Winter is a Special Time on the Muskegon (Part One)

Kevin Feenstra
Muskegon River Guide and Outfitter

The Muskegon River Watershed is an amazing place, even in the dead of winter. I love to fish, and the Muskegon is unique because parts of the river are always clear of ice, even on the coldest of days. In West Michigan, most of our rivers will freeze if winter becomes cold and bitter. The 10 miles of river below Croton Dam seldom ices over, and it is often the last refuge for anglers who want to fish open water in the winter months. This unique feature has another great implication for the wildlife in our watershed and the surrounding areas. When snow becomes deep, wildlife from near and far will seek refuge along the edges of the river. This makes it a great place to encounter wildlife. On the coldest of winters, the surface of Lake Michigan becomes increasingly covered with ice. On these years, waterfowl from the big lake seek refuge on the river. Predatory birds such as eagles follow them and prey upon them. 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!


Winter is a beautiful time, especially on the rare clear days that we have. The mornings can be a great time to take a photo, as mist rises from the warmer river waters. If you plan to do some photography, keep your batteries warm as cold temps reduce battery life.


In the coldest parts of winter, low, clear water in the mainstream of the Muskegon River is common. As the river drops, it leaves beautiful ice structures on any branch or rock that protrudes. Low water is a mixed blessing; if the river drops too much, it can lead to difficult conditions for our resident fish populations.


Even in the clutches of winter, tiny insects called midges hatch in below freezing temperatures. These flies are a good source of nutrition for fish in the slow pools on the edge of the river. Trout often congregate near shore as the slow water holds sufficient oxygen when cold. Their primary food becomes midge larvae and midge pupae, along with underwater crustaceans such as scuds.


You don’t have to look by shore to determine if midges are hatching—nature gives you a strong hint. As midges crawl onto the edge of a river, small birds, such as this kinglet, pack on the calories by gorging on them. I watched this bird pretend to be a mini falcon as it attacked midge after midge on icy edge. When fishing the river, you can know immediately that midges are happening when you see these kinglets, Eastern bluebirds, tree sparrows, and other species gathering excitedly around the bank. It’s time to eat!


Many of the tributaries to the Muskegon rest in the winter, largely undisturbed during the cold months. One of the main arteries of the river, the Little Muskegon, freezes over in several stretches. You can see in this image that the river looks a lot smaller that it does in the summer. There is plenty of water in it, but the frozen edges make it look a lot smaller.


If winter becomes too cold, you see a lot of things that you would not expect to see. Predatory birds become less selective, and feed on carrion when opportunity presents itself. Here, a red tailed hawk eats a dead fish that it scavenged from the edge of the Muskegon. This was during a very cold period and it shows. During normal times, red tailed hawks would never eat fish, preferring warm blooded mice and squirrels.


Beavers are abundant along the river. A lot of animals have a real problem when it is cold: ice forms on their fur or feathers. Beavers are pretty rugged and have no problem with this issue. They simply shake their fur as if they were a dog that just went for a swim.


As mentioned earlier, birds that are generally found in lakes visit the river a lot in the winter. One such bird is a red breasted merganser. I love birds but sometimes I wish these guys would stay away. Their favorite foods in the winter tend to be fish that are 8-14” long. Unfortunately, many of our trout are in that category in the winter. If we have a low water event that concentrates fish and a lot of mergansers around, it is a perfect storm that has a negative impact on our trout fishery.