My buddy Jack Duffy and I could hardly contain our excitement as we slipped past swirling holes full of trout. I begged Jack to stop and allow me a few casts. He insisted that we continue to a honey hole in search of a huge brown trout with a massive white tipped kype nicknamed “Booger Nose” by Grayling natives. I thought he had completely lost his mind and we had no chance of hooking the legendary brown trout on opening day. I was dead wrong!
We were fishing the AuSable River near Grayling where it intersected with the Kid’s Stream that flowed from the DNR trout hatchery. Several monster trout were released by hatchery workers and the big brutes would roam from the trout rearing facility to the main branch of the Au-Sable. It is rugged terrain along the mighty AuSable lined with brush and endless cedar swamps. But the fish friendly crystal clear water is ideal trout habitat where the hatchery raised models lived to monumental size.
Three canoes had already passed the location where Jack knew the big brown was hiding. As skeptical as I was about Jack’s fishing hole, I knew his instincts to catch record stream brown trout are unsurpassed. I tied on a favorite nymph and set my strike indicator about three feet, so the black fly would linger just off bottom. Occasionally I would tug the offering upstream, and then let it sit in the current in anticipation of a solid strike. Jack was using a similar presentation and soon we were both hooking into dandy stream trout.
I had a solid strike and when I set the hook my rod bent double and we could see a large torpedo shaped behemoth splash the surface. “That’s him, you hooked Booger Nose!” Jack yelled. The 36-inch long finned submarine made a couple rod pounding head shakes, turned and with a single sweep of his large tail ripped line off my fly reel and dashed into the shadows of a fallen cedar tree with sunken roots. I could feel my line rubbing on submerged branches, then it tightened and with a violent tug the monofilament leader snapped. I felt sick, heartbroken that I lost the trophy fish but we continued fishing and soon had our limit of feisty spring trout. However, doing battle with a record book brown trout burned deep into my memory. Just the sight of his huge white maw, large black spots and wide open eyes was an exhilarating trout fishing opportunity that happens very seldom. Every winter I dream about the monster brown, the rushing water babbling over rocks and sand and the sweet aroma of aquatic life on a Michigan trout stream and I can’t wait for opener.
The huge brown was eventually caught by a Grayling kid and it made the cover of the local newspaper announcing the trophy catch which weighed over 18 pounds. Even though many people catch trout on the AuSable, the colossal trout was rare, legendary and I was fortunate to have a firsthand encounter with the monster. Since then I’ve had many trout outings but the exciting experience hooked me on trout opener fishing. This is also the case for many Michigan trout chasers. The lucky few do battle in close quarters with a behemoth or smart stream fish that simply kicks butt and serves up an everlasting bitter pill of humiliation. Most importantly the battle automatically kicks in an adrenaline rush leaving you shaking and kindles everlasting sweet memories that keep you coming back on opener for more.
Opening day has a strong Michigan tradition and many trout clubs will come alive long before opener. There will be card playing among members, plenty of wild game dinners, cold drinks and expensive liquor as trout anglers rally for opening day. Most camping sites are full and off road vehicles will pound winding sand trails to reach distant trout hot spots. Trout opener has a strong following and thousands of wader clad anglers take to local streams regardless of rain, wind, fishing pressure or high water. Most venture afield simply because it is the opener.
At times the fishing conditions are ideal and catches are impressive. Everyone is geeked to be the first angler to cast to receptive fish that have not seen a hook since last September. Many times virgin trout provide unmatched action and slam offerings but cold weather, snow or frost can put a damper on hot bites. Over the years I’ve had best luck when warm spring rain brings oxygen, nitrogen and warming high water.
On many Michigan streams you will need to release undersized trout or fish that are over 15 inches long. Check the Michigan Fishing Digest for regulations, size limits, daily possession limit and specialized rules regarding the water you intend to fish. If the trout are snapping it is not unusual to land plenty in a single outing.
Trout bite a variety of flies, lures and bait come opener. Dry fly fishermen may have to really work to get a take but if they switch to sinking midges, nymphs or scuds their hook-up rate will definitely increase.
As a kid I spent countless hours fishing for trout on the Cedar River near Gladwin. I spent just about every weekend chasing local browns and rainbows and called the stream home. Man, I dreamed about those beautiful trout all winter and when opener arrived I wouldn’t sleep the night before and I’d be on the water before daylight. I learned a lot about trout while plying the swift currents of the Cedar, Sugar, AuSable, Pere Marquette and East Branch of the AuGres. On small streams I hammered fish using garden worms dug fresh from grandma’s chicken coop. My strategy was simple, stalk along trout streams wearing polarized sunglasses to pinpoint deep holes and fish holding structure like fallen trees, boulders, logs and more. I’d sneak side-stream or upstream from holes and bottom bounce lively worms in the current. The tactic was deadly when I’d place a couple #7 split shot two-foot above an Eagle claw style 181 size #8 hook. But once in a while I’d see larger fish that ignored my presentation. Eventually I made the move to casting small spinners like Panther Martin, Mepp’s and Rooster Tails. The switch to spinners brought fewer trout but my overall size increased.
