It has been a long term goal of mine to get back to the Great Lakes to fish for big brown trout. We are talking about the biggest brown trout in North America. All of the Great Lake records for browns exceed 35 LB. and the seeforellen strain is the reason. I will go into that more later. This dream was also shared by my business partner, Mark "The Wizard" Knoch, and we had been kicking the idea around for a couple of years now. The plan actually unfolded into an opportunity to head back to Lake Michigan and film our fourth DVD in the "Monster Trout" series. We had lined up guide, Mike Orr ( www.fiveorrscharters.com ) to fish the Hammond, Indiana area for a couple of days and then we would venture north to fish with guide, Jason Woda (www.reelsensation.com) in the Milwaukee Harbor area of Wisconsin for the remaining two days. Boy was I juiced for this trip! I probably wanted to make this DVD more than any of the previous shoots we had been on. I couldn't wait to get started.
This was going to be a different wrinkle for us on this project. For one, Randy "The Maverick" Larson from (www.BlackDiamondMotion.com) was joining us to handle the filming and editing, which Mark normally handled. Randy is a very creative video-photographer that I had become acquainted with when he lived in Bend a few years back. In fact, we did a segment on a radio show he hosted called "Reels and Rounds" some years back. Mark was going to wear a different hat on this project and would get in front of the camera with me for the first time. We hoped it would change the chemistry a bit. We thought it might be good to add a little youth to go along with my gray hair.
We met Randy early on Sunday morning at Portland International Airport for the first leg of the flight that was going to take us to Seattle and then on directly to O'Hare in Chicago. After we picked up the rented car, we started south and then headed east on our way to Hammond and got off the main highway system and the GPS navigator took us through a part of lower Chicago that I hope I never see again. It was a complete "white knuckle" experience just getting through the "hood", if you know what I mean. We ended up in a smaller hotel the first couple of nights, due to a change in the plans. That was not our first choice, but it seems that our original rental for this leg of the trip decided at the last minute that she was going to Europe and couldn't be bothered dealing with us in her rental. What can you say? Stuff happens, and we made the best of it. Our accommodations in Racine more than made up for it. I'll elaborate more on that later.
The Hammond, Indiana Action
We met Mike Orr and Craig at the dock around 6:30 a. m. Monday morning. We would be fishing a protected bay inside a breakwater just south of where he was moored, probably a 20 minute run in his boat. There is a warm water discharge in the back of that bay that tends to bring browns and cohos into the area in the winter and early spring. We would be fishing in water of 20-40 feet, at the deepest. The discharge water was actually 4-6 degrees warmer and that is quite an attractant for both the alewives (forage) and the salmonids in the colder 40-42 degree water. That is fairly normal for this time of the year. Let me stop here to explain about how they troll on the Great Lakes and how much it differs from what we usually see on the West Coast. First of all, Lake Michigan is huge, basically an inland sea. You can't see a crossed it and the width averages over 80 miles. The weather can dictate your fishing opportunities and in a worst case storm scenario, you could see 20 foot swells that have sunk huge ships in the past. I'm sure many of you over 40 remember the Edmond Fitzgerald, a large freighter that sank in the 70's on the Great Lakes.
Back to rigging for trolling, "Great Lakes style," and what that entails. To optimize your presentations, anglers will employ what I like to call smaller in-line planer boards (Yellow Bird, Church to name a few). These are designed to take your baits or lures out and away from the boat. They can be adjusted to run out about as far as you would like. Then they will run another board out the same side but not as far out, keeping each board about 20-30 feet apart for obvious reasons. Theoretically, you could run up to 3-6 boards out on one side if you so desired. Once you have set several boards, a diver device ( Walker makes one called Deeper Diver) is then put out inside of the board rods and you are able to both run it out the side away from the boat and also deeper because of adjustments you can make to the diver. Since most of the serious anglers back there use downriggers, the final two rods will be set on the riggers and the lures back and adjusted to set back length and depth. When we got the whole set out, we had 12 rods going with a spread of 200 feet between the two outside rods and varying depths to pretty much cover the whole grid.
