Manistee River Tree Drop Update

Upper Manistee River Tree Drop Update

Yellow Trees

Manistee River Update

I recently had the opportunity to float below Yellow Trees and take a look at what impacts the tree drop had within that section. In September of 2022 Michigan Trout Unlimited helicoptered in almost 200 whole trees and placed them strategically throughout the river between Yellow Trees and Rogers Landing access sites. This was a prescribed woody debris addition through a collaborative habitat rehabilitation project lead by Michigan TU with assistance from several governmental agencies and private donors. I have been patiently waiting to see what the outcome of this wood addition would look like.

As many of you know, the Upper Manistee River is suffering from systemic habitat decline resulting from several external factors and from years of hands off management practices. The scope of this project is one of the largest wood additions we have seen within the watershed. My hope was that the added trees would help the river to cut down again as opposed to the widening stream width we have observed over the past decade. My first impression was mostly positive as we floated into the section where the majority of the trees were placed.

Desired Outcomes

There were several aspects I was hoping to observe in the areas where the trees were placed. Increasing depth and scour, silt bed formations in the calm water behind the trees, exposing woody debris on the stream bottom, and funneling the current to the middle of the river channel. To my surprise all four of these conditions were being created by the new wood additions. To me these conditions I have described are what makes the Upper Manistee River unique and slightly different from other trout streams in Michigan. Most of these attributes were declining or have become completely absent in this section during the past ten years.

Depth and Scour

Manistee River Tree Drop Update

I would say that 90% of the areas that woody debris was placed in the river went through some sort of change. There were a couple of stream reaches where the depth had more than doubled around the new wood. Increasing stream depth is important for several reasons. Deeper water is more stable from temperature change, this is something that has been lost over recent years as water temperatures in that section are quite volatile and can change by as much as 8-12 degrees in a 24 hour period. Deep water habitat is also critical for large trout abundance and overall population dynamics within a stream. The more suitable places there are for trout to live equals more trout, it’s a pretty simple concept.

Silt Beds

Sand has always been an issue on the Upper Manistee River, but it is even a bigger problem today in our ever changing environment with the current hands off approach. Overall, the erosional issues we dealt with in the past have been lessened to a certain degree by other projects focusing on this problem. However, rain events have changed how the river behaves during high and low flow periods. As the river began to cut out (or widen) instead of cutting down (or deepening) the sand bed load was continuing to increase. As a result the majority of the large silt beds that previously lined the river edge were filled in by sand. As we floated through the treated section it was eye opening to see how much new silt has already collected behind the trees and in the calm water in between tree placements. This is good news for burrowing insects like the Brown Drake and Hex.

Exposing More Wood

One habitat aspect of the Upper Manistee River that makes it unique is the amount of large woody debris that lines the stream bottom. As a result of the extensive logging that occurred over a century ago the volume of large woody debris trapped in the stream channel and buried by sand is mind blowing. This is one habitat variable that has been buried with time. There were a couple of reaches where multiple tree placements have exposed some of that buried wood. This was one of the habitat aspects I was really hoping to see maximized as a result of this project. Exposing more of this lateral woody habitat will only increase the amount of cover in the stream and create more favorable ambush sites for more fish to utilize. It’s a “more bang for your buck” scenario and will provide more cover for larger fish as well.

Channelizing Flow

Overall my first impression is mostly positive. The current appears to be funneling more to the middle of the treated areas and with some high water events more scouring should occur only improving the overall habitat conditions in this section. I believe the value of this work will continue to improve the overall stream health as we move forward. More work needs to be continued in reaches upstream and downstream of the Yellow Trees section. Some of the treated areas will need to have additional woody structures added to see the desired outcomes, but overall it’s a great start to mitigating years of neglect. The positive take home message here is that most of this change has occurred during low flow periods and we are just now entering our spring runoff period.

Ed McCoy

Didymo on the Upper Manistee

Didymo on the Upper Manistee

Didymo

Didymo on the Upper Manistee continues to be a problem as it expands its chokehold upon the river.  During August of 2022 we found new Didymo growth from Yellow Trees to the CCC Bridge.  Didymo was not found previously in sections upstream of CCC Bridge.  To put it bluntly, I would consider the entire Upper Manistee River System to be contaminated.  Didymo is considered a very resilient invasive species and anglers will have to practice safe gear cleaning techniques to prevent spreading it between watersheds.  These same cleaning practices will need to be followed after every fishing trip.  It can be spread very easily and can result in detrimental outcomes for our trout streams. 

We continue to follow the current safe cleaning practices for our gear.  Currently, there are no effective methods to eradicate Didymo once it is established in a river. 

To prevent spreading Didymo Clean, Drain, Dry your gear before entering another Body of Water. 

  • Clean your gear by removing mud and debris from all surfaces.
  • Use a 10% Solution of Dishwashing Soap with hot water for 10 minutes. Then it must dry for 48 hours (mandatory if your fishing different streams).

The extent of the Didymo bloom on the Upper Manistee in 2021 was unbelievable.  Didymo was observed in every section we fished downstream of the CCC Bridge.  In one winter Didymo covered nearly 60 miles of stream bottom!  This single event is disheartening when you consider any effort to limit its expansion into neighboring watersheds.  Any efforts to do so are going to require extensive stream monitoring and habitat resiliency testing.

To determine the overall affect of Didymo on the Upper Manistee River is going to take time.  However, the short term implications haven’t been favorable.  The impacts to the fishing and our hatches were immediate.  The hatches were inconsistent and showed lower overall insect abundance.  The most alarming trend was a 65-80% decline in our catch rates.  This decline was especially noticeable in sections dominated by Brown Trout.  I would argue that Brown Trout abundance was immediately impacted by the presence of Didymo.  

