Lake Michigan trolling tactics for
Early Season Brown Trout
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Trophy Brown
Home 2011 Events Tips and Trix Capt. John's Log Members Only

Prescription for Curing
 Brown Trout Fever 7.0
by Capt. John King

The modus operandi for success on Mr. Brown Trout on Lake Michigan in April begins with reading the color of the water.  Here, patterns of recent wind direction can be the "big tip off."  A few days of a strong south blow will push the flow of the river water that empties into the lake.  That will dictate to me, there's a strong possibility main body fish will have slid north of the pier heads along with the wind.  Why? ...because, river water pushed by the wind direction.  This water is stained and warmer than the main body of Lake Michigan, causing the notoriously spooky Browns to be more active, or aggressive.  The water flow entering from any major estuary will be more attractive to the bait fish.  Starting the building blocks of the food chain.  Also, the darker water will grab heat/solar energy from the sun, warming more rapidly than the gin clear waters of Lake Michigan.

Choosing the right water clarity is the hardest thing for me to explain to you.  The reel gin-clear water is not that productive.  Although, the odd scattered occasional fish can be caught in the clear stuff.   Stained off-color water with about 5' of clarity is the best.

The mother load of Browns will gravitate to the stained water ...more on the murky side.  If the water is muddy?  Probably too much debris in it to troll effectively, because of weeds and grass ...fouling your baits.  Or, if you can see the bottom clearly in 8 to 10 feet of water, you're in the wrong place!  So, hit the middle ground on water clarity issues here.

The Big and Little Manistee Rivers account for over approximately 2000 square miles of a watershed that drains into Lake Michigan.  In the spring "April Showers" have these rivers flowing at peak levels of the season, because of the combined snow pack melt.  Also, something you should consider is the higher dissolved oxygen content the run-off usually has, aiding in you pursuit of these wily tan colored gamesters.  You can use this to your advantage in your quest of football shaped Brown Trout.  Interested? ...then continue reading the following below.

If you get the below program working as good as I have, remember being a fish hog is not helping our future fishery.  Releasing some fish for seed is good for everybody, plus it feels good to have a fish swim away after you know you've defeated it.

Time & Place

This is an early season fishery, and I mean early, if you're going to score consistently on Salvo Trutta (Brown Trout).  By late March and early April the Browns will become active along the shoreline of Lake Michigan, gorging themselves on alewives the predominate bait fish in Lake Michigan.

While Manistee carries the big reputation as the leader of the early Brown Trout Fishery, I'd opt for lesser known ports like Arcadia, Leland or Pentwater if I was a mobile strike force and had an easily trailerable boat.  My reasoning?  There's way to much boat traffic in Manistee on the weekends to fish for these skittish creatures.  Traffic will put the Browns off the feed in a big hurry.  Or look at it my way: you're fishing in water generally 12 foot deep, or less.  A heavy thumping of the shoreline by other boats will return meager results.  Traffic causes the Browns to scatter over the deeper water.  Once the angling pressure becomes intolerable, these fish go the bite.   

The Program
Brown Trout 7.0

I use standard dual offset planer boards, but inlines like Off Shore, Willies and Yellow birds will work.  I prefer the steady pull of the larger board, rather than the surging or erratic action of the inline planer board, because I don't believe the Brownsters are willing to run down any lure that looks like it's going to be to difficult to catch.

Letting out the planer board too far will rarely help you.  Plus, it adds to the problem of boat congestion and passing between other vessels.  Spacing on the lines is stacked 10 to 15 feet apart on the tag line to the planer board, sometimes even a tad closer.  This way, you're using your boat as a weapon to spook, or push the fish out to the strike zone where the lures are swimming.  Lead lengths from the lure to the planer tag line 100 to 120 feet is what I consider normal.  Flat calm? Stretching the to 150 foot leads can often produce better on these wary shoreline Browns.