Unlike the West Coast, spoons are king on the Great Lakes for browns. The flasher/dodger and fly combo is probably the number one attractant and accounts for the greatest numbers of king and coho salmon with plugs and stick baits falling in third. In fact, I may employ some spoons a little more myself for browns this season. Considering all the rods we had out, we pretty much had it covered while dragging dodger/fly combos, spoons, stick baits, and dodgers with frozen alewives. When the sun got a little higher, you could feel the bite come on and soon we were into doubles and triples each time we made a run through the schools we located. It was a little like shooting ducks in a barrel for a while and Mike had it dialed in. We would run into a school and 3-4 rods would go off. When we got out of the fish, we would spin a turn and then hit them again from a slightly different angle depending on what the wind and current did to us. Anyway, we loaded the boat with full limits of 25 cohos and I think we had one small brown in the mix that first morning.
It wasn't exactly what we were after for our big brown trout DVD, but we took what Mike gave us. He did a great job of putting us on the coho but unfortunately, we didn't locate any of the bigger browns in the Hammond area during the two days we were there. It was one of those "you should have been here last week" scenarios, as for the brown trout action.
Our last morning in Hammond was for a short 2-3 hour run up from the marina. We were working along rock structure that formed the various walls and breakwaters up near a large ship channel. Mike assured us that this area has produced browns for him in the past. The scenery in that whole area was what I would call the remnants of the early steel industry in America. All you could see was miles of shoreline dotted with old mills and the BP refinery that is still active today. Behind all of that was the Chicago skyline, not exactly what you would think of for a backdrop to some of the most fantastic trophy brown trout fishing in the country.
Mike had to get off early on Tues. so we were only on the water a couple of hours. We did scratch up a couple of small seeforellen browns to around 18 " and had one other good strike. The big boys were just not in the area or were not cooperating that morning. It is still just fishing sometimes! We thanked Mike and Craig for the outing and then headed in for lunch to discuss our plans for part two of this journey. We were off to Racine, Wisconsin for the second leg of the shoot. Now we only had two days left to get into some of the big browns of Lake Michigan, so the pressure was up. We were hoping that Jason Woda was our "ace up the sleeve" for a shot at some 10 LB.+ browns.
A Memorable Stay in Racine, Wisconsin
We arrived up in Racine a little earlier than planned because of our short morning in Hammond. We were fine with that as we talked about the real possibilities of finally hooking some bigger browns. It was cheap, salacious talk by desperate trophy trout anglers itching to sample these seeforellens that are only found in the Great lakes. We were ready for some big brown trout action! Our first stop was to meet with Adam Smith with the Tourism Board of Racine. He gave us directions to his office so we could meet the whole staff before he took us on a little junket around the area. I really liked Racine. It was homey and the older downtown district had been redeveloped and represented the city well. The light house at Wind Point stood out against the backdrop of Lake Michigan and had been well maintained over the years. The beach just north of the marina is beautiful and attracts tons of visitors throughout the summer months for those who want to frolic in the lake or just lay on the beach to work on that tan. Adam took us to the Root River Steelhead facility and we could still see some Skamania strain steelhead that were milling around the murky, off-color water from the recent rains. This is primarily an egg taking station and we could barely make out the tails of some bigger steelhead that were up in the facility. We then drove by the S.C. Johnson and Company headquarters just west of town. Frank Lloyd Wright, the famous architect from earlier in the twentieth century, had left his mark on several buildings in town and was responsible for the "flying saucer" shaped building that was part of the S.C. Johnson complex. We then thanked Adam for his efforts in helping us make the trip and decided we should head to the Bed and Breakfast where we would be staying to unpack and relax a bit.
Fortunately, we were only minutes from the East Park Inn ( originally known as the Christmas House) where we would spend the remaining half of the trip. Laurie Novak-Simmons, GM, gave us a warm greeting and invited us in to see our accommodations for the next three days. All I can say is WOW! This is Racine's premiere bed and breakfast built before the turn of the last century and it was exquisite to say the least. I guess that Mark had decided to let the old man (guess who?) take the Grand Suite and I graciously accepted his offer. Each of us had these extremely, large suites so tastefully decorated that they would blow your mind. I think we pretty much had the whole third floor, with the exception of one other suite, to ourselves. This was going to be sweet and it was way more than I expected. I had a sitting room just outside the master bedroom that was probably 300-400 sq. feet that included the flat screen T.V. with a nice fireplace and a full ensemble of Victorian period furnishings that were very comfortable. As you entered the master bedroom through the double French doors, you got the feeling you were stepping back in time. The giant king bed was dwarfed by the sheer size of the room. It was probably almost 500 sq. feet and the old wooden floors gave it a richness and warmth that made me feel right at home. Last but not least, I entered a master bath that was so big it had a echo. The glass block step up shower curled around and over the large Jacuzzi whirlpool tub that was a unique design and more contemporary than the rest of the suite. I loved it!
