell of Hayward, Wisconsin—off to a Michigan hotspot I’ve known about and fished for 30 years. I couldn’t go because I was recovering from one of many eye surgeries, so I gave him a clue.

The general locale was the St. Marys River in the eastern Upper Peninsula, which encompasses a large chunk of watery real estate. He and two others fished the first day and caught a 42-inch fish.

The next day one man landed and released a small fish, another one hooked and lost a large muskie, and then Ramsell nailed a 53 1/2-inch muskie that weighed approximately 45 pounds, and they missed my hotspot by 30 miles.

Ramsell is a great muskie angler, and perhaps the most savvy of all. He recognized good muskie water, and fished it hard and caught fish.

A photo of Ramsell and his trophy fish appears above, and I’ll probably dream of it tonight. However, to illustrate how fickle muskie fishing can be, Ramsell returned the following year and never caught a fish. A cold front moved in, and he and I fished in high winds and rain for two days without having a strike.

The odd thing about muskie fishing is the reason we fish for them. It becomes a personal quest for a trophy fish. The above fish isn’t Ramsell’s first 40+-pounder, but very few fish of such honest sizes will tip the scales that far. He admits that the quest, the enduring search, for an even larger muskellunge is what drives him and many others to travel widely and to fish often for a larger fish.

Satisfying that quest does occur, but not for everyone. I’ve hooked three or four 40-pounds in many years of fishing for them. The trick is to fish all the known big-fish waters but never fail to try other lesser-known lakes. Nearby Long Lake undoubtedly holds 40-pound fish or even larger, but very few are landed. Most are hooked by accident by people fishing for other species, and invariably the fish breaks off and gets away.

Years ago, I boated a big muskie on Dale Hollow Reservoir, on the border of Kentucky and Tennessee. That fish weighed 36 1/2 pounds, and it is the biggest muskie I’ve landed. But this type of fishing is an itch that always needs scratching.

The only thing that relieves the itch is to go again. And always, lurking in the darkest corner of our brain, is the thought of our biggest muskellunge. A quest to top that fish, and not necessarily to keep it, is what keeps us pounding the water when others have quit.

The Lake St. Clair fish I hooked three years ago was never seen. Fish hooked while trolling, and this holds true with big fish, is the muskie will stay deep. It may roll on the surface toward the end of the fight, but they normally stay down until they get wore out.

My unseen fish hit a down-rod on the corner of the boat, with the lure in the prop wash, and it ripped off yards of line. We cleared other lines, and that fish and I tussled for more than 20 minutes. I’d move it up off bottom, and down it would go again, and take out more line. Back and forth we went until I could sense the fish tiring, and it rolled under the surface where it was impossible to see the length and girth, and then it rolled again, and the lure came free.

Then there was a muskellunge hooked while fishing after dark. The lake was Murphy Lake in Tuscola County. Me and another guy were casting huge plugs that sputtered along on the surface with gurgles and small splashes from our muskie-size Hula Poppers and Jitterbugs.

“Blub-blub-blub” would come the sound as we retreived the surface lures with an occasional pause. My partner got a big backlash when his lure was near the boat, and a big northern muskie chose that moment to strike the lure and it broke the line.

An hour later as we lamented the lost fish I had a massive jarring strike. I’d worked for an hour on those hooks, and they were razor sharp. That fish hit, and I pounded the hook home twice. That fish took out 30 yards of line, and I played her with a cool hand.

Even at that, the fish was a monster. One develops a sense for big fish after hooking a number of them, and I’d triggered that fish quick and hard. It was hooked well, and I played it under the light of a moon. Nearly 20 minutes into the fight, the fish ran toward the boat, rolled over, splashing us with water and we came undone.

I suspect the prolonged fight and the big hooks wore big holes in that fish’s jaw, and when it rolled, the heavy lure fell out, and the giant muskie swam free.

I remember another big muskie that followed a Suick twice in three days on Wisconsin’s Tomahawk Lake. It looked half as long as the 16-foot boat but I know it wasn’t quite that big, but it was well over 50 inches long. Could it have hit that magical weight of 40 pounds?

Perhaps. My buddy from Wisconsin, who had seen and caught several large muskies, estimated the fish at 55 inches and at least 45 pounds, perhaps more. That ‘lunge still appears in the my dreams.

Another time on Ontario’s Lake of the Woods near Kenora, I had a savage strike at boat-side from an unseen muskie. The fish had missed the plug as I lifted it out for another cast.

The next thing I knew there was this enormous muskie camped three feet behind my Bobbie Bait. I kept the lure moving, plunged the rod into the water at the boat, and kept it moving. That fish followed it through several Figure-8 and J-stroke rod movements, and then it sank slowly out of sight without offering to hit the lure.

How big was it? I had caught a brief glimpse, and it was well over 55 inches. Was it one of those legendary 60-inch fish? Beats me, but I know I saw that fish in my dreams for two or three years. Writing about it now may bring the dream back to life again.

Years ago, Craig Lake in the Upper Peninsula was a hotspot for big muskies. It was a small lake, hard to reach at that time, and motors were not allowed. A good man on the oars could row around the lake easily in two hours.

A buddy was fishing a spinnerbait when a muskie struck at the fast-moving lure and missed. I pitched a Suick over there, and the fish bulged the water behind the lure but didn’t hit. I applied rod-tip English to the lure, and it followed the lure all the way to the canoe. That fish probably weighed 40 pounds but we’ll never know.

Later that day a buddy caught a muskie weighing 25 pounds at the other end of the lake. It would have been dwarfed by the earlier fish.

I’ve been privileged to have caught a great number of muskies in my life. I’ve missed some very big fish, hooked some truly huge fish, and lost all but the Dale Hollow muskie, and it remains my largest so far.

Will Lake St. Clair produce something big this year? I honestly don’t know. It produces plenty of big fish, and several 40-pounders have been taken and several fish much larger have been seen. Luck, and being in the right spot at the right time, are what anglers need.

It is very difficult to crack that hallowed 40-pound mark, and although a few do it each year, it is not a common situation. Granted, on occasion a novice will catch a truly big fish by accident or good fortune, but for dedicated muskie hunters, nailing a 40-pounder is why we chase these grand game fish.