To make a long story short, I began catching steelhead and found the deadliest tactic was float fishing using a small micro jig tipped with a wax worm. So, I began throwing jigs for stream trout and had fantastic success on Michigan trout streams. I’d use 1/80 and 1/100-ounce models on creeks and 1/60-ounce size jigs on slightly larger streams. While black and white are the hottest colors going I hand painted some models green or brown and matched up feathers from wood duck or hen mallard. The drab colors imitate nymphs and small crustaceans.
I’d drift the small jigs below a float and the small profile did not spook wary trout and I could use the tactic in deep slow moving holes without disturbing skittish fish. Floats drift naturally with the current and provide a realistic presentation drawing big trout from shadowy lairs. They have an insect profile with meal appeal and trout attack them like no other.
I like to walk upstream to likely trout hideouts. However, I prefer to fish floats by casting side stream and allow the offering to drift with the current downstream. This means standing upstream from trout and I learned to avoid wading while wearing bright clothing that can spook wary trout. Sure, in larger rivers you can wade like crazy but in most Michigan trout streams highlighted by clear relatively shallow water I found you gotta go stealthy with your approach.
You really have to scale down your gear for fishing micro jigs in creeks. For small streams and creeks, I like a 6 ft. light action rod with fast action tip and reel spool filled with 8 lb. test. I use a small ant size black barrel swivel made by Blackbird set 18 inches above the jig. The split shot size you use is determined by the current; for most creeks I like one shot or a couple BB shot above the swivel. I like to use fluorocarbon Seaguar line for leader material.
Back in those days when I chased big trout on the AuSable near Grayling I would roll creek rocks and catch hellgrammites. They bite the heck out of you but if you toss them into trout water you better hang on to your rod. Duffy and I would spend daylight catching hellgrammites and when the sun went down we would position above large holes and drift the black demons into deep pools. Big river browns would leave the comfort of undercut banks and snag infested holes and slide into feeding position above holes and in deep runs. We would roll the hellgrammites across the sand bottom and feeding trout absolutely slam this offering. I think they hit the crustaceans hard as heck because they don’t want to get pinched.
My grandparents were caretakers on the McCarther ranch found on the banks of the AuSable River northwest of Grayling and when I was a kid I went bonkers over brook trout. I grew up on Sand Hill Lake found near Hartwick Pines State Park with the AuSable River in our back yard. I learned how to catch dainty, beautiful trout on a fly rod before I was a teen. I tried every fly, bait and stream fishing tactic to put brookies in my creel. But it wasn’t until I learned how to catch Great Lakes trout and salmon that I hit on the hottest brookie treat going, cut spawn.
You know brookies are robust biters and will eagerly take a spinner, fly and any bait. But if you take a quarter-size chunk of fresh salmon or steelhead roe and put it on a hook and cast it gently into a brookie stream you will catch trout like you never dreamed possible. My strategy was to use a couple #4 split shot 19 inches above a single hook and hold the egg cluster at the head of holes choked with brush, snags and undercut banks. Just hold cut spawn in the current and watch it milk into the stream and send a strong chemical message to trout holding downstream. Brookies go bonkers for the fishy odor and will slip from cover and dash upstream and pounce on the offering. Sometimes two or three trout will race for the egg cluster treat and you get to witness the savage attack up close. If your goal is to catch a big brookie this spring, ya better find a source for skein.
The trick is to get some skein, cut it into bite size pieces and roll the bait in 20 Mule Team Borax powder soap. The Borax cures the skein, tightens the membrane and makes it easier to handle. I keep king eggs caught in August and put them in a Foodsaver plastic bag, suck the air out and freeze. Come opener I thaw the skein, cut with scissors and sprinkle with Borax. Hey, cut skein also works for brown trout, catfish and just about any fish that swims. Try it!
Like many trout chasers I grew up in Michigan’s North Country fishing trout on a daily basis. Back in the 60s I drove a Volkswagen Bug down sand trails and had miles of river all to myself. I became friends with trout club members and enjoyed fresh fried trout cooked crispy served with wine in a log cabin on the banks of the mighty AuSable. The smell of cedar and pine enhanced the wilderness environment where I learned the importance of opening day of trout season.
Trout streams are awesome places for family, friends and kids, young or old. Most are closed during winter but come the last Saturday in April they come to life as fishermen scurry to test the waters. The good news is that streams and rivers will soon be opening and they are filled with trout. There is no better time than now to plan a trip. I guarantee you won’t be disappointed.