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Southern Michigan's Brown Beauties

Southern Michigan's Brown Beauties

Why head north for a chance to tap the brown trout bite this spring when southern Michigan offers a number of perfectly suitable brown trout fisheries within striking distance of our major metro areas? (March 2010)

When it comes to catching brown trout in Michigan, most people immediately think of the Au Sable, Manistee, Pere Marquette and other northern Michigan rivers. With their cold, oxygen-rich waters, gravel bottoms and swift currents, they provide ideal brown trout habitat.

Still, anglers shouldn't overlook the bevy of rivers and creeks in southern Michigan that hold big, healthy browns.

"Southern rivers are really at the upper end of the (brown trout) temperature range," said Michigan Department of Natural Resources fisheries biologist Jay Wesley. "But southern streams tend to be more productive, meaning there's more nutrients in the system than can be found in northern streams."

Read on for a look at some of the premier waters in southern Michigan where you stand a good chance of hooking up with a big brown when the 2010 Michigan inland trout season opens on April 24.

Muskegon River & Tributaries
Moving from west to east across the Lower Peninsula, the first major river to hit for browns is the Muskegon. The "Big Mo" is Michigan's second-longest river, behind the Grand. It begins in Houghton Lake in Roscommon County, flowing southwest until it empties into Muskegon Lake, which then empties into Lake Michigan. Spanning more than 2,700 square miles, the Muskegon Watershed is larger than the state of Delaware.

"Without question, the Muskegon is one of the most prolific trout rivers in Michigan," said Chad Betts, owner of Bett's Guide Service in Newaygo ( "It's home to a huge variety of insects, which makes it a great trout fishery."


Betts has been guiding anglers on the tailwater river since 1996. Do-it-yourself anglers will find numerous access points between the Croton Dam and 14 Mile Road in Newaygo. There's also public access at the Thornapple state boat launch and Henning Park. Ninety-four tributaries flow into the Muskegon. Those that lie above the Croton Dam, like Little Muskegon River and Tamarack Creek, offer good brown trout fishing.

"The Little Muskegon is often overlooked because it doesn't have a lot of public access," explained Betts. "But you can float a canoe from County Line Bridge to the Croton Reservoir and catch monster browns."

Grand River & Tributaries
At 260 miles long, the Grand is the longest river in the Great Lakes State. Its headwaters begin in Somerset Township in Hillsdale County, flowing through the counties of Jackson, Ingham, Eaton, Clinton, Ionia, Kent and Ottawa before emptying into Lake Michigan at Grand Haven. Long before roads and railroads were constructed, the Grand was used by American Indians, explorers and settlers to travel through Michigan's Lower Peninsula.

According to Wesley, most tributaries that run into the Grand in Kent County are great places to catch brown trout. The Rogue River in particular is a haven for browns. It is fed by wetlands, county drains and both warm- and cold-water tributaries, the latter of which help to sustain trout in the river's southern section.

"The Rogue is southern Michigan's largest pure trout stream, and it's stocked annually with both brown and rainbow trout," said MTU Perrin Chapter president and writer Jim Bedford (Lansing). "Other good tributaries for catching brown trout include Coldwater Creek near Freeport, Fish Creek upstream from Carson City and Prairie Creek up from Ionia."

Finally, the east branches of Crockery Creek and Sand Creek both hold brownies ripe for the catching. But public access is limited, so be sure to ask for permission before casting a line.

"The best brown I ever caught was 28 inches long, and I got it out of Sand Creek at Aman Park," said Eric Nummerdor of Allendale. "I've also caught a bunch between 18 and 26 inches out of Crockery Creek."

St. Joseph & Tributaries
Locally known as the St. Joe, the St. Joseph River is about 205 miles long and has headwaters near Hillsdale in Calhoun County. From there it flows to the southwest past Tekonsha, Union City and Sherwood. It then travels into Indiana and runs through Elkhart and South Bend, where it turns again to the north to re-enter Michigan in southeastern Berrien County. After meandering northwest through Niles and Berrien Springs, it enters Lake Michigan between St. Joseph and Benton Harbor.

The St. Joe offers some of the best public access for brown trout fishing. Berrien Springs, Buchanan and Niles all have extensive shoreline fishing access.

"Dodd Park in Cass County has good public access," noted Wesley. "The main river is difficult to wade-fish, because the river was channelized about 100 years ago and the banks are really steep."

Just about every tributary in Berrien County is a good place to catch browns. The Dowagiac in particular offers a cornucopia of big brownies. Beginning near Decatur, the creek offers anglers the best fishing between M-51 and Niles.

