Spoon fed BROWNS
A warm breeze came from the south as the bright blue sky gave way to low hanging slate gray clouds that threatened rain. That’s when the Great Lakes brown trout turned on like someone flicked a switch and they started slamming lures. First a three-pounder gulped a Dreamweaver spoon behind a Dipsy Diver and a second strike indicated the action was going bonkers. The next fish grabbed a brightly colored Warrior spoon, violently shook its head and ripped line off the drag as the brute went deep and hugged bottom. My fishing buddy Erik Conner from Ionia grabbed the bent double rod as the Stealth Lund trolled downwind in about 20 feet of Lake Michigan emerald green water. The big trout sulked near bottom and slowly swam under the boat. Fearing tangled lines I quickly pulled rods and cleared the deck for a slug fest with the stubborn big fish. Erik leaned back on the rod and coaxed the trophy off bottom and eventually it rushed the surface at lightning speed, splashed at the surface and ripped line off the drag as it sprinted behind the craft. After a couple more line ripping runs the large brown eased into plain view. That’s when I almost had a heart attack at the sight of the beer-belly brown trout with huge gaping maw, teeth like a gator and dots along its flanks the size of a quarter. I could see every detail of the monster brown in the gin clear water as the net finally slipped under its flanks.
The huge square tail illustrated it was absolutely a brown trout and its large kype or bulbous knob on the end of its lower jaw indicated it was an adult male. Erik lifted the fish as I slid the Rapala digital scale under its gill plate and watched as the numbers went to 13 lbs. 12 oz. “That’s a good fish”; yelled Conner as I snapped digital photos of the beautiful fish with a 4-inch Net Results UV Warrior spoon dangling from its maw.
The conditions were ideal and the fish responded by slamming spoons like runaway missiles on a computerized assignment. South winds rolled the warmer surface water into the tiny bay and in a few hours we had a cooler full of Great Lakes silvery brown trout.
Each spring countless Michigan big water anglers rush to the Lake Michigan coast in search of brown trout that are huge by most brown trout standards. Young Lake Michigan fish are generally about 2 pounds, the larger fish range from 5-10 pounds, trophy fish weighing over 12 pounds and the monsters coming in over 20 pounds. Each spring monster beer belly brown trout are caught along the Lake Michigan shore from Michigan City to Traverse City as warming trends bring baitfish and predator fish close to the beach.
But each spring is different. Some years the fishing is on/off like a light switch and if you hit the hot bite it is fantastic. Cool weather and east winds can send browns packing and the fishing goes sour pronto. But one constant remains the same regardless of weather or location, browns love spoons. From the cliffs at Elberta to the Grand Traverse Bay to Alpena reefs or from the Saugatuck bank to the harbor at Manistee the equation remains identical. Browns plus spoons equals fishing success.
Certainly there are many variations in spoon size, color and action that make them all somewhat different. As a rule magnum spoons don’t work and super bright colors used for fall salmon are not the ticket. Flutter type hammered silver spoons with blue or green have been top producers in the regular size although some spring trollers only use the thin varieties that tend to mimic smelt. But if you get your trolling speed between 1.5-3 mph you can count on brown action. Although for my boat the ideal speed is 2-2.3 mph going downwind and 2.3-3 mph going into the wind, waves and current.
Savvy captains hit the water shortly after ice out and concentrate on river outlets or warm water discharges where early season browns tend to congregate. Lake Michigan’s action starts in the southern regions but as water temperatures increase the browns start snapping all along the coast. Ideal conditions are highlighted by warm spring rain, bright sun and an overall warm weather front coming from the southwest. These conditions tend to stack the warmest water in Lake Michigan along the western coast. Browns follow warm water masses and end up along the beach or near river outlets. Benton Harbor/St. Joseph is a hot spot for early browns and as April turns to May you can count on top notch brown trolling action all along Lake Michigan’s beach. The kiss of death is cold weather highlighted by easterly prevailing winds that will blow the warm water away from the beach and upwelling cold water from the deep lake invades the shoreline.
Early spring trollers pull stick baits behind inline boards to fool shallow water browns hovering near shore. But as temperatures increase the bite turns to spoons pulled a variety of ways. Since browns occupy relatively shallow water, less than 30 ft. in early spring most offerings are set relatively shallow. Inline boards are used to take mini divers or Big Jon disks pulling spoons far to the boatside. Dipsy divers set on #3 take spoons off both sides of the boat and downriggers are usually set 6-25 ft. deep.