After we settled in and unpacked, we headed out for dinner and my first taste of a fish I have always wanted to try, but never had. It was pouring down rain that evening and I think the restaurant was called the Yard Arm and near the marina. I had decided on deep fried Walleye and really enjoyed it. After a discussion about what we wanted to film around Racine, we headed back to the ranch to crash. That giant king bed was so comfortable that it didn't take long for me to drift off that night.
The Greater Milwaukie Harbor
We were running a little late the next morning and Mark jumped on the phone to let Jason know we would be about 15-20 minutes late. When we finally arrived at the ramp, Jason was getting ready to launch his 18 foot Lund. Conditions were good with full overcast and a light breeze......just what the Dr. ordered. We were down to today and tomorrow to get our chance at some big brown trout action on Lake Michigan. Pressure was on and we were juiced up and hoping we would run into one of those 15 LB.+ browns that have been caught in this area during in the spring.
Jason began to set up and it was very similar to what we saw with Mike Orr. Pretty much all the guides on the Great lakes will employ a multi-rod spread with in-line planer boards, divers and downriggers. It has been proven to be so effective to cover lots of water at various depths. Today we would be running six rods with the outside ones working off the boards pulling 4-5 segments of leadcore tied back into heavy mono with a long mono leader. This gave you depth control and also put you way out from the boat with a long set back. The next rods, working in from the boards, were rigged with divers that also took you away from the boat and increased your depth as well. Last but not least, the inside rods were run off the riggers directly behind the boat and the depths were controlled accordingly. Spoons were the hot ticket and we had several out. We were trying to represent the Gobi, a small non-native species that was introduced through ballast water releases of the big freighters that come into the lakes, arriving out of the ocean. I believe they came from the Black Sea or Caspian Sea. Anyway, they have adapted to the great lakes too well, and were originally viewed as a big threat but it has been determined that the Browns seem to love them and I'm sure the fisheries management people hope they may help keep them in check a bit, through predation. One of the main forage fish in the lakes are alewives and all species seem to love them. Their populations currently may be in a decline and this is often true in the cycles that rise and fall both naturally and at man's hands through over harvest, pollution, etc. I believe that there were once great runs of herring but they are almost non-existent these days.
We also put some A/C plugs to work and Mark made sure that a 5" minnow was towed off the rigger. Jason said the plug bite was better a little earlier in the spring and that he transitions over to spoons as the water begins to warm up. Remember, it is the warm water discharges that are the key factor to this brown trout fishery in the winter/spring. With water temps that are elevated 4-5 degrees, both the forage and the browns are drawn into more desirable conditions. We were about to find out just how good it can be! We would rotate rods between Mark and I and Randy was filming the action When a planer rod went off, Mark was on it and as the rod loaded, we could tell this was a heavy fish. Jason was using some 8' 6" Shimano Talora rods and these are big sticks compared to what I am used to. With all the sets out, you don't generally slow the boat down but will work the fish back into a clear spot near the motor to land them after swinging the rigger out to the side for added room. We could see by the bright silver color, this was a seeforellen. She was beefy and we all guessed was over 10 LB. for sure. As I was attempting to net her, she spun out quickly and the spoon caught the edge of the net and that was it. It is almost always an instant release and I couldn't believe it just happened. On Mark's first brown over 10 LB., she gets off on my watch. Losing a fish like this at the net probably hasn't happened to me in about 30 years or so. I felt so bad and a little embarrassed. Mark was very gracious and we went back to fishing and the hope of sticking another big brown.
Lucky for me, it didn't take long. I think I had caught and released a 6-7 Lb. domestic brown on my turn and now Mark was back up. Again, we could tell it was a big fish and Mark did a great job of managing to keep the fish under control with the boat moving at trolling speed and all the other rods out. This is no small task. We could see some color and make out the distinctive gold coloration of her belly. She was a long and definitely a big domestic brown. After I netted her, we came up with a little over 11 Lb. and got some photos and released her. I sure felt better after that first lost fish. By the big grin on Mark's face, he was excited about catching his first brown over 10 LB. Though it is not that hard to do at the Great Lakes, it is quite an accomplishment, especially out here in the west, to catch a brown of those proportions. Let me say that again. You could realistically expect to catch at least one brown trout over 10 LB. a day in this area at this time of the year, with a good guide.
