Reflections of U.P. trout openers past
April 28, 2016
Across Michigan, the countdown has slowly been winding down for seven long months.
Like water dripped painstakingly through one big eyedropper, time has crawled by for many of the waiting, the anxious, those afflicted with insufferable cases of “Trout Madness.”
For those who may have spent their wintertime shopping for still more fishing tackle they didn’t get for Christmas, watching fishing trip shows on television or marking off their garage wall calendars a day at a time, the wait is nearly over.
Within 48 hours, Michigan’s inland trout season opener will have begun, with a fully anticipated, rapturous 154 days of fishing ahead.
We gathered reflections of Upper Peninsula trout openers past from some Michigan Department of Natural Resources staff and a member of the Michigan Natural Resources Commission, hoping to help readers tick down the remaining hours.
Since 1887, the Swanson Homestead, along Marquette County Road 581, has been a well-known landmark located south of Ishpeming. Once known as a trading post for the fur trade and for providing temporary housing for loggers, trappers and hunters, the Homestead has been a mainstay for brook trout fishermen and women over many fishing seasons.
The tradition lives on today as the Homestead continues to function primarily as a fish camp. Kevin Swanson, DNR wildlife management specialist with the department’s Bear and Wolf Program and Swanson family member, said perhaps the most notable memories at the Homestead have been provided by opening day of the annual brook trout season.
Family members and friends have gathered at the camp during the last weekend of April to try their luck on a nearby trout stream. Because stream water levels are typically quite high and water temperatures are very low so early in the spring, brook trout are not yet active. Consequently, a few trout in a creel is considered to be a great success.
The remainder of the weekend is spent cutting firewood and participating in endless Smear card game tournaments, while planning future fishing trips for nearby waters when conditions improve in late May.
George Swanson, 87, is Kevin’s dad and the patriarch of the Swanson Homestead. He has relentlessly pursued brook trout since he was a child.
“Brook trout are the only fish in my book,” he said. “There is no other creature on earth that compares.”
Although George can no longer partake in demanding fishing adventures requiring long-distance walks over difficult terrain, the memories of such trips are often relived in his mind.
George has passed the Homestead on to his daughter, Kristen Swanson, who continues to carry on the fishing tradition with her brothers, relatives and numerous friends.
The Fish Camp
Charles Dennison, DNR unit manager at the Pinckney Recreation Area in Livingston County, said his inaugural invite to “the U.P. fish camp” was in April 1982 and he’s made the pilgrimage north every spring since to chase steelhead.
“For me, the trout opener ranks higher than the opening day of firearm deer season, yet the similarities are striking,” Dennison said. “The day is one of the most anticipated times of the year, the value of spending time amongst friends and family is nearly as important as the fishing itself, and nothing will ever take its place on the calendar.”
Dennison said he can recall his first morning on that river, when the bite was steady and the run seemed to be in full force.
“I could hear the occasional fish jumping and the sound of the drag from another fisherman as dawn was breaking,” he said. “As is typical, the water level was high and the water temperature was Upper Peninsula cold.”
Dennison said you could only wade in portions of the river, so knowing the river was essential. Without that knowledge, fishing from the bank was the best choice.
“I had five steelhead on that morning, using what would now be considered an oversized spawn bag, large egg hook and very stiff fishing rod,” he said. “All of those fish broke my line before another angler advised me that my drag was not set correctly. Regardless, even having a fish on for a short amount of time was addicting.”
Anyone who has fought a steelhead understands after a few fish that they simply cannot be hurried to the net. The fish are too strong and the current too fast.
“I have learned a lot since then, but still consider myself lucky to land one fish for every four or five hooked, and that is about the norm on the water I fish,” Dennison said. “It seems there are less fish in the river today than in the past, but perhaps that is just great memories trumping present day thought.
“Times have changed and I have swapped the spawn for a No. 12 fly and the stiff spinning rod for a fine-tuned fly rod. Regardless, even though times and equipment have changed, my love for opening day on the river with family and friends has not.”
Cathy Pederson is a child care worker who serves on the DNR’s Becoming an Outdoors Woman program committee in the U.P. She maintains a spring tradition of brook trout fishing and morel mushroom hunting.
“It's always exciting when April ends because it's the start of trout season,” Pederson said. “Last year, I caught the fattest brookie that I'd ever caught.”
She said it's “so nice being on a small stream or river” with her fishing pole and some crawlers or worms. When you get that first bite the excitement begins.