The release that I rely on is the Off Shore OR-14 or small black release on a shower hook that easily clamps on to the planers board tag line.  Also. it don't have the tendency to spin around said tag line, like the white OR-3 release does, but I used the OR-3's for many seasons.  These are the best products available for this job.

Setting Up

When first setting up for Browns, set the starboard and port sides up with different lead lengths, 100 feet on, oh, let's say the port and a 125 feet on the starboard.  This way you'll be able to tell how spooky or aggressive the fish are.  Then adjust both sides to the one that is most productive.

Keep in mind you be traffic and letting the planer boards out to far will hurt your spread more than help it.  Too far and you'll be limited in your ability to maneuver through the pack and be faced with the choice of the deep water side off the beach, the deeper side is generally not as productive. 

Tip:  Do as I say and not as I do.  If I'd listen to my own advice I'd be much better off.  So, far I've been on the lake twice and I forgot a very important part of the set up. 4/1/01

Recommended Line

15 pound test monofilament is what I've found to be a good trade off between strength and the line visibilities issues you have to pay attention too.  Clear is the color I prefer, also.  Use stiff, hard surfaced trolling line and stands up to abuse well.  We landed giant big daddy Brownasaurus's in the 20 pound range with no problems using 15# test mono.  Remember the line has to withstand the ill-treatment of going through a line release mechanism.  6 lines, evenly spaced on both the port and starboard will give you a dozen happy swimming offerings.  If you have enough folks on board to be legal?  This year the 3 rod per person rule will be in effect on Lake Michigan.

Don't think you can one better Brown Trout 7.0 by opting for Fluorocarbon line.  Fluoro sinks, possibly pulling the Rapala to deep.  It touchy to explain, but having the stickbait swimming in the right part of the water column is one extremely important piece to the Brown Trout puzzle.  Plus, I've never been thrilled about knot strength in any Fluoro below 40 pound test.

Lure Selections

I use F11 Rapalas pretty much exclusively, with modifications I learned back in the 70's.  Remove the hook closest to the eye of the bait, this hook only causes grief in the net when unhooking fish and seldom ever gets stuck in the fishes chops.  The hooks that are stock on the F11's will suffice, however I change them to number 4 round bend  trebles in bronze by VMC.  This hook is very sharp out of the package and has a wide gap between the shank and point for outstanding penetration, that will hold!  These hooks are fine wire fine and will not impede the delicate swimming action of the Rapala.  The perfect hook is the one that comes on the newer Wiggle Warts ( it's a number 5), but I don't recommend paying 4 bucks for a lure just to get 2 treble hooks. 

F11's run from 3 to 5 feet deep depending on how fast you pull them, and the diameter of the fishing line you use.  I feel it's better to have the lure above the fish, because their eye's are on the topside of their noggin. 

While I can catch a few Browns on any stick type bait such as bombers, Rebels or Thundersticks I can take more consistently on the Rapalas.  My best producing spoons have been the Gold-Orange, Jellybean and Sister Sledge (Chartreuse and Copper) Mini Streaks with no weight in front of it.  In honesty, I don't generally run many spoons (spoons require a snap swivel).  Especially, if I need a bunch of fish in hurry, which the demands of the charter business always dictate.

Rapala Tuning

Rapalas out of the box are hand tested to run true, or so they say.  The eyelet made from light wire frame inside the balsa wood body can get knocked out of whack, causing the lure to swim on it's side.  To catch this lure must swim straight and not veer off to one side, or the other.

If the bait doesn't run straight with the correct wobble tune the wire eye of this wondrous product by gently and ...I mean gently in the opposite direction to get it to run straight and true!

Keep an eye or all lures when setting up for this problem.  Remember any fish can easily whack this lure out of "tune."  Rendering it less effective.  So, keep this bait "in-tune" with the correct side-to-side swimming wobble and you'll do just fine.


