Michigan Brown Trout on the Muskegon River


We’d been catching brown and rainbow trout in that seven- to 10-inch range (this year’s stockers) steadily when something stopped my lure cold. There was no doubt that this wasn’t one of those; I could feel the bite all the way down to my elbow.

The fish came out of the water, head-shaking. It was a tall brown trout, what we in the trade call a “picture fish.” It came up a second time and threw the Rapala right at me.

“That was a 20-inch fish,” said Denny Bouwens, who was hosting this Muskegon River safari below Croton Dam.

Sigh. The big one always gets away.

Minutes later, Bouwens’ buddy Justin Welch latched on to a nice one, a 16- to 17-inch brown. Saved the day, eh?

We were chasing trout with one of my favorite techniques—tossing floating/diving minnow baits—on one of my favorite rivers. The Muskegon has lots of trout and enough of those fish survive over the course of the years that there’s always a chance at a good one.

For Bouwens, a 44-year-old fishing guide, throwing body baits at trout is a technique with a narrow window period.

“I basically do it in mid-May to mid-June, when the salmon fingerlings are all over the place,” he said. “Overcast days or low-light hours are your best options. You want either trout or salmon imitations—you want to imitate what lives in the river.

Denny Bouwens nets a brown trout for Justin Welsh.
Denny Bouwens nets a brown trout for Justin Welsh.

“In the summer when the water gets warm and the trout get sluggish, they’re not that active,” he continued. “You want the water temperature to be 50 to 60 degrees. After that they do most of their feeding at night.”

I got a second chance just minutes later when a big brown engulfed the brown-trout colored, No. 7 Rapala I was using. I brought it to the boat and guessed it at 19 inches. Nice.

Welch, who was fishing a tiny (two-inch body), deep-diving Storm Thunderstick, was catching twice as many small trout as I was with the bigger bait. But he had his chance at two other good trout, one of which he landed.

“This is the first time for me,” said Welch, who spends a lot of time fishing the big lake for salmon. “I’ve caught trout before on crawlers and on spinners, but never cranks. The only time I cast cranks is for salmon and that’s the only reason that I know how to do it. I just use a slow, steady retrieve.”

In contrast, I was using an aggressive retrieve, jerking it like I would if bass fishing. But I kept it moving, not stopping it and letting it suspend (as I would have for bass). That’s how I’ve always fished those baits for trout.

“I like to vary my retrieve,” Bouwens said. “That way I find out what they want.

This day, apparently, they were willing to take it both ways.

Bouwens said he likes a light- to medium-action, seven-foot rod with eight- to 10-pound test line. He attaches the bait with a simple snap or a loop knot.

“And I like turbulent water—that’s where we’re catching our good fish—choppy, rocky water; faster, broken water,” Bouwens said. “When they’re in there, they’re feeding. When they’re lying in those deep holes, they’re not feeding that much.”

Justin Welsh shows off abrown trout taken on a tiny Thunderstick.
Justin Welsh shows off abrown trout taken on a tiny Thunderstick.

At 8:30 a.m., once the sun cleared the trees, the big fish quit. We continued to catch the smaller ones—hey, they’re naïve; six weeks ago they were still in the hatchery. Trout don’t get big being dumb.

So I tied on a bigger Rapala (a No. 11) and went for broke, hoping the big meal would be enough to get some of the bigger trout to make a mistake. Though I saw a number of them chasing the bait, they must have all been males—unwilling to commit. I continued to catch a few small fish, but not nearly as many as Welch did with his smaller bait.

We covered about four miles of river in all and as we worked downstream, started catching a few bass, too. A nice smallmouth nailed my big Rapala.

So we took in the scenery, cracked a few jokes, and called it quits around noon. We’d easily caught 50 trout. The little trout were feeding on the caddis flies that were hatching, but I never saw what I thought was a good trout hit the surface.

In retrospect, the only mistake we made was waiting until about 7 a.m. to get started. Had we been on the river at the crack of dawn, well, who knows what would have happened?

“To tell you the truth, we did better than I thought we would when I saw the river,” Bouwens said. “It’s running at 1,700 (feet per second). Two days ago it was at 2,900 fps. And when we set this trip up, it was running at 4,000 fps.

“I think the fish are more secure when the water is high and turbulent,” he said. “We’re running into low, clear water. The best conditions are when the water’s stained. You don’t want those fish to see it a long ways off—you want them to just see it and react.”

That’s always been my theory on fishing for trout with plugs. You want them to just catch a glimpse of it, not get too good a look. Fly fishermen who use streamers always talk about how many trout they “moved,” because you see a lot of them chase, but refuse to take it. It’s the same way with plugs.

What can you do? Had we had more flow or overcast skies, maybe we’d have coaxed a few more of those big browns into playing. But when you schedule a trip in advance, you get what you get. If you wait for perfect conditions, you’ll never go.

And that’s unacceptable.

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