Duffy’s granddaughter, Koleen Hildebrand, hoists aloft a nice brown trout she took from a creek.
By Andy Duffy
My niece and her family, visiting from the arid Southwest, had one afternoon to spend with me. I asked if they had anything they would like to do. My niece, Charlie, said the children wanted to go fishing.
Sometimes a fishing trip can be a problem. I know of some lakes that offer great angling from shore when the ‘gills are on their beds. It was midsummer, though, and I knew of nowhere I could take a family of five where we had a reasonable prospect of catching pan fish from shore.
So, we went trout fishing. We spread out along the stream. We leapfrogged from pool to pool, and all three children – from five-year-old Wesley right up through nine-year-old Raelene – caught fish. They weren’t just fish, either. The kids were catching Michigan’s state fish, brook trout. The fishing was as natural to Michiganians as the trout were. Fishing creeks are how Michigan anglers typically catch their trout.
Lorelei Chavez, who lives in the arid Southwest, caught this nice brook trout while on a trip to Michigan. An influx of groundwater can keep small creeks cool all summer.
It isn’t that Michigan doesn’t have trout rivers. We have plenty of them, from the famed Escanaba in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula right down to the St. Joseph at the southern end of the Lower Peninsula. Anglers throng to those rivers for resident and anadromous trout and salmon.
Even though the rivers see lots of angling action, though, I would bet my best creek rod that most Michigan trout anglers seldom visit one of the famous waterways. Most anglers fish creeks and small rivers – those ranging from a foot to 30 feet across.
Angling books and magazines are brimming with articles about fishing rivers for resident trout. To most Michigan anglers, though, river fishing means catching smallmouth bass, pike, walleyes or anadromous fish.
There is a reason why many Michigan anglers seldom fish rivers for trout. The lower waters of most of Michigan’s rivers are marginal trout water at best. If it weren’t for the runs of salmon and steelhead, the rivers would hardly ever be fished for anything resembling a trout. And, of course, special regulations often govern the best parts of the best streams. Because many trout anglers aren’t interested in learning to fly fish, they fish with bait on small streams.
Trout anglers forced onto creeks because they don’t fly fish needn’t feel persecuted, though. The creeks offer a great angling experience.
Along the small streams, anglers find a different world. Instead of crowds, they find solitude. Instead of fellow anglers, they find wildlife. Instead of cottages, they find woods. The streams offer a paradise that river fishermen seldom find.
Creeks are tremendous fisheries, too. Cubic foot for cubic foot, small streams hold a much higher number of trout than rivers do.
It makes sense that the creeks teem with fish. Headwater streams are a lot cooler than larger rivers are. A high percentage of a creek’s water is freshly-emerged groundwater. Trout are a cold-water fish. And trout are wonderfully suited for life in a small stream.
Don’t think all trout found in creeks are small. They have plenty of 12-inch fish – and lots of smaller ones. And a 12-inch creek fish is comparable to a two-pound river fish. It is a blast to catch even a 12-inch trout on light tackle in a creek.
But some trout living in creeks are veritable monsters. Consider these catches:
My brother-in-law once caught a 17-inch brown trout from a creek not more than 12 feet wide. A friend caught an 18-inch brown trout from a nearby, similarly-sized stream. I caught an 18-inch brown from the narrow headwaters of a Michigan river. The section of river from which the trout came was no more than 30 feet across. On the opening day of Michigan’s 2017 trout season, an outdoor writer friend of mine caught a 20-inch rainbow trout from a tributary of the Manistee River. When I saw the picture in the paper, I nodded knowingly to myself and figured it was a steelhead that hadn’t bothered to wander back to Lake Michigan yet. I was wrong. It came from a tributary somewhere above Tippy Dam, a dam that blocks all fish passage. My friend won’t even tell me what stream the trout came from.
Another friend and I were fishing a small brook trout creek, the same one I took my niece and her family to. My friend spooked a pool and we watched with our jaws agape as a brook trout we both figured was at least 18 inches long swam up the creek and out of our sight. And lurking among the mammoth fish are the more abundant seven-to-12 inch small ones. Michigan anglers who target the creeks can have a lot of fun.
In Michigan, lots of good creeks flow across public land. Those streams are open for anyone to fish. Many other good creeks flow across private land. Those who want to knock on a door and ask might be able to get permission to fish them. It never hurts to try.
Creeks are often tough to fish. Throughout much of the season, a person will want to have plenty of insect repellent along with him. Poison ivy and stinging nettles are found along them. Casting can be tough. In fact, little casting even happens on creeks. The “casting” is really dapping and lobbing.
Frequent creek anglers learn little tricks of the trade. Although it may seem counter-intuitive, a long rod may be the creek angler’s best friend. With a long rod, he can keep farther away from the stream and reach through the brush and twigs to drop his bait in the water.