And, if we crack that mark, we’ll go for a 45-pounder. It’s an incurable addiction.

Posted by ofieldstream on 06/16 at 12:01 AM
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Monday, June 15, 2009

Bugs In The Air & Bugs On The Water

imageIt’s almost time for the big brown trout to turn on after sundown. It happens this way almost every year once the Hex hatches end.

The night turns hot and close, and silent daggers of heat lightning dance across the blackened sky. Everything is silent except the murmur of the river current tugging at your legs or gliding with a soft hiss under the riverboat.

If you are placed just right, and are tossing just the right fly, sometimes from out of nowhere comes the rapier-like strike of one of the rivers biggest brown trout. There are people who fish only after dark, and although I do fish during the day, there’s something about casting a big streamer, large floating bass bug or even a more colorful streamer to these big fish. Some folks also enjoy working a hole or run with a four-inch Rapala or Rebel and fairly stout monofilament.

One of the most exciting methods is to use big streamers. Large Muddler Minnows, Buzzsaw and other hefty flies are cast quartering across and downstream, and literally ripped through the water. You’d think this type of hard-and-fast streamer fishing would spook a wary brown trout. Often, it’s just the opposite.

I’ve talked with several people who have stood under a full moon or a partial moon, made their cast, and began stripping line hard. They tell of large wakes that follow the streamer, and on occasion, those big trout will hit and nearly wrench the rod from your hands.

Four of us floated the AuSable River one evening, and one of the anglers hit a big fish. The take sounded like someone had thrown a big dog in the river, and the fish ripped off line, rolled on top several times, headed upstream and back down, and there was no controlling the fish. It slipped the fly after nearly 10 minutes of nonstop action.

This is no place for dainty rods and light tippets. Anglers who practice this method (it also works during the day) know just how much work it is. The constant casting, and stripping of line, becomes very tiring but some people can do it all night. Not me!

I used to fish the Sturgeon River years ago when it held some good trout, and I liked a big, white, hairy deer-hair mouse. It stuck out like a big sore thumb on a dark night, and even I could see it. I’d cast across and downstream, mend the line to obtain the longest drag-free drift as possible, twitch it once or twice, and then cast again.

The neat thing about this method was the strikes were visible, and very few fish under four pounds were hooked. The largest that I recall was caught by the late George Yontz, who owned the old Hillside Cabins just north of Wolverine many years ago. His fish, if my memory holds true after all these years, weighed 13 1/2 pounds.

The Sturgeon River browns, back then, were either silvery fish that ran upstream from Burt Lake or the great golden-brown fish with big hooked jaws and a kype as big around as the smallest joint on your little finger. Some kypes were an inch to nearly two inches long.

One other method was practiced on these big fish. Casting a medium-sized Rapala or Rebel quartering across and downstream, and let it dive and wiggle on a tight line. Once the current carried the lure across stream until it hung directly below the angler on a tight line, the rod tip would be jiggled two or three times.

Some walleyes were in the river at times, and it was easy to determine which fish was hitting the lure. A walleye would tap-tap-tap the lure as it swung in the current, and hit softly once it finished its drift. A big brown trout would hit the lure hard, and a strike could come at the end of the drift or as soon as the lure hit the water.

The trick, regardless of which method was used, was to wade down two or three stretches of river in the daytime. Learn where it was safe to wade and where it wasn’t. Getting caught in too much current, or tripping over submerged debris, could make night fishing adventure far more interesting than most anglers would like.

Hot, muggy nights were usually the best. The mosquitoes would be on the prod, and any exposed skin would provide a meal.

But hooking a six-pound or larger brown trout after dark is just about as much fun as a fisherman can have while wearing waders. There were a few very special nights where two or three big fish were landed, but most people considered hooking one big fish a rare treat.

Put them back, and try for it again next year. Those big fish aren’t very good to eat, and they deserve to be caught more than once. Fooling the fish, and enjoying the battle, is what brings us back year after year.

Posted by ofieldstream on 06/15 at 12:01 AM
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Sunday, June 14, 2009

A Fish-Fighting Option

imageFighting and landing big fish is an acquired talent, and becoming skilled at doing so means doing it often. Two schools of thought exist: go with light line and play the fish to total exhaustion over a long period of time or fight the fish hard and fast, and release it alive and healthy.

What follows can apply to fish caught from the Great Lakes, inland lakes or streams. Anglers have two basic options: the soft touch, long fight and a dead fish or the alternative, a quicker and harder scrap that doesn’t sap all of a fish’s strength.

My preference is the hard-and-fast rule. Fighting a fish to a quick finish is like fighting a man: a stiff punch in the nose can settle a fight quickly between two humans. Fighting a big fish operates on somewhat the same theory: hitting them hard and fast can break their spirit and result in a faster end to the tussle.

Yeah, I know, many people want a big-fish battle to last a long time. They feel the longer the battle continues, the more excitement they receive.

All of this is true, up to a certain point. Some people agree wholeheartedly with my fight-’em-hard philosophy and just as many probably disagree. That’s fine, but since this is my article I’ll argue the fine points of why beating up on a game fish is best—if that fish is to be released alive!

The light-line, the short limber rod or long noodle rod angling methods are wildly popular. Many such anglers practice catch-and-release. Noodle rods and light line were (and still are) very popular, and there is no arguing that this method does produce an exciting fight and perhaps more hooked fish.

I proudly own three noodle rods and treasure them highly after their many years of trouble-free use, but some light-line fans differ with me on several points.

The old light-line, noodle-rod gang often fought big steelhead and salmon to a standstill on two- and four-pound line and set numerous line-class records. Some of those anglers also released a great number of fish.

The problem was that those river-fishing people would tie up a river hole for long periods of time as they wrestled with those big fish on light line. The extended battles didn’t set well with other anglers. The light-liners kept others from fishing that hole during the duration of their epic struggles.

If fish are to be kept, I have no problem with this angling philosophy and encourage it as long as it doesn’t interfere with the rights of other fishermen. However, if a person plans to release a 15-pound steelhead or a 20-pound king salmon after a long fight on light line, many of those fish will soon die because of lactic acid buildup in their muscle tissue. Once lactic acid builds to a certain critical level, and this varies from one fish to another, death is almost always just a matter of time.

