Are you looking for some color after the grays of winter? How about catching a rainbow at Kalkaska’s National Trout Festival? This fishy occasion is Michigan’s second largest festival and it’s been going strong for the last 72 years. They would be on their 75th , but for three lost years when anglers traded fishing rods for rifles during World War II.
The festival always corresponds with the opening weekend of trout season (this year’s five day event splashes off on Wednesday, April 23). The trout opener tradition is a grand one, and is considered by some to be a “holy day of obligation.” About 10,000 Hooked on Family Fun participants step out for some great family fun last year. This year the theme is Troutin’ Around the World.
Kalkaska is at the heart of prime trout waters-boasting some of the best salmonid angling in the state. The nearby Boardman and Manistee Rivers , and the Blue Ribbon Trout Stream Rapid River provide superior trout, steelhead, and salmon angling throughout the year. It is a storied place that was visited by passionate angler and author Ernest Hemingway. The old sage immortalized Kalkaska in his story, “The Light of the World.”
Naturally, the main attraction of the festival is fishing a fishing contest, actually three fishing contests!
The first competition focuses on the smallest of fingerlings. The kids’ fishing tournament is arguably the most popular event. The pond, owned by C & C Well Drilling Company, is usually lined shoulder to shoulder with over 1,000 children and their families. Last year at the pond we encountered Chloe, a 2 ½ year old from Kalkaska so tickled with her catch of a plump, 13 inch rainbow trout that she couldn’t stop hugging it! Just a few feet away four year old Jalen battled another lively fish. The expression of sheer excitement on Jalen’s face when his father netted the fish was priceless. Like all the other young anglers, Chloe and Jalen were hoping to catch one of the 100 tagged rainbows amidst the thousands that had been stocked. The tagged fish are 2-3 pounders and were purchased for $30 apiece by generous local businesses and individuals. A child catching a tagged fish wins a tackle box and trophy provided by Jack’s Sports Shop of Kalkaska (231-258-8892). One of the largest sponsors, the Sports Shop sweetened the pot by stocking a mammoth 10 pound rainbow (affectionately named Fat Jack) and one four pounder (little Jack). Unfortunately, neither of these hawgs was landed last year. Hope always abounds for this year. However, the other trout cooperated very well as many kids caught their limit of three fish per child. That made for a nice mess of fish destined for frying pans in kitchens from Detroit to Ironwood.
Trout festival board vice president Ken Waichunas said, “A big part of the festival is to get the kids involved, to get them interested in sports and fishing.” He added, “Next year we are hoping to bring in people with disabilities to fish in the pond the day before the kids do.”
The utter enjoyment of the kids’ contest spans generations. Last year’s trout king, Harry Shipp, shared that many years ago his four year old son, Joe, landed one of the largest fish ever pulled out at the kids’ trout pond. The rainbow was a prize winner and is mounted proudly in Harry’s house.
There are two contests geared toward older anglers, the Native Trout Contest and the Adult Fishing Contest. Both are fierce competitions, with prizes ranging from Jack’s gift certificates to $1000 in cash.
The Native Trout Contest gives away prizes in categories including Brook Trout, Steelhead, and Inland Trout. Anglers can fish any of the local lakes or streams for this challenge. The fisherman landing the largest brookie gets their catch mounted for free by Mike’s Taxidermy. Last year’s steelhead winner, Dan Osen, netted a 12 pounder on a steelhead jig tipped with a wiggler fished under a bobber (a little-known but deadly lure combination).
The Adult Trout fishing contest is sponsored by Chase Bank and Jack’s. 100 tagged rainbows 15-20 inches are stocked in three local lakes: Geurnsey, Log, and Twin. One of the fish is worth a cool $1,000 to the lucky winner. No one caught it last year but Kalkaskan Dave Park landed the lucky 18″ ‘bow the year before. He got it on what is probably the most widely used trout bait on the planet, a nightcrawler.
In addition to garden hackle, other popular techniques used by both native and adult trout contestants included small spinners, Rapalas (extra deadly with a waxworm hooked on the back treble), wet and dry flies.
The partnership between Jack’s and the trout festival goes back all the way back to the 60s. Jack’s employee, Mitch Pare, said, “Jack’s has been very involved with the trout fest fishing contest for about as long as we’ve been here. The shop opened in Kalkaska in 1965.”
Fishing is far from the only attraction to the festival. The industrious festival committee and local sponsors (including Glen’s Market, Great Lakes and Merit Energy Companies, and several radio stations) schedule as many events as fly patterns in an angler’s vest. In addition to the fishing contest, kids have a blast at the large carnival, Grand Parade, fireworks display, Whispering Pines Animal Kingdom/Reptile display, and even a Kalkaska Idol contest. Older participants enjoy events including Battle of the Bands, Rotary-Wood Memorial Race, Softball tournament, Timber Wolf Golf Outing and Moose Lodge Car Cruise / Poker Run.
The best news is that, even if you’re pinching pennies these days, the entire family can attend the festival at a relatively low cost. Many of the events are free (fishing contests, parade, fireworks, other). This year, those purchasing a $2 trout festival collectors’ button can get into many activities at no extra cost. These include the entertainment tents, Shady Belle Saloon, Animal Kingdom, and Battle of the Bands. The organizers have a few more cards up their sleeves this year as they have added a full-blown lumberjack show and horse pull to the docket. These events will also be free if you have purchased a button.
We calculated that a family of four can enjoy the festival for no more than $75 including the carnival, lunch and dinner. Speaking of food, the fact that trout are pleasing to the palate is not lost on the planning committee. They kick off the festival each year with a “taste of trout” event featuring salmonid delights from six local restaurants.
Many of the events are centered in the downtown area on Cedar St. (US-131). Plenty of affordable lodging is available; motels, cabins, and campsites abound. We recommend you call the Kalkaska Chamber of Commerce at (231) 258-9103 or visit their website at www.kalkaskami.com for detailed accommodations information. When visiting the festival, your first stop should be at the chamber to get detailed maps and event information. You can’t miss it-just look for the largest brook trout in the land, a colorful 14 foot fountain statue right out front.
Way back in the 1930s the Michigan Department of Conservation (today’s MDNR) must have realized the potential for Kalkaska area trout angling. In 1933 they stocked over 750,000 rainbow trout in local lakes and rivers and the “fishing holiday” event morphed in to the first National Trout Festival. It’s been going like gangbusters ever since. So, gather up your school of minnows and go Troutin’ Around the World in Kalkaska this opening trout weekend.