Giant Browns

August 01, 2015

I was brought up by family who cherished browns as though they were the greatest fish in the entire universe; many Michigan fly fishermen love them to no end. Perhaps it is their beautiful markings that set them aside from other fishes.

Or maybe it is the attractive environment where they live that makes them special…

Every stream trout fishermen dreams of landing a monster brown trout the size of a Great Lakes steelhead on a surface fly during the dog days of summer. Most anglers chase them at night on famous rivers like the Pere Marquette, AuSable and other streams having a good May fly hatch and ideal habitat to hold big fish. I intimately know a stretch of the Big Manistee that has beautiful browns long as your arm covered with beautiful dark spots and come the sizzling weather of summer, they go bonkers for a special fly pattern….grasshoppers.

With over 20,000 miles of trout streams, Michigan offers this kind of fishing on several waterways and the secret to success hinges on hot weather and when the hoppers become active. Come July when the weather is sizzling there is a strain of hoppers with bright green legs that flock to the banks of the Big Manistee and dine on the tall green plush grass found only along the river bank. Smart old river brown trout know they are there and you can see large fish lurking in the shallows waiting for a grasshopper to fall from a long blade of grass or hop onto the surface of the calm stream. That’s when all hell breaks loose and hungry browns slash at the surface and gobble the easy meal like a great white shark slurping down a penguin.

I’ve stalked them with telephoto lens and made every effort to capture the action on film but every time I focus on the big trout, see their snapping white jaws and beautiful flanks covered with huge dots; I rush back to the truck and grab my fly rod. Some are simply huge but not as large as the state record 41 pounder caught on a Rapala from the Big Mana that measured 43 inches long. But I’m talking fish that get your heart pounding and keep you fishing when most anglers are mowing grass.

I was brought up by family who cherished browns as though they were the greatest fish in the entire universe; many Michigan fly fishermen love them to no end. Perhaps it is their beautiful markings that set them aside from other fishes. Or maybe it is the attractive environment where they live that makes them special. I must agree the call of a babbling trout stream and sweet smell of the flora along the meandering bank is strong medicine. Brown trout and beautiful clear water streams are part of my soul and there are summer days when I travel to distant trout environs just to wiggle my toes in the swift cool current and dream about hefty catches from days long ago.

Before you catch a big ol’ flopping male brown trout with dark sides and hooked jaw like this you need to put in hard work, be dedicated and timing is critical to get one to bite. Kenny Darwin photos

My grandparents were caretakers on the Ivan McCarther ranch on the AuSable River near Grayling. I spent summers with them under the shade of towering Hartwick pine trees along the clear water trout stream. There were endless days chasing brook and brown trout with fly rod and learning fishing tricks that produced tasty fillets for the fry pan. I’d spend hot summer days with a Mason jar in my hand used to capture grasshoppers for live bait. I learned there were big hoppers, small brown ones and some were lime green, others had all black thorax and abdomen, some varieties trout went crazy over. Put one on a hook and cast into the swirling current of the AuSable and trout would snap them like candy.

Today I use foam artificial hoppers for stream fishing and I’m a firm believer in using two bright colors, black and lime green. The trick is to use a fly that has bright red legs that stick out from the floating body that mimic live hoppers. My favorite has lime green body and bright red pointed legs that attract browns like kids to candy. Although I’ve had excellent luck with yellow grasshopper flies and black body with brown legs.

By the time I was a teenager I could cast a fly a thousand miles and by the time I could drive a 1960 Ford I would travel all over Michigan in search of stream brown trout. Not just pan size eaters, I was on a mission to catch monster browns that tipped the scales over 5 pounds and would fight like a savage Pit Bull when they felt the sting of the hook. My home town was Midland but I got a summer job washing dishes in Prudenville and spent summers chasing big browns on every inch of the mighty AuSable. Heck, I’d even sneak into the kids section below the Grayling fish hatchery at night and land big breeder browns until sunrise. There I matched fishing skills with legendary monster brown over 15 pounds nicknamed Booger Nose because he had a huge white kype and Swayback a large fish that had a bent torso and dorsal fin. The Sturgeon River near Wolverine got plenty of attention back in the day when warm summer weather would send Burt Lake browns surging upstream into the high oxygenated flow and summer fishing was a hoot. At one time my home base was in Grayling and spent countless hours on the Holy water casting flies for huge browns. I quickly learned that serious brown addicts fished the night shift when mayflies were hatching. There is something special about the slurping sound of a big brown under the cover of darkness gobbling spinners. I would sneak close, get the feeding cadence, drop the fly in the zone and feel the solid strike. Fighting a monster brown at night can be a heart pounding experience. One that is downright addictive.

