One of the hidden benefits of being a fishing guide is the opportunity to witness cool moments in nature. Wildlife photography is a side hobby of mine, and for years I have been hoping to capture a good photograph a river otter.
A lot of times you see otters on TV and they appear to be social, gregarious animals that are friendly and curious. On the contrary, our local river otters are reclusive. Though they are always present, I only see them a few times of the year if I am lucky. Not only are they reclusive, but they are fast. They are as much land animals as water animals. Often when I see them they are running off onto dry land after catching a juicy trout.
Recently, I saw such an otter running down the bank. I had my camera handy and snapped a couple shots as the otter galloped by.
This was a typical otter encounter, and soon the otter disappeared into the brush. They are extremely fast!
I took the boat upriver and started to wade and spey cast, hoping for an early October steelhead. As I waded down the run, I heard a strange crackling noise. I looked upriver into some tangled brush to see the otter. He was crunching on a salmon carcass.
I was amazed to see the brutal efficiency of the animal. Otters are fierce animals. The otter had bright white teeth, and fed undisturbed for about ten minutes. I was able to get fairly close but did not want to ruin the animal’s dinner.
A lot of the wildlife that I see on the river is easily overlooked while fishing. It is often only when you look at the small details that some of the coolest things you can see on the river appear. Soon after they appear, they are gone.
Thanks for looking!
Kevin Feenstra continues to take amazing pictures along the Muskegon River this Otter picture feasting on a dead Chinook Salmon is a once in a lifetime experience and Kevin captured it perfectly with this image.
A photo posted by Kevin Feenstra (@kevinfeenstra) on
I was thinking about steelhead this weekend–they are still quite a ways off but it is hard not to think about them from time to time. Things look optimistic for this fall; the reports from the big lake are pretty good and the fish are abundant and healthy. Another indicator that we have about steelhead is by looking at the summer steelhead. I spend most of my time on the Muskegon, and though we don’t have a sustained summer run, we do get stragglers. This year stragglers have been big–this is another indicator of health of the steelhead in the lake.
This spring, we had a period of high water, and I spent my time when the river was flooded photographing steelhead that had moved up into tiny springs that were now swollen. The photos of these fish can be found here. You think that steelhead are an awesome fish and then you watch them go through water that seems impassable and realize they are even more amazing than you once thought.
Eventually their mission is complete, fry hatches, and the life cycle continues. Those fish that were hatched in these tiny streams have a better chance of survival. The water in these small streams is cold all year.
Thanks for looking and enjoy the rest of the summer!
Make sure to check out Kevin Feenstra on April Vokey’s Podcast – Anchored. Kevin Feenstra who is a great friend, an incredible guide on the Muskegon River, and a Mangled Fly Contributor. Was Interview by April Vokey at his home in November. April and Kevin discuss Midwest Steelhead, you will enjoy this episode click this link to go to iTunes – or go to April Website and find the episode as well.
Each spring, the river floods, and at some point I have a few days off. It is not that steelhead can’t be caught on those days. Fly fishing, however, requires that the fish see the fly and if I don’t feel that this minimum requirement can be met, cancellations are the likely result. Steelhead are of course a great gamefish. They are my favorite fish. I also have a tremendous respect for steelhead and other salmonids as they migrate. They really do amazing things as they traverse rivers big and small. When I had some cancellations last week, I visited several small streams and witnessed these marvels of nature working their way up river.
Steelhead take advantage of small creeks when they are flooded. As soon as this tiny, tiny creek became high enough for travel, up came the fish in droves.
In any creek, steelhead take advantage of breaks in the current. In fishing terms, these are snags. Steelhead love structure just like any other fish. They need the structure for protection in small places but they also need the break in current that these provide.
In this stream, a series of tiny water falls existed. I did not see the steelhead leaping over them, but they had definitely been clearing them, most likely at night.
The fact that there was little water in the stream was not an issue to these fish at all. I saw some fish temporarily stranded as they worked their way through the shallows.
Steelhead are a precious commodity, this year more than ever. The Great Lakes fisheries are in a period of change, with the decline in baitfish populations and the subsequent increased pressure on other species, such as steelhead. Now more than ever, they need a little respect. This means protecting the fish while they are in the rivers, and protecting them on the small scale even as we fish and handle them. They deserve it!
I have no affiliation with the people who make a certain product, but I have to say that some of their stuff is brilliant. The product that I am speaking of is ice dub, and between ice dub and the various colors of flashabou, I could guide every day with little else than thread and hook (though I do like some feathers and fur too:)). During the months of January-March, I rely very heavily on one color family of ice dub. The colors are olive, peacock-eye, peacock, and black peacock. These colors seem to imitate the same things to the fish. It could be that the sheen on this color scheme is just plain appealing to fish (it is an attractor color). On the other hand, it could be that many of the bait fish in the river take on a peacockish tint during the winter months.
When I started looking underwater in the winter, I was surprised at just how many creatures had a bluish/green tint in the winter months. The darter above is just one example of this color scheme in nature during the winter and spring. Crayfish, scuds, gobies, and other fish also have this peacock overtone to their colors.
Whether it is just naturally attractive, or whether it is due to the colors occurring in nature, or some combination of the two, I am not entirely certain. At the end of the day, these colors of ice dub just work great for catching predator fish.