My method may seem a bit harsh and perhaps a bit heavy-handed but the majority of my salmon and trout are returned to fight again or to spawn. This is not an advocacy column for catch-and-release: it’s merely my opinion, and differences are encouraged as long as they are kept on an open-minded and rational basis.

Once my fish are hooked, the fight is immediately carried to the salmon or steelhead. I never allow a fish to sulk on bottom in a deep hole. That fish is always kept in continuous motion.

If it swims to the left, I pull it to the right. If it goes right, I pull to the left. If the fish jumps, my practice is to pull it off balance. If it tries to go upstream, it is pulled back downstream to the limits of the line being used. The fish is never given a chance to rest.

For every action, with my fish-fighting method, there is an equal and occasionally more severe opposing reaction. I don’t brutally manhandle a fish, but I work it hard and keep it off-balance.

I remember steelhead fishing back in the mid-1950s at the old More Trout Incorporated dam on the East Branch of the AuGres River. A guy hooked a steelhead with 10-15 other people nearby, and he allowed the hooked fish to sulk without moving. If he pulled back on the rod tip, the fish would pull in the opposite direction, and nothing else would happen. The fish was resting.

Me, being a loud-mouth kid, yelled “Make that fish work. You’ll be here all day and all night fighting it like that.”

The kid apparently felt he was tying up the hole for everyone else (which he was), and he started to carry some muscle into this fight with the fish. It responded in similar fashion, and five minutes later the fish was landed, amid wild applause from nearby anglers. Break the spirit of a fish or a man, and the battle is quickly won.

It’s the breaking of a fish’s will that enables the fight to be settled rather rapidly. Fish are not accustomed to being pulled off balance, and that is just one trick. Getting below the fish, and making it fight both the rod and the river current, is another fish-fighting tactic that can pay big dividends.

It’s my personal belief to not keep fish, and that is particularly true with spring-spawning steelhead or fall-spawning salmon. I’ve had many situations where I’ve fought a 10 to 15-pound spring steelhead, and landed and released it in two or three minutes. I’ve landed numerous 20-pound or heavier river salmon in five minutes or less. It can only happen when you beat up on the fish and quickly break their spirit.

I once hooked a summer-run Skamania steelhead below the old Homestead Dam on the Betsie River. The fight didn’t last 30 seconds. Mind you, the water temperature was in the high 70s, and the date was July 4, and the warm-water conditions and 30 seconds of fighting killed that steelhead.

That, I can assure you, is not common except for Skamania steelhead because they are a wild but short-lived fighter. Often, the first few wild jumps in warm water would kill the fish.

Is it more dignified to fight a fish for a long time on light line or to make short work of it before releasing the fish to fight again? All I know is that my method works, and has been used for many years. It is, however, an acquired talent that requires practice and some lost fish.

It can work well on big salmon or steelhead in the Great Lakes, but know this: if a fish is hooked in deep water, and is fought rapidly to the surface, that fish will probably die whether properly released or not. The rapid ascent through the water can weaken the fish in many different ways, and often, such fish are incapable of going back down and are eaten alive by sea gulls. Perch caught in deep water often are landed with their air bladders out of their mouth. They cannot be returned and be capable of surviving.

My method relies on knowing precisely when to upset the fish’s balance, when to tip if over during a jump, and when to give line to keep from breaking the fish off. Occasionally I’ll lose a fish, but I’d rather lose one a minute into the scrap than after 15 minutes of a back-and-forth tug of war. Give me one jump, and I’m satisfied because I don’t need to kill a fish just to prove something to myself or someone else.

A few people have accused me of not showing due respect to the fish, and that is too bad. I believe that a released fish should still have some spunk left rather than being listless and rolling upside down in the current as it tumbles downstream to a certain death. I also believe in holding a fish upright and facing into the current until it can swim away under its own power.

Which method is best suited for you? Whichever one you choose is fine by me. I happen to be a great believer in the freedom of speech. I will gladly respect your right to dissent as long as you extend an equal respect for me to voice my opinion.

Bottom line: what works for you is fine and what works for me is fine. The whole thing is about angler pleasure, respect for the fish and the environment in which it is found, and any returned fish shouldn’t be so whipped that it will not survive.

Posted by ofieldstream on 06/14 at 12:01 AM
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Saturday, June 13, 2009

What’s In A Name?

imageWhat’s in a name? It depends on how anglers and hunters use the name to communicate with other sportsmen. Names can and do play an important role in how we feel and think about the outdoors.

They may remind us of a favorite trout pool with mist rising off it or a secret woodcock covert where white splashings cover fallen leaves, and names often play a major part in identifying where we fish or hunt.

Mind you, I’ve been banging around the outdoors for well over 55 years. During those years I’ve learned some things about a good many places, and it’s fun to talk about these different spots to like-minded sportsmen with our special name codes. Of course, other folks may have developed their own names to confuse other anglers or hunters.

The Platte River has long been one of my favorite salmon and trout streams. I guided fishermen on it and several other streams in our northern counties for 10 years, and have fished it for nearly 50 years.

The Platte has many local names that help anglers pinpoint specific locations. For instance, the old Rope Hole, just upstream from the mouth, was the first spot salmon and steelhead would pause on their way upstream to spawn. It was known by this name by many anglers.

The Hole Where It Never Rains was a hotspot until the outlaws began going under the M-22 Bridge to snag fish. The conservation officers also knew where this spot was, but few people had the knack of fishing it.

The trick to fishing this hole was to wait until broad daylight. Any fish in the hole at dawn would stay there. Those people who went under the bridge in the dark would spook the fish upstream or down. The hole would be empty of fish at dawn if anglers tried fishing at night.

There was the Goose Pasture (also called the Goose Grounds), a campground on the upper Platte River off Goose Road. It was always good in the old days when more fish were available than anglers.

There was the Swimming Hole in Honor, the Doctor’s Hole and the Nurse’s Hole, all upstream from Honor. Two favorite spots years ago was the Grade. There were two: the Upper Grade between Haze Road and US-31 and the Lower Grade, downstream from Haze Road. These grades were where an old logging train once crossed the river. Some of the old pilings still remain but the only thing they are noted for now are gravel bars for spring and fall spawning fish.