I expect Didymo will continue to expand its foothold in the Upper Manistee River as we enter 2023.  The fall leaf drop will allow more sunlight penetration through the canopy and the colder temperatures will promote new Didymo growth.  Further habitat decline will continue to allow for it to take over and expand its range in previously unaffected sections.  At this current time I am not very optimistic that Didymo has run its course and will become dormant anytime soon.

Change the Conversation

This has been arguably one of the toughest trout seasons I have seen.  The amount of change that has occurred over the past 5 to 6 years is very alarming.  The Upper Manistee River has some systemic issues and neglected circumstances that need to be addressed.  Habitat loss, water quality, invasive species concerns, all have reached their tipping point.  We need to institute some major changes in our management approach if our aquatic resources are going to last for future generations to enjoy.  It’s time to change the conversation!

Our state needs to manage our lakes and streams from a watershed perspective with a holistic approach. You can’t ask one biologist to manage several watersheds with the expectation of being effective, efficient, and able to identify problems before they occur.  We need to bring Fisheries, Wildlife, and Forestry divisions to the same table.  These departments need to review all the management recommendations under one microscope before implementing any action plans. The old days of stream management “between the river banks” has long outlived its effectiveness and we need a new direction moving forward.

The Upper Manistee River is designated as a Natural River.  A Natural River is afforded extra protections for “the purpose of preserving and enhancing its values for water conservation, its free flowing condition, and its fish, wildlife, boating, scenic, aesthetic, floodplain, ecologic, historic, and recreational values and uses.  The area shall include adjoining or related lands as appropriate to the purposes of the designation.  The department shall prepare and adopt a long-range comprehensive plan for a designated natural river area that sets forth the purposes of the designation, proposed uses of lands and waters, and management measures designed to accomplish the purposes.”  Yet the river is failing to thrive under these protections! 

Natural Rivers Act

The Natural Rivers Act designation was implemented to enhance the river, but the permitting process for habitat projects is making this crucial work more expensive and harder to complete.  It may be time to retool this law and make it more user friendly for its intended purpose.  It’s also time to have a serious discussion about increasing the stream buffer protections afforded by this act.  Moving forward we need to hold our State agencies more accountable for their failures, but also applaud them for their successes.   Unfortunately our State failed miserably at developing an effective awareness campaign for Didymo.  

Many of the issues I have mentioned are fixable, but it is going to take time, money, and hard work.  Didymo didn’t just appear over night, this problem has been several years in the making.  Didymo is just a symptom of larger systemic issues plaguing an already unhealthy system.  It has likely been in the Upper Manistee River for some time, but the necessary conditions for Didymo to take over are just now being exposed.  The overall river health is at its tipping point.  Habitat decline, nutrient decline, extensive low-flow periods, increased solar exposure, and uniform habitats characterized by increasingly wide, shallow, sandy areas have all accelerated in the past 5 years.  Our streams are in desperate need of more habitat monitoring and rehabilitation programs to mitigate the accelerated pace of change and unbalanced outcomes.

Unforeseeable Changes

Trout Fishing on the Upper Manistee

The Upper Manistee River Trout Fishing has been up and down throughout 2022.  Hatches were lighter and far more inconsistent than what we should experience.   More intense rain events followed by longer low-flow periods and drought are increasing the stream width and sedimentation issues.  The loss of large woody debris has now outpaced the recruitment of new woody structure.  Changing Hydrologic conditions and the lack of stable woody debris structures have accelerated the loss of critical deep water habitats.  These trends have all accelerated over the past 5 years and now we are seeing the effects of rapid habitat decline.  

Unfortunately the river can no longer maintain its characteristic cold water flows as it has become too shallow and impacted with sand.  In 2021, we observed a colder two degree water temperature difference between the M72 gauge and the 4 mile access monitoring station.  During June and July of 2022 that colder 2 degree difference in water temperature was lost and temperatures were uniform between the two gauges.  In recent years water temperatures have fluctuated 8 to 14 degrees over a 24 hour period.  A healthy stream shouldn’t show this kind of temperature profile.  As a consequence we are now seeing significant Didymo growth above the CCC Bridge where it wasn’t found a year ago.

The large swings in water temperatures have been one of the most noticeable changes throughout the watershed.  These big swings in water temperature have had negative impacts upon our insect hatches.  This is the first year I have experienced so much inconsistency throughout the hatch season.  Normally the Hex hatch lasts about two weeks, but the hatch was stretched out over an entire month.  Water temperatures would drop at night to around 58 degrees and climb during the daytime reaching highs of 70+ degrees.  These big temperature oscillations will continue to impact our hatches and disrupt our fishing until the habitat conditions promoting these issues are addressed.

Habitat Decline

Unstable weather patterns had some negative affects on the fishing this year, but that wasn’t the only observable change.  Habitat decline has accelerated over the past 5 years.  Habitat loss has reached a critical threshold and now the river’s ability to buffer against drastic change is losing ground.  The Upper Manistee River has become dominated by expansive wide, shallow, sandy areas of uniform habitat lacking woody debris.  Large areas of shade providing deciduous trees have also been lost to disease and invasive species.  This combination of declining habitat variables is allowing for more light penetration to reach the stream bed.  Habitat decline and a warming temperature profile are two critical changes we are now seeing on an annual basis.  

The Upper Manistee River is becoming warmer as the stream becomes wider, shallower, and more surface water is exposed to sunlight.  During June and July, the longest day length of the year, the river is struggling to maintain colder temperatures under sunny conditions.  Intense solar exposure is winning the battle and we are now experiencing more days with 70+ degree water temperatures.  Water temperatures have still exceeded 70 degrees on sunny days with high temperatures only approaching 75 degrees for the day.  The lowest water temperatures we observed during June and July were typically associated with cloudy conditions and cold fronts.  I firmly believe declining habitat conditions are a prerequisite for Didymo to take over a stream.  

