Our Unpredictable Spring Steelheading
October 04, 2010
Cold temperatures or balmy weather? Low wateror a lot of runoff? You never know what to expect when fishing Michigan's best steelhead streams -- but the fish are there! (February 2006)
The average Michigan steelhead runs from 6 to 8 pounds, but bigger fish are common.
Photo by Mike Gnatkowski
Springtime steelhead fishing often doesn't feel like spring at all. I've spent many a March day when I couldn't feel my toes, and the horizontal snow made me think that I'd jumped the gun a little and was actually fishing back in January. I've suffered through so many April Fools' Day snowstorms that I almost believe that's what the weather on April 1 is actually supposed to be like. On the other hand, I've fished without a shirt on and got a scorching sunburn while chasing late-season steelies on Memorial Day weekend.
But that's exactly why spring steelheading in Michigan is so much fun. The weather is varied and unpredictable, and the fishing can be the same way. Steelhead success is governed by a variety of factors. Snowmelt, spring rains, stocking success and fishing pressure are but a few variables that can make or break your spring steelhead trip.
That's why it's good to have a cache of streams and rivers that you can fall back on. While one of Michigan's big rivers could be at flood stage and unfishable, smaller streams may be in perfect condition. It pays to have a Plan B.
Following is a sampling of Michigan's steelhead streams and rivers that you'll want to add to your spring repertoire.
Silvery spring steelhead arrive at the Sixth Street Dam in Grand Rapids the third week in March like clockwork. I know because every year at that time, I'm in Grand Rapids speaking at the Grand Rapids Sport & RV Show, and I watch anglers lined up to do battle with the fresh-run rainbows.
The focus of spring steelheading on the Grand is Sixth Street Dam. Although there's a fish ladder at the dam, the steelhead back up there as they search for the entrance to the ladder. In the meantime, anglers get a crack at them. Most anglers wade the treacherous rapids and fish the slots, depressions and spillway below the dam. The Quarry Hole on the east side of the river is popular with anglers. Others launch boats at Johnston Park and make the upstream run to the dam.
The proliferation of jet-sleds and jet-driven motors has made it easy to negotiate the coffer dams and to anchor below the Sixth Street Dam. Once there, anglers drop-back plugs, cast spinners or bounce bottom. The river below Johnston Park is lightly fished and offers adventurous anglers some uncrowded fishing. Access can be gained at Georgetown Park near Jenison, Grand Valley State University and Deer Creek Park.
The Grand River drains a huge expanse of Lower Michigan and it tends to run high and dark for much of the spring. Because of this, anglers find that highly visible baits often work best, such as yarn, bright spawn bags, gaudy flies and outrageously colored plugs. In the Grand, you need to fish slowly and methodically to give steelies time to find your offerings. The fishing usually remains good through the end of April.
For a list of accommodations, bait shops and sporting goods stores in the Grand Rapids area, contact the Grand Rapids/Kent County Convention & Visitors Bureau at 1-800-678-9859 or online at
About a week after fresh steelhead bump heads with the Sixth Street Dam, you can count on there being a fresh run of fish in the Rogue River, a major tributary to the Grand. It takes the fish roughly that long to negotiate the nine miles of river between the mouth of the Grand and the Rockford Dam that blocks their upstream migration.
The Rogue River is actually more of a stream, averaging only around 80 feet wide. Its size lends itself to wading. It is relatively open and easy to read, with plenty of shallow gravel and deep bends. Access can be gained at the Rockford Dam, Jerico Road, Childsdale Road, Packer Avenue, West River Drive and at other road ends. Much of the lands along the Rogue River are private, and anglers need to be aware of trespass laws and use common courtesy.
Because of intense fishing pressure, the Rogue's steelhead can get very spooky, especially if the water is low and clear. Anglers then do best using light line, small offerings and fishing during low-light periods. Try dark-colored nymphs, single eggs and micro spawn bags. Spinners can be good when worked tight to the available cover.
The Rogue gets annual plants of upwards of 30,000 steelhead, which assures anglers of good fishing each spring. The fishing usually peaks between the third week of March and the middle of April. The Rogue's steelhead average 5 to 10 pounds, but 15-pound brutes are not unheard of.
For more information on access and Rogue River steelhead, contact the Department of Natural Resources' Muskegon District Office at (231) 788-6798.
"For the number of fish we stock, the Kalamazoo River produces a very, very good spring steelhead fishery," stated Lake Michigan Basin Coordinator Jim Dexter. "There are times when the fishing can be fantastic, but there also can be a tremendous amount of boat traffic, especially near Allegan." The Kalamazoo River gets a rather meager 14,400 yearling steelhead annually.
