Outdoor Mysteries: Trout in the Little Muskegon River

By Chris Zimmerman

Little Brown Trout

Last summer in late April, I pulled into the parking lot where the Little Muskegon River pours over the dam in downtown Altona, MI.  A younger version of myself was there with his two daughters, fishing.  They cast worms under a bobber into the swirling froth, hoping for a fish to bite the worm and pull the bobber under the surface. 

I didn’t say anything to the young family, but the setting took me in, the way trout fishing always does.   My eyes turned to the evening sky.  There, in the twilight of midsummer, clouds of slender, dark mayflies swarmed overhead in a mating ritual cast from the script of The Wizard of Oz.  You know the scene – when the Wicked Witch banishes her legions of flying monkeys from her castle.  The monkeys fly away in swarms so thick they nearly blot out the sun. 

Mayflies in such abundance tickle a fly fisherman’s fancy.  Without them, the trout have nothing to feed upon.  With them, the river’s surface becomes an overhead buffet line for hungry trout.  I stood there for twenty minutes or so, watching the bugs in the sky, the inky darkness of the water, and the dreamy mingling of the two.  I waited for the splashing goodness of a trout rise…behind a log, in the swift middle section, near the old bridge, or as far upstream as I could see. 


And with that observation I formulated an opinion that the Little Muskegon River was too warm, too muddy, too slow to support decent populations of trout. 

That theory held true until I spoke with Mark Tonello, fisheries biologist with the Michigan Department of Natural Resources.  “There are places in the Little Muskegon with really nice brook trout,” Tonello said, “and we don’t plant brook trout.  Most of the guys who catch them get away from road crossings and bust a lot of brush getting to trout.” 

The DNR stocks the Little Muskegon with rainbow and brown trout.  In 2020, 6,000 rainbow and 2,400 browns were set free not far from Canadian Lakes.  Most of the trout are below the minimum size limit but the DNR seldom plants fish that are.  “The rainbows average 7.3 inches, while the browns are 6.2,” Tonello said.  “We raise trout at hatcheries in Oden or Harrietta.  After a year we release them into the wild.”   Based on that information, anglers are encouraged to consult the 2021 Michigan Fishing Guide before keeping any trout for the table.

In the section of the Little Muskegon closest to Canadian Lakes, brook trout have to be 7 inches, while browns and rainbows need to hit10 inches.  The limit is five fish per day, but no more than three trout can be greater than 15 inches.  Anglers can use whatever tackle they want.  Popular trout lures are spinners, nightcrawlers, minnow imitations such as Rapalas, and of course, trout flies tied from feathers and fur that mimic insects, or small rodents.

Fishermen are reminded to respect private property.  Anglers have the right to fish, so long as they stay in the river.  If they encounter an obstacle in the river such as a deep hole or a fallen log, they can get out of the water and hop onto private property.  They don’t have the right to linger or fish from private property.  As long as they’re in the water fishing, fishermen are legal.

The Little Muskegon’s beginnings are on the outlet of Horsehead Lake near Mecosta.  It flows in a south, southwest direction before it dumps into the Croton Pond above Croton dam.  Along the way, the east branch of the Little Muskegon, Shinglebolt Creek, Cedar Creek and several other creeks dump into the Little Muskegon.

Tonello said plans are being made to remove the dam in Altona. “It’s old and crumbling and the road commission wants it taken out,” he said.  Once the dam is removed, the pool and eddies won’t be available to families to fish, but neither will the collection of sediment on the upstream side of the dam.  That scenario will be better for trout. 

Few outdoor pursuits sweep me off my feet like trout fishing. It takes skill and prowess to drop a spinner or fly into tight places where trout live.  I talk to myself when I’m alone on the river.  Bad casts are frowned upon.  Good casts are met with adoration.  Seems like only the really good casts are rewarded with a strike from a hungry trout. 

I stumble over rocks and logs, and duck under overhanging branches.  The gentle swoosh of the flyline is drowned out by the sounds of whippoorwills, wood thrushes, and faraway gobbles of a lonesome tom.  Insect hatches unfold with the subtlety of a gust of wind.  Trout dimpling the water surface is akin to a good luck coin dropped in a water fountain.  My mind races from cast to cast, from one pocket of cover to the next.  Round the bend I go, taking in the scenery, the wildlife, the sights and smells of an evening on the river.  Trout fishing turns hours into minutes, and it’s one of the most pleasant of all outdoor experiences.               

Now that I know the Little Muskegon River could be good for trout, I can’t wait to give it a whirl.

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