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Michigan Trout; Brookies, Rainbows, and Browns

by Ray Schmidt
04/09/07 ©2007 Schmidt Outfitters

Michigan is famous for brown, rainbow, and brook trout. Michigan’s history is steeped with legendary fly fishing for trout and the fly anglers and tiers that target them. History tells us that only one of the three trout mentioned are native to Michigan. Do you know which? Let’s pause for a moment and look back at Michigan’s trout history.

First, the only “trout” that is natural or indigenous to Michigan is the brook trout. You may know this type of trout by its other names like speckled trout, brookie or square tail. Is this a trout? Well, no. Actually it’s in the Char family and it was native to extremely limited areas of Northern Lower Michigan. Most of the population was in the Upper Peninsula of Michigan and throughout Canada.

Around 1884 German brown trout were imported into America by a private citizen and stocked in Michigan’s Pere Marquette River near Baldwin. This fish struggled to survive in the early days because of the same issues that plagued the Grayling (see below). The brown trout however were hearty and strong, and despite our best efforts to the contrary, it survived and began to flourish! A year later browns from Scotland were also introduced. The “Loch Leven’s” had arrived. Eventually these two strains merged into America’s brown trout.

The Michigan Fish Commission as it was called back then took interest and soon began to raise and promote this trout in many Michigan streams. Around 1886 came the rainbow trout from the Rocky Mountains, via a train car in milk cans. I believe the McCloud River was the first to contribute, followed by Shasta Lake and a long line there after. The rainbows had arrived. Some went into streams, some in lakes and some in the Great Lakes…steelhead maybe? (That’s a subject for another time.)

The brook trout populated the streams in Lower Michigan when the indigenous game fish, the “Grayling” went by the wayside in the early 1900’s. The last recorded Grayling caught by hook and line was in 1931 in a remote U.P. stream. The extinction of the Grayling made way for the brook trout and the introduction of some “exotic species.” What happened to Michigan’s prized Grayling?

The industrial age was on us during that point in history. Michigan was supplying the developing world with its valuable and vast White Pine trees for lumber to build everything from homes to factories. Millions and millions of board feet per year, it seemed endless, but after about 50 years, it was over. After the lumbering era, the landscape was barren of trees to hold soils from rushing to the rivers. The rivers soon filled with sand and silt. Warm water, no shade, no habitat…no Grayling!

This is short and sweet, but it is a fairly accurate account of Michigan’s trout history. Do you know our state fish? Browns and rainbows are imports, so it must be the Brook Trout!