While the focus for spring steelhead on the Ka-Zoo is near the Allegan Dam, savvy anglers explore the productive water downstream. Dexter claimed there are some excellent gravel stretches near New Richmond -- and a lot less angling pressure. Good access can be found at M-89, 126th Avenue and New Richmond.
Several top-quality trout streams such as Sand, Bear and Mann creeks and the Rabbit River enter the Ka-Zoo between Allegan and Saugatuck. Steelhead often congregate near the mouths of these feeder streams before ascending them in the spring.
Plugs are a good way to entice the Kalamazoo's steelhead from under the plentiful snags and logjams. Metallic-colored Hot-N-Tots, Wiggle Warts and Hot Shots work best. Anglers also score by bouncing spawn bags or back-bouncing with large chunks of skein spawn. Look for plenty of fresh-run fish in the river by mid-March. The fishing remains good through April.
For maps, tackle and fishing reports on the Kalamazoo River, contact D&R Sports Center at 1-800-992-1520 or online at
PAW PAW RIVER
Traversing some 60 miles, the Paw Paw River is a twisting flow that winds
its way southwesterly through the towns of Lawrence, Hartford, Watervliet and Coloma before dumping into the St. Joseph River at Benton Harbor. Interrupted by two dams, anadromous fish can make it over the lower dam in Watervliet and go up as far as Paw Paw. But most of the better spring steelhead action takes place downstream from 5950th Street, where gravel is prevalent, all the way to Watervliet.
"The Paw Paw River is not a boating river," said fisheries biologist Jim Dexter. "There's lots of gravel near the town of Watervliet, and some very good fishing in that section."
The Paw Paw averages 70 feet wide at Lawrence and gets considerably wider as it meanders to Watervliet. Near Benton Harbor, the Paw Paw is deep and best fished from a boat. Access is limited on the main stream. Anglers can try accessing the river at 54th Street, the CR-681 Bridge, Butcher Road, 5950th Street, CR-687, 6750th Street, in Watervliet and off Defield Road.
The Paw Paw River gets an annual plant of 11,444 yearling steelhead and undoubtedly benefits from the nearly 100,000 steelhead that get planted in the St. Joe. Many of the Paw Paw River's tributaries also contribute steelhead to the system via natural reproduction.
Several tactics will fool the Paw Paw's steelies. Most anglers roll spawn, but chucking hardware can be a good tactic for covering water and steering rampaging rainbows away from the brush that is common in the river.
For more information on steelheading opportunities on the Paw Paw River, contact the Southern Lake Michigan Management at (269) 685-5851.
From Croton Dam to Newaygo, the Muskegon River may boast the finest stretch of spawning gravel in Michigan.
Rainbows that have wintered in the lower river begin their spawning activity as early as early March some years, and the run is bolstered by waves of spring-run fish in April. During most years, fresh-run fish are available though May, long after most of the crowd has disappeared. The Muskegon gets an annual plant of about 65,000 Michigan winter steelhead that is supplemented by improving numbers of naturally spawned fish.
Some of the best fishing on the Muskegon comes during the spring run-off, usually in late March. Fish are actively spawning then and in the darkened currents are less spooky. Anglers adept at running plugs can enjoy great sport then. Good access is available at Croton Dam, Pine Street, High Rollaways, Thornapple Road and Henning Park.
Once the water drops and clears, most anglers sight-fish for spawning steelhead. Typically, anglers run from bedding area to bedding area, lining fish just about as fast as they can get on the gravel, but the fish become super-skittish. A better tactic is to fish the deeper runs and pools for fish that are dropping back and for fresh-run fish on their way up. Another alternative to beat the crowd is to head downstream from Newaygo, where the fishing pressure is much less intense and there's plenty of good water. Try below the public access just south of Newaygo, Felch Avenue, Old Woman's Bend and Bridgeton.
For bait, tackle and fishing reports, contact Parsley's Sport Shop at (231) 652-6986. For information on lodging and accommodations in the area, call the Muskegon County Convention & Visitors Bureau at (231) 722-3751, or go online at
PERE MARQUETTE RIVER
I spent my formative years of steelheading on the Pere Marquette River, where my first steelhead came to net one glorious April morning more than 25 years ago. Years later, we would cut classes at college on prime weekday mornings and head up to the P.M. and lament the fact that there were already four other cars at the Clay Banks access. Now there are 30 cars there from 10 different states every day of the week. So much for the good ol' days!
While the spring steelhead fishing on the P.M. doesn't compare to what we enjoyed years ago, it's still pretty darn good. In fact, there may be more fish in the river than ever.