Think about it. Two anglers in a restaurant are talking about where to fish, and one would be heading for the Rope Hole while the other was heading for the Upper Grade. Few other anglers would know what they were talking about.

My Home Stream was the Sturgeon River in Cheboygan County between Wolverine and Indian River. I began fishing it at the age of 11, and spent every summer camping there to escape the downstate pollen that affected my hay fever. It too is rich in angling history and place names that were rather odd.

I can close my eyes, and think of The Snow Hole, and the spot instantly comes into focus in full color. The river flows downstream, dropping into a deep hole in front of the old Snow Cabin, and then it makes a sharp 90-degree bend to the left. It then splits into two current flows as it goes around a tiny island before both threads of current connect.

My late twin brother George and I laid claim to the Snow Hole while others who fished the Sturgeon had their favorite spots. The Sturgeon is a wild and free-flowing stream, and it holds steelhead and brown trout.

It also holds the ashes of my brother and of a very fine gentleman and good friend named Russ Bengel. He donated large sums of money to Ducks Unlimited, and loved the river like he loved life itself. One day when my last fishing trip has been taken, and my last hunt has ended, my ashes will mingle with theirs in my beloved Snow Hole.

The Sturgeon is filled with names. Take the White Road Bridge. One might figure the bridge to be painted white, but it was painted red. Go figure. It was easy to throw people off our tracks if we mentioned going to fish the Five Sisters Hole.

It wasn’t a hole, but a smooth run along the opposite bank, and at the head of the run were five aspen trees growing from a single trunk. The Rain Hole was immediately downstream, and it always paid off with a fish just before a rain.

You know how it is before a rain. You can smell it on the air. We would race off to the Rain Hole, and if we beat the rain, it always delivered a nice steelhead. It was one of the surest bets on the Sturgeon River.

Then there were the Meadows pools, the Clay Hole, Yontz’s Hole, Eddie’s Pool, Railroad Bridge and many others. Knowing the whereabouts of these named locations gave some anglers a heads-up on others who were out of the loop.

Names also applied to hunting, and nowhere was it more pronounced than with grouse or woodcock coverts. Upland bird hunters were more close-mouthed than mushroom pickers and trout fishermen, and the names they gave to each of their favorite coverts were known only to them and two or three close friends who had been sworn to secrecy.

A good friend always starts hunting at the Church covert. This bit of tag alder swale was noted for October woodcock, and among those of us who knew its location, we kept it a secret for years. Actually, the secret didn’t come out until the aspen and tag alders grew too high, and it became useless habitat for migrating birds.

The Caboose covert was on private land, and was surrounded by 40 acres of aspen and bracken fern bordered by an old pasture on one side, a road on the other, and the edge of a damp cedar swamp. It produced wonderful grouse and woodcock hunting for many years, and its name was derived from a train caboose in the woods. Don’t ask me why, but it was there for many years. A few of us were allowed to hunt the area for birds, and we flushed more than one grouse from under the caboose.

Then there were key grouse hotspots such as the Grape Arbor Run, the Split Rail Fence, and Old Baldy. The area 20 feet below Old Baldy was grown up to a smorgasbord of grouse foods, and it held plenty of grouse until wild turkeys moved in and took over. They used Old Baldy’s sand to dust in, and the grouse moved out.

Another spot that always comes to mind even though shooting grouse has become more difficult in recent years. I called it Dave’s Double, in reference to one of those memorable days when the shooting gods smile and two grouse flush. I took the farthest one first, and then swung on the closer bird, and he fell in a puff of feathers. It was my first double on ruffed grouse, and the spot deserved a name.

In fact, such locations are named for a variety of reasons. Some make sense while others do not, but there it is. We accept such things, and when the whim strikes, we name another location.

Many such spots are meaningless except to us, and then only because something caused them to stand out in our mind. Naming our hotspots is as much a part of fishing and hunting as carrying a rod and reel or toting a shotgun into the woods.

And less you think all such places are good, I’ll close with one where I won’t be when the deer season closes on Jan. 1. I won’t be in the Willow Tree stand. I tried it once, the wind kicked up, and the willow blew six feet in one direction in a gust, and six feet back. A nice 8-pointer showed up, and I came to full draw and couldn’t keep the sight on the deer.

I gave up and climbed down. Later that night, part of the willow tree broke off and fell to the ground. It smashed up my stand but I was long gone by then, and much wiser for the experience.

Posted by ofieldstream on 06/13 at 12:01 AM
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Friday, June 06, 2008

Casting An Eye Around For River Smallmouth

imageThere are any number of great smallmouth bass streams in this state, and for the most part, they are under-fished. The sad truth is that people chase after salmon and trout in the Great Lakes, and these little gems are left untouched in many streams.

That could easily change this summer with high gas prices. People may start casting an eye toward bass rivers closer to home.

I well remember the Cass River years ago when I prowled it three or four times a year. I’d look for riffle water with deep holes or runs upstream or down, and a small sinking Rapala was dynamite. Cast the lure to the head of the deep hole, crank it hard to get it down and wiggling, and if a smallie was home, he’d jumped on the lure like it was his last chance for a good meal.

Then there is the Grand River downstream from Lansing. I floated it once several years ago with retired DNR fisheries biologist Ned Fogle, and he showed me a new hotspot. Beetle Spins and other small spinnerbaits, and crayfish imitations produced when moved slowly along bottom in the slow current. They turned on the fish.

Fogle caught one fish about four pounds, and I took another a bit smaller, but there was steady action most of the day. It was hot and bright, and we found the fish on the dark side of the big rocks. Any lure that landed nearby was fair game, and we danced with smallies all day.

The upper Flint River (upstream from Flint and Mott Lake) produces the occasional 4-pound smallmouth bass. I fished it years ago, and although it can be rather tough fishing in some areas, it has the capability of producing dandy bronzebacks.

Another Flint River hotspot can be found in the lower river, downstream from Montrose, where anglers can fish the rocks, and the deeper holes and runs. This stretch, downstream almost to Saginaw, also produces some great walleye fishing as well.