You can't go wrong when buying any F11 Rapala, there's no such thing as a bad color.  Every color this bait comes in is a fish producer and will have it's day out producing the other color selections.  The stand by is the original Black and Silver over the dimpled foil.  Rainbow Trout, Gold and Red and Gold and Black are my early morning choices.  By the middle of the morning and when it gets bright, the new colors that came out last year (2000), Vampire and the Silver Shiner were the superior selections.

Please keep in mind, all the colors work and a good supply to keep on hand is a good idea.  The Rapala is a "soft" bait and breakage is a common problem rendering the lure useless, once the covering is split the balsa wood will soak up water like a sponge and the lure will lose it's pulsating swimming side to side action.

The Knot

Rather than buying small or tiny swivels, save your money!  Use the Rapala Knot.  Don't know how to tie one?  Don't despair, complete instructions to this knot comes in every Rapala sold.  It's comes on that little piece of paper in the bottom of the lure box that we all throw away, without looking at it.  This knot provides a centered constant optimum swimming action and is free, once you've mastered how to tie it.  With a little practice you'll be able to tie it almost as fast as snapping a swivel (which can impede the action).  See above photo of stock Rapalas.
Do not be to broke to pay attention to this tip, because it will increase your catch dramatically!

The Speed

As a rule Brown Trout aren't that picky when it comes to the speed of your lures.  Rapalas have a broad range of effectiveness and will catch fish from 1 to 5 miles an hour.  I tend to be a faster troller than most fishermen.  With speed you can cover more acreage in a shorter period of time. Therefore, reaching more aggressive ...willing to strike fish.  Be careful here, if the fish are sluggish and it's flat calm, slow down until you're getting strikes.  Other than that, I troll somewhere around 3 mph most of the time.  Unless the fast side board is taking fish on the turns, then I adjust accordingly.
If you're new to Great Lakes fishing the arc of a turn will either increase or decrease your lure speed depending on which way your turn is.

Water Temperature

There's not going to be a wide variances of choices when it comes to water temps.  This is a take what you can get thing you don't have any control over.  The warmest water is likely going to be along the current seams mixing with the harbor water.  I can catch some Browns in 36 degrees, but prefer 38 degrees or better to score consistently on limit catches.  Also, the 36 degree water produces much smaller fish for me, 38 and above means larger Trout

Browns have the widest range of activity and can thrive even in 60 to 70 degree range and can be around the pier heads most of the season.

Sewn Minnows & Cowbells

This is an almost ancient technique to catch Trout when all other methods fail.  The key here is a dead slow troll around 1 mph.  Silver plated Colorado blades, 3 per string have been my best producers.  If you want to master this method, you'll need a 6" sewing needle, mono leaders, treble hooks and live spot tail shiners if you can find them.  Grey and blue minnows will both work, but the spot tails are superior.  This way of trolling will fill the box when all others fail.

The key here is extremely slow speed, 1 to 1.5 mph is preferred.  The cowbells can't be pulled any faster, or effectiveness will be lost.  Click here for speed control article

I was fortunate enough to have Capt. Bud Raskey teach me this fish killing method, and it works on Lake Trout too!  Click here for the rigging of sewn minnow rigs

Battling Browns

OK, now after much preparation on you're finally hooked up and your plan has come together, don't be in any hurry.  TNN and ESPN2 brutal "Billy Joe Bob" hook sets are unnecessary.  Don't be in a hurry to winch the rascal in.  This is the fastest way to "Fish Off!"  Patience here will pay huge dividends.  Let's face it, 15 pound test line and light wire hooks is not what Ernie Hemmingway was writing about in his novel, "The Old Man and the Sea."  Gently pump the fish to the boat when the fish is willing to give it to you.  Pause when you feel head shakes and you'll soon have the net slid underneath Mr. Brown before he knows what happened.  The wire frame on the inside of a Rapala will not withstand harsh ill-treatment.  Make a special mental note of this in case you hook into a huge one.