"We've been seeing between 6,000 and 7,000 fish at the weir in the spring," said fisheries biologist Mark Tonello. "If you take into account the number of fish that run up the P.M. in the fall, it probably has a slightly bigger run than the Little Manistee."
The only problem is that the run is being divided up between more and more anglers. The run of steelhead up the P.M. is amazing, considering that the main stream of the P.M. receives no plants. The Big South Branch of the P.M. gets 10,100 steelhead each spring, and a number stray into the P.M. from other stockings.
The jewel of the P.M. is the Flies-Only Section that extends from M-37 south of Baldwin to Gleason's Landing. This seven-mile section features extensive gravel stretches that attract pods of spawning fish. Deep bends and runs stack up with fish waiting to take their turn on the gravel. Anglers use polarized glasses to spot the redds and spawning activity, and then drift egg flies, nymphs and streamers past the rainbows, hoping to induce a strike. The area is popular with fly-fishers, and the lines of drift-boats floating down often rival a Thanksgiving Day parade. No-kill regulations instituted a few seasons ago have done little to lessen fishing pressure.
Anglers who like to keep the occasional fish have been displaced to the sections of the P.M. below the Flies-Only water. Great fishing exists all the way to Walhalla. Prime access points include Bowman's Bridge, MacDougal's, Rainbow Rapids, Sulak, Upper Branch Bridge, Lower Branch Bridge and Walhalla. Productive methods here include rolling spawn bags, chucking in-line spinners and pulling plugs from a drift-boat. Weekends are busy, so plan a weekday trip if you can. Expect plenty of fish from 5 to 12 pounds, and trophies topping 17 pounds are taken with regularity.
For guides, tackle and river maps, contact Baldwin Bait & Tackle at 1-877-4-BALDWIN, or go online at
LITTLE MANISTEE RIVER
"The Little Manistee River is such a prolific producer of steelhead that there's no need to plant," stated fisheries biologist Mark Tonello. "The majority of the 10,000 fish that return to the Little Manistee between the spring and fall runs are naturally reproduced. Probably 15 to 20 percent of the fish that return are strays."
Fish that return to the Little Manistee are held in raceways to ripen before their eggs and milt are taken. These fish are the source for steelhead that will later be planted around the state. Once passed over the weir, the rainbows continue their journey upstream to waiting anglers. The average steelhead is 7 or 8 pounds, but fish in the 15-pound range are common.
The Little Manistee River presents anglers with quite a challenge. Swift, log-filled and loaded with snags, coaxing a feisty steelhead to the net can be quite an accomplishment. But that feat is repeated time after time each spring. Anglers camp out on their favorite holes and runs to await the April 1 opener on th
e "Little River."
Floating bobbers with spawn is a good way to avoid some of the snags. Others flip spinners or work plugs into the deeper holes on heavier line, which gives a better chance at landing fish. Rolling spawn is another alternative. Some of the best fishing on the Little Manistee occurs in May, long after most anglers have given up for the season.
The stretch of the Little Manistee between Johnson's Bridge and Nine Mile Bridge is one of the most heavily fished. Much of the streamside property is privately owned, but anglers can gain access at several crossings, including Fox, Dewitt, Pole and Eighteen bridges. Farther downstream, Nine Mile and Six Mile Bridges provide access.
For more information on the Little Manistee River, contact Pappy's Bait & Tackle in Wellston at (231) 898-4142.
BIG MANISTEE RIVER
The Big Manistee River near Wellston is considered by many to be the premier steelhead river in the Midwest. With plants of 55,000 Michigan steelhead and another 34,000 summer-run steelhead each year -- and improved natural reproduction -- it may have a bigger stock of steelhead than any river in the country.
Fishing in the spring can be good along the entire length of the river, but most of the angling pressure is focused on Tippy Dam. During springs when the snow suddenly melts and the river goes sky-high, the steelhead blast upstream until they run into Tippy Dam. Other years, they might just trickle up, thus providing steady action for anglers farther downstream. Just watch the weather.
Fishing on the lower Big Manistee can be good in February or early March, if the lower river breaks open. Fish poised in Manistee Lake then shoot upstream. Usually, schools of silver fish flood upstream through early April. Some great fishing can be had during May as post-spawn fish drop back to the lake. And you'll have the river all to yourself.
Good access to the Big Manistee can be found at Insta-Launch Campground in Manistee, Bridge Street, Rainbow Bend, Bear Creek, High Bridge and Tippy Dam. Bank-fishing is pretty much restricted to the area around Tippy Dam. The river is best fished from a boat.
For more information on the Big Manistee River, contact the Central Lake Michigan Management Unit of the DNR at (231) 775-9727.
One thing about spring steelheading is that you never know just what to expect. I wouldn't have it any other way.