One of my favorite rivers for smallmouth bass is the Thunder Bay, upstream from Alpena. It may not be the best river for smallmouth bass but it certainly has the potential to produce some big fish.

The last time I floated the river in a canoe, there was an assortment of Jig-a-Do, Beetle Spins, Crawfish-type lures and small spinners in my tackle arsenal. It didn’t make too much difference what we used. If the lure landed near a good fish, and we put the proper speed on the lure to bring out its action, they would hit. We caught fish to 4 1/2 pounds, and I lost a bigger fish on a jump.

The Muskegon River downstream from Croton Dam, especially in the rocky areas, may be one of the finest smallmouth rivers in the state. It’s not uncommon, on an all-day float, to land 40 to 50 smallies. I’ve never caught one over four pounds here, and most of the fish will weigh about two pounds, but they smack a lure hard and jump often.

There are some seldom-fished hotspots on the St. Joseph River, upstream from Berrien Springs, where some dandy smallies live. They seem to see very few anglers or lures, and if you hit the right holes and runs, it’s possible to find a brand of smallmouth action the likes of which few people have ever experienced.

The Detroit River is well-known for its smallmouth bass action, and I’ve caught them from Windmill Point down to Celeron Island at Lake Erie. A large number have been caught on the Michigan and Ontario sides. Good bets include near the Hiram Walker plant and the Cow Pasture area, and just upstream from the Ambassedeur Bridge on the Canadian shore. Try the rip-rap near Joe Louis Arena, near Windmill Point, and downstream in the Trenton Channel on the American side. The fish are where you find them, and it pays to prospect.

The Upper Peninsula offers wonderful bass fishing in many locations. Try the St. Marys River, Manistique River and Menominee River between the dams. The Ford River that empties into Lake Michigan southwest of Escanaba can be a good bet, as is the Whitefish River near Gladstone.

River smallies are grand game fish. They hit bait or lures hard, jump often, and once whipped, come in to be landed with fire in their eye. They are one of the state’s most highly respected and overlooked game fish, and here’s hoping you can give them a try this summer.

Hit it right, and you won’t regret making this decision.

Posted by Dave Richey on 06/06 at 06:38 AM
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Wednesday, May 21, 2008

Reliving A Steelhead Hotspot From 30 Years Ago


Three decades ago, there was a place on the Little Manistee River that was almost like a second home to me. It had numerous shallow gravel bars where steelhead spawned, and rather than chasing after brook trout when a few months remained to do so, my son David and I returned to this hot spot from the late 1960s.

“If that’s where you want to fish today,” I’m happy to tag along. “Show me a place you haven’t showed me in the past.”

So I did. And he fell in love with it just as I did many years before.

The river, near the 18 Mile Bridge west of Irons, was running low and clear as we stepped into the river. Strongly felt was the old familiar tightening of water pressure against my legs as we began wading slowly upstream in a search for a late-season steelhead.

We poked along slowly, easing into the current, checking out gravel bars for the dish-shaped white overturned gravel from the fanning of a hen steelhead’s tail. The bed is slightly upstream from the white gravel at the tail-end of the bed. Some people wonder why these beds are white, and the quick and easy answer is this gravel has been turned upside down as a hen digs her spawning redd.

David, much younger than the old man, has speed to burn. I nodded for him to charge off in his personal quest for a lively steelhead while I walked slowly, stopped often, and looked for the nearly-invisible shadow of a fresh hen steelhead or the darker and blockier shape of a male.

I covered 200 yards, and stood motionless, looking near a fallen log that had toppled into the river. My vision, at best, is poor but I know what to look for.

First came the dark shape of the male holding in slightly deeper water along the edge of the redd. The water was four feet deep here, and I studied it for 10 minutes. The trick is to locate both fish before starting to fish.

Err at this point, and hook the female, and she will be gone. I studied the bed, both sides of it, and finally found her holding in position next to a log 10 feet downstream from the redd. The female was bright silver in the sunshine, and she was very close to being invisible. At first I couldn’t see her, but then I spotted her shadow, and then she became instantly visible. It’s a matter of knowing what to look for and being patient.

She was in an impossible spot to fish, even if I was stupid enough to try for her. The male held alongside the redd, and in a perfect location. My line was lengthened, and reading the current speed and depth gave me the ideal spot to cast. My orange yarn fly drifted downstream along bottom, and the fish moved away from it.

The fly was lifted out, cast again, and again the male moved aside and allowed the fly to drift past. Again and again I cast, and each time the male slid away, but he was becoming agitated, and on the 20th or 30th cast, he grabbed the fly and the hook was pounded home.

That fish ripped off on a downstream run, ran past the hen, went between two fallen logs, and wheeled in midstream, splashed out of the water in a corkscrewing jump, and ran back upstream. He took 10 yards of line upstream from me, rolled on the surface, and headed back down and turned. He bulldozed into a submerged brush pile in front of me, and in less than a second tangled my line and broke off.

I moved back up to shore, sat down, tied on another orange yarn fly, and rested the spot. It took 30 minutes before the hen moved back into her holding position, and 15 minutes later, the male reappeared. This time there was something different: an orange yarn fly was firmly embedded in the corner of his jaw.

It took at an hour for both fish to settle down, and I admired the day and the scenic beauty of this portion of the river. It seemed a great day to be alive. Upstream, I heard David talking to himself as a fish splashed. He was into a steelhead, and was telling the world about it.

My male with the decoration in the corner of its mouth lay beside the female, and she let loose a jet of yellow eggs as both fish rolled on their sides, mouth agape, and he fertilized the eggs. I got a good look at the hen, and she was flat-bellied and had successfully spawned.

She headed into a log jam and disappeared from sight. She would now rest, and I had no problem casting again to the solitary male. This time he was more eager, and grabbed the orange fly on the second drift but he’d learned his previous lesson well. He darted into the brush, twisted around, and the hook pulled free.

Minutes later David came back downstream. He had landed a nice male and released in, and said he had covered over a mile of river and had seen just those two fish.

Was it a perfect day? The answer was an emphatic “yes!”

