I’m just old enough to have witnessed the glory days of the Great Lakes when brown trout were almost as abundant as salmon.
It was a time when hard core anglers—fishing from small boats—would chisel ice away from launch ramps so they could be among the first to target browns each season.
Back in the day, all the Great Lakes had an abundance of forage and the sky was the limit as to state and provincial brown trout stocking efforts. Sadly those days are gone and the changing face of the Great Lakes has forced biologists to reduce stocking efforts on certain species in favor of other more popular species.
In a nutshell this is exactly what has happened in Lake Michigan and also Lake Huron, two bodies of water that were once brown trout meccas. The bad news is noteworthy brown trout waters have become far and few between. The good news is those agencies that are still in the game of stocking brown trout are steadfast and determined to continue this tradition.
RACINE AND MILWAUKEE
The Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources continues to see value in stocking brown trout in some limited waters of Lake Michigan. The waters from Racine to Milwaukee currently rate as some of the best brown trout fishing found anywhere in the Great Lakes.
Stocking efforts are part of the reason the fishing in these waters for brown trout is so good, but southern Lake Michigan also has nearly perfect brown trout habitat. Browns love to hang out and also to feed on bottom structure. This region of Lake Michigan has an abundance of reefs, points and shoals that harbor an endless supply of round gobies.
As alewife numbers have declined in recent years, brown trout have flourished by capitalizing on the abundant and easy to catch round goby.
In addition to nearly perfect habitat, southern Lake Michigan is home to a couple of electric generation plants that feature warm water discharge sites. It only takes water a couple of degrees warmer than the main lake temperature to attract and hold amazing numbers of brown trout. Good bottom structure, warm water discharges and an abundance of feeder creeks and rivers that also pour in nutrient rich and stained waters add up to world class brown trout fishing. The month of April is prime time, but these fish can also be routinely taken in May by simply fishing a little deeper.
Diving plugs including the Mag Lip 3.5, Kwik-Fish K-9, Lindy River Rocker and Storm 1/4 ounce Hot n Tot trolled with the help of in-line planer boards consistently produce limit catches.
The Niagara River may well be the most fertile body of water in the Great Lakes. All of the nutrient rich waters of Lake Erie flow through the Niagara River and eventually dump into Lake Ontario. “What makes the Niagara River fishery special is brown trout can be caught here in the spring, fall and winter months,” says Bill Hilts Jr., the Niagara Falls USA Outdoor Promotions Director. “In the spring of the year, browns are routinely taken in the Niagara River, at the mouth of the Niagara River, at the Niagara Bar and at several different feeder creeks that pour into Lake Ontario east of the river mouth. Local angling legend Captain Frank Campbell has boated two brown trout in recent years over 30 pounds including a 31 pound monster landed in 2017.”
The average size of brown trout produced in this area is closer to eight pounds, but the chance at catching a super tanker is a very real possibility. In the river and at the Niagara Bar drift fishing with a simple three way rig armed with two-ounce pencil sinker and a 3.0 Mag Lip plug by Yakima Bait is how most of these fish are caught. Brown trout that concentrate near the mouth of feeder creeks are primarily taken trolling stickbaits and spoons fished behind planer boards.
OSWEGO/PULASKI NEW YORK
The eastern end of Lake Ontario is perhaps the last strong hold for brown trout in the Great Lakes. This region has always been and continues to be a premier brown trout destination.
“The ports of Oswego, Fair Haven and Sodus Point are literally crawling with brown trout,” says Troy Creasy of High Adventure Sportfishing. “I’ve been fishing these waters of Lake Ontario for 28 years and the last few have been some our best for browns.”
“Spring brown trout fishing starts literally the moment fishermen can get their boats in the water,” explains Creasy. “Unlike other brown trout destinations, the fishing stays good throughout April, May and even June. Because this region of Lake Ontario has deep water very close to shore, it’s common for anglers to start fishing near shore catching brown trout and then to simply troll out to deeper water adjusting their divers and downriggers lines as they slip into deeper water.”
Captain Troy and other charters in the area use the brown trout as their fall back plan. On days when the open waters of Lake Ontario are too rough, the near shore waters are usually calm enough to fish and catching a limit of brown trout is rarely a problem.
“Because browns are not as temperature sensitive as kings, coho or lake trout, they pretty much live in and can be caught among those near shore areas year around,” adds Creasy.
Spoons and stickbaits rule the day among brown trout anglers in eastern Lake Ontario. The typical set up includes stickbaits like the Smithwick Rattlin’ Rogue, Rapala Husky Jerk and Bomber Long A fished on planer boards with spoons covering the diver and downrigger lines.
A growing number of anglers are also using spoons weighted with split shot or small bullet sinkers on the board lines. This set up is especially deadly when the brown trout are in shallow water.
The fishing destinations listed here are currently the top producing brown trout waters in the Great Lakes. Some other destinations certainly deserve an honorable mention.
The Sheboygan, Wisconsin area and the Door Peninsula are quietly becoming known for producing brown trout. While stocking efforts here are limited, this region of Lake Michigan has amazing bottom structure and feeder streams that attract brown trout. Because this portion of the lake is much further north than the Racine and Milwaukee areas, the brown trout fishing here starts a little later and runs deeper into May.
On the other side of Lake Michigan the ports of Ludington, Manistee and Frankfort have a rich history of being world class brown trout destinations. The Michigan state record for brown trout has been set and broken several times out of Manistee, Michigan.
Sadly the Michigan DNR was forced to reduce brown trout stocking here some years ago when it became obvious the alewife population was in trouble. In 2018 the Michigan DNR announced that the alewife population has stabilized and that they will again be stocking brown trout in these three popular ports in significant numbers. If history repeats itself, this region of Lake Michigan could once again be known for producing world class brown trout.
The Great Lakes have changed significantly in the past couple decades. Anglers who are targeting brown trout these days are wise to take environmental changes into consideration while fishing.
Brown trout are structure loving fish and targeting these fish near bottom has never been more important. The expansion of the round goby into all Great Lakes waters has provided a bonus food source for brown trout that historically fed mostly on alewife and smelt. Using lures such as wobbling plugs that imitate this important forage base is becoming increasingly important.
While brown trout can tolerate warmer waters than other salmonids, in the spring when the water is icy cold, targeting these fish in places where the water temperature is a couple degrees warmer can make or break any fishing trip. Warm water discharge sites, creek mouths, harbors, breakwalls and murky shoreline waters are places where the water warms quickly and brown trout naturally concentrate.
The final piece of the puzzle is using natural scents. Like all members of the trout family, browns use their sense of smell to find food. Using natural scent products and oils made from real bait fish such as emerald shiners, smelt, alewife and gizzard shad can dramatically increase catches, especially on tough days.
Pro Cure Bait Scents is a leader in the fishing scent industry. They produce Super Gel which is a sticky paste that is designed to be used with hard baits such as spoons and plugs. Pro Cure also produces real fish oils that are ideal for anglers who are fishing with live bait, cut bait or spawn. Both of these scent products produce a natural scent stream in the water for about 30 to 35 minutes before they should be reapplied.
The Great Lakes brown trout fishery has experienced a lot of changes in recent years. While the brown trout is never going to get the love that king and coho salmon get, these adaptive fish will continue to be a part of the Great Lakes fishing scene as long as their are anglers willing to chop ice in order to launch their boats!
- written by Mark Romanack (Fishing 411 TV)