I spent plenty of time chasing brown trout with some of Michigan’s best trout anglers. My high school brown fishing buddy was Jack Duffy who introduced me to catching football browns in Lake Michigan trolling U-20 silver flatfish in Platte Bay. Pulling in those 12 pounders changed fishing for me forever. By the way, Duffy who still charters the Whitecap boat out of Leland, eventually caught the state record brown that tipped the scales around 32 pounds. He was a brown trout fishin’ fool who graduated from stream fishing to Great Lakes trolling and he would catch hundreds of browns over 10 pounds in a single year.

But I still have a place in my heart for the sound of babbling water, the sweet aroma of a natural trout stream far from the hustle and bustle of civilization. Each summer I sneak away to the mighty Manistee with fly rod, wading shoes and hopper flies. I like to fish during mid-day when hoppers are active and use polarized sunglasses to spot and stalk river browns. Some days I’ve got a 6 pounder on the bank at lightning speed, while other days they simply evade me.

One of my secret monster brown spots is a cold water creek that empties into the Manistee. You can literally jump across this creek that is sustained by very cold ground water. When the summer weather is melting pavement and the Manistee warms above 70 degrees huge fish migrate into the creek because the cool water temperature is ideal. I camp a short distance from the river mouth and stalk the tiny tributary by walking upstream in search of big browns.

Some days the hogs are hiding in the shade, in pockets along undercut banks and places where you have a tough time getting hoppers to them. But because the stream is secluded and most trout fishermen have finished by the end of May, I have the creek all to myself. Unmolested trout are frequently sun bathing and sulking in runs where the banks are covered with tall green grasses. You got it, those tall grass blades are home to droves of fat juicy grasshoppers. Sometimes you will hear a hellish splash as trout jump out of the water to gulp a grasshopper clinging to an overhanging stem. I’ve caught trout with a gullet full of hoppers.

On tiny creeks you are flippin’ or roll casting to get a decent presentation. Since I’m after big fish in tight situations I don’t mess with light tippets and use at least 8 lb. fluorocarbon leader. When browns are congregated at the mouth of the creek in the Big Mana I use long distance casting methods and stay far from the cold water outlet that tends to hold big browns in the high oxygenated cool discharge.

This brand of fishing is like stalking a monster buck. You are careful to move slowly, stay in the shadows and sneak along like a panther on the prowl. Dark clothing and a ball cap will dissolve your human outline from the keen eyesight of a trophy trout in clear, shallow water. My favorite color clothing is MSU green. The ball cap keeps shade on your polarized sunglasses and aids in spotting fish.

Wild trout in a natural stream setting are not easy to spot. My eyes have been conditioned after centuries of stalking steelhead, salmon and trout in Michigan’s many waterways. Keep in mind big browns prefer to sulk in the shade where predators like osprey and eagles cannot see them. Their beautiful spots on their back and flanks acts like camouflage to hide their outline. However, the constant movement of their tail or dark shadow on khaki colored sand can help you locate fish. Often a big brown will tuck his head in a shaded location but his tail will stick out behind logs, overhanging branches or dense shadows created by overhanging trees.

If fishing is tough or if I spot a trophy that is under cover I might break down and resort to live bait. Top choices include chunks of king salmon skein; nightcrawlers or I’ll roll stream rocks and catch live hellgrammites.

Big browns are difficult to find in Michigan and I never kill fish unless they are bleeding badly. Catch and release is the name of the game. When it comes to monster browns in small streams , around log jams or thick cover, the rule of thumb is you will land one out of four fish you hook.

Brown trout fight dirty and the minute they feel the sting of the hook they rip line off the reel and sprint for the safety of fallen trees, underwater roots, log infested holes, anything that will help them to break your leader. That’s how the game is played. You work your butt off to get a big fish to bite and when you set the hook the quarry sprints for cover and snaps your line at lightning speed. Ah yes, the refreshing feeling of free flowing cool water on your legs and feet, the fragrant smell of a pristine trout stream in the middle of nowhere and from the riffles comes a savage strike from a 2 foot monster trout that gulps your offering, dashes into a log jam and snaps the line. Gotta love the adrenaline rush!