Studies have shown that shallow, wide, cold streams with moderate flows, increased solar exposure, and low phosphorous are more susceptible to Didymo blooms.  Statistically, low phosphorous conditions appear to be the primary driver for Didymo blooms in streams.  Phosphorous is a critical variable in trout streams often impacting algal and macro-invertebrate communities.  When stream phosphorous levels are too high you will often see explosive algal and plant growth.  One would expect to see increasing macro-invertebrate abundances due to increasing nutrient loads, but often there is a subsequent decline in species diversity.  Didymo is a strange case, it prefers ultra low-phosphorous levels to bloom.  This diatom is quite the opposite of most algae and will only show extreme growth in streams when phosphorous levels hit rock bottom.  

Interestingly, phosphorous levels are at an all time low in the Great Lakes Region since the introduction of Zebra and Quagga Mussels.  The post-mussel Great Lakes are functionally different today than the pre-mussel Great Lakes.  Today the Great Lakes are primarily nutrient poor systems characterized by very clear waters which is a 180 degree change from the late 1980’s.  Today nutrient loads are very different, the lakes are exceptionally clear, warm differently, and winter is pretty much a thing of the past.  One has to consider the functional change that has occurred throughout the Great Lakes region and how these changes have impacted our inland ecosystems.  Just a little food for thought regarding the primary driver of change to our regional ecosystems. 

Here to Stay

Didymo has had an immediate impact this season, especially in the sections downstream of the CCC Bridge.  The Didymo mat was very extensive and in some areas we observed over 95% coverage of the hard substrates.  The amount of Didymo particles suspended in the drift from March until Late July was unlike anything I have ever seen.  It was a completely different looking river downstream of the CCC Bridge.  The stream bottom was almost completely covered in Didymo and there was a steady stream of Didymo particles flushing into Hodenpyle pond for over 3 months.  Based on what I saw this spring, I don’t believe we have a very effective strategy in place to prevent this from spreading.  

Insect activity was visibly lower and we observed inconsistencies within our hatches.  Several hatches were virtually nonexistent.  The overall insect activity was the lowest I have ever experienced on the Upper Manistee River.  Didymo also had a tremendous impact upon our trout fishing.  Every section we fished with visible Didymo growth suffered from diminishing returns.  In other words you can’t catch what isn’t there!  We experienced a 65-80% decline in our catch rates and it became very clear that trout Brown Trout are impacted by the presence of Didymo.  There is ample research currently coming out of New Zealand that resembles our own observations.  Studies have documented a 70% decline in Brown Trout biomass within streams affected by Didymo. 

The trout knew it was coming!  Hindsight is 20/20, but I firmly believe Didymo was already impacting fish movement early on in 2021.  In June of 2021 I would argue the river experienced significant fish movement from sections downstream of the CCC Bridge.  We found clusters of large Trout surprisingly pooled up together which is a situation not commonly encountered before.  Other reports from Upper Sections of the river mentioned more large Brown Trout in their catch.  However, I have been finding more large Trout in poor overall condition during the past few seasons, probably resulting from crowded conditions and declining food availability.  Studies in New Zealand have demonstrated larger Brown Trout are adversely affected in Didymo infected streams and those streams were dominated by smaller sized trout (lower biomass).

An interesting observation, that was confirmed by several other guides, was off colored water conditions for several weeks during June of 2021 and again in June of 2022.  The water had a light tannic stain during a long, hot drought period.  Typically the Upper Manistee River would have a gin clear appearance during low water conditions.  Instead the water had a golden brown hue and the surface looked black during low light periods.  Coincidently, Didymo cells are amber or golden brown in color.   In August of 2022 we found significant Didymo growth in sections upstream of the CCC Bridge where the water color was off during June.  It is my belief that these water conditions are a precursor for visible Didymo growth. 

Didymo is a ghost and only becomes visible when it goes into bloom.  In August of 2022 Didymo was discovered on the Boardman River in Traverse City, MI.  It was found in a section that was previously sampled during the spring using rock scrapings.  During the spring Didymo was not found anywhere outside of the Upper Manistee River watershed.  This example demonstrates the importance of expanding our sampling techniques in an attempt to increase early detection of Didymo in our streams.  Currently we don’t have an effective early detection method, this needs to be addressed if we are going to get ahead of this issue.  

A study from New Zealand found Didymo in streams without bloom formations.  In some streams Didymo was present only in the water column and not on the substrates.  In other streams Didymo was present in both the water column and on the substrates, but no bloom formations were found in either case.  The takeaway here is that Didymo won’t bloom unless the conditions to do so are favorable.  Early detection, habitat rehabilitation programs, and an effective mitigation strategy are desperately needed to deal with nuisance blooms in the future.  It’s time to change the conversation and to make the necessary changes to our prescribed management strategies in order to mitigate blooms in previously affected and unaffected streams.  

Solutions

So what does all of this mean and what will happen to the river?  We are not sure, Didymo is a new threat, and the river has gone through a considerable amount of change over the past decade.  Time will tell, but Didymo isn’t going to just disappear.  I would be willing to bet it’s also more widespread than just within the Upper Manistee and Boardman River watersheds.  After reflecting upon the past few seasons, I am even more convinced that Didymo is an indicator of overall poor stream health.  Jon Ray fittingly compared Didymo to Cancer or Diabetes in an unhealthy individual.  I totally agree with his comparison. Until you fix the root cause of the symptoms plaguing a stream, the stream won’t be able to become healthy and balanced again. 

There is potential to avert further blooms on the Upper Manistee River.  The State of Michigan hasn’t actively performed any stream habitat work in several decades.  There have been several other projects that have been completed in that timeframe, but nothing at the scope of what Michigan Trout Unlimited has proposed.  Michigan TU recently placed approximately 200 whole trees between Yellow Trees Landing and King Trout Ranch this fall.  By using Helicopters to precisely drop large woody debris in-stream they were able to target the most diminished habitats in that section.  I am excited to see the results of all this work in the upcoming season!

