Looking for a huge brown trout, one the size of a king salmon? Try the Lake Michigan coast near Frankfort.
When Casey Richey boated a World Record 36lb. 13 oz. monster brown at Frankfort last Mother’s Day, it was no accident. While the record 10 lb. line class record is the biggest ever taken in Michigan, if you check the fishing records you will notice the hottest month of the year for trophy brown trolling in the Great Lakes is May. Here’s why.
Back in the day, when I was a beach dweller and haunted the Lake Michigan surf, piers and river outlets in search of beer-belly brown trout as long as your leg and with the proportions of a king salmon, I learned one important lesson: late April provides excellent fishing but the waters of the Great Lakes are cold and the big fish show when water warms and baitfish swarm the shallows. My rule of thumb was the best time for catching the big dogs was the second week in May. Back then, I’d catch hundreds of browns and there were years when the average weight was 5-8 pounds. Heck, with fond memories I recall an outing to the Alberta pier when I beached a limit of browns and every fish was silvery, firm-fleshed and weighing over 15 pounds. The same golden rule still holds today, May is the hottest brown month of the year.
It is no accident that Richey slammed the new state record and set the fishing world on its ear with a line class world record. Casey is a brown trout fishing guru. You see, his father was George Richey, the well known creator of custom fishing flies and squids used by thousands of anglers in the pristine water of Platte Bay and other salmon hideouts. George lived on Platte Lake, knew how to catch spring browns and introduced Casey to the sport at a young age. Casey grew up boating limits of football browns and he has a trolling technique that is well refined. He knows when to fish, which lure to use, how far to run it back, which color is best and has his trolling speed exact. You see, it has been his goal for many years to catch Michigan’s largest brown and his lifelong dream came true last Mother’s Day.
Casey understands that timing is the key to success. Go when the water is too cold and the big boys will be lethargic and reluctant to strike trolled lures. Wait until May when Great Lakes water temperatures warm and the watery environment becomes teeming with baitfish. First, smelt wander toward shore. Their migration draws predatory trout from the depths of the Great Lakes and stacks monster browns along the beach. Next, alewives gather in massive schools and congregate near river outlets and along sandy beaches where longer days and bright sun warms the shallows. The alewife migration is essential to entice open water dwelling browns to the shallows in spring.
Just out of curiosity, is there a reason that Michigan’s top monster browns have come from a tiny bit of shoreline in northwest Lake Michigan? You bet! After studying the phenomenon for years I’ve come to an interesting conclusion: Michigan’s monster browns are actually migratory browns planted in Wisconsin, not Michigan. Prevailing westerly winds and migrating baitfish draw Badger State transplants to Michigan’s beaches in spring, where they stay until midsummer and then disappear as they move back to home waters. Most are a direct result of massive plants in Door County which has a history of planting over 350 thousand browns yearly. It is also my opinion that these really big browns have followed the identical course, traveled to northwest Michigan’s coast on more than one occasion. I’m talking about a narrow strip of coast that is from Manistee to East Platte Bay. This zone is where Wisconsin monster browns tend to congregate in May and can serve up world class trolling opportunities for those willing to ply the waters with minnow imitation lures.
Don’t get me wrong. You can catch browns from New Buffalo to Traverse City, most are relatively small two-pounders and they are caught on a variety of lures. Oh sure, there is an army of trollers that use salmon tactics for spring browns and they catch their share of fish. But those in the know, the brown trout trolling gurus, understand that this brand of fishing requires specialized tactics.
First, start by concentrating on the shallows. I’m talking less than 20 ft of water and don’t overlook the power of river outlets like Manistee, Arcadia, Onekama, Frankfort and Platte River. This brand of fishing is ideal for small aluminum boats that have a small profile and can wiggle into the shallows without spooking wary fish. Most use minnow imitation lures. The trick is to get lures far from the boat using in-line planer boards like Church’s Walleye board, which has a space age material on the line clip that does not weaken light mono needed to fool shy fish in skinny water. Some boats run only two boards, others place three on each side with lures at least 100 ft. behind the board. Richey’s big hawg slammed a Rapala set 100 ft. back.
Downriggers and Dipsies pulling spoons will catch fish too, especially if you are trolling the harbor at Manistee or Frankfort where fish tend to congregate 15-25 ft. deep in boat traffic or on sunny days. Browns are boat-shy so keep leads at least 35-50 ft. from the boat. Harbor trolling is fun, especially if a north blow pushes cold water along the expansive beach and warm water hugging browns school by the hundreds in the warm current inside the cement piers. What is interesting is the same changing water condition also congregates baitfish in the exact location. I’ve seen schools of browns inside the Frankfort harbor and Manistee piers that are breaking the surface like salmon stacked below the fish hatchery. Sometimes the big water browns are located upstream at the boat launch.
While two-pounders seem very aggressive and will slam almost any presentation, big fish are different. In order to fool them you need to concentrate on running lures way back, 100-150 ft. behind the board is ideal. One trick is to locate swirling schools of browns chasing baitfish in the skinny water and run a board through the feeding zone. The key to brown trolling success is location. The warm water plume at a river mouth can hold baitfish and browns but if southwest winds and sunny days draw fish to the beach you can expect to find limit catches almost anywhere along the neverending coast. At times the fishing is fast-paced at Alberta; the next week browns are stacked at Herring Creek and when strong winds blow warm water around Point Betsie you can count on Platte Bay teeming with big’ole browns chasing alewife in the shallows.
The debate rages on regarding which lure produces the most browns. Of course Rapala minnow imitation lures rank at the top. Richey’s fish slam dunked a N0. 9 floating Rapala silver/ chartreuse in less than 6 ft. of water, placed 100 ft. behind a planer board. Other productive sticks include: Reef Runner Little Nipper, Rapala #11, Husky Jerk, Yo-Zuri Crystal Minnow, Storm Jr. Thunderstick Smithwick Suspending Rogue, Rebel Fastrac and Pin Minnow. Use natural colors in clear water and go to fluorescent hues in discolored water or river outlets.
While Michigan’s DNR is still experimenting with a variety of brown stains and planting locations the area from Manistee to Frankfort still serves up trophy class brown fishing. Brute brown trolling will peak in May and with the cold spring of 2008 you can count on good fishing until early June. Hey, if you are fishing Frankfort and see a man and a young boy trolling, take a good peek; it could easily be Casey Richey teaching his son Shane the tradition of trophy brown fishing.n