The weather was wonderful, and we each found a male fish to cast to. David hooked and landed and released his big 12-pound buck, and I hooked and lost the same fish twice. It didn’t bother me one bit.

We fished several other spots, and never saw another steelhead. But, finding two males and hooking both of them, was just part of wjat made this a perfect day. Fishing a spot I hadn’t fished in more than 30 years was a bonus, and it was nice to know that fish still hold in the same locations as they did three decades ago.

Posted by Dave Richey on 05/21 at 05:45 PM
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Tuesday, May 20, 2008

Itchin’ To Tangle With Bluegills


It usually happens sometime near Mother’s Day. I get this terrible hankering to go bluegill fishing with a fly rod, but the timing and cold nights is conspiring against us. Mom’s Day is past, and two nights ago Gaylord got a dusting of snow. In mid-May. Can you believe it?

Bluegill fishing, once they move up onto their spawning beds, is about as easy as calling and hunting turkeys is hard. And frankly, as much as turkey hunting appeals to me, my hunt ended without a bird. The challenge of catching bluegills is wonderful, and I’m looking forward to the next two weeks.

Bluegill fishing is great fun. A person can wade the shoreline slowly, if the bottom is hard, and cast ahead to the saucer-shaped spawning beds. Or, as I prefer, casting to bedding fish from a canoe or small boat.

The fly rod, reel and line isn’t nearly as important as it is for trout, but a well-balanced outfit is fine. I favor a No. 5 or 6-weight rod and line combination, and a floating line is perfect. A seven-foot leader tapered down to 5X is perfect.

What follows is somewhat subject to personal choice. Years ago I fished with two flies: a Red Ibis and a No.14 Adams, and often it was possible to catch two ‘gills at once. Each would try darting off in different directions, and it was a hoot catching them this way.

Now, I do things a bit differently. A sponge rubber spider with twitchy little white rubber-band legs works fine, and my favorite colors in order of personal preference are black, yellow or green. They can be found in slowly sinking models and spiders that float on the surface.

I haven’t seen any of the sinking models in recent years although I suspect they are still around. The floaters work just dandy when pitched to a whitish dinner plate-shaped spawning bed and allowed to sit idly on the surface over the fish. Male bluegills are very protective, and they arrow up off bottom to suck that spider off the surface.

On occasion, if the ‘gills have been fished pretty hard, they may ignore the spider. If you happen on this situation, don’t worry about it. Jiggle the fly line a bit by hand, and a bull bluegill will shoot up to smack the spider.

Where the sinking rubber spiders (believe I only have one left) work best is for those larger bluegills that spawn in four to eight feet of water. Hold the spider underwater, squeeze it two or three times so it soaks up some water, and cast it over on of the deeper spawning beds.

Give it time to slowly sink, and twitch the spider a bit as it sinks. This makes the little rubber-band legs wiggle. This can be a good way to catch some of the larger bluegills in a lake.

Big pug-nosed bluegills are not available in an unlimited supply. Some lakes have nothing but small and stunted fish. A few lakes produce some palm-sized bluegills and sunfish, and such fish are capable of producing a great fight.

Three things endear anglers to bluegills. They are fun to catch, they are good to eat, and for their size, they put up a great fight. A 10-inch ‘gill that turns their flat side to the angle of the line is not a fish to be horsed in on a light tippet. Do that, and you’ll lose the fish.

An angler should never keep a limit of big bluegills. It takes some time for a ‘gill to grow to 10 inches, and these are the spawners. If you want fish, keep one or two nice ones and fill out your limit with five to seven-inch ‘gills.

Should you be fishing a lake filled with stunted bluegills, keep a limit of the little guys every time you go fishing. They are not big, and it may take 25 to satisfy a hungry angler, but keep catching and keeping and eating the small ones, and after some time, you’ll notice a slow increase of bigger fish.

Pitching flies to bedding bluegills is not the same as pitching a big dry fly to an angler-wary brown trout in a heavily fished river. But, bluegill lakes are often closer to home than some of the great streams, and catching them is a great way to spend a few hours on the water.

And try this. Take your children fishing. Get them involved in fishing at an early age, and when you are old and gray, perhaps one of them will take the old man fishing. That’s how this mentoring process works.

Posted by Dave Richey on 05/20 at 05:23 PM
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Wednesday, April 02, 2008

Loners Love Muskie Fishing


I’ve often written that I am a loner by nature. There have been countless trips back and forth across the country in search of book, magazine and newspaper stories, and that fact is even more pronounced when muskie fishing. I’m content to fish for muskies alone or with just one other person.

We seldom talk because there is no need for conversation. Besides, talking can spoil concentration and more often than not a big fish will choose that exact moment of distraction to smash the lure. Your concentration is broken, and you are slow to pull the trigger on the hook-set. The result is a missed fish.

Many times I’ve sat in a pedestal seat while wearing an inflatable life vest, and cast a big spinnerbait to the edge of a weed bed. On occasion a long shadow will slide from the weeds or up from deep water and and tuck herself in close behind the lure.

It takes a bit of timing and practice to stop reeling and start the lure going through a figure-8 or a J-shaped lure movement on a short line near the boat at the same time. The fish may sink into the water, and seemed to hover four feet below the boat.

Back and forth, around and around, I kept the lure going just fast enough to make the spinner blade turn over, and still the muskie wouldn’t move. My arm was getting tired but the lure movement continued. As long as a muskie holds nearby and appears somewhat interested, it pays to keep trying.

That fish soon tired of the spinner and swam off. I’ve caught muskies to 36 pounds, and this fish was all of that. It was a good bit over 50 inches in length, and I guessed her at 38 although she could have hit that enviable 40-pound mark that many muskie anglers now aspire to..

Folks, a fish that size, is the catch of a lifetime. That is, if you can get the thing to strike. I took off, fished another area for two hours, and then eased back to where I’d seen her. This time I cast a jerkbait and a spinnerbait.

The jerkbait, a big black Suick plug, was worked hard around the weed bed. I fished the deep side, along the edges and the shallow sides, and then switched to a spinnerbait. I like black hair-bodied spinnerbaits with a big orange or orange-black blade, and it was what had interested this big girl before.