There are a lot of unknowns regarding Didymo.  Largely, no one has any real answers to its native range or origin.  Is it invasive or a native nuisance species?  What are the environmental conditions that promote large blooms?  How do we treat affected streams and prevent future outbreaks?  These are all important questions that need to be answered, but the fact is Didymo is already here and it isn’t going to just go away.  

Utilizing a holistic management approach and establishing long term monitoring programs should be top on the list.  As we hear more on what you can do to help in this fight and as we find out more information regarding Didymo we will be sure to let you know.   Right now the best thing you can do is voice your concerns with your local State agencies and demand change in how we manage our resources.  Demand more from our resource managers and continue to help out with local projects that can help preserve and protect the future of our favorite trout streams.

Ed McCoy

New Fly Patterns for 2023 

As many of you already know, in 2019 I began selling my signature fly patterns through Montana Fly Company. This year I am excited to announce several new fly patterns that are available through Montana Fly Company in 2023! There will be two new dry flies, a Mouse, and Frog pattern to round out the new releases. The dry flies are an Isonychia Dun and Spinner variation. The Mayfly patterns have been some of my most productive searching and hatch matching patterns over the years.

Read more

Spring Steelhead

Spring Steelhead and What Changed

Environment or Angling

What is it that feels like its changing? Is the environment around me changing, or is it my angling mindset? I remember back 20-25 years ago fishing for Spring Steelhead meant an April float down the Pere Marquette River. Now its seems Spring Steelhead for an angler/guide means a shift to fishing more in February and early March. What has changed? Why is that I’m more excited to chase Smallmouth Bass in April more than Steelhead nowadays? Why is it that my February steelhead fishing is as good as my November adventures if not better? I think we can all agree the environment is changing on many levels and Steelhead fishing in Northern Michigan is no different.

Spring Steelhead

To be completely honest, Spring Steelhead fishing has shifted ahead of what we considered to be our normal timing. The Spring Steelhead calendar has been pushing forward, simply put, February is becoming the new March. This isn’t a one year trend either! For the past couple of years fishing in February has been really good. I would argue that February has been as good as our best October/November days. There are a number of reasons causing this current trend.

First of all, this is the lowest angling pressure during the steelhead calendar (October to April). Most of the popular boat ramps only have a trailer or two on most days. During the weekdays it is usually light traffic and even on most weekends you normally only see a few other anglers in the know.

Second, we have a solid population of fall and winter fish already in the river along with some early Spring Steelhead pushing in from Lake Michigan. Spring Steelhead are now starting to push in February, a common occurrence over the last few years. This year was no different and we saw really good numbers of steelhead throughout the months of January and February. Just like last few years, February is now setting up like March used to when I started guiding back in 2001.

I used to associate the start of the Steelhead run with the popular Warren Fly Fishing Show during the second week of March. I used to always hate working that show as I knew the fishing was so good on my home waters. Now I know that by Valentines day I need to be ready, almost a full month ahead of schedule.

Environment

The third reason for the change is linked directly to environmental conditions. Our winters have been milder by nature and not as harsh over the past 8-10 years. True, this winter saw plenty of cold days, but with far less snowpack than we are used to receiving. We now seem to have a roller coaster of temperature swings with small to big warmups. These warmups will bump flows and trigger runs of fish to come home early. The environment is beginning to show signs earlier that she is ready for our Steelhead to begin their trek home to their spawning grounds.

Other environmental cues also start speaking to us earlier in February. As the winter season has become less severe we are seeing blue birds and sand-hill cranes migrating back sooner. This past week we had little Black Stones fluttering on the surface on Feb 27th as water temps were peaking at 38 degrees on some smaller streams. The calendar is shifting and as anglers we need to take notice. If you enjoy steelhead fishing take a good look at your calendar and start taking notes because change is happening.

Spring Steelhead
Spring Steelhead

March

March fishing is still one of the safest months for Spring Steelhead fishing as you are less likely to get weathered out. This is the biggest negative for February, however fewer anglers on the water can make up for temperamental weather. Even though our winters seem milder, we can and will get long cold spells. If you can time the weather breaks and have flexibility in your schedule, February has proven to boast some solid Steelhead fishing.

Even though March can offer better weather and a good number of steelhead in pre-spawn mode, the number of anglers is increasing. It’s really a simple mathematical equation and fish divided by more anglers equals less of a shared opportunity.

Top 3

Can steelhead still be caught in April? Yes, absolutely! That is not what I’m trying to say here. As anglers we sometimes get stuck doing what we used to do and not what we should. I have enjoyed fun fishing for February steelhead the last few years and I need to share with our audience that this has become one of the top 3 months for Steelhead fishing in Michigan.

Applying the same mathematical principle leads me to this conclusion. The Fall Steelhead fishing is truly fantastic and will always lead the way for steelhead fishing for me. These fish are amazing and water temperature gives them the ability to do things I just don’t see with other Great Lakes fish. However, for pure numbers of Steelhead hooked in a single day, it’s really getting hard for us to beat February.

With Fall and Winter Steelhead in pre-spawn mode, Steelhead are more eager to feed. With fresh Spring run fish just showing up the Manistee River, Pere Marquette, and other Norther Michigan streams are at there peak spring-run numbers earlier in my opinion.

Streamer Season

What other trends have I noticed when I start thinking back on my angling career? One thing that also stands out is the big differences in the Spring streamer game. The Spring streamer season is for those anglers that want no part of the Spring Steelhead gong show. Streamer fishing gives an angler that escape. Now, just like with our Spring Steelhead, we are targeting Trout, Northern Pike, and Smallmouth Bass much earlier than in years past. This past April in 2021 opened my eyes to what the possibilities are.