The best creek anglers often present their bait – usually worms – on a dead drift. A person does that by just dropping the bait in the water with little or no weight on the line. The reel’s bail should be open so the current can take the line out as it carries the bait downstream. I hold the line very loosely between my thumb and first finger as line plays out. That makes strike detection easier. But anglers can also watch for a sudden tightening of the line or for the line to move counter to the direction of the current. Sometimes an angler will find water that will allow him to follow the drift of the bait just as fly anglers nymphing larger rivers do. Then the technique is the same as fly anglers use. Just hold the rod tip high enough to keep all the slack line off the water and watch for the line to do something erratic. When it does, close the bail and set the hook.
Creek anglers fight a constant battle with brush on the banks and debris in the water. The logjams that frequent creeks are a double-edged sword. They offer ideal trout cover, but they also are hook-grabbing hazards. When fishing a small stream, plan on either losing lots of hooks or spooking lots of fish while wading in to save your hooks. And streamside brush can make an impossible situation.
I waver between using a long rod or a short one for creek fishing. On the one hand, a short, ultralight rod is great for maneuvering through the brush and for making those sometimes-possible and even desirable short casts – lobs – to get the bait in the water. I already mentioned the advantages a long rod offers.
And a word about scaring fish is important.
Trout will flee when shadows fall across a stream. The stream may be covered with shadows cast by trees branches. Let a new one move across a stream, though, and the trout will be gone. They also flee at the sight of an angler or when a heavy footfall sends vibrations into a stream. Fishing for small-stream trout is an activity closely aligned with hunting. Anglers actively stalk their quarry. The difference is that the quarry is generally unseen. The stalker needs to just judge where a fish might by reading the water.
Trout can hold in a lot of places. Log jams are obvious spots. So are undercut banks. The slack water downstream from boulders offer good fish-holding spots. Where streams flow through meadows, the grass bending over a stream offer good hiding places for trout. The watercress that fills so many streams during the latter part of each summer offers shelter for fish. I regularly angle one creek that during the early season seems to have no fish in it at all. In fact, maybe it doesn’t have fish. During that time, the trout may be downstream in the river into which the creek flows.
When the vegetation appears in the creek and the river warms, though, trout appear like magic. They hang out in the watercress and wait for food to drift by.
The moving water usually keeps one clear channel free of the weeds. An angler merely needs to drift his bait along the open channel, and lurking trout will dart out and grab it. That is exciting fishing. That is the time when it is common for the angler to see a trout strike.
Matt Hildebrand, Duffy’s son-in-law, caught this fine brace of brown trout from a small stream. Small streams often play host to good populations of trout. Some of the trout are veritable trophies.
A person can use flies or spinners on these tiny streams, but he’s nuts if he does. Those lures are the wrong tools for the water.
First, except for tiny portions of water, a fly angler won’t be able to cast on a small stream. He might be able to dap his fly in spots, but the effort expended for the fish he will catch makes the method an untenable affair. Even a weighted fly is nearly weightless. Just getting a fly in the water of a creek is an ordeal.
I speak from experience. I’ve often tried to fly fish small creeks. One recollection lingers in my mind.
I would go fish a small creek on my lunch hour. I tried different methods of fly fishing. I would lay a cast across the ground so only my fly and leader fell in the water. I would use wet flies and try to swing them in the current. I would work upstream along a tiny, brush-free portion of the creek using dry flies and nymphs. During that time, I remember catching only one trout.
The trout seemed like a decent fish when I saw him rising. His holding lie was under a little pile of sticks and twigs the stream had strewn in a jumbled mass along the creek’s edge. The trout would come out and feed when a hatch was in progress.
I spent several lunch hours trying to catch the fish. I don’t remember what was hatching. Midges, maybe. Nothing noteworthy should have been hatching that time of day and year.
I finally caught the fish by spending most of my lunch hour creeping into position behind it and using a bow-and-arrow cast to get my fly in front of it.
I felt a wave of exhilaration when the trout took the fly. But the fish was overmatched even with the five-weight rod and the fly line I was using. The battle was quickly over, and I unhooked the seven-inch brown trout and released it. Then I wondered why I had invested so much time into catching the little thing. I’ve also used spinners on tiny creeks, and the results are equally unsatisfying. A person just can’t get a spinner in many of the locations where the fish hang out. Again, if he tries, he will hang up. Then he will need to break off the lure or wade in and scare off the trout. If he breaks off a hook and a worm, though, he’s lost little. Bait fishing is the method to use on small streams.
And, although some fly fishermen may look down their noses at the bait-using creek anglers, the creek anglers will keep on sneaking along tiny creeks, catching lots of trout and taking them home to fry. Little in this world is more fun than fishing a small stream for trout.