by Andy Duffy
*Check fishing regulations before venturing out to a trout stream before Michigan’s traditional trout opener to be sure the section of stream you are going to fish is open.
A balmy breeze sent mayflies skittering across the stream. The sun, high in the sky, shone down upon the glittering water. Trout were dimpling the river’s surface. It was spring, the snow was gone, I was trout fishing, and once again the world was a cheerful place. It didn’t matter that trout season still wouldn’t open for a couple of weeks.
Fly anglers probably realize at some level of consciousness that flies begin emerging before Michigan’s last-Saturday-of-April trout opener arrives. They probably know, too, that Michigan has a multitude of trout streams that remain open all year. Not many anglers, though, bother hitting the water before the season opens. That’s a shame. They could be spending time in a river, casting to rising trout and shaking off winter’s doldrums.
I happened to be fishing a Hendrickson hatch. There’s nothing unusual about that. Hendricksons draw a lot of anglers to the water each year. The hatch typically begins, though, about the time trout season officially opens, much as deer firearm season is timed to coincide with the rut. That year, though, spring had come early. In fact, by the time the last Saturday of April arrived, the Hendricksons were finished. Those who waited for trout season’s official opening day missed them. The moral of the story is that when the weather turns pleasant, anglers should begin paying attention to the things happening on the water. With everyone, it seems, having Internet access these days, it is easier than ever to know what bugs are emerging.
And anglers have lots of open rivers to choose from for their early-season forays to the water. Some famed stretches of water remain open all year. Regulations vary dramatically from stream to stream and even on different portions of streams, so anglers should check their fishing regulations. But Michigan anglers have a smorgasbord of opportunities available. Streams open in at least some of their sections include the Muskegon, Antrim County’s Jordan River, Arenac County’s Rifle River and Benzie County’s Betsie and Platte rivers. All those and many more are worth a person’s time.
There’s no guarantee early-season anglers will find success. Streams can be finicky even until Memorial Day arrives and later. And as long as snow remains on the ground, the warmest days may not be the best days. Melting snow pouring into streams can drive the water temperature down and put the fish off the feed. When the air temperature is just a few degrees above freezing, though, on streams that receive a good groundwater influx, fish often respond better. They also respond on warmer days after the snow is gone.
A person can hardly speak of finicky trout streams without mentioning water levels. Sometimes during the spring, rivers are swollen and out of shape. Fish them with care.
I remember one early spring day when I was on the Au Sable near Louie’s Landing. In the main current, wading was dangerous. A couple of buddies who’d accompanied me to the river waded down from Burton’s Landing to join me at Louie’s. They arrived with harrowing tales. Near the landing where I’d fished, though, was a quiet eddy where a few trout were rising. I drifted a wet fly through the rising pod and caught fish. We all learned something that day.
Anyway, the Hendricksons are just one of several aquatic insects that sometimes emerge before the end of April. Some hatches, in fact, always begin earlier than that. Several offer decent fishing. Three kinds of stoneflies and two kinds of mayflies will precede the Hendricksons each spring.
The earliest flies to appear each year are the tiny black stoneflies. I often start seeing them when we have a couple of back-to-back warm days in February or even toward the end of January. I’ll notice one clambering around on someone’s front door or clinging to the window of my car. I don’t know if they’re coming off little creeks or the large river that flows near my home. The river in my area doesn’t have much good stonefly habitat, so I can only guess. The flies certainly get me thinking about fishing, though.
Starting as early as the weather is tolerable, Kalamazoo’s Keith Konvalinka fishes the Au Sable River and takes stunning photographs of his expeditions and the river’s fish and insects. Courtesy photo provided by Keith Konvalinka
The tiny black stones don’t seem to elicit much interest from trout. Early black stoneflies follow the tiny black stoneflies, though, and trout will feed on them. The early blacks are about a size 14. The stoneflies will emerge on warmer days right in the dead of winter. On sunny afternoons, nymphs will take trout if dry flies don’t. And by the middle of March, the early brown stoneflies are starting.
And then there’s the brace of mayfly hatches that precede the Hendricksons – the little mahoganies and the blue-winged olives. The mahoganies are size 16 to 18. The blue-winged olives that come off during the early spring range in size from 16 to 20. And, if spring arrives early, an assortment of other flies may be present by opening day. It’s not unusual to find a few caddis already flitting around by the end of April.
Josh Greenberg, the proprietor of Gates Au Sable Lodge, knows the river, its moods and its trout as well as anyone. Greenberg says that although the river isn’t a great early-season, dry-fly fishery, it has its moments. He believes anglers should hunt the type of water they want to fish as much as they hunt the bugs.
Greenberg says the tiny black stones are of little importance. “Black stones will pour out of the riffles,” Greenberg said, “but the fish won’t eat the adults in the fast, cold water.” Instead of bothering with them, he looks for slow-water stretches of river and finds fish rising to both blue-winged olives and the later stoneflies. And, Greenberg says, not all hatches are created equal. The early olives are more important in some stretches of river than the larger black stones.