I pitched that spinner, worked it over and beside the weed beds, cast to little holes or lanes in the weeds, and ripped it viciously through the early June weeds, but nothing seemed to work. I snapped on a big Red-Eye spoon, and starting pitching it out, letting it sink, and brought it wobbling back to the boat.

She snaked out of the weeds, and again fell in behind the spoon. This time, just to make it seemed different to the fish, I speeded up the retrieve to make it look like an injured minnow trying to get away.

That muskie was all over the lure. A savage strike, and an even more savage hook-set, and just to be doubly sure, I slammed the hooks home again. The fish headed for deep water off the weed bed, and we fought a hard and spirited battle.

Twenty minutes later, her surges slowed, and although she was a heavy fish, she used her power wisely. She finally rolled on the surface 10 yards away, came reluctantly to within five feet, rolled again, opened her mouth and the lure fell out.

Sure, I was a bit disappointed but one doesn’t (or shouldn’t) fish just to land the brute. Half or perhaps more of the fun, as is so true of turkey hunting, is locating a big fish and getting it to strike. Some Canadian waters can produce big muskies on a somewhat regular basis, but in my case, fishing a heavily fished lake is tough work. Big muskies don’t come easy around here, and all too often the fish seem put down by the number of anglers who cast big lures near their lair..

Finding the fish is sometimes the easiest part of this equation. They are notorious for following lures, but frankly, I’ve hooked more fish that I didn’t see than those I did. But still, we go through the motions of a figure-8 or a J-stroke when muskies near the boat, and sometimes it works. Most of the time, it doesn’t.

Fooling a big muskie is like calling to a big beard-dragging gobbler. The excitement is in finding the fish, and hopefully fooling her into striking your lure. You’ll note that I keep referring to muskies as “her.” That is because most truly large muskies are females.

Changing lures is a necessity, and if a fish follows one lure, try it again two or three hours later. If it doesn’t produce a fish sighting soon, switch to an entirely different lure. Muskies, like people, like variety in their life.

Muskie fishing is an addictive thing. The big fish are hard to catch, and they never come easy, and fooling one is the biggest part of the game. Bringing one to the boat also is part of it, but most people who deserve to be called a muskie fisherman, return these big fish to the lake.

We have a bit less than a month before the Lower Peninsula muskie season opens on the last Saturday in April. The opener on Lake St. Clair and the Detroit and St. Clair rivers opens in late June, and the Upper Peninsula muskie season opens May 15. Thinking about these dates is what eeps my muskie thoughts alive.

Catch-and-release muskie fishing is what keeps these fish healthy. And the only way they grow is to be hooked, gently handled and released. And hopefully, we can get a return bout with them on a future trip.

Catching a small muskie is much like catching a young pike. They flip-flop around, splash the water but these isn’t much fight. It’s when you hook a muskie of 45 to 50 inches in length with a big sagging belly that the fun really begins. Hooking a big old muskie with great girth and length is great fun, hard work, and once we succeed, an angler has accomplished a most difficult feat.

Doing it alone intensifies that feeling. You’ll know you’ve been somewhere and done something special when you wrestle a big muskie to the boat without any help.

Posted by Dave Richey on 04/02 at 03:58 PM
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Tuesday, April 01, 2008

No April Fool’s Day Pranks For Me


Count me as one who doesn’t enjoy pranks. Hence, April 1 has never been a favorite day of mine because of my dislike for practical jokes and their jokers.

It seems I got a fill of that nonsense years ago. If memory serves me right, I was in the 10th grade in 1955. when some idiot filled a balloon with water and tossed it out a second-story school window where it landed on my head, broke apart, and that prank got me in trouble.

I charged up the stairs to the second floor, dripping water all the way, found the fool laughing so hard he didn’t see me coming. One punch in the nose and another in the mouth made my fist hurt, his face bleed and the principle became angry with me and him. However, it did stop the laughter but didn’t help my sore head and neck.

So silly April Fool’s Day jokes are beyond me. However, these days almost everyone is thinking about April steelhead fishing, but there are many other things for a sportsman to do beside fish holes and runs for these great game fish.

Personally, I get excited about trolling body baits in the harbors at Ludington, Manistee, Frankfort and Grand Traverse Bay. The bay isn’t as productive as it once was, but brown range in size from tasty two-pounders up to 25-pounders. There are precious few of the huge fish any more, but on occasion a really big brown is caught.

So, I used my brand-new all-species fishing license today, and fished with my nephew, Casey Richey of Frankfort. He caught the present state-record brown last year but my little two-pounder would have made nothing more than a snack for his big fish. The weather was nasty, the wind was strong, and it was the only hit of a weather-shortened day.

My lure choice has been Rapalas. I favor a soft-action nine-foot bait casting rod and a reel with six-pound monofailment. The best fishing can be inside or outside of the harbor, and action often can be found a short distance down the shoreline as well.

My lures are trolled 100 to 125 yards behind the boat, and snake trolling in a continuous S-pattern, in and out of the six to 14-foot depths, works. These lures can be trolled reasonably fast, and the strikes can be hard so set the drag with care. Browns, once hooked, often jump and run toward the boat. If you have a strike, reel hard and don’t stop until the lure reaches the boat or you tighten in to a fish.

Browns seem to hit best right at daybreak although I’ve had good success during mid-day hours on an overcast day. Work the shallows, move in and out over the dropoff, and switch lure colors often. Silver-black, silver-orange, orange-black, black-and-chartreuse. orange-chartreuse and gold are good colors. Use a swivel five feet ahead of the line to prevent line twist. No. 7 amd 9 Rapalas seem to work the best.

April is well known as the turkey month, and Michigan has a large number of birds. I hear birds almost every morning, and whenever we drive somewhere, we see birds in fields or crossing back roads.

Turkey hunting is legal laters only if you have a valid license. There is something almost primitive about calling to a gobbler, and watching a big gobbler fan out his tail, dance in little circles while dragging his wingtips in the dirt and sticking out his head to gobble, and it is just as raw and real as anything can get. A fired-up gobbler is something to watch as his head changes colors from blue to white to red and back again. A snowball-white head can be easily seen coming through the woods, and it is a spectacle worth getting up early to watch.