Through the first half of the year, flies with this color scheme can be fished in several different ways. They can be swung on sink tips through flat runs during the winter months for steelhead. Another option is to fish the soft edges of the stream for resident trout with smaller olive or peacock based flies. I really enjoy swinging wet flies for trout and this is a great extension of wet fly fishing through the winter months. Yet another option is to tie weighted sculpins and fish them below an indicator for trout. Often times a nymph pattern is fished on a dropper between the indicator and the weighted sculpin.
This post mentions the months of January through May. However, as a guide, these colors are in my box year around, no matter what species I am guiding for. Give this color family a shot on your local stream. I am pretty sure that it will work!
Thanks for reading this!
Each year, in February and March, salmon fry pop out of the gravel and quicky grow to be an inch in length. They feed on anything, including the remnants of their ancestors. As this process begins, they become a food source for everything else in our rivers, including all manner of fish, birds, etc. Steelhead feed heavily on salmon fry, and there are things about these fry that make them vulnerable to a predator like a steelhead.
Often times, water is high in the spring. When water levels become high, the fry are pushed to the edges of the river. Any run that holds steelhead near the edge of the river in these conditions will be a great place to look for a steelhead on a fry pattern.
Notice from the picture above the prominence of the eye in the salmon fry. Your fly must exhibit this trait if it is going to be effective. This is especially true if you are fishing the fry pattern as a nymph. The slow nymphing presentation will make the fish picky about whether the fly has this one prominent feature.
Fry patterns can also be morphed into good swung fly patterns. Because they are prone to be towards the surface of the river, a small swung fly that is the shape of the fry, but not necessarily the same color, works great throughout the spring. A small black and copper leech, for example, the size and shape of a fry, is deadly during the spring. Often times it pays to swing small and colorful flies in the spring.
This is a typical night of tying for me at this time of the year; fry patterns in one form or another are always on the menu. You can tie the thorax of these patterns any color, but pink always seems to work the best. Typically, some of the holographic colors of flash work well on sunny days, as they make the fly twinkle in the current.
As the salmon fry head downriver and grow to a larger size, the process is repeated as steelhead and sucker fry emerge later in the spring. These are on the menu of steelhead, brown trout, and every other predator too.
Thanks for reading this post! Get out on the river and enjoy spring-like fishing conditions!
When I was growing up, my dad loved watching birds. I remember driving down a dirt road one day and seeing a wild turkey. At the time, wild turkeys were just being reintroduced and seeing one was an extremely rare occurrence. My dad screeched the car to a halt and fortunately no one was injured as cars sped bye (and gave obscene gestures).
The same can be said of bald eagles. When I first started fishing the Muskegon River, it was a very rare occurrence to see a bald eagle on the river. Now, it is a daily occurrence (this pic was just taken today). A lot of things have come back and there are great stories in our natural resources about these things.
One thing that is really obvious if you are a guide is how fragile nature is. Though many things have come back, others become increasingly rare. In the past 200 years, our rivers have changed drastically. Some fish, such as grayling and blue pike, are totally extirpated from our state. We have filled vacancies in our ecosystems with some great fish, such as the steelhead and brown trout. Other openings are filled with invasive species and our game fish are in a constant struggle to hold their place in the environment. We have to be careful to protect our great game fish, so that they will always have a prominent place in our rivers and streams.
The last week was one of the coldest of this winter. We didn’t get much snow but it sure was cold! After a couple of days indoors, I needed to get outside, if only for a little while. I know most of you can relate to this after being indoors for a while. I went down to the river to take some photos on a dreary day.
One of the things that I look for is falling water when it is very cold. Often times, falling water makes really cool ice formations along the banks of our great rivers.
Another great photo opportunity is when there is lake effect snow in the area. Often the sun will break few for a little while in the afternoon, making for a beautiful array of pastel colors in the dwindling light.
It may sound crazy but winter is one of my favorite times to photograph things underwater. The reason for this is that the water is extremely clear at normal water level in the winter. Additionally, most fish and insects move very slowly in the cold water, making them easy to photograph.
I sure was glad when the weather did finally break today, allowing me to hook a few steelhead. My favorite places to fish in the dead of winter are the inside of bends and behind fallen trees. Trout and steelhead to a lesser degree congregate in the slower water as it holds oxygen and food sources in the winter.
Last year, we were fishing quite large baitfish patterns as there was a lot of lake run browns in the Muskegon. Each year is different, and this winter we are fishing smaller patterns in the same types of water. These smaller patterns catch as many steelhead as last year’s larger flies. Since the lake runs aren’t as abundant, the smaller swung flies take advantage of the stream trout that are biters. A slight change in tactics makes for some relaxed fishing, sometimes with many bites in the course of a day.
A lot of times I look for sandy bends that have a bit of deeper, darker water between the lighter colored bottom and the swifter current. Often times these are productive places for a variety of game fish.
As spring gets closer, there will be a period of excellent fishing in these areas as stone fly nymphs move in close to shore, and king salmon begin to hatch. You don’t need to necessarily match these hatches below the surface, as the increase in subsurface activity makes the fish search out moving targets.
When you look at rivers every day, you see the subtle changes that occur day to day. Soon the signs of spring will be apparent. For now, I am happy to fish whenever the weather breaks.
Enjoy this time of the year!–Kevin Feenstra