On a side note, one of the best things that happened two years ago at Mangled Fly was the opportunity to work closer with Jeff Topp and Ed McCoy. The ability to learn more from each other about tactics/techniques and fly vs lure has expanded our guiding in new directions. The angling opportunities in April are now more diverse than just Spring Steelhead and I for one am all for it.

What I’m really excited about for this upcoming year is taking what we learned from last season and applying it to new waters. With so many of my past streamer trips painted into a trout corner, no matter what you did on some days, it was going to be a tough day on the trout stream. However, we now have a back up plan. No more sunny day April Trout-less days!

https://youtu.be/J5J2_kX1JyM

Trout

Trout fishing in April is still a very realistic option to pursue most days. However, what do you do during a cold front, especially one with bright sunny skies? It’s not to say you could’t catch the fish of a lifetime, but let’s be honest the sun is not going to help your chances. Having a second option to chase with streamers makes more sense and allows us to focus our Trout efforts at times where success is more likely. I will gladly fish for Trout with streamers on cloudy days knowing my chances are going to be much better.

What are the options now you say? How about targeting Spring Pre-spawn Smallmouth Bass as a viable option. These fish are a super fun and really don’t care if the sun is shining all day. Having diverse fishing opportunities is important for success. Conditions are never really consistent and during the Spring even less so.

Smallmouth Bass

https://youtu.be/HN4AvDrrolo

One of the highlights of a tough April steelhead run was taking time off to learn a few sections of the river for different species. The 2021 Spring Steelhead season was one of the warmest on record. Looking back we had river temps warming up at a record pace. As Steelhead to hit their preferred spawning temperatures weeks ahead of schedule we were forced to try and figure out a different program. Let me tell you, Spring Pre-spawn Smallmouth Bass are a lot of fun! The Smallmouth Bass in April tend to be bigger on average and very, very eager to take both Fly and Lure.

The big mature Smallmouth are migrating in from the lakes on their way to their spawning grounds. Smallmouth Bass spawn when water temperatures reach 60 to 63 degrees. We were starting to find these fish eager to crush flies and lures in the high 40’s. We had success over varying conditions and these fish were still weeks away from spawning, making them super aggressive.

Tactics

One tactic that I personally spent some time on was the lure fishing. A lure that changed the way I used to think was the Z-Man Jerk Shad. Fishing this lure over several days opened up my eyes on how to properly fish a Jerk Changer and how to better imitate a dying minnow presentation. This lure changed the way I tie flies and how I fished them. I’ve always prided myself in applying lure fishing tactics to my fly game in an attempt to get better. Now some of you might not have heard of either these two styles, but if you’re into fishing for predatory game fish this style of fishing is so important.

This method of fishing also paved the way to what Ed and I did later in the year with Muskie in the fall. Watching a Muskie interact with a Jerk Changer will change your world. If I had not spent time with the Z-Man Jerk Shad I’m not sure I would know how to properly teach and explain how to present your fly (Jerk Changer) to Smallmouth Bass, Northern Pike, Brown Trout, and Muskie.

Rods and Reels

When fishing for Spring Smallmouth Bass in early spring we tend to beef up our rods just bit from our summer program. One observation was the Spring Pre-spawn Smallmouth Bass really keyed in on bigger baitfish patterns. A 7wt or 8wt rods teamed up with a slow sinking line such as the Scientific Anglers Triple Density I23 were most commonly used. The leaders can be heavy this time of year as the water is usually a little murky or stained. It was NOT uncommon for us to run 16 pound fluorocarbon and even a steel leader.

Jeff Topp, once again our resident lure professional, recommends spinning rods in the 7-7.5 foot range with Medium Light to Medium Heavy power that can handle lures in the 3/16-1/2oz range. Choose your rods based upon the depth and cover type you are fishing. Jeff’s preferred line setup for river Smallmouth uses 15 or 20 lb braid for the mainline with 2-3 feet of 15 lb fluorocarbon as a leader.

Better Angler

I have for years felt like fishing for Smallmouth Bass make you a better angler. When Kevin Feenstra and I did our Smallmouth video together it really opened my eyes to the benefits of Crossover species like Smallmouth Bass. One of our mantras at Mangled Fly is teaching you how to be a better angler. Smallmouth Bass will not only teach you to be better angler, but they will give you more opportunities to learn from.

Crossover species allow you to work on proper streamer presentations that are also effective for trout

by Ed McCoy

Too often in the spring we are faced with bright and sunny conditions. How do you become better streamer angler with fewer chances? You need to catch fish. You also need to practice setting the hook and learning how to fish your fly (ie Jerk Changer) at the right speed. As streamer anglers with a fly, we always have slack in our presentation which can cause failure. There are plenty of times this has caused the angler to say, “I didn’t feel it” on the eat.

Crosstraining

To be a good angler you need to practice and learn from your opportunities. The same holds true for lure fisherman. Learning to fish your lure at the correct speed and understanding what your lure is doing under water is no different. Sunny day smallmouth bass trips allow you to practice all of these skills. Being adaptable as an angler will only maximize your Brown Trout chances on the next cloudy day.

Fishing both a fly and a lure has made me a better angler by far. My understanding of gear fishing has made me a better fly angler and my understanding of fly fishing has made me a better lure fishermen.

by Jeff Topp

Smallmouth Bass, unlike trout, are not shy when it comes to sunny days. Sometimes in the spring, Bass can be found out sunning themselves. They are feasting on the many different minnows that are also migrating to spawn. Gobies, Chubs, and many other baitfish, will provide the Smallmouth Bass with numerous prey choices. Smallmouth are not afraid of the sun and always appear to be hungry. This makes them a perfect teaching tool for anglers of all skill levels. No matter if you’re fishing a fly or a lure, Smallmouth Bass are the perfect crossover species.