One of my deadliest tactics is to use a 24 oz. lead weight in place of a large downrigger lead ball that spooks skinny water browns. I let the spoon out behind my boat, 12-50 ft., attach it to the 24 oz. ball using a Church Tackle Super clip, then lower the weight to the desired depth. A line counter reel is used to take the weight the exact depth you desire and when you hook a fish the weight stays on the line, acts like a huge shock absorber, helps to keep the line tight and tires out the fish. You simply reel up the snap, unhook it and fight the fish with no weight on the line. Another secret with this tactic is you place the spoon long distances behind the weight, say 50-150 ft. This increases strikes from wary trout in shallow water that avoid the sound and shadow of your boat. At river mouths or in stained water you can run lures much closer and outfishes the boys pulling monster cannonballs that spook more fish than most trollers can imagine.
Other times I’ll sweep the beach with clean spoons set far behind Church Walleye boards. I like to place spoons at least 50 ft. behind boards and run the inline planers over the first sandbar into skinny water less than 10 ft. deep. Big’ole fat browns will be patrolling the coast for food, wallowing in the warmest water in the entire lake, and sulking in the shallows. The action of the board wakes ’em up and they slam the trailing spoon like they are pissed about the flashy lure invading their space. At times you will see them charging behind boards and witness boils in the water when shallow fish go bonkers on the end of the line.
Spring browns love to patrol the shore on the deep side of sandbars. In early morning they parade between the bars but come daylight they slide into deeper water where they can stalk baitfish undetected. This is the time to run mini divers, disks or lead weight in front of spoons to take them deeper. Again the offering is placed behind inline boards and the spoons are sent far to the side of the boat. Dipsy divers will take plenty of fish when they move deeper. Some days the Dipsies will outfish downriggers, boards and snapweights. There is something powerfully addictive about the frantic action of a spoon set 6-10 ft. behind a Dipsy. The action simply drives fish wild and many times those big males will come on divers as if they are aggressively attacking intruders to their watery world.
Michigan’s DNR is doing a fair job of planting browns but they have a long way to go to catch up with the fantastic fishing found in Door County, Wisconsin, where they plant over 350, 000 browns or New York waters of Lake Ontario. Sorry, guess you know I’m a DNR basher and bitch constantly about how they could create better hunting and fishing if they would get off their tail feathers. But this is the time, now is the era to replenish Michigan’s Great Lakes brown stocks. The reason is factually very simple… browns eat gobies!!!
I cut my teeth casting Little Cleo spoons from Lake Michigan piers at Grand Haven, Saugatuck, Muskegon, Pentwater, and Manistee. I’ve seen limit catches trolling at Elberta, Frankfort and massive schools brushing the beach at the mouth of the Platte River. Lord knows I love those 12-20 pound hawgs that frequent Leland and the Grand Traverse Bays. It goes without saying that I’ve come to understand the deadliest lure going for spring brown is spoons.
Michigan fishermen are fortunate to have unbelievable variety in spoon color and size made right here in the Wolverine State. This gives trollers a big advantage when offering vividly colored, flashing spoons that draw the attention of feeding browns. Browns seem to like the smelt thin profile variety like a Warrior Flutter Spoon, Dreamweaver Super Slim or Fuzzy Bear, Stinger Spoons or Jr. Silver Streak.
In discolored water try spoons that have gaudy patterns like: Mixed Veggies, Huckleberry, Glow Green, Yellow Knight, Firefly or Tequila Sunrise. In the clear water of the Great Lakes stick with blue/silver or green/silver patterns like: Blue Perch, Green Huckleberry, Blue Dolphin, Blue Perch, Lemon ice and more.
Last spring Benton Harbor brown fishing was excellent and as spring progressed and water warmed the hot fishing moved north to Saugatuck, Grand Haven, Pentwater, Manistee and Frankfort. Platte Bay can be awesome fishing if you can get your boat down the river to Lake Michigan and back.
Tawas has a brown fishery that is closely related to the smelt run. When the forage moves close to the beach the browns follow and fishing can be very productive. Don’t overlook the night fishing using Tawas City lights and the trolling available at Point Lookout, Whitestone Point and mouth of the East Branch of the AuGres River.
What about you? Are you prepared to catch browns as long as your leg? Got your gear ready? Are you watching the Doppler radar and weather for a warm spell with prevailing westerly winds? Do you have your favorite spoons ready to hit the water?