by Maralee Cook
Is it the opportunity to catch ‘the big one’, or the wild beauty of the area that keeps anglers returning to Manistee County’s rivers to fish? According to a few of the county’s river fishing guides, it turns out to be a combination of the two.
Blessed with three major rivers – the Big Manistee, Little Manistee and the Pine River – the county’s river guides host anglers from all over the world, many of whom return year after year to fish for Coho and Chinook salmon, steelhead, brown and brook trout and smallmouth bass in Manistee County’s River Country. The rivers share many qualities, among them are their beauty, excellent fishing, diverse wildlife, plus canoeing and kayaking opportunities, and the nearby hiking and biking trails.
The rivers are surrounded by tall pine, spruce, oak, birches and maple, tightly wrapping the area in an abundance of rich greens bordered by blues from the sky and water in spring through early fall. Once the deciduous trees begin to change into their fiery fall splendor the scenery explodes as it makes a complete turn around the color wheel, before evolving into the stark contrasts of winter.
“The Big Manistee is beautiful and has a great run of fish the whole year,” said fishing guide Michael Tilmann who lives on the Big Manistee and guides both the river as well as Lake Michigan. “The Big Manistee is 90 percent fishing by boat, and the Little Manistee is 90 percent walking. But just because you don’t have a boat doesn’t mean you can’t catch big fish. The average fish size is now 14-18 pounds, but a 20 pounder is not unusual.”
Tilmann grew up in Michigan but spent time as a professional fishing guide in Alaska. When he returned to the “Lower 48”, he moved to Manistee, he said, because it was as close to a replication of his Alaskan experience as he could get. He has been a licensed fishing guide in Manistee for 18 years.
The Big Manistee River section below Tippy Dam was designated a National Scenic River in 1996.
“The Little Manistee is closed by the DNR at the southern end of Manistee Lake to the Weir for the DNR’s egg take. When they get their limit, usually in October, the gates are opened and you can fish Coho and steelhead until the end of the season January 1. Come April 1, a lot of people will take a week’s vacation and camp near the Weir to fish Steelhead,” said Tilmann.
Tilmann also offers natural interpretive river floats for those interested in wildlife viewing. “We have beaver, muskrat, deer, mink, eagles and sandhill cranes,” he said. Most of Tilmann’s clients comment on the beauty and peacefulness of the area. “We have large stretches of river with limited development, which you don’t find in other parts of the country.” Tilmann’s Lodge is a restored caboose on his property that he rents to anglers who can enjoy the special experience of listening to the salmon splash close to shore.
John Gouker, of Drift Expeditions, guides catch-and-release through Schmidt Outfitters in Wellston, is also licensed to guide the Pine River, and it’s his favorite trout river to guide and fish. The Pine has sections designated since 1992 as a Wild and Scenic River, and it is also a Blue Ribbon Cold-Water Fishery. “There’s nothing like the Pine in Michigan. It’s very scenic and has a western feel to it, it’s not stocked and there are no migrating fish, but naturalized rainbow, brook and brown trout from egg to adult. And fishing is great throughout the summer because the water stays cold,” he said.
“There are only a few cabins on the Pine, and on the Big Manistee from Hodenpyl Dam to the mouth there are low numbers of houses leading to miles of good wilderness feel,” he said. “The biggest appeal is the wild, natural scenery and the overall quality of the experience in this area. “The rivers are light on people,” he said. “On a weekday, you can float 10 miles of river and not see a single soul.”
Chris Brecht, a Trout Unlimited member who lives in Royal Oak, Michigan, fishes the Pine, Little and Big Manistee rivers often. “The Pine is possibly one of the best trout streams in the Midwest. It’s easily waded and offers several access points. It can fish at its best in the summer and the trout are usually pretty willing to take a well-placed fly. The Big Manistee offers many ways to fish-swing flies, indicator fish, chuck and duck, throw plugs-the list goes on and on. The Little Manistee’s cold, clear, clean water holds an abundance of brown trout, steelhead and the occasional Coho. It’s challenging, and when you catch a large brown trout or steelhead as an angler, you know that you have accomplished something. Even if the fish aren’t cooperating it is a fantastic place to spend the day, especially during the peak colors of autumn.
Catch-and-release angler Patrick Cook of Brooklyn, New York, likes the solitude and challenge of fishing the different habitat in Manistee County’s rivers, created by logs or downed trees as opposed to habitats created by boulders with rock and sediment build-up as in other states. He likes the rivers’ sandy bottoms and clear water, and thinks the browns are prettier and brighter here. As an angler, he appreciates the acrobatic fight of wild steelhead, and the Little Manistee’s hexagenia limbata ‘hex hatch’ in spring.
Art Szewbzyk of Cadillac, who’s fished California and mountain streams said “this is as good as it gets”, about fishing Manistee County’s rivers. He’s ‘falling in love with our town (Manistee County),’ and has Jason Decker, of Lake Run Outfitters, guiding for First Class Charters to thank for it. Szewbzyk, a military veteran participating in Manistee’s Tight Lines for Troops Lake Michigan fishing tournament a few years ago, met Decker, a crew member for First Class Charters which was hosting Szewbzyk’s group. He has been fishing Manistee County’s lakes and rivers with Decker ever since. He said he likes the way a local guide knows the river and the area, brings all of the gear so if one species of fish is not biting, they can switch equipment and go after another. “It’s November 2 (2015), sunny and 60 degrees, the fish are biting and we’ve seen Canadian geese, blue heron, an eagle’s nest. We’ve caught nine steelhead so far and will keep just enough to take dinner home.”