The Mitten State has a thriving trout population, a fly fisherman’s dream, to say the least.
However, it hasn’t always been this way, and it could change in the near future.
Four trout species inhabit Michigan waterways; most are not native to the state; some, like the aggressive brown trout, have pushed out beloved native species, like the arctic grayling (a close relative of trout commonly found here).
While restoration efforts are underway to bring arctic grayling back to their native streams, anglers and scientists must walk a delicate balance between recreational fishing and determining the importance of reintroducing native species.
As an annual Michigan angler, I support the opportunity to target another species, especially a beautiful native species that has been wiped out of its original habitat.
But I also understand that opportunity is several years away, and I don’t want to give up all of my fishing spots in the meantime in hopes that a species might be restored to its native waterways (there’s no guarantee the arctic grayling will develop a naturally reproducing population).
Now that you understand where I’m coming from, as an angler, and a little bit of the controversy of native vs. non-native species, let’s talk a bit about all the trout caught in Michigan waters.
We’ll discuss their native range, how to identify them, and management efforts for anglers and the DNR.
Brook trout are one of two native trout in Michigan waters and are the state’s official fish. They get their name from the tiny streams they inhabit. The Au Sable River, Black River, and Escanaba River are three waterways with healthy brook trout populations.
Brook trout are smaller than other species, averaging 10 – 12 inches. However, trophy-sized brookies can grow up to 21 inches. Besides their smaller size, one of the easiest ways to identify brook trout is by their red spots with a blueish circle around them.
Even though brookies are smaller, they should be a prized catch by any angler. They were once abundant across cold water streams in Michigan and the US, but the introduction of brown trout has pushed them out of much of their native areas.
Brook trout restoration projects are underway at Big Garlic River, Big Huron River, Iron River, Little Huron River, Pilgrim River, Portage/Torch Lake System, Ravine River, Silver River, and Slate River. Hence, these areas have special trout fishing regulations, often including trout bait and lure restrictions.
Browns are native to Europe and were introduced to Michigan waters in the early 1880s. Since then, they’ve made themselves at home across the state. They prefer wider streams and rivers, which is why the Au Sable River, Pere Marquette River, and Manistee River all hold healthy populations of brown trout.
Brown trout grow massive, as the Brown Trout Festival held annually in Alpena, M, has shown us in years past. The average-sized brown trout is about 15 inches, but trophy browns grow up to 40 inches, though trophy browns in Michigan rivers are 25-30 inches.
Brown trout also have red spots but white circles around them instead of blue. They also have black spots down their golden brown sides.
Because brown trout are more aggressive than other native species, they’ve overtaken waters traditionally inhabited by brook trout and arctic grayling by out-competing them for food and prime spots. Brownies have established a naturally reproducing population, so the DNR has slowed down brown trout re-stocking efforts in parts of Michigan.
Lake trout are the other Michigan native and, as their name suggests, are found primarily in lakes, especially the Great Lakes.
They grow to be true giants; the state record is over 60 pounds, but the average weight is around 10 pounds. Besides their huge size, you can identify lake trout by their silvery or brownish-colored body with white spots.
Though lakers have a naturally reproducing population, the DNR stocks them to supplement one’s angler’s catch or are outcompeted by other fish. If you catch a lake trout with a notched or missing fin, this most often indicates it was a hatchery-raised fish that was stocked.
Another non-native trout to Michigan is the rainbow or steelhead trout. This trout didn’t travel nearly as far as brown trout since its home waters are along the West Coast. Rainbow trout were introduced to Michigan shortly before brown trout in the late 1870s.
Steelhead can grow over 25 pounds, as they have much more food available in the lakes, while true rainbows remain a bit smaller since they stay in the streams and rivers. To identify a rainbow trout, look for the silvery rainbow-colored side with dark spots along its back.
While steelhead and rainbows have a similar appearance (they are sub-species), the best way for anglers to tell the difference is by size. Rainbows rarely grow over 25”, and steelhead regularly exceed 25”.
Rainbow trout are believed to have a naturally reproducing populations in Michigan; however, stocking efforts continue to maintain a healthy population so anglers can target these exciting fish. The FISHPASS proposal hopes to help steelhead and native species gain access to waterways, essential to reproduction that were lost when dams were created, while limiting the negative impact caused by invasive species like sea lamprey.
Once native to the northern lower peninsula Michigan waters, the arctic grayling is a close relative to trout, which is now only naturally found in the US in Alaska and Montana. It’s believed to have been one of the most populous fish in Michigan before logging, overfishing, and competition from non-native species drove it to extinction in Michigan.
Arctic grayling rarely grow over 3 pounds or 20 inches, which could be one reason why they’re outcompeted by larger salmonid species, like brown trout. They are found in various colors and patterns but generally have iridescent red, aqua, or purple spots and markings. The large sail-like dorsal fin also gives them away.
Many anglers are excited that the arctic grayling may return to Michigan waters shortly. Millions of dollars are funding stream restoration projects and helping the Alaskan strain of arctic grayling adapt to a new environment. Still, we have yet to see the results of these projects.
I don’t believe there’s any need to raise the red flag and start doom preaching for all the trout anglers in the state. However, it might be time to admit we’ve seen the glory days, and a new era is beginning.
One that might be filled with fewer giant brown trout catches but could usher in the return of a long-lost friend, the arctic grayling.
Guest contribution from Coty Perry, Editor at https://anglers.com/