Many people believe the epitome of a turkey hunt is killing a gobbler. Not so. Shooting a gobbler in love is reasonably easy; calling to the bird, and having it ease ever closer, is the challenge. Turkey hunting is a wonderful challenge of man versus bird, and if calling in a bird doesn’t do it for you, than ice water must be flowing through your veins.

And sure, the steelhead will be available in lakes and streams tributary to the Great Lakes one of these days. They offer a special brand of angling excitement, but it’s a toss-up when the run will kick off. It’s usually underway by now, but some lakes like Platte Lake are still solidly frozen. The run doesn’t really kick off until after the ice goes out, and at this rate it may be the third or fourth week.

Anglers and hunters, when properly licensed, have a full plate coming up in another week. And now is when we must start getting ready for it, so if you’ll excuse me, there are some trolling reels to clean and lure hooks to sharpen. And I’m not going outside the rest of the day. The weather is just too wicked to suit my fancy.

Posted by Dave Richey on 04/01 at 05:47 PM
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Sunday, March 30, 2008

Is There A Big Brown Trout In Your Future?


All things are relative. A trophy brown when I was a kid was the 11-pounder that George Yontz of Wolverine caught from the Sturgeon River in the late 1950s.

In the mid-1970s, Jack Duffy of Leland caught a 31 1/2-pound brown while trolling in Lake Michigan. In-between those two figures is a space reserved for a huge brown trout but one that is not a record fish.

Frankly, over many years of trolling Lake Huron and Lake Michigan for brown trout, I’ve landed many that were big enough to put a hefty strain in my rod, and would tilt the scales from 11 to 18 pounds.

The brown trout is a mystery fish to many people. A five-pound brown on the Holy Waters of the upper AuSable and Manistee rivers is a trophy fish. Fish one of those back-of-beyond jump-across creeks, and catch a brown trout measuring 12 inches, and it too is a trophy.

Brown trout numbers have dwindled somewhat in recent years around the Great Lakes. Previously, browns of 20 to 25 pounds were fairly common catches, and the last state record fish was caught by Robert Henderson of Vestaburg, Mich. in Manistee County’s Arcadia Lake in 1984. It weighed 34.38 pounds and was 38 1/4 inches long. That record has since been broken.

Last year, on Mothers Day, my nephew Casey Richey of Frankfort caught a brown trout at Frankfort that weighed 36.81 pounds and was 43 inches long. He wonders if his state record fish will fall this year. It’s doubtful, but he says, “records are meant to be broken.”

Big browns are where you find them. Most harbors on Lakes Huron and Michigan produce some big fish. For many years, Thunder Bay at Alpena was home to some of the state’s biggest brown trout. It still is a great spot to troll.

Some very nice fish have been caught trolling in Hammond Bay north of Rogers City, and the area near AuGres off Whitestone Point has produced some very nice fish as well.

Huron Bay at Baraga and L’Anse on Lake Superior also produce good numbers of brown trout in the past. Another Upper Peninsula hotspot for years has been Michigan’s shoreline from Escanaba and Little Bay de Noc south to Menominee. Ten pound fish were common catches here, and I’ve caught some 11 and 12-pounders near Escanaba.

Lake Michigan’s Grand Traverse Bay, including both the east and west arms of the bay, have produced some huge browns. My son David hooked a big one on a Rapala once, played it with a gentle hand, and lost it when the lure broke apart. Three of us saw that fish, and our closest estimate to its weight was 25 pounds. In higher waters of yesteryear, the Acme Reel along US-31 was a hotspot as was the rocks near Bowers Harbor.

Harbors at Frankfort, Onekama, Manistee and Ludington also produce big brown trout on occasion. Even some of the southerly ports such as Saugatuck and South Haven have delivered good numbers of big browns.

It’s possible to cast spoons off breakwalls or piers at these harbors, and a blue-silver, green-silver, orange-silver, all silver, copper, brass, pearl or other color 1/4 or 1/3-oz. Devle Dog spoons work well. Experiment with sinking time, retrieval speeds and vary between casting straight out off the pier or casting parallel to the pier if no one is in the way.

Trolling produces very well, and the trick is to work in and out of shallow water during the spring months. Years ago, in the late 1960s, Jack Duffy pioneered this offshore fishery. He brought me in on it, and we pounded big browns for many years. The methods that follow worked for us.

We always used 6-pound line, and trolled two types of lures: wobbling plugs (X-4, X-5 and U-20 FlatFish to be exact) or minnow-imitating plugs like the Rapala, Rebel, Long-A Bomber or FasTrac. Hot colors were silver, silver-black, chartreuse-orange and gold-black in the latter category. FlatFish colors were silver, silver with red spots or pearl.

FlatFish require a very slow trolling speed, and test lures next to the boat to see if they track straight. If so, slowly release line until the lures are 100 yards behind the boat, and put them into rod holders. Some anglers prefer trolling off in-line planer boards.

Minnow-imitating lures can be trolled faster than FlatFish, but tie a loop knot to the line tie to open up its wiggle. Again, let two lures out at the same time and speed for about 100 yards, and put the rods in rod holders. Adjust reel drags so a brown can take line on the strike.

Big browns almost always rip off an addition 50-75 yards of line. Reel the other line in to get it out of the way, and play the fish gently. Often, browns will strike and run toward the boat. Reel fast and hard, and you may be pleasantly surprised when you catch up to the fish when it is about 25 yards behind the boat.

Browns occasionally jump, and most often will roll on the surface. Once they get close to the boat, be prepared for one or more last-ditch efforts by the fish. Watch its head, and if the head cocks to one side or the other, he is planning another run. Let the fish go, and don’t try to pressure them on 6-pound line. A big fish will break the line like sewing thread.

Try trolling near the edges and tips of piers, along the mud line where river water meets lake water, and off a river mouth. Gravel or rocky bars in six to 15 feet of water can be good, and the key to good brown trout fishing is an abundance of alewives or smelt. And a huge amount of patience is required. Casey’s big fish came after 30 years of trying, and he fishes for browns more than any other person I know. He makes his luck by fishing hard.

Good luck!

Posted by Dave Richey on 03/30 at 01:47 PM
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