Under no circumstances jump on the fish in haste and try to fight the fish across all the other lines on the planer board.  If you do, you have a mess of tangled lines beyond belief.  Let the fish drift back, until it's straight off the stern, in the opening of your spread, then gently gain line.

A big fish will just start pulling drag and there's no need to worry about the big guys.  He'll tangle up enough other lines anyways, most of the time, or at least it seems that way. 

Useful Snippets

(1.)  At times Shad Raps can produce incredible success as long as the bottom is all sand and not full of weeds or snags, because this lure will dig a little deeper than the F11's.  All colors in the Rapala Shad Rap are productive too. 

More Rapala Tips
Sealing the nose

(2.)  If you have the time I recommend sealing the eyelets on Rapala with a clear coating.  I've used clear nail polish back in the 60's to keep this lure from becoming water logged.  The nature of balsa wood makes it like straw, sucking water into the fiber of the wood.  Be careful and test on the lures finish because lacquers and certain clear coatings don't mix and will eat into the finish of your bait, ruining an expensive lure. 

(3.)  Turning the boat with 12 surface lines out 120 feet off the board poses a problem when it comes to eliminating tangles.  Kick the speed of the boat up when turning.  Increase boat speed about 2 mph over normal to help complete the turn quicker in a wide sweeping arc.  Experimentation with this is the best teacher.  So, watch your turns!

(4.)  In the 2000 season, these tips and tactics accounted for 237 fish being boated on 22 outings.  In 1999 we took 325 Browns with described tactics.

(5.)  2 to 4 pound Brown Trout will be out of the water as soon as they hit.  Keep an eye your trolling path for leaping fish.  Many times you'll see a fish jumping, before the fishing line is released for the planer board cord.  Reel big ones can put on aerial displays rivaling Steelhead.

(6.)  Get used to watching the releases on the planer board tag lines, because that will be the first indication of a strike.

(7.)  The southern ports of Lake Michigan report excellent results on the smaller Hot N Tot's, with Blue and Silver Herringbone being particularly effective.

(8.)  Reel trophy sized Brown Trout should be released unless they're taking the ride to the taxidermists.  A fish smoker is a must for Browns over 10 pounds.  The smaller ones are the best table fare you'll get out of Lake Michigan in April, with the exception of maybe spring coho.

(9.)  If you haven't taken any hits in a while and check the lures for debris and tangles.  Go through your entire spread to make sure everything is OK.  It's better to know, rather than guess.

(10.)  Don't waste your money on 150 pound test planer board string, buy only 200 pound test or use weed whacker line.  Careful with the weed whacker stuff 'cause it will explode plastic spools from dynamic tension.

(11.)  So-called expensive super lines don't work for me, 10 pound test Fire Line isn't necessary and actually may cause the Rapala to dive too deep.  I use 15 to 20 pound test mono.  You want the lure swimming above the Browns.  The top 3, or 4 feet is probably where the warmest water is found anyways.

(12.)  The Rapala knot is necessary, but it has a drawback.  A fouled lure will spin, causing severe line twist.  If your line is all spun up, pull it tight enough (with no loops) and tie on a Sampo ball bearing swivel.  Attach swivel to a lipped crank bait and then let out about a 150 feet of line behind the boat slowly to avoid worsening the problem.  All the twists and kinks will come out after about 10 minutes of pulling it through the water.

Do not copy or reproduce (print-out) material of any kind in this site 
without permission from
MichiganSportsman Copyrightę2001. 

This article was penned in 2001 and a lot has changed with Manistee's April Brown Trout Fishery since.  Last really good season we had was 2002 and is been a downhill slide since then.  2009 did show a few more Browns caught, but nothing like the glory days of the 1990s and early i2ks.  The tactics in this article work and it's the exact method I used to box 200 to over 300 April Brown Trout back when I was still in the charter business.  Retiring after 20 years.  1983 was my first season as a charter skipper and 2003 was my last.