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Manistee below Tippy Dam lives up to its reputation

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Manistee below Tippy Dam lives up to its reputation


06/16/07 Bob Gwizdz

BRETHREN -- Anyone who has lived in Michigan for any length of time -- and knows which end of a fishing rod to hold -- knows about the Manistee River below Tippy Dam. From September until April, it is probably the single most popular stretch of river for anglers chasing migratory trout and salmon coming in from the Great Lakes.

But what about the rest of the year? Is the river worth fishing?

Mike Mol says it is. A retired conservation officer from the Houghton Lake area, Mol says the resident trout fishery -- at least during the spring -- can be as good as any in the state. And he said he'd show me.

So we found ourselves -- Mol, his wife Kris and I -- in Mol's drift boat about an hour past sunrise at the state launch ramp below the dam. And in no time, we were catching trout on wet flies -- small browns and rainbows, the stockers that the Department of Natural Resources had recently poured in.

But an hour into the float, the white/flashabou Clouser minnow I was casting found something a little better. It was a brown trout -- I got a good look at it when it came out of the water -- that I immediately judged at 16 inches. It put a good bend into my 6-weight rod, but when I finally led it to Mol's net, it was closer to 14 inches. I'd been fooled by its girth, something Mol said was par for the trout in this stretch.

And if you think about it, it figures. These fish have as much to eat as they want. There are tons of salmon and steelhead spawning in the river, spewing out delectable roe. And when the eggs hatch out, the young salmon and steelhead just provide more fodder. That's Mol's theory on using white streamers; they mimic the millions of smolts that make the water's surface look nervous when they're feeding on midges.

"These look like Lake Michigan browns," Mol said. "Big, fat browns that for some reason decided they wanted to live in the river."

As we floated, I spotted a quartet of steelhead (it looked like three hens with a male behind them) on a redd. Mol rowed toward them and dropped anchor, and both he and Kris tried to get them to go on a streamer. They wouldn't, but I happened to have brought an 8-weight rod, still rigged from steelhead season, with a yarn fly and an egg-sucking leech. On my third cast, I saw the trailing fish dart out toward the flies. A minute later, Mol dipped up the 22-inch male that had taken the leech.

Shortly after, I'd collected a 16-inch brown (again, it's girth fooled me; I'd had it pegged at 18 inches when I saw it jump) and an 15-inch rainbow. So by 10 a.m., I'd already enjoyed a most satisfactory day on the stream.

And it's a good thing, too, because about the time the sun poked its face above the trees, it was over. From then on, I never hooked another decent trout, just a few fresh stockers.

And that's been the trend, said Mol.

"The sun's just killing us," he said. "I prefer a gloomy day, raining. The best day I ever had here, it was really coming down.

"Of course, it's better everywhere on a rainy day. What I like about this place is on the right day you can do it all -- you can fish dries, emergers, nymphs and streamers. But most of the big fish you catch come on streamers."

What few other boaters we saw on the water were chasing steelhead; it was obvious as they motored up and down the river, then anchored to fish a select spot, what was going on.

"Everybody kind of concentrates on steelhead," Mol said. "They leave the brown trout alone."

Mol, who enjoys rowing a drift boat as much as anyone I've ever met, says the float from Tippy Dam down to High Bridge is becoming one of his favorites.

There's plenty of reason for that; the entire stretch is undeveloped (it's largely federal forest land) and wildlife is abundant. There are a number of resident eagles, waterfowl, all manner of songbirds and a host of mammals as well. We even saw a pair of sturgeon -- looking nearly as long as our drift boat -- on gravel in one fast-flowing stretch.

Mol said he now prefers this float to the Au Sable below Mio, which at one time was probably the best-known big brown trout water in the state.

"I still like Mio," he said. "It's a beautiful float, but it's got a canoe problem."

But the fishing, he says, is better below Tippy.

"This is the slowest day I've ever had here," he said.

Well, I'd caught four quality fish. If that's a slow day, I'd love to see it when they're biting.
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