Fly Fishing Michigan's Early Season
by Brett Riser
Copyright 2015 James Marsh
April, 2015 Issue
ell, we've all got that early season fishing itch and the way the last two winters have gone, we couldn't deserve
relief more. This is the time to turn thoughts to that first excursion of the new year. In Michigan, for trout
traditionalists, it's the last weekend of April. Bass enthusiasts used to have to wait until Labor Day, but luckily now
The Fly Factor
"We believe a day on the river is not just a
fishing trip, but an experience."
We enjoy taking our clients on some of the
greatest landscapes known to Michigan. The
Fly Factor's goal is not a guarantee of a large
harvest, but of an experience on the river
client's will not soon forget. From majestic
views of nature to wild animal observation,
our clients leave with more than just fish.
Northern pike will spawn under the ice and right after ice-out. Walleye will be running up our river systems to spawn while
yellow perch and crappie will be spawning on nearshore shelves, flats and the backs of coves.
For me, those thoughts turn to rivers - trout and bass in particular.
March and April typically mark the first significant hatches of insects. Early winter stoneflies are active. You'll see them
emerging on what's left of the snow on the banks. Nymphs are an effective strategy this time of year. Trout actively feed in
very cold water (32 degrees and above). Streamers really start to produce and a warming trend can get things going. Be
careful to check the regulations on your local trout stream to insure an enjoyable trip on the river, free of a ticket from your
local Conservation Officer (CO). Around here on our inland streams, generally Type IV (blue) designated trout streams are
all that's open. This will offer you a chance to test out that new gear and get your "wading legs" back. Some winters are
harder on fish than others, and brown trout are fall spawners, so there's no need to worry about interrupting reproduction.
Cooler water temperatures aid in revival, but be mindful of a hard winter on the trouts ability to recover from a long fight.
Lower water temperatures slow their metabolism and lower the amount fish feed during the winter. A fish can burn up most
of its fat storage and a long hard fight can bring a spring fish to the brink. When the water warms up, stoneflies are the first
chance at dry flies, the smaller allocapnia and larger taeniopteryx, both early winter stoneflies are the main species.
Everything from trout to bass key in on this early feast. Afternoons and sunny mild 40 degree, early spring days result in the
first dry fly action. I've seen and caught smallmouth and trout feasting on these stoneflies on the Grand, Kalamazoo and
the Pere Marquette rivers.
Contrary to some people's fool hearty belief, bass FEED YEAR ROUND. Iif you don't believe me, go ice fishing, and if you're
not able to pull that off, ask an ice fisherman if he's ever caught a bass. They can be hard to target effectively until
temperatures climb into the mid to upper 40's. Bass are cold-blooded and presentations should be tailored to water
temperature. Throw current in the mix and most experienced anglers don't know how to adapt. Current speed and depth
should dictate how much weight you will need. With flies, this is accomplished by dumbbell eyes or lead wrapped around the
shank. Clouser type flies ,or crayfish imitations are my favorite this time of year, and allow a slower presentation. Casting
slightly downstream, allowing the fly to sink before short strip- pause retrieves, or small "pops" of the rod, allow the current
to move the fly slowly downstream into a waiting predators mouth. Another effective retrieve, when things get real slow, is to
employ a "float" (bobber). By setting the depth of the float to barely tick the bottom in likely holding locations in the tails of
pools or next to structure which has a lower current velocity, allows a large predator to expend less energy and still ambush
the fly with little effort or resources expended.
Repeated casts to likely lies, and experimenting with weight and sink time, is probably more important than covering water.
Fish will be in the best of spots - holes, eddies or deep pools, or the best available. I've seen times where a fish didn't strike
until about the 15th drift. Sometimes the fly has to be in that sweet spot for a lethargic fish to decide to eat. Fish aren't
spooky this time of year. Very little fishing pressure and slower reaction times allow mistakes to go without consequence.
Sunny afternoons are usually more productive than early morning or evening, so make sure you get a good breakfast,
don't forget any gear, and catch up on a little sleep on the weekend this time of year. We're all still a little sluggish and
trying to shake off the winter blues. It sounds cliché, but it's real, and it's something that mother nature puts all God's
creatures through. Some have evolved different methods of coping such as hibernation, exercise, eating too much, drinking
too much etc.
Leading up to the Spawn:
Smallmouth bass typically spawn at lower temperatures than largemouth, mid-fifties to low- sixties (13-17 degrees Celsius) if
your one of our Canadian friends, or if you took for granted what your middle school science teacher told you about the US
adopting European standards. Largemouth will spawn near the same temperatures but typically when water reaches and
exceeds the 60 degree mark. Remember, that shallow lake and slower river areas with darker sediment tend to warm faster
than others. Lakes and slower river areas can warm significantly faster than faster river areas and deeper lakes. Snow melt
and cold rains lower stream and lake temperatures. Extreme switches in weather patterns from cold to hot can stimulate a
short spawning season, so be sure to pay close attention to stream conditions. Some seasons have long, drawn out
spawning, while others have very short windows.
