Our Hottest Winter Trout Rivers
October 04, 2010
Need to get out of the house? The coolest cure for your cabin fever could be just down the road apiece. Yes, there are places here in Michigan where you can catch trout in flowing water right now! (Janaury 2006)
This lake-run brown trout made its way up into tiny Prairie Creek.
Photo by Jim Bedford
Many Michigan anglers look forward to fishing through the ice each winter, but there are also those who love fishing for trout in open streams. The main trout season closed three months ago, but our browns, brookies and rainbows continue to feed during the winter. When the Department of Natural Resources classified our trout waters a few years ago, they also opened many new streams to year-round fishing. The only catch is that, on many of these newly opened streams, the browns and brookies must be released.
Most of our Upper Peninsula streams freeze in the winter and, of course, the climate is colder across "The Bridge." Therefore, we are going to concentrate on describing the prime winter trout fisheries in the Lower Peninsula. Utilizing the DNR's regional management units, we will circle the L.P. in a clockwise direction, starting in the southwest corner.
SOUTHERN LAKE MICHIGAN
The southwestern part of Michigan is blessed with a lot of trout water, and the winters are just a bit milder temperature-wise than elsewhere.
In the extreme corner of our state, the South Branch of the Galien River is stocked with brown trout. The best catch-and-release fishing is found at and just upstream from the U.S. 12 crossing. To the east, the Dowagiac River offers ample room for all types of fishing. In the lower river below the dam near Niles, you can harvest browns as long as they are 15 inches or longer. Upstream, it is catch-and-release, but some really large browns lurk in this river, so bring a camera.
Moving north, several Kalamazoo River tributaries are open to catch-and-release winter angling for brown trout. Swan Creek in Allegan County is stocked with browns, and the whole stream is open to year-round angling. It should be noted that you are required to use lures with single-pointed hooks below 118th Avenue. At the eastern edge of the county, the Gun River also offers winter angling for brown trout, with the best fishing found between U.S. 131 and 2nd Street. In Kalamazoo County, Portage and Augusta creeks are open for winter fishing for brown trout. Portage is best south of Interstate 94. Trying Augusta Creek near the Kellogg Forest just south of M-89 would be a good idea.
The Grand River basin offers even more opportunities for getting your waders wet in the winter.
Crockery Creek is open to catch-and-release fishing for brown trout throughout Muskegon County, with the best fishing found upstream from the town of Ravenna. The Rogue River is best known for its steelheading, but you will find good trout fishing for both browns and rainbows between the upper 12 Mile Road bridge and the dam in Rockford.
If you are looking for a winter meal of fresh trout, rainbows longer than 10 inches can be creeled. Buck Creek flows through the Grand Rapids suburbs of Wyoming and Grandville and offers surprisingly good fishing for brown trout. Farther upstream, Coldwater Creek in the southeastern corner of Kent County is open for winter fishing downstream from the town of Freeport. In 2005, the DNR stocked rainbows here in addition to browns, so it's another chance at a winter fresh trout dinner. Prairie Creek in Ionia County and Fish Creek in Montcalm County are also open all year. All of Prairie is open, while Sidney Road is the upstream limit for Fish Creek. Both offer good brown trout fishing and a slight chance at a brookie.
Access to all of these streams is mostly via road crossings. Up-to-date information can be obtained from the DNR at (269) 685-6851.
CENTRAL LAKE MICHIGAN
The northwest part of the L.P. is really blessed with many fine trout streams, and a good number of them are open in the winter.
The broad Muskegon River offers ice-free conditions between Croton Dam and Newaygo and has good numbers of browns and rainbows. You must release the browns in this reach, but you can keep rainbows over 10 inches. Trout fishing continues for a few miles below Newaygo, and here you can keep browns if they're at least 15 inches long. Good access and launch ramps are found at the dam, Pine Street, Thornapple Avenue and, in Newaygo, at a city park.
You will also find catch-and-release winter fishing for browns upstream in the reach below U.S. 10 near Evart and in the Little Muskegon and Tamarack Creek, which flow into the Croton Impoundment.
