Michigan: Top Waters to Fish for Trout
July 15, 2016
Have you ever encountered one of those people who is so good at something it's almost embarrassing to compare them to anyone else? For many diehards, that describes Michigan's trout fishing.
Michigan gets a different type of press than the famed trout streams of the West. It may not have the wilderness-rich allure of Alaska, but Michigan has trout fishing opportunities as good (or better) than those storied destinations. Plus it has something they haven't got: Easy, abundant access. Need proof? Just look at the numbers.
Michigan boasts roughly 20,000 miles of quality cold-water trout streams, about 1,000 of which are designated as top-quality, "trout streams." And licenses are easy to obtain.
I can't wager a guess (or provide accurate mileage) of the miles of streams not officially designated as (or even trout waters), that I've personally caught trout in. But it's a fair number and one of the things that makes Michigan trout fishing special.
If the water flows, is clear and cold, well, odds are pretty good it holds trout.
Here's a run down of some of the best the state has to offer:
Ernest Hemingway fished here. Is there really anything more that needs to be said? Hemingway's classic short story "Big Two-Hearted River" was based on a visit here to the central Upper Peninsula, but the river involved was not the Two Hearted at all (though the U.P. does indeed have a Two-Hearted River). In fact, the famous story was based on fishing the Fox River.
The Fox is a tributary of the Manistique River and it flows through the small town of Seney where you'll find lodging, food and, of course, the unique local watering holes that make the U.P. the place that it is.
The nearby Seney Wildlife Refuge offers excellent fishing for native brook trout — colorful wild gems that make up for their lack of size with their sheer beauty.
You'll find brookies in darned near every trickle of water here. You'll need (and want to) do your own exploring to find those smallest of streams, but that's all part of the enchantment of this place — wild trout in a wild place.
Trout Unlimited was founded on the banks of the Au Sable near Grayling, MI in 1959.
(Told you Michigan's trout fishing is pretty storied.)
The Au Sable is often referred to as the "holy water" by diehard fly fishermen. The river is home to brook, brown and rainbows, but it's the giant brown trout that earn this water the most praise.
Hatches are diverse and prolific, and some sections of the river are designated with special quality regulations and are flies-only. The hatch of all hatches is the hex hatch. When these giant mayflies come off, anglers don headlamps, fish throughout the night and catch some of the biggest browns of the year. Night fishing using mouse patterns is also a popular, albeit daring, way of catching a trophy-class brown.
But like so many areas in Michigan, the Au Sable is but one of many top trout waters in the area. Feeder creeks and diminutive streams hold excellent numbers of trout and often receive minimal angling pressure.
Much of the area is state or federal land making access a breeze. Wading is generally not a problem though drift boats are commonly used on the Au Sable and do speed up the task of moving between productive holes and runs.
Muskegon River and Tributaries
The Muskegon River is a river of many seasons and faces. It boasts incredible runs of salmon and steelhead in the spring and fall. In some sections, the smallmouth and walleye fishing is a top draw. But, at its heart, the Muskegon is a trout stream and offers some of the best tailwater fly fishing for brown and rainbow trout in Michigan. If you're looking to land a beast of a brown trout — think fish longer than two feet — the Muskegon just might be the best option in Michigan.
Fly-fishing is a mainstay here thanks to the river's width and classic holding cover. Wading is possible in many sections, but a drift boat, tube or other vessel will help you cover more water — there are some serious holes in the Muskegon. Daytime tactics revolve around nymphing while evening hatches can conjure up terrific dry fly fishing.
And don't overlook the many tributaries and small feeder creeks. Those overlooked gems hold trout and fishing them is the best way to enjoy the solitude.
The city of Newaygo is a popular launching point for Muskegon River anglers and you'll find plenty of lodging, excellent fly shops and no shortage of guides to help get you started.
Pigeon River Country
The Pigeon River Country State Forest is home to Michigan's wild elk population and some pretty fine trout streams as well.
The Black River is arguably the best and is a top-notch brook trout stream. The upper stretches of the river are best.
Located about 10 miles west of the Black is the Pigeon River. It also hosts excellent numbers of trout and you can catch three species there — brookies, browns and rainbows.
The Sturgeon River wraps up a trio of excellent trout rivers in this area.
Like the other regions, some exploration will turn up a number of smaller creeks and streams that are likely to hold cold, clear water and trout.
While much of Michigan's trout fame comes from its northern reaches, southern Michigan has a number of options for trout anglers — you just have to look a bit harder to find them.
The best place to start is the Michigan Department of Natural Resources' Trout Trails app, which is perfect for those planning a trip to Michigan that focuses on trout. This tool features nearly 200 locations of less-known trout waters that have been biologist-verified. It's the ideal solution for those looking to get tons of details about these locations, including area lodging, restaurants, guide serves, trout species available, regulations, stocked or natural reproduction and other tips.
Another valuable resource is the Michigan DNR's fish stocking report website.
The site allows you to input the species of trout you're after along with the county you wish to fish. The stocking reports will point you directly to those streams that receive trout. But don't take that to mean the trout you're searching for are pushovers. They aren't.
Most of southern Michigan's trout streams receive supplemental stocking. Wild fish do exist and stocked fish often survive several seasons. They get big and they lose all semblance of their hatchery upbringing.
I've personally caught dozens of brown trout over 20 inches while fishing small southern Michigan trout streams. Out of respect for those small waters — and the fishermen who have put in the time and effort to find them — I won't name some of the smaller ones (you can find them by using the stocking reports and spending some time on the water), but there are a couple of well-known waters that I will mention.
The Rogue River, near Rockford, is a popular destination for spring steelheaders and is also home to a solid resident population of trout. And the Dowagiac River is arguably southern Michigan's top trout stream thanks to its cold, clear flows.
TROUT LORE DESTINATIONS
If you're going to visit Michigan to sample some of its incredible trout fishing, you'd be well-served to visit some of its top trout fishing attractions as well.
Gates Au Sable Lodge
Opened in 1970 by Calvin Gates Sr. as the Canoe Inn, Gates Au Sable Lodge is now operated by Calvin's son, Rusty Gates.
A little historical searching will show you that Rusty has earned a spot in Au Sable lore for his efforts to create and maintain a no-kill policy in certain stretches of the river. The lodge features rooms, a restaurant and an impressive fly shop.
National Trout Festival
Located west of Grayling is the village of Kalkaska. You'll know you've made it to town when you see the large brook trout fountain.
Kalkaska is home to the National Trout Festival held in late April each year.
Wolf Lake Hatchery
If you find yourself chasing trout in southern Michigan, head for Mattawan. There you'll find the Wolf Lake State Fish Hatchery.
The hatchery rears salmon and steelhead for the Great Lakes as well as muskies and walleyes. The location features an interpretive center and provides a nice break between outings.