Largemouth and smallmouth water is typically thought of as separate in rivers, but their habitats overlap. I've seen them use
the same areas to spawn as well as areas to overwinter.
Largemouth and smallmouth will actively seek out warm, sediment laden, coves and bays, or eddies and oxbows that can be
3-5 degrees warmer than the rest of the body of water. On large rivers, this tends to be in the lower river or delta areas.
Remember, that the sun warms the north shores faster due to the fact that we are in the northern hemisphere and the sun
resides in the southern portion of our sky this time of year.
Pay attention to environmental visual clues. Vegetation can be a clue to water temperatures and stream conditions. Plants
like yellow and white lily pads, can clue us in. Just when they begin to shoot for the surface is usually the time fish flock to
these incubating areas that help to speed the development of egg clutches developing inside the female. As pads start to
unfold on the surface, fish begin to progress throughout stages of the spawn, and will most likely move to locations more
suitable to make nests and to spawn. I like paying more attention to aquatic vegetation than riparian trees, which is a better
indicator of water temperature compared to those old adages like "bass bed when the dogwoods are in bloom".
Female brood stock feed heavily up until they spawn. I've seen the spawn happen in early May and extend through June. Of
course, nothing is set in stone when it comes to a fish and multiple waves of spawning is also typical, depending on weather
patterns. Keep in mind, I am referring timing wise to the weather patterns and latitudes in southwest Michigan, although it
can be adjusted to the South and other regions, dependent upon weather patterns, latitude and seasons.
When the spawn happens fast, it can present a short window. Two years ago on the Kalamazoo, cold weather, with unusual
short-sporadic warm ups left fish and local anglers bewildered. I was excited and readily anticipated what I knew was going
to be the "perfect time to target big fish", but I had to sit out a week and a half because the river was "blown out". I also had
to wait until the weekend, elongating my return to the river to when I had enough time for a float trip. When I finally returned,
the river had come down and cleared up, and I returned with high anticipation; however, all that was left was guarding male
smallmouth. If you've ever caught these fish, you know that they are some of the most aggressive fish you'll ever encounter,
little tough guys- about 8-12 inches. They tend to defend their young and if you find yourself in this situation, it's best to
give them a break, float downstream, and come back another time. Smallmouth fry are amazingly quick growing and I've
found them to be much more elusive than largemouth fry, which maybe a reason they are so successful in moving water. No
worries, this is a short window, and before you know it, fry will disperse and the male's hormones and instinctive protection
of young will subside. Soon after dispersal, males and females put their feedbag back in high gear to recover from
resources lost during the spawn.
One more thing to consider when fishing on moving water, is the fact that higher spring flows typically position fish
shallower. Dropping water levels will leave spawning beds abandoned on rivers with extreme fluctuations. Luckily, southwest
Michigan streams typically only experience slight fluctuations compared to southern reservoirs and tail races.
Keep in mind that although there can be extreme ambient temperature and latitude variation between Michigan and
Tennessee, for example, most of these fish will be thinking about spawning from beginning in March and April, and farther
north, during May through the beginning of June . After a long, cold winter, it isn't a bad time of year to be on the water.
Soon, believe it or not, colder early spring temps will give way to early Summer. This period will mean warmer air and water
temps, leading to much anticipated top water action and faster streamer retrieves. Until then, enjoy the early-springtime in-
between-time! Take advantage of early season catch and release opportunities and Type IV designated streams, or
whatever your state has to offer.
While everyone else is out scouting turkeys and thinking about last year' deer season, I'll be out testing new flies, waders,
and seeing how the river's swift current and high flows have shaped my favorite streams and creeks. It just might come in
handy in June and July, when fish pick more aggressive feeding lanes and expose themselves. I would rather wade through
a newly formed fish holding depression in a feeding lane in April than June.
Enjoy the break in the weather and "live in each season as it passes, breathe the air, drink the drink, taste the fruit, and
resign yourself to the influence of the earth!" - Henry David Thoreau
See you on the water! Book a trip with that guide you've been wanting to fish with, or on that river you've always wanted to
The Fly Factor
we have an early catch and release season that opens April 25th. Some folks have been lucky enough to sneak out and fish
for steelhead. For me the last two years have been extremely challenging, and if you're like me, you have to pick and choose
your adventures. Personally, life's curve balls have lowered the amount of winter steelhead hours I've been able to log. Lots of
snow and home restoration have taken precedence. That's all about to change. Warming trends and spring melt are just
around the corner, and it's time to think about where and what you want to fish for.
Brett Riser with a nice brown trout