Moving north, the White River below Hesperia offers catch-and-release fishing for browns, and the best fishing is found near Hesperia. It tends to freeze, so several days of mild weather are needed to make it fishable. The North Branch of the White is less likely to freeze and is open to fishing between the mainstream and Arthur Road.
The Pere Marquette is one of my favorite winter streams and is open all year downstream from M-37. It is flies-only from M-37 to Gleason's Landing, and good fishing for browns continues down to Walhalla. The entire Big South Branch of the P.M. is open all year, with the best fishing in its middle reach. It's catch-and-release for browns in both rivers, but you will also find some resident rainbows in both streams. In the flies-only section, all trout must be released. There are a number of public access sites on the P.M. in addition to the road crossings, but they may not always be plowed in a timely manner.
To the north, the Sable River is open to catch-and-release fishing downstream from Freesoil Road all year, and the best fishing is found near the upstream limit.
Our storied Manistee River has many miles of stream open to year-round fishing. The lower river below Tippy Dam is open all year, and the best trout fishing is found between the dam and High Bridge Road. Ice is never a problem below the dam, and the river usually stays open all the way to High Bridge. You are allowed to keep browns here, but all trout must be 15 inches long before they can be harvested. Upstream, there is catch-and-release fishing for browns and brookies in two long sections. It is flies-only between M-72 and the CCC Bridge in Kalkaska County, while you can use any method between U.S. 131 and the Tippy Impoundment. Bear Creek is a large tributary to the lower Manistee and is open all year from County Road 600 in Manistee County to its confluence with the main river. As at the Lower Manistee, you can keep browns and brookies in Bear Creek in the winter, but they must be 15 inches in length.
The Betsie River lies mostly in Benzie County, but dips into Manistee C
ounty, and the best winter trout fishing is found here. It is open up to Kurick Road, and you will find a mixture of browns, brookies and rainbows, with browns predominating. It ices up during cold spells, but will stay open with normal-to-mild winter weather.
Farther north, the Boardman River is open all year below Sabin Dam down to Traverse Bay in Traverse City. This is another stream where browns may be kept in the winter, but must be over 15 inches. The Rapid River is a small stream that contains both browns and brookies to the east near the town of Kalkaska. It is open all year for catch-and-release fishing from Antrim Pond down to its confluence with the Torch River.
The last two prime winter trout rivers in northwest Michigan both flow into Lake Charlevoix. The Boyne River can be fished from the P.H. Dam down to its mouth at the lake. More water is open to winter fishing in the Jordan River where you can fish from Graves Crossing down to Lake Charlevoix. Both streams are in Charlevoix County and contain browns, brookies and rainbows, with only the rainbows over 10 inches being fair game for the creel.
The DNR number to call for conditions and additional information on these rivers is (231) 775-9727.
NORTHERN LAKE HURON
The winters are pretty rugged near the tip of the L.P., but two streams will usually be open for trout fishing when the weather breaks.
The Sturgeon River is open from Afton Road in the town of Wolverine down to Burt Lake. Brown trout predominate here, but you will also find many small rainbows and perhaps a large one that has come up from the lake. To the east, the lower Pigeon River is open from M-68 down to Mullet Lake. It's mostly browns here, too, along with some brookies and rainbows.
In Presque Isle County, the Ocqueoc River is open to fishing from Barnhart Lake all the way to Lake Huron. The best trout fishing is found in the middle part of the stream, but since it's much more prone to freezing than the Pigeon and Sturgeon, you need to wait for a lengthy period of mild weather.
You can fish for winter trout in all of the flies-only reaches of the Au Sable from Burton's Landing to Wakeley Bridge and its South Branch (Chase Bridge to mouth) and North Branch (Sheep Ranch to mouth) in Crawford County. All three streams tend to stay ice-free, except in very cold weather. Both brook and brown trout are present, and the brookies tend to bite better in the winter. Catch-and-release rules are in effect for all three streams in winter.
For more information on these northern Lake Huron streams, contact the DNR at (989) 732-3541.