Another good tributary is Nottawa Creek in Calhoun County. Anglers can find fabulous open-water fishing under its banks, where brown trout congregate.

Kalamazoo River & Tributaries
The Kalamazoo is a large warm-water stream that begins as both north and south branches. The South Branch starts in Moscow Township in Hillsdale County and flows north and west through Homer before joining the North Branch in Albion in Calhoun County. Its North Branch begins in southern Jackson County and flows north and west through Concord before reaching Albion. The Kalamazoo then flows mostly westward through Marshall, Battle Creek and Augusta, then shifts to the northwest, flowing into Lake Michigan at Saugatuck in Allegan County.

While the main stream gets too warm to hold trout, most of its tributaries do.

"Calhoun, Allegan and Kalamazoo counties are great places to pick up a tributary and fish for brown trout," said Wesley.

One such tributary is Rice Creek in Calhoun County. The lower part of the creek offers the best trout fishing. Rice Creek is fairly stable, giving trout many opportunities to develop and reach their potential.

Augusta Creek in Kalamazoo County is another good trout tributary, but only because the MDNR annually stocks it with browns at Michigan State University's Kellogg Forest, near the M-89 crossing, C Avenue, EF Avenue and 43rd Street. Located

halfway between Kalamazoo and Battle Creek, the Augusta gets too warm for brown trout to flourish.

North of Kalamazoo is Spring Brook, which offers great habitat for wild browns to reproduce. At its headwater in north-central Kalamazoo County, Spring Brook is a Type 1 stream, so trout must be at least 8 inches to keep (see sidebar). From DE Avenue to its mouth, Spring Brook is a Type 2 stream, where trout must be 12 inches to keep. Look for an old railroad trail to gain public access to the creek.

Clinton River & Johnson Creek
In general, the rivers and streams in southeast Michigan are too warm to support a healthy population of brown trout. Still, there are a few bodies of water that give anglers an opportunity to catch brownies.

The first is the Clinton River. The river's headwaters are located in Springfield and Independence townships in Oakland County. The river is piped under downtown Pontiac, re-emerging on the east side of the city. Both its north and middle branches rise in northern Macomb County and join the main branch in Clinton Township. The main branch of the Clinton flows 80 miles to Lake St. Clair in Harrison Township.

While its main branch supports a thriving rainbow trout population, the best place to catch browns is in its main tributary, Paint Creek in Oakland County. From Lake Orion down to the Clinton River, anglers will find good brown trout fishing. The MDNR annually stocks the entire length of the Paint Creek with brown trout.

"The river's a great resource for the metro area and it provides really good access from Lake Orion to Rochester," said MDNR Lake Erie Management Unit fisheries biologist Jim Francis. "Anglers can follow the Paint Creek Trail, where they'll find a number of good spots to access the river."

Since 2004, the MDNR has been managing the brown trout that inhabit the main branch of the Clinton. Through studies they've conducted in collaboration with Trout Unlimited, they've found that the Gilchrist Creek strain of brown trout does the best in terms of growing and reproducing in the Clinton. (Editor's Note: The other two strains used by the MDNR are the Wild Rose and Seeforellen.)

Tackle and Techniques
When it comes to brown trout, no single tackle or technique stands out from the rest. Browns are known for eating just about anything, so anglers have had success using a variety of lures and live bait. If the body of water is large enough, fly-fishing works well, provided the angler uses a natural presentation and is adept at preventing a cunning brown from entangling and snapping the line in a river obstacle. Unlike rainbows, browns don't usually put on acrobatic displays when hooked. They prefer heading for cover, much to the chagrin of the fly-fisher. Dry-fly fishing is another excellent way to catch browns because they rise well to these crafty presentations that mimic what's floating on the surface.

Remember to tailor your flies to the water conditions and to the time of year you're fishing. In early spring, browns will be actively searching for aquatic insects. Using streamers, minnows or mayfly nymphs with darker shaded patterns works best this time of year. If you're not sure what browns are likely to be feeding on in a particular river or stream, contact local fly-fishing guides to learn what patterns are in season.

Spin-fishing is another great way to catch brownies, especially if you have a difficult time making precise placements around cover. With a few turns of the reel or twitch of the rod tip, you can present offerings that mimic freely drifting trout food. Small jigs can be dead-drifted alone or under a floater. Marabou jigs in particular work well for drifting, while bucktail jigs provide a quicker drop and will get down into brown trout country better in swift currents.

Finally, don't forget about live bait. Mature browns love to feed on night crawlers, small minnows or even small brown trout.

Regardless of the type of equipment you use and where you fish, always remember that the beauty of trout fishing is in the cold, crisp water and serene surroundings -- not in the number of fish you catch.

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