Fishin’ for Trout

Escanaba River fishing
Escanaba River, Photography by Aaron Peterson

Trout are the fish that set Michigan apart from most of its Midwestern neighbors. They have a long and storied history in Michigan; Hemingway wrote about them, and the highly regarded conservation group Trout Unlimited was conceived in the state.

Oddly enough, two of Michigan’s three species of stream trout are not native to the state. Rainbow trout were first brought in from the West Coast in 1876, and brown trout, which are European natives, arrived in 1883. Both now are as much a part of Michigan as using your hand to show where something is located.

Brook trout, the state’s official fish, are native to the Mitten State. These are the residents of tiny jump-across brooks and alder-choked rivulets in the northern two-thirds of the state.

There are some 12,000 miles of trout streams in Michigan, ranging from narrow creeks to fast-flowing rivers. Some shine more brightly than others. Here are my top five, chosen for ambience, quality fly hatches and just plain good fishing:

Au Sable River: Any discussion of Michigan trout begins at the Au Sable, a world-renowned fishery that helped give trout the status they hold across the globe. The 138-mile river, which is dammed in places, ranges from a shallow, gentle stream near Grayling to a wide, fast-flowing river below Mio. Fishing regulations vary from flies-only, no-kill water in some more easily waded sections to anything goes in others. The river has all three trout species in some stretches and trophy-quality brown trout in others.

Pere Marquette River: Michigan’s largest undammed trout stream was among the first in America to be stocked with brown trout. And though it is well known for its salmon and steelhead runs, it offers outstanding trout fishing, primarily for browns. Blessed with significant fly hatches, the Pere Marquette changes in character from easily waded, mostly gravel bottom to deep and slower-flowing downstream. The 7-mile flies-only, no-kill water from Baldwin down is noted for good numbers and large specimens.

The Manistee River: Often thought of as a pair with the Au Sable — though it flows to Lake Michigan, not Lake Huron — ‘The Man’ runs for 190 miles through the northwestern Lower Peninsula. Famous for its salmon and steelhead below Tippy Dam, it offers outstanding trout fishing there, too.  Upstream from there, it’s all about trout — primarily browns. The 9.2-mile flies-only stretch, from M-72 to Sunset Trail, is highly regarded by those seeking big browns.

Escanaba River: The Upper Peninsula’s largest trout river is well-known for brook trout in its upper reaches, but its wider stretches produce large browns and rainbows. The stretch below Boney Dam, where trout numbers are supplemented through stocking by an active river association, is easy to wade and offers good public access.

Black River: Widely accepted as Michigan’s best brook trout stream, the Black flows mostly northward through four northeastern Lower Peninsula counties until it merges with the Cheboygan River. It is popular with canoers and waders, with fly anglers as well as bait dunkers. The 4.4-mile stretch from Tin Shanty Bridge Road to Town Corner Lake Stairs in Otsego and Montmorency Counties is artificial lures only, with a 10-inch minimum size limit for brook trout.

Bob Gwizdz is an outdoor writer who works for the Department of Natural Resources and lives in East Lansing.

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