SOUTHERN LAKE HURON
Even though we are moving south, river ice becomes a big concern for the two rivers in Southern Lake Huron that are open to year-round trout fishing, so it's important to wait for a prolonged mild spell and call ahead before you drive to the East Branch of the Au Gres River or the Rifle River.
The East Branch of the Au Gres is open all year downstream from M-55, and the best trout fishing is found in the first few miles below M-55 where there is a public access site. The Rifle River is open for winter fishing downstream from Sage Lake Road. Again, the best fishing is in the upper part of the stream, especially above M-55. Brown trout predominate in both rivers, and in the winter you can keep those that are over 15 inches.
You can reach the DNR in this management unit at (989) 684-9141 for current fishing information.
LAKE ERIE DISTRICT
Options for winter trout fishing are a bit limited in this part of Michigan, but are improving with the recent commencement of stocking in the Clinton River. This is Michigan's "banana belt," but the rivers can still freeze, so waiting for a stretch of mild weather is still a good plan.
On the Clinton River, you'll find the best trout fishing in Oakland County between Squirrel and Hamlin roads, where they are stocking, and in the first two miles below Dequindre Road at the Oakland/Macomb county line. The browns must be released, but below Dequindre, you can keep rainbows over 10 inches. Upstream, the Clinton is classified as a warmwater stream, so from here you can keep some browns for a meal.
Some trout are also present between the mouth of Paint Creek in Rochester and Dequindre. There is also some hit-or-miss catch-and-release trout fishing in the North Branch of the Clinton downstream from Romeo-Plank Road in Macomb County. You can get additional information on fishing it from the DNR at (734) 432-1267.
In Lapeer County, the South Branch of the Flint River is also open for catch-and-release brown trout fishing between Davison Lake Road and Higley Road, but it hasn't been stocked in recent years.
HOW TO CATCH 'EM
For trout, the normal active water temperature feeding range is between 50 and 65 degrees. In January and February, the water temperature will always be below this, but the trout will still feed through the winter.
A rising water temperature tends to turn trout on, and they can detect — and respond — to a change of less than 1 degree. You'll want to concentrate your fishing when the water temperature is on the rise and weather is mild. This means fishing during the warmest part of the day, usually from mid- to late morning to late afternoon. In the winter, sunny days are usually better than cloudy ones, unless it's really mild. Sometimes a very cold morning followed by a warm, sunny day can produce prime fishing in the afternoon. This is especially true if anchor ice forms overnight. The action of the anchor ice lifting off the bottom as the day warms brings up with it some sand and other substrate. This also puts aquatic insects and other invertebrates into the flow, where they become easy pickings for the trout.
It is a good idea to choose lures or flies that will be a substantial meal for trout, rather than trying to match the natural food. Fish them as slow as possible so the fish get a long look at them. Often, a bright or gaudy fly or lure will excite a brown or brookie into grabbing your offering.
Keeping warm is important to enjoying a winter trout outing. Always dress in layers topped off by a jacket that's both windproof and waterproof. It may be too cold to rain, but melting snow can get you wet, too. A warm hat is also very important. I hate fishing with gloves on, but sometimes it is just too cold. Fingerless wool gloves work for me, but there are many other types out there. Taking a break and putting your hands under your armpits can help. Likewise, moving to another spot can warm you up. Of course, the ultimate in warming up is hooking and landing a nice trout!
Boot-foot neoprene waders are ideal for ice-water wading. Be sure to wade carefully, because while taking a spill in the summer might be a nuisance, falling in right now can end your trip pretty fast. A wading staff can be very helpful in keeping you upright. Studded soles can help with ice and slippery rocks. Felt is often not a good choice now, because snow sticks to it and builds up, making for
difficult walking on the bank when you change locations.
Local tackle shops are frequently your best source for current stream conditions. You can get phone numbers for those close to your chosen stream, along with information on lodging, restaurants and more from the local chambers of commerce. For info on reaching them, contact the Michigan Chamber of Commerce at (517) 371-2100 or go online at