Three local fishermen take us to their favorite Northern Michigan fishing spots for bluegill, trout and salmon, sharing tips along the way for preparing a fresh catch feast.
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Catching Bluegill in Northern Michigan
Fisherman Dave Stepanovich, owner of Young’s Bait & Party Store in Alanson, shares tips for reeling in bluegill:
TECHNIQUE | A lot of people sit there with bobbers and get on a weed bed and just anchor, but I like to drift. You get up on where the wind’s blowing and you drift with the wind, and it takes you across the lake. If I start finding bluegills, I’ll put a marker out—they’re called buoys—so I know to drift by that spot again. The bottom line is, find out where the weed beds are and drift along the edge of the beds or through the beds if they’re not too thick. It’s just old-fashioned fishing.
BAIT | I prefer leeches, probably over anything. People also use leaf worms and crawlers.
HOOKS | The one thing that I promote a lot is Life Saver hooks. There’s a local guy who makes them—he brings them in to the shop twice a year or he’ll mail them to me. When you catch little bluegills, they suck the hook into their gullet, and you can’t get it out without killing them. Well these Life Saver hooks, they have a piece of plastic on the end of them, and I catch just as many fish with these as I do with a regular hook. I haven’t killed a bluegill in probably four years using those hooks, and I’ve caught a 5-pound bass on them, too, and pike. You gotta get ’em at Young’s Bait & Party Store!
SEASON | The best time is when they’re on their beds and they’re protecting their eggs from predators—other fish will come and eat them, or ducks if they can get down far enough. In the springtime when they’re on their beds is the best time to fish ’em, but you can fish bluegills all year round.
Photo by Tony Demin
Dave’s Favorite Fried & Grilled Bluegill Recipes
Fried Bluegill Recipe | A lot of people want to use batters from the store, like Drake’s. But those are so thick, that you just want to peel it off and eat the fish. For frying, I skin the bluegills. Then get some flour out and whatever spices you like: Old Bay Seasoning, a little bit of garlic powder, some pepper, etc. Just add those to the flour, lightly dust the bluegill and throw them in the frying pan. As soon they get brown, flip ’em over. If they’re brown, they’re done. It doesn’t take long to cook bluegills. You get some hot grease going—I use regular Crisco oil—and throw them in there and they’re done.
Grilled Bluegill Recipe | When I put them on the grill, I like to scale the bluegills and keep the skin on. Then I soak the fish in a baggie with Fustini’s oils (I like their mandarin olive oil and garlic olive oil and some sesame vinegar). Marinate it with flavors you like, drain the oil off the fish and throw them on a copper grill mat. It’s healthy and real tasty.
Photo by Tony Demin
Northern Michigan Trout Fishing Tips
Traverse writer and avid fisherman Drew VanDrie shares his advice for fly fishing for trout:
TECHNIQUE | Practice casting before you hit the river. Building up your skill and confidence will make you more effective on the river when you need to make an accurate presentation. That being said, ugly casts still catch fish! Don’t become so obsessed with a beautiful back cast that you spend your whole time false-casting. Keep your fly on the water as much as possible because that’s where the fish are!
WAIT AND SEE | It’s tempting to be overeager and immediately hop in the river and start stripping out line. Instead, sit by the bank and watch the potential lies, bugs on the surface, and hopefully, rising trout. (This is a great opportunity to sip that cold beer you slipped in your sling pack.) Check not only the surface but also overhanging riparian vegetation and grasses for insects. This will help clue you into what the fish are feeding on.
MATCH THE HATCH OR MAKE YOUR OWN | In an ideal situation, the river surface is saturated with insects, and the trout in response are actively feeding. In this scenario, try to pluck a few insects that drift by for closer inspection and then match as closely as possible to what you have in your box. The order of importance for matching is silhouette (matching the general shape of the insect), size and color. Like a well synchronized back cast, fly fishing is about timing, and hitting a hatch can take a lot of trial and error. Being on the water consistently will help you recognize better conditions for a solid bug hatch (along with a decent dose of luck).