“One year, I was fishing a new creek and the fish were biting like crazy and I ran out of worms,” Pederson said. “I didn't want to stop fishing, as I was catching a lot of little guys. So I decided to look for bugs and worms on the bank. I found some grubs or something similar and put them on my hook and wouldn't you know the brook trout loved them.
“When I'm morel hunting, I often find little creeks or rivers and think, ‘Wow, this looks like a good place to fish.’ I am very passionate about fishing, especially in the rivers.”
Michigan Natural Resources Commissioner J.R. Richardson of Ontonagon said ever since he can remember, opening day has been “very special” and “magical.”
“My father made it very special. My dad was born and raised on the ‘Holy waters’ of the Brule River, between Ashland, Wisconsin and Duluth, Minnesota,” Richardson said. “We were both born with fly rods in our hands. We had leaders and fly line tangled in our DNA and that was a good thing.”
Richardson said father and son always had a fish camp on the East Branch of the Ontonagon River at Sparrow Rapids for opening weekend for stream fishing or they’d walk in to a local brookie lake.
“It was always about the brookies. Stories told about the Brule that I could repeat after the first word, but loved every poetic sentence,” Richardson said. “It was always magical and is cherished to this day. It is good to feel loved and like a kid, and opening day does this for many Yoopers now doesn’t it.”
George Madison, DNR fisheries manager for the Western Lake Superior Management Unit, remembers a “wily” brook trout he went after on opening day on a “gin-clear” stream he’d spotted during deer season.
“This fish was in a meander bend pool at the bottom of a big hill and he could see anything that would approach the stream,” Madison said. “The stream was untouched by anglers because it was a long hike to get there, and this fish was simply uncatchable because he could see anything coming toward the stream.”
Madison said he went out on the trout opener, dressed in green and practically belly slid to the creek to sneak up on the fish, which he caught on a barbless hook.
“He was such a beautiful specimen, I smiled at him and he glared angrily at me, and I slipped him back into his resting pool,” Madison said.
Madison also recalls fun memories of taking Boy Scouts out for the opener.
“It’s amazing to catch any trout at all when eight energized 10-year-olds are trying to fish the edges of a trout pond,” he said. “We’d mix the few trout that we’d catch in a frying pan of butter, with a package of hot dogs. Then everybody got to have ‘shore lunch’ and the hot dogs would pick up some of the flavor of the trout. Good times.”
Rob Katona, the DNR’s central U.P. recreation trails specialist, said his family always looks forward to the trout opener.
“We consider it a holiday ranked up with deer opener, and when midwinter comes around we start counting down the weeks,” Katona said. “We wouldn’t miss it for anything. Whether snowing, or dealing with ice or swollen streams, we improvise and tactically go after trout, especially brook trout, which is our preferred target, of course.”
Katona said even having to attend a nephew’s baptism in Crystal Falls (Iron County) on one trout opener did not dissuade the family’s trout ambitions.
“We managed to show up smelling like campfire smoke and still got out fishing afterwards,” Katona said. “They just laughed and called us crazy for camping and fishing in that horrid weather.”
Going back to early middle school, Katona can’t think of an opener he missed while in Michigan.
“I started going out with family and friends and we typically made it into a camping trip, but now with two boys of my own, we make it a family outing,” Katona said. “While attending college at Lake Superior State University (Sault Ste. Marie), a group of us would always head north of Newberry (Luce County) to camp and fish for the opener, which turned into a tradition for several years after college.
“We had some really good luck some years, especially in the lakes, and other years we just dealt with horrid weather and few fish, but we still had a great time,” Katona said.
The tradition ended temporarily when Katona moved out west to Washington. He returned home to Michigan after a number of years.
“I can’t describe how exciting that first opener was. We typically fish area lakes and streams, depending on ice/snow pack and water levels,” Katona said. “If the streams are high and blown out, we try lakes as long as they are ice free and you don’t need snowshoes, which is the case more than not in northern Marquette County.”
Katona said he did ice fish during one trout opener. On another, he fished a small area of open water where he had to break up the ice the day before with a 12-foot boat.
“If the streams or lakes are not cooperative, then we will go after steelhead in rivers,” Katona said. “We do not always come home with fish but the best part is the experience and enjoying the outdoors with family and friends.”
Both of Katona’s boys, Logan and Trent, and his wife, Mary, enjoy trout fishing.
“Logan has been asking to fish the trout stream behind our house until our recent April snow, but I explained that he will just have to wait for the season to open up. He just sighs and says, ‘OK,’" Katona said. “He has the desire. We are all looking forward to hitting the nearby lakes or streams during the upcoming opening weekend for another adventure.
“No matter what the weather brings we will be out there trout fishing. After all, it is my addiction.”
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