Closing

I’m not trying to paint a picture of doom and gloom for those that love to fish in April for Steelhead. I am just trying to bring some much needed attention to what trends we have been seeing over the years. I truly understand February Steelhead fishing is not for everyone. I’m fine with that and I know I will continue to enjoy the fishing as much as I can over the next few seasons. With the changing landscape regarding Spring Steelhead, and Steelhead in general, the Great Lakes populations provide an exciting opportunity.

However, as things change, new options become available and our angling experiences begin evolving. In Michigan we are very blessed to have so much water to fish and a diversity of choices within. As a guide and avid angler, I am always trying to get better and its my job to make you a better angler as well. As an angling community, learning more about what other fishing options are available, should always be one of our goals. I hope everyone enjoys your spring season and good luck on the water no matter what fish you’re chasing.

Jon Ray

Changing Floats based on Water Type

Changing Floats based on Water Type

I can still remember the day when the light bulb turned on and I finally understood the need to change my float to match the water type I was fishing. Changing floats based on water type isn’t something you hear much about. Actually it’s a simple change that can make a big difference, especially in the spring, when steelhead themselves are changing the water types they utilize.

Fishing Story

Let’s start with a real world scenario, or as I like to commonly refer to it, my lightbulb moment. It was December and I just spent the past 60 days fishing for steelhead on the lower Manistee River, the section closest to Lake Michigan. Most of those days were spent primarily fishing floats in the lower end of the river. I had my confidence rig all setup and ready to go and for whatever reason I decided to change it up and shift the guide trip towards Tippy Dam.

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Invasive Species New Zealand Mud Snail

Invasive Species

INVASIVE SPECIES AND THEIR IMPACT UPON AQUATIC HABITATS

Invasive Species

Invasive Species the New Zealand Mud Snail

There are numerous threats to our aquatic ecosystems that will have lasting impacts upon our Great Lakes fisheries.  Water pollution/sedimentation, habitat loss/degradation, connectivity, and the list of examples goes on and on.  Invasive Species introductions is a topic that usually doesn’t get immediate attention until it’s too late.  The intentional or accidental introduction of Invasive Species can have irreversible consequences upon our ecosystems.  These invaders are often responsible for lost species diversity and altering food web dynamics within new habitats.

If left unchecked, the consequences are often disastrous to ecosystem functionality.  The ensuing affects often result in dire consequences that can’t be fully understood until its too late.  This demonstrates the importance of early detection and forward thinking approaches to minimize future introductions and spread.  Most Invasive Species tend to be undetectable in low population densities, by the time the are discovered its usually too late.

Human Travel

In today’s world, people have the ability to travel to just about every corner of the globe.  Sometimes a hitchhiker can find its way into new habitats.  Albeit most of these introductions have been unintentional into our aquatic communities.  However, there are some serious repercussions associated with these introductions.  The aquatic invaders usually remain unchecked by natural control mechanisms and proliferate quickly as a result.  The lack of natural predators usually favors the Invasive Species with a competitive advantage over time.

Predicting the outcomes of Invasive Species introductions is very difficult.  In most cases there are cascading effects that ripple through affected ecosystems.  As invasive populations grow, ecosystem sustainability is often lost or greatly impaired leading to reduced Native Species diversity.  For the Great Lakes region this will ultimately result in reduced numbers of highly desirable game species.

Great Lakes

The Great Lakes region has a growing number of Invasive Species concerns. Some notable examples would be the Sea Lamprey, Alewife, Spiny Water Flea, Zebra Mussels, Quaga Mussels, New Zealand Mud Snail, and now Didymo.  All of these examples have consequences that go well beyond the physical parameters of water quality.  The end result could have severe impacts upon the Trophic structure of our aquatic communities.

The Sea Lamprey almost wiped out the Lake Trout Populations thru uncontrolled predation. Alewife and Spiny Water Fleas had direct and indirect impacts upon Native Zooplankton populations and Juvenile Fish Survival.  Zebra and Quaga mussels have changed the Trophic cascades in the Great Lakes from the bottom up through decreased nutrient loads, clear/warming waters, increased Algal blooms, and reduced Salmonid populations.  Simply put these ripple effects have directly impacted the Economical value of our Recreational Sport Fishery.

New Zealand Mud Snail

One of the newest Invasive Species that is currently spreading throughout the Great Lakes Region is the New Zealand Mud Snail.  The effects of this new invader are not yet fully understood.  Researchers believe this invader will have adverse effects upon native snail species diversity by outcompeting native snails for food and space.  Concerns have also been raised regarding how the New Zealand Mud Snail may effect primary production stream ecosystems.  This will more than likely have dire consequences for macro-invertebrate communities and ultimately stream fish populations.  In a trout stream this could be detrimental.  As aquatic insect populations decrease, so will trout abundance in the affected streams.  The New Zealand Mud Snail can clone itself! It only takes one female hitchhiker to start a colony.  They are usually transported between aquatic habitats via anglers, recreational boaters, and other water-based recreational activities.

Didymo or Rock Snot

During the Fall of 2021, Didymo (or Rock Snot) is an Invasive Algae discovered blooming in the Upper Manistee River near Kalkaska, MI.  According to an MDNR press release,
this is the first known Didymo case in the Lower Peninsula.  The last Didymo bloom was documented in the St. Marys River near Sault St. Marie, MI in 2015.  Experts were shocked by the discovery as it indicates the spread may be greater than originally thought.  According to researchers, Didymo blooms form in low-nutrient cold-water streams.  Trout streams to be exact!

