Spring is a Special Time on the Muskegon

by: Kevin Feenstra
Muskegon River Guide and Outfitter

The Muskegon River Watershed is an amazing place, even in the dead of winter. But as spring starts to arrive, the river explodes to life as the water temperature rises. Early insects hatch, triggering a chain reaction that lasts through the spring. The Muskegon River is indeed a great place to be; these images tell the story!

This picture shows a bald eagle rising from the water with a duck (in this case a coot) during the late winter. When I was young, I would have dreamed of seeing a spectacle like this. When I first started fishing the Muskegon in the late 80’s, it would have been very rare to see an eagle—now it is commonplace. I have to say, it never gets old seeing these majestic creatures. The eagles on the Muskegon become duck hunting specialists in the winter. Often times, you will see a pod of diving ducks on the river and if you look around in the tall trees, somewhere there is an eagle watching. Their strategy is to launch from a tree while a duck is diving below the surface. When the duck comes up, the eagle is above it. The duck will dive in desperation. In the meantime, the eagle simply floats in the sky above the duck. When the duck comes up for air, it again sees the eagle, so it dives again. Eventually, the duck tires and has to come up for a longer breath. It is at that time that the eagle finishes the job. I watched this scene unfold with this coot and I have seen it happen on other occasions as well.

The tiny streams that line much of the mainstream of the Muskegon are keys to sustaining good aquatic life in the river. These streams are colder than the mainstream in the summer but warmer than the mainstream in the winter. Additionally, they are key places for steelhead to spawn in the spring and many of them contain brook trout. These tributaries really are the key to a healthy river.

At the heart of the winter fishery is the steelhead. Steelhead can be found in the Muskegon in fishable numbers from October through May; small numbers of these fish are in the river even during the summer months. A good portion of these fish are wild, thanks largely in part to the small tribs previously mentioned. We fish for them in the winter with flies that look like sculpins, darters, egg flies and many other patterns. As the river warms, they are also taken on stoneflies and salmon fry in the late winter.

As late winter arrives, many of the reaches of the river begin to thaw. In these places you might catch a glimpse of another majestic bird, the trumpeter swan. Trumpeter swans are the heaviest bird in North America. They were almost wiped out at one point in the 20th century, with numbers as low as 39 birds nationwide. Now they have recovered and are a resident in the lower regions of the watershed.

Another beautiful sign of approaching spring is the return of wood ducks. These birds were once rare in this area but good conservation efforts have made them common once again. Any of the swampy areas surrounding the river will have nesting wood ducks. There are a few things that I see that are extremely beautiful along the river, and wood ducks are at the top of that list.

As spring finally nears, stoneflies appear, with the larger more significant varieties appearing in late February, March, and April. These insects hatch by crawling ashore. After their skin dries a bit, they split out of their nymph into adult insects. These insects lay eggs by flying over the water and they are also blown into the water on a windy day. This makes them food for other things…

During the Covid shutdown this spring, I walked along the edge of the Muskegon when motors were banned. I saw some gorgeous brown trout feeding on these stoneflies. Their rises were spectacular!