My next brown was a nice domestic hookjaw brown that would tip the scales at close to 9 LB. He was a little worse for wear, after coming off the spawn, but he released just fine. Mark was up again and proved to be the hot hand this day. I was really glad for him as I am usually in front of the camera and get all the fish. His number came up for all the big fish this day! I think this brown came on the rigger and when we got color, there was a simultaneous gasp as we saw the big hen curl near the surface before descending again. She was a fat, girthy seeforellen. They do not possess the gold hues that we are used to seeing in the domestic strains of brown. They are more silvery with a sparser spotting pattern that runs along the side of the fish, down from the back and doesn't get down past the lateral line much. They are built more like king salmon than trout. They have extreme shoulders and can have a deep girth.......this equals heavy fish! Though this brown probably didn't exceed 30 in.. she weighed in at over 12 LB. How amazing that Mark had 3 browns of over 10 Lb. in a little over 3 hours of fishing! I believe this is why the Great Lakes could be considered the "big brown trout factory" of the country, right now!
We did catch several more brown trout from 2-6 Lb. and even got into some big lakers. On Mark's turn at bat, he stuck a really nice mack that weighed in at over 20 Lb. and was another personal best for him. What a day! I was extremely happy for my friend. A little later, I got into a mack of about 12 LB. for my best laker of the trip and we had what turned out to be a tremendous day of trophy trout action. I would sum it up as follows: We probably landed 18-20 trout ( we don't know exactly, but that is what we guessed) that included 2 browns over 10 LB. (another that was lost) and several lakers over 10 up to 20 LB. and all in less than 6 hours! We did catch a laker on the 5 " A/C Minnow that was the only plug we pulled that day. I would like to pull more plugs if I get a chance to fish there again. The spoons were the ticket this day. There are a host of spoon manufactures back on the lakes so I won't plug any specific one. I noticed that Jason ran Power-Pro line and we agreed that the combo of braid and leaders were a deadly set up both for the strength and feel you get from braid and the longevity of the line. It was quite instructional and interesting to see the techniques that have been honed by the talented guides back there.
On our last day, we simply hoped we would be able to get on the water. There was a giant front bearing down on us from the west and it was supposed to deliver a ton of rain and high winds to 35 m.p.h. We got out a little earlier and did get some fish before the front hit. Nothing big, but we did catch a couple of browns before the wind and rain ran us off. Luckily for us, we did get enough really good footage to produce our fourth DVD in the "Monster Trout Series," and it should be out by this fall 2008. These can be purchased from our website, www.Trophytroutguide.com along with our preceding 3 DVDs.
The History of Great Lakes Browns
After I was home from the trip, I decided I needed to know more about the history of brown trout on the Great Lakes and especially the strain of the seeforellen that own all the lake records for brown trout. I got a lead from Jason on who to talk with from the DNR in Wisconsin. Brad Eggold, Fisheries Supervisor with DNR, proved to be very helpful about the fishery and history of browns in the Wisconsin area. The predominate brown trout have been of the wild rose strain from Wild Rose Fish Hatchery there in Wisconsin that have been consistently planted for more than 20 years now. They could also be described as the domestic strain of brown trout. The first plantings would date back into the mid 60's. The seeforellen strain came from Europe originally and was introduced back in the early 90's from New York into the Great Lakes. They are late maturing trout that reach 3-4 years old before spawning and will grow larger than the domestic browns. According to Brad, the DNR has been planting over 1,000,000 browns per year on average since the 80's. That would be combined strains of browns. No wonder they have such a successful brown trout fishery! My hat is off to them for managing the most successful trophy brown trout fishery in the United States and probably the world.
I also talked with Dan Sampson, Fish Biologist with the Oden Fish Hatchery in Alanson, Michigan. He told a similar story of the seeforellen introduction but with a little different twist. It seems that due to excessive inbreeding with the seeforellens, they would be switching over to a different strain of brown trout for their main plantings in the future. The sturgeon river brown trout would be replacing the seeforellen. Many strains of brown trout have been stocked in the Great Lakes over time including the gilchrest creek, plymouth rock, wild rose, sturgeon river and seeforellen to name a few. As it seems to go in all fisheries, it is ever evolving and changing over time. For now, it looks like Lake Michigan should be in your plans for a big brown trout trip. I know I am going back some day to get that 20 LB. brown I'm still looking for.