Similarly to the New Zealand Mud Snail, Didymo blooms can cover expansive stream-bed areas.  The blooms essentially suffocate macro-invertebrate habitat.  Long term impacts could lead to reduced aquatic invertebrate abundance, ultimately impacting trout populations over time.  Currently there are NO KNOWN MANAGEMENT solutions to eradicate Didymo so prevention is the only mitigation strategy available.  Like the New Zealand Mud Snail, Didymo is commonly spread by anglers, recreational boaters, and other water-based recreational activities.

What to do

I encourage everyone to take extra precautions throughout the upcoming season.  Throughly sanitize, wash, and dry your fishing gear and equipment after each use.  This will be very important to help prevent further spread, especially if you plan on fishing multiple watersheds over several days.  I would also encourage boat owners to invest in a separate anchor and rope for each river you fish. YOU CANNOT EFFECTIVELY CLEAN AN ANCHOR ROPE!  Whenever possible, you should avoid using anchors with complex surfaces such as stacked plates. These anchors are more likely to spread aquatic hitchhikers and require disassembly to properly clean.  A simple pyramid anchor is easier to clean without having to take it apart.

No matter what your preferred anchor choice is, I would encourage everyone to have one Anchor and one Rope designated to each watershed you fish.  The same would apply to the wade angler, a separate pair of boots or waders per stream would be the preferred option.  If you would like more information regarding Didymo, New Zealand Mud Snail, check out NZMS Collaborative.  Join the fight, end the spread, and get informed.

Tight Lines,

Ed

20 pound steelhead

Best Fishing Images of 2021

best fishing of 2021
Best Fishing of 2021

Best Fishing Images of 2021

I thought I would take a moment to reflect on a “best of our fishing images” collage from 2021 from our Instagram Feed. These are the highest liked images from 2021. If you’re not on Instagram or do not follow us via social media, here is a chance to see some of our best liked images. I thought I would go thru a couple of images and expand upon their meanings to us this year.

Also make sure to read until the end, as Ed McCoy goes into detail about a sea monster he has captured two years in a row on the Upper Manistee while mousing the last two years.

  • 20 Pound Steelhead – top left image and I believe the most liked image from the whole year. First these don’t come along very often, actually for me personally I have never seen a 20 pounder in the boat. With 20+ years of guiding, and too many personal casts to count I’m still on the hunt. Read more about this awesome guide trip below as Steve Pels goes into more depth about this once in a lifetime fish.
  • Big Muskie – Always a great adventure is our month of Muskie fishing, this year was no different as Brian Pitser of The Northern Angler landed the biggest fish on the season, middle image on the top row. This fish was pretty cool, because it was a blind figure 8. Brian did an amazing job of making the big circles required to get this fish to eat his fly. Not only do these fish make great images, but the flies we throw are fun to photograph as well. As you can see on the middle bottom row. Chicken’ sized offerings are sometimes required, bring your big boy rods to this party.
  • Underwater Image – every year I always wish I shot more of these, well this year I made a small purchase of new equipment and so far so good. Top right was my first day using the Axis Go and even though a few of my other shots didn’t make the top 2021 images they are my personal favorites.
  • Middle Row – is all about the steelhead and for Best Fishing Images steelhead are some of the best images I can get for the likes on the Instagram. Middle row shows of a big spring buck, a true awesome winter specimen , and a big late fall buck that we recently just landed. We are lucky to have these fish in Michigan, and thank you to all that helped us with the new regs and let the DNR and NRC that these fish mean so much to us.

20 Pound Steelhead Highlights

20 pound steelhead
20 pounder on the swing

One of the more memorable days in my boat occurred in mid November 2021. My clients were new to me and from our correspondence they have always wanted to try spey fishing but were unsure about it on this trip, thinking indicator fishing could be a good alternative. The night before our trip I double checked about spey fishing and told them that the conditions had been tough, with very low and clear water, not a huge amount of new fish coming in from the lake and a major temperature drop over night. After a short conversation about the challenges we were facing, they responded, ‘let’s go for it.”

On the run upriver in the morning my motor was acting up so I decided to stop sooner than I would have liked at a new run that I had not fished very much. I knew from conversations with my peers that the spot had major swing potential. After arriving to our first spot, we rigged up the spey rods and I began going through the basic mechanics of the cast, how we rig our rods and I jokingly explained rules numbers one, two and three if your fly gets grabbed. Rule 1: “Don’t do anything.” Rule number 2: “Don’t do anything.” Rule number 3: “Only do something when Steve tells you to.” We were getting into a good rhythm of cast, swing and step. My clients caught on quick and were getting their casts and swings dialed in. On our 8th anchor drop, the morning silence was broken by the most gratifying sound of short reel bursts, “ZZZzztt, ZZZzzt, ZZZzzt.” My first response is always, “leave it, leave it, leave it” but at this point, the fish was most likely already hooked. After a few more solid pulls and one sustained scream of the reel, I said, “go ahead and give me a light lift, it’s on!” The fish was clearly not pleased with its situation and proceeded to take multiple runs, jump 7 times and once we thought we had it beat, gator rolled and threw the hook.

Again silence filled the boat. We remained positive throughout the remainder of the day and had a lot of fun telling jokes and getting to know each other. Runs number two through four produced no action and I knew we were losing time. Run number five was a confidence spot and on our 3rd anchor drop my client fishing from the bow gets a promising rip. Then nothing. We worked that spot thoroughly, while thinking that was our last chance. Our time was up for the day but on the way out I thought, we have to hit one more, another confidence spot. We fished another hour after quitting time and I announced “two more casts guys.” On the last casts we were letting the flies hang down a little longer than normal and we admitted that it turned out to be a good swing day – they were pleased they learned how to cast and both got to feel the raw power of a swung fly take. Out of nowhere, the client fishing from the stern froze, his reel was screaming, I said nothing and he confidently lifted the rod, knowing that fish was on.

