BIG RAPIDS — I was in the midst of late afternoon telephone conversation with my buddy Denny Bouwens when he casually mentioned he might go fishing that evening. I asked if I might join him. He said, why not?
We didn’t get on the water — on the Muskegon River above Rogers Dam — until 6 p.m. and we had a long run to get to where Bouwens wanted to fish, and when we got there, there was a trio of anglers in a flat-bottom boat fly fishing, so we sat back and watched them catch a few smallmouth bass until they were well downstream. It was 6:30 before we got started.
We started catching fish almost immediately, mostly smallmouths, mostly small, mostly on crankbaits, but we hadn’t really come there to do that. We’d come to catch walleyes.
It was a great summer evening; warm but not humid, the kind of day we have too few of, perfect for kicking back. Bouwens said he fishes this part of the river, above the most upstream dam, three or four times a month. I’d been on it once with him and his son Brett — who accompanied us on this sojourn — about a decade ago, but further upstream, and we had an excellent trip catching some very nice bass of both species, on spinnerbaits and crankbaits, as well as a couple of dandy rainbow trout on Rapalas.
“The further upriver you go, the more trout you catch,” Bouwens said.
But, as I mentioned, we were looking for walleyes.
The bass were hitting near the bank, one or two cranks after the bait hit the water, but as the evening progressed, I felt something slam my Flicker Shad about halfway back to the boat. It didn’t come out of the water (as virtually all the smallmouths had) so I suspected we’d finally found what we were looking for. I was right; it was an ‘eye, about 18 inches.
Twenty minutes later I caught another, maybe an inch shorter, but this time the fish took the bait as I was finishing the cast and had it coming back upstream. Bouwens allowed as that was how it often happens.
“The walleyes are in the deeper troughs, usually near rocks or trees,” he said. “It doesn’t have to be a big hole, but they’re in the deeper water in that section. Some of those holes are only 3- or 4-feet deep, but it’s the deepest water in that stretch.
“The water’s slightly stained and I think it helps for walleyes,” Bouwens said, “especially during the day.”
As the sun dipped below the tree tops, I caught another walleye, this one just short of the 15-inch mark. Bouwens said that there were a fair number of small walleyes in this stretch; he told me that one day he caught 17 ‘eyes but only three of them would keep and the rest were in that 13- to 14¾-inch range.
“Had we been on Saginaw Bay we’d have been boxed out,” he said. “The trick is catching keepers.”
It was getting to be twilight when I caught our fourth walleye, again on a Flicker Shad (like all the others) and this one would measure, too. Not bad walleye fishing, though I was the only one of us who managed walleyes. Both Bouwenses caught more bass — as well as a couple of pike and a rock bass or two — than I did. We all tried a variety of lures — though I stuck with Flicker Shads (I tried three different colors and caught ‘eyes on all three) once I caught the first ‘eye.
I figured I was just holding my mouth right — both Bouwenses are excellent anglers — but Denny Bouwens said he noticed I was retrieving my bait faster than they were. I was varying my retrieve — lots of stop and go, speed up and slow down — but the strikes did seem to come while I was cranking pretty aggressively, as though the fish were following it and striking when it appeared it might be getting away.
We called it just before it was too dark to run back to the launch ramp.
“If this was Friday night, we’d stay longer,” Bouwens said.
Ah, work. The curse of the fishing class.
The senior Bouwens, who has been guiding anglers on a variety of waters (mostly rivers) for a number of years, said our trip was “reasonably typical,” of his experiences here.
“Usually we fish about five hours and we’ll catch 15 to 25 bass and four or five walleyes,” he said.
We did that with only about three hours of actual fishing time.
We’d only encountered the one other boat that evening, though there were a fair number of tubers and kayakers on the river. Bouwens said the stretch gets a lot of that.
“It’s definitely recreational water,” he said. “The scenery’s nice up here.”
True, but not much better than most. It’s rather typical. And rather typical fishing, too; Michigan’s rivers offer excellent fishing opportunities. You’re not likely to pound them like you do on Saginaw Bay or Lake Erie, but it’s a relaxing trip that doesn’t require the boat or the tackle of a big-water expedition.
Bouwens told me that he went back a couple of nights later, fished with more traditional walleye techniques (spinner rigs and nightcrawlers) and caught a boatload of ‘eyes. I believe him.
You can reach Bouwens at (616) 724-0303.