Greenberg doesn’t wait for flies to emerge, though, before he hits the water. When the water begins warming up in the spring, he generally uses nymphs and streamers until around 2 p.m. Then, when he sees a few bugs hatching, he heads to some slow water and watches it for rise forms.
Greenberg has had some very good days on size-18 BWOs. They typically start hatching about 10 days before the Hendricksons. They’ll come off in about any kind of weather. They love crappy, cloudy spring days, and big fish will eat them, Greenberg said.
Among the flies anglers will find emerging before Michigan’s last-Saturday-of-April trout opener are the blue-winged olives, flies anglers affectionately refer to as BWOs. Courtesy photo provided by Keith Konvalinka
Another angler who is out fishing when others are still home putting marshmallows in their hot chocolate is Keith Konvalinka. Konvalinka, a Kalamazoo resident, has been fishing the Au Sable for 30 years or so. From March through October, he spends as much of his free time as he can catching the river’s trout and taking stunning photographs of his expeditions.
Konvalinka says that during the early season, anglers should run and gun. “Hit your spots, and leave if they aren’t productive,” he advises. Later in the season, he might be on the river for eight or 10 hours at a time. During the early season, though, being on the water that long “is just masochism.”
“I’m pretty much a wimp in the winter. I’ve fished in cold conditions, but it’s too much like work for me. I’d rather sit inside, tie up some flies and fantasize about the coming warmup,” he said.
Come April, though, things change. Konvalinka begins to really succumb to the river’s charms. Although he has grown away from nymphing, he said swinging black stonefly nymphs, a prince nymph or a hare’s ear with a bead head would be his first early-season choices if he were inclined to take fish that way.
He finds a lot more pleasure, though, in stripping streamers. He said he catches fewer fish that way, but he catches bigger ones. So, until bugs start popping, he usually fishes a small, black wooly bugger weighted with a tungsten cone head that he fishes quartering his casts downstream. He swings them and strips them back.
As much as Konvalinka enjoys fishing dry flies, he knows that fish aren’t very cooperative until the water temperatures hit 55 degrees. When the bugs start popping, things change. He’s noticed that an olive emerger is usually the first fly to work well. Later, Hendrickson emergers work “until an actual hatch brings the fish to the surface with regularity.” When that happens, he may switch to a dun although trout are likely to continue to take the emergers. He likes a Klinkhammer-style emerger, a hackle stacker or a comparadun.
“One thing I’ve learned, which took me ages to catch on to, is the utility of having a spinner handy at any time of the early season,” Konvalinka said.
He began noticing that often when conditions seem ripe for “a really promising Hendrickson spinner fall – when the bugs are thick overhead and seem ready to mate and fall,” the sun will set, the air will cool and the mating activity stops. “But [the flies] gotta mate or die soon anyway. So, on occasion, a spinner fall may happen in the mid-morning of the next day or pretty much whenever the air temps allow it,” he said. “So even if you expect a hatch during the daylight hours with emergers or duns, it may be the case that the spinner is the pattern to try. Not often, but it happens.”
Possession season is not open on trout streams before the last Saturday in April, and on some streams, catch and release is all that is allowed year-round. It is important to keep a fish wet after catching it. And if pictures are to be taken, take them quickly in order to get the fish back into the water.
And Konvalinka hasn’t just noticed that anomaly with Hendricksons. Olives also spin at unusual times.
Everyone, of course, likes to fish hatches, and they’re in full swing by the end of April. Even then, though, preseason conditions may prevail for a while.
Nearly every spring during late April or May, a low-pressure system will hover over the state. The sun will disappear for weeks – or at least it seems that long to eager anglers. Rain falls. Streams rise. Hatches disappear. And by that time of the season, anglers have hatches on their minds. Nobody is happy.
Those dismal days, though, offer an ideal time to break out of the dry-fly mindset and go back to streamers. In fact, I live for streamer fishing in the spring. The weather doesn’t matter – except that the worse it is, the better the fishing might be.
Big brown trout love low-light conditions. They’re often out marauding on the gloomiest days. They attack streamers. And plenty of streamer patterns exist. Just as Konvalinka does, though, I like to use black wooly buggers.
I’ve always believed that wooly buggers are excellent hellgrammite imitations. Hellgrammites take up to three seasons to emerge as adult dobsonflies, so they are always present in streams. They crawl around among the rocks on a river’s bottom looking for smaller things – often stonefly and mayfly nymphs and caddis larva – to feed on. Spring’s freshets can easily sweep hellgrammites out of their rocky niches and past hungry trout. And the hellgrammites are a nice-sized morsel for trout, too. If trout mistake a wooly bugger for a hellgrammite, it is no wonder they work so well. But no matter what trout believe a wooly bugger is, they often strike one avidly. I’ve caught some of my largest fish while using wooly buggers in May on swollen rivers.
The thing to remember, though, is this: Michigan offers fantastic trout fishing well before the last Saturday of April comes around. Anglers who pick their days, times of day and stream portions can have a ball while others are still at home bellyaching about the weather.