Its first run took us nearly to backing and each time it neared the boat, ran downriver like it was headed back to the big lake. The fish was tiring, never jumped, but as we were winning the battle, it would make large boils on the surface with its attempt to flee. Finally, the fish neared the boat and I saw a massive silver flash of its flank, I said “big lift!” and with a swift scoop of the net, we had it. This was not an average steelhead, I thought to myself, easy 16-18 pounds. But after lifting it out of the water for a quick photo and measurements, it turned out to be a 36.25” by 20 pound gorgeous wild female. A personal guide/client best in my boat and one that my client and I will never forget.


Two Years in a Row, same trout

Upper Manistee Trout Fishing Report
Robert P. From 2021
Night Fishing
Tim O. From 2020

2021 posed a lot of “interesting” scenarios on our local Trout water.  Low water, big cold fronts in May, intense heat in early June, then followed by a wet and warm late season.  Robert P. Joined me for a couple of nights mousing in August and he landed a personal best and the season’s best Brown Trout on our second night.  This fish was truly a treasure, but after further inspection and a gut instinct, it occurred to me that Tim O. landed this same fish in 2020!  So what’s the big deal? You knew the exact location where this fish lived, right?  The cool part of the story is this fish was caught about 13 miles upstream from her 2020 location!  

Kind of a cool story and it makes you think, why the big move?  There are lots of factors that play into fish movement, but my best guess is this fish is just nomadic by nature. It also illustrates the importance of catch and release angling allowing future anglers to enjoy the opportunity at a fish of a lifetime!

New Steelhead Limits

NRC Proposal for New Steelhead Limits Part 2

Current Status of Fisheries Order 200.22

The Natural Resource Commission convened the November 10th meeting by tabling the New Steelhead Limits for further discussion (Steelhead Proposal). Fisheries Order 200.22 will be back on the table and up for a vote at the December 9th meeting. There are a couple of probable outcomes for the Commissioner Nyberg Amendment at the upcoming December meeting. The NRC will either put the amendment to a vote or table Fisheries Order 200.22 for the upcoming 2022 agenda. If the Nyberg amendment is brought to a vote and passes then enforcement will begin on March 15, 2022.

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Fall Steelhead Manistee River

NRC Proposal New Steelhead Limits

NRC Proposal New Steelhead Limits

New Proposal

There is a new proposal up for consideration by the NRC that would reduce Steelhead bag limits on several sections/streams in Michigan. Here is the NRC Proposal New Steelhead Limits being considered by the NRC. The current steelhead management plan for Michigan needs to be revised to reflect current trends, conditions, and annual adult spawning migrations. We are not opposed to people having the opportunity to harvest a fish even though we practice catch and release. This request for change has nothing to do with gear restrictions and by no means should we dictate how people can legally fish for steelhead. Steelhead populations are in decline and have been on the long slide for over the past decade. Which raises several questions and highlights a need to address and discuss the future of Steelhead management in our state.

Data gaps and changing environmental conditions have muddied the waters, but indicators are everywhere. Anyone that has spent any amount of time on the water can see the changes that have occurred. Which poses several questions. What is the current status of spawning steelhead in our streams? Does the current management scheme reflect what anglers are currently experiencing in their catch rates? Can a declining steelhead population survive added angling pressure with todays current harvest allowance? The MDNR has admitted there is a problem, but currently there has been a failure to act even though there are plenty of red flags.

Little Manistee River

The Little Manistee River Weir boasts the best available data for returning spring Steelhead. This little river is the sister river to the Big Manistee. Albeit smaller in size, it can still shed light on the current trend of Steelhead returns in the Big Manistee River. Since 2002 there has been a significant reduction in Spring Steelhead in the Little Manistee River. The 6 year average from 2009-2014 was 3,433 returning adults and from 2015 to present it was 2,389 returning adults (excludes 2020). In the last 6 years there has been a 30% reduction in average spawning adults. If this trend continues, then what? The spring 2021 returns were the lowest since 1970. More importantly, every year since 2003, the spring steelhead counts have been below the 53 year average of 4,648 adults.

Are we just going to standby and watch our Steelhead populations decline to a point of no return? It’s not far fetched to consider the outcome of 10 more years of decline. The consequences could ultimately exceed the ability of the population to recover. There is a COST TO NO ACTION! Steelhead catch rates are declining statewide as well. Right now this state has a Steelhead catching issue. The proposed rule changes will probably not boost the overall population size, but a declining Steelhead population will not promote productive fishing. This proposal is a good start to a long overdue conversation. Catch Rates, Harvest, and Angler Satisfaction are currently out of balance. We can’t afford to wait for things to get any worse! Now is the time to have a serious discussion regarding harvest limits. What should our annual harvest look like based upon today’s current steelhead population trend? We need to bring the Harvest and Catch Rates back to the middle and rebalance Angler Satisfaction.

Big Manistee River

The close proximity of the Little Manistee River to the Big Manistee River also raises parallel questions. Is there a similar population trend occurring in the Big Manistee River? What about the rest of the Lake Michigan Basin? Is this trend occurring throughout the Great Lakes Region? We believe it is! How can we continue the “Business as Usual” model? To say there isn’t a biological reason to consider a regulation change is a dangerous claim. Just because you have an inherent lack of data doesn’t excuse you from responding to the problem. Changing the regs is a short term fix that will allow more time for data collection. Fully understanding the complexities surrounding the Steelhead population decline will take time. How long will “the data collection” take, 5-10 years? Can we justify waiting that long without taking action? Is it worth risking this popular fishery? Just a little food for thought.

Email NRC

We encourage everyone to email your own letter to the NRC. This is an important issue and if you enjoy fishing for steelhead you should be paying attention. Acting now may avert loosing something that is more than 100 years in the making. Here is the email for the NRC , please send your public comments to this address before November 10th.