Fly Fishing

I mostly fish for trout and salmon. And generally with a fly rod. So I have more to share with river fishing than I do inland or the Great Lakes. 

One of the (often perceived) obstacles of river fly fishing is the cost to enter the sport. It’s true, a person could spend thousands of dollars on gear if they wanted to. But there are ways to spend less. And quite honestly, most casts in our narrow rivers and creeks don’t require much in high end gear. With the right technique, a person can catch more fish than the best gear in the world.

Also, one of my favorite patterns is a spawn egg. I’ve been fishing with those since I could ride my bike to the river - using a 6 foot spinning rod. Not to mention, I’d tie my own pattern at the river in less than a minute for a cost in the pennies. Compared to buying each egg pattern at a fly shop for $3. Plus, with my method I could change out the color faster than someone else could tie on a new fly. 

So if cost seems like an issue to get started fishing for trout and salmon in the rivers, it doesn’t have to be. Where there’s a will there’s a way.

Like I said before, I won’t give away all my fishing secrets, especially for trout. But here’s a really big hint, when using a fly pattern, wet or dry, make sure it looks and would move naturally in the water. I can’t tell you how many lures look like they are made to attract the fisherman more than they are the fish.

Here’s another hint, and this goes back to the balance between keeping fish or letting them go. When I was younger I would keep just about everything I caught. Nowadays I might keep a quarter of what I catch. I’m especially more picky during spawning season. But when I do keep a fish, I often cut through their belly and see what they’ve been eating. You’d be real surprised to see what you find sometimes! Few people actually look. But if you want to learn more about the fish you’re after, then it makes sense to find out what they had for breakfast.

Salmon

My dad first took me salmon fishing in the Manistique  River when I was just a small boy and I’ve been hooked ever since. Salmon was a great way for me to learn how to fish rivers. To get consistent at seeing, hooking and eventually landing fish. They were much more abundant in the rivers than the steelhead, and usually much bigger targets. 

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This is where good polarized glasses, accurate casting and patience come into play. When I was a kid I’d keep everything I caught. Riding my bike back from the river I’d have my 6 foot Eagle Claw fishing rod, Mitchell spinning reel, small tackle box and two huge dark King Salmon, gills through each side of my handlebars, tails dragging on the road. Proud as could be. 

Today I don’t keep any of them because the reality is that they usually aren’t very fresh. But it’s an excellent sport and a perfect way to help introduce kids to fishing. The rivers are often full of these monsters and just the sight of them keeps things exciting.

Steelhead

Steelhead are one of my favorite game fish, right alongside brown trout. I generally only fish them in the rivers.

They swim in the rivers from the great lakes in the fall and feed on salmon eggs during the late end of the salmon run. Many of the steelhead will stay in the river all winter long. When the spring floods pound the rivers even more steelhead from the Great Lakes migrate inland for their own spawning season. 

 

It took me a good number of years to become proficient at catching these guys. The average one will weigh around 7 pounds and the biggest will be close to 20. I’ve caught them of all sizes. Surprisingly, it’s not always the big ones that put up the best fights. Sometimes the average size fresh ones will be airborne the entire time.

My favorite way to fish them is with egg patterns that I tie on a snelled hook. People have all kinds of methods. That one has worked for me. It’s cheap, simple and effective and so I haven’t swayed in over 20 years. 

I used to harvest most of the steelhead I’d catch, but now I’m real picky. They have to be incredibly fresh and usually not during the peak spawning season.

 

Rainbow Trout

Rainbow trout are very versatile fish. Technically, steelhead are rainbow’s that live in the great lakes. They don’t have as dynamic of a pattern that their river cousins have. Nor do the ones that live in lakes or ponds. I’m not sure why that is, but the river fish have dynamic reddish pink lines and spectacular dots. 

They are also opportunistic feeders and will take similar lures and flies that a brookie will.  But I have noticed that the big ones are a bit pickier. One day I was spinner fishing on one of my favorite rivers and I saw a 26” plus rainbow move into a feeding slot. I put my spinner within inches of his nose numerous times, no takes. I’m sure if I had my fly rod I would have hooked him. Eventually he grew tired of my pestering and swam into the deep black depths. 

Fish like that come few and far between but are a real thrill to see let alone catch.

Brook Trout

Brook trout like the coldest of water. These are some of the prettiest fish in the state. And fun to catch as they are pretty aggressive feeders. They are normally the smallest of the inland trout, averaging 8” to 10”. But that’s lots of fun on a small ultralight fishing pole or fly rod. 

They love to hit the classic spinner attached to a single hook and a worm. Or the newer treble hook spinners by Meps or Purple Martin. They will also hit all sorts of dry and wet flies. 

They are delicious fried whole in a frying pan or over coals and eaten like you would smoked fish. Or, let them back into the river and let them keep growing.

Brown Trout

Brown Trout

Brown trout are probably my favorite of the main three native UP trout. Brookies are like the party fish and rainbow’s are great practice. I’m not sure what it is about brown trout, but to me they have a mystique of purity and excellence.  When you land a 20+” brown trout you feel as if you have arrived in trout fishing. These guys can be very picky, and they can also be massively aggressive. They are known to chomp on a mouse fly at night, or swallow the delicate nymph during the day.

They tend to favor the warmer water over rainbow’s and certainly brookies. So not all rivers will have all three fish. Some of the big browns fatten up on inland lakes. There is also a great lakes strain similar to the great lakes rainbow. Both the inland and Great Lakes fish move into the rivers during certain feeding periods or to spawn in the fall.

I love fishing for these guys in the dark of the night during fly hatches. You can hear them slurp the water’s surface and might catch a ripple in the moonlight. Put your fly right over that same spot and your sure to get a big hit. This is when you’ll find the big guys come out from under the logs to play. But just because you have a hit doesn’t mean you’ll get to touch him. The first thing they do is try to head back to their safe log. 

Most trout like to hide among the shadows of logs and grass. These fish are the masters of camouflage. I’ve put my fly over some gnarly tangles thinking nothing was in there to see a monster emerge.