PROSPECTING | A stretch of river dimpled with scores of blithely rising trout is the idyllic scene fly fishing aesthetes like to promote, but it’s often the exception rather than the rule. In this instance, a decent tactic is “prospecting.” Like a miner striking blindly for precious metal, prospecting is floating an enticing morsel overtop of where a trout likely lies. Utilizing an “attractor” or “stimulator” pattern (a larger fly that has numerous “buggy” qualities, rather than close imitation), drifting over seams, tailouts, undercut banks and alongside logs and other structures all help to lure out lurking brown and brook trout.
LOCAL KNOWLEDGE | For particular trout patterns, your best resource is your local fly shop. They will steer you toward a handful of patterns to at least make you dangerous.
PATIENCE AND PERSISTENCE: Exploring more river will inevitably make you a better trout fisherman. Finding less accessible water will yield trout that have experienced less fishing pressure, which yields better results for the angler willing to venture off the beaten trail (or trout stream). Keep showing up and keep casting.
Photo by Tony Demin
Photo by Tony Demin
Photo by Tony Demin
Drew’s Favorite Grilled Whole Trout Recipe
Fly fishing often adheres to the high-brow etiquette of catch-and-release only. However, priggish decorum aside, it is undeniable that fresh-caught trout are delicious. If you must quell your moral conflict but also assuage a gnawing appetite, occasionally keeping a brace of your smaller (though still legal) brook or brown trout can be admissible. Grilled whole trout is a delightful option for its simplicity, limited waste, and most important, its delectable flavor! A recipe so unencumbered that it could be enjoyed streamside with a frying pan, camp stove and a little forethought.
Preparation: To prep, make two slits behind the gills on each flank. Next, cut a slit along the belly of the trout from gills to anal fin. Then slip the knife blade under the small flap of skin on the underside of the bottom jaw. Grasp this small piece of flesh and pull rearward toward the tail, being sure to pull the gills with your thumb as you sweep tailward. This should remove the gills and internal organs. Finally, run your thumb along the backbone on the inside of the fish, using your thumbnail to clear out the blood vessels that run along the spine. Rinse with water and your trout is ready to cook.
Grilled Trout Ingredients & Cooking Directions
- 1–2 Tablespoons olive oil
- Pinch of salt
- 1 teaspoon dill
- 1 minced garlic clove
- Lemon (sliced)
- Small onion (sliced)
- 2–4 Tablespoons butter
- Sprigs of rosemary and/or thyme
1. Preheat the grill on high heat.
2. Coat the skin of the fish with oil and sprinkle with salt. Sprinkle the interior of the trout with salt, pepper, dill and minced garlic. Place a few slices of lemon and onion on the inside cavity along with 1 to 2 pats of butter (depends on size of trout) and sprigs of herbs. Place trout on tin foil for cooking (makes for easier clean up).
3. Turn grill heat to medium and place tin foil on grill (or camp stove, frypan, etc.). Cover and cook 4 to 5 minutes per side, until flesh is flaky.
4. Remove from heat and enjoy! Use a fork to tease the meat from the skin and bones, and delight in a simple, satisfying meal.
Photo by Tony Demin
Northern Michigan Salmon Fishing
Captain Ben Wolfe of Sport Fish Michigan shares some salmon fishing wisdom:
SPECIES | Here in Northern Michigan, we have three salmonid species to target: King or chinook salmon: the granddaddy of them all, reaching the largest weights and sizes. King salmon are highly prized by anglers and chefs alike. They swim the waters of Lake Michigan and Lake Huron, and many run into both East and West Grand Traverse Bays as well as river tributaries in the late summer and early fall to spawn.
COHO / SILVER SALMON | Coho or silver salmon: smaller than the king salmon, but no less highly regarded on the table since they are slightly firmer and less fatty. Anglers love the tenacious nature of cohos on the end of a line. Coho salmon, similar to king salmon, spend their lives in Lake Michigan, running up some of the tributary rivers each fall to spawn, with the Platte River being one of the primary spawning runs.
ATLANTIC SALMON | While not as common in the Lower Peninsula, they are the primary target for many anglers in the U.P. as the salmon travel through the Straits and the DeTour area on their way up to Sault Ste. Marie, where they spawn in the fall. Torch Lake has a great population of inland Atlantic salmon that anglers can take advantage of without having to fish the bigger waters of the Great Lakes. Atlantics top the list for table fare for many, and are the only salmonid species that we have that can spawn for multiple years.
LOCATION AND SEASON | Michigan’s salmon spend the colder winter and early spring months in the southern portion of the lakes, making their way northward as the Great Lakes warm. Northern anglers don’t typically see salmon catches until sometime in June, and as the summer progresses, more and more fish begin to show up in the area, following schools of alewives, their primary forage. July, August and September are the prime months for king and coho salmon. Atlantic salmon have a slightly different schedule, moving through the DeTour area in June and early July, spending the summer in the St. Mary’s River and up in Sault Ste. Marie waiting until September to spawn.
CHARTERS AND GUIDES | Northern Michigan has many charter boat and fishing guide companies that take advantage of the plentiful salmon species found here, and most of these companies also offer fish cleaning services at the conclusion of trips, giving customers fillets to take home. A charter or guide is advisable if you aren’t familiar with the techniques and nuances of targeting salmon. For those interested in a guide, it’s best to book early. (Sport Fish Michigan and its network of captains and guides specialize in salmon, and are already filling their summer and fall dates for king and coho salmon.)
Photo by Tony Demin
Ben’s Favorite Salmon Recipe with Ginger Soy Marinade
An NYC culinary school graduate and former professional chef, Ben shares this recipe with his customers who ask how to prepare their fresh catch.
Marinade prep time: 15 minutes Marinade time: 30 minutes
Cook time: 5 minutes
Salmon with Ginger Soy Marinade Ingredients & Process
- 1⁄2 cup soy sauce
- 1⁄2 cup sweet chili sauce
- 2 Tablespoons sesame oil
- 2 Tablespoons mirin (optional)
- 2 Tablespoons maple syrup
- 2 cloves of garlic, peeled
- 2 teaspoons of chopped ginger or a 1-inch section
- 1⁄4 cup black and white sesame seeds (or just white sesame seeds)
- 2 Tablespoons cold butter or high heat oil per batch
- 1 medium-sized fresh king salmon fillet or 1 large fresh coho salmon fillet (about 1 to 2 pounds) skin removed and pin bones pulled. Lake trout would be a fantastic substitute here as well.
Equipment | Large cast-iron skillet, nonstick pan or flat stove-top griddle.
Note | This marinade works best with a fish like salmon or lake trout, but is also perfect for thawed, peeled shrimp. If using this with shrimp, simply omit the sesame seeds and the steps involving sesame seeds.
1. In a blender or small food processor, combine all of the marinade ingredients except for the sesame seeds. Process for 30 seconds to fully incorporate and chop the garlic and ginger. Pour into a large bowl and set aside.
2. Slice the salmon starting at the tail on a severe bias, about 60 degrees to the counter to create hand-sized “shingle” pieces no thicker than your hand. Depending on the size of the fillet, 5 to 8 pieces can be expected. A smaller coho salmon fillet may yield only 4 to 5 shingles, and a larger king salmon fillet may yield 10 or so.
3. Put the salmon shingles into the marinade and turn gently to thoroughly coat each piece. Set aside on the counter to marinate for 30 minutes.
4. Preheat the griddle or skillet on medium-high heat. For cast iron skillets or griddles, make sure to thoroughly preheat for at least 5 minutes to ensure even heat distribution.
5. While the skillets or flat top griddle is preheating, move the salmon shingles from the marinade onto a cookie sheet and sprinkle generously with the reserved sesame seeds on one side only. The sesame seed side will be the presentation side.
6. When the griddle is hot, add the cold butter. It should melt and foam immediately and begin to brown right away. Swirl the butter to coat the pan or griddle completely.
7. Add the salmon shingles to the hot skillet, sesame side down.
8. Cook the salmon 3/4ths of the way through on the initial side before flipping. The edges will change color and become slightly opaque as they cook. The shingles will cook very quickly, 2 to 3 minutes on this side.
9. Flip the shingles and turn off the heat and let cook another 30 to 60 seconds before removing. Serve immediately.
10. If cooking additional batches, wipe out the skillets or griddle with paper towels in between each batch. Add fresh butter before each batch.
Note | I like to serve this with a coconut jasmine rice. To make it, simply replace the water with a high-quality coconut milk, add a tablespoon of sugar to the jasmine rice and then cook as normal.
Allison Jarrell is the managing editor of Traverse Magazine. Reach her at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Tony Demin is a replanted local from Montana. His photos capture the between moments in living wild. View Tony’s website.