Photo courtesy of Jim Bedford.
Michigan has many fine steelhead streams, and about this time of year, it seems like spring will never arrive. Luckily, many of our rivers have good numbers of steelies in them right now.
For this article, we will concentrate on streams that get good summer and fall runs of steelhead, and thus, usually offer the best winter fishing. But we will also give you tips on rivers and creeks to try when the days get warmer toward spring.
Starting in southeast Michigan, both the Huron and Clinton rivers are good winter steelhead streams. The focal point for steelhead on the Huron is in the town of Flat Rock. There is a lowhead dam here that temporarily concentrates the fish. You can do some wading and bank-fishing near the dam, but downstream the water becomes slow and deep, so a boat is a better plan. A ladder allows steelhead upstream as far as Belleville Lake, and there is plenty of public park land for access along this part of the river. Steelhead will be scattered, but you are likely to have the river to yourself.
A lowhead dam also focuses the steelhead action on the Clinton River just upstream from Dequindre Road on the western edge of Macomb County. There is a public access here. This river moves right along and is wadeable all the way down to the town of Utica. Like the Huron, park lands along with road crossings provide good access to the river. Ice can be a problem when we have cold spells, but the river will be open at normal to mild temperatures.
For the latest on the run or river conditions in southeast Michigan, contact the Department of Natural Resources at (248) 359-9040.
ON THE WEST SIDE
On the west side of southern Michigan, all three of the large tributary rivers provide fine winter steelhead fisheries.
The St. Joseph River is definitely one of the best winter steelhead streams in Michigan. Not only is it stocked with Great Lakes-strain steelhead by both Michigan and Indiana, but the Hoosier State also plants big numbers of summer steelhead in the St. Joe. While some of these fish hustle back to Indiana in the summer, many linger in the lower river in Michigan. The area of the river below the Berrien Springs Dam is a prime one for winter fishing because the river never freezes here. The weather will dictate how far you can fish below Berrien Springs before there is too much ice. While you can wade some areas below the dam, the river is best fished from a boat. There is a public launch at Shamrock Park in Berrien Springs and several more ramps downstream that may or may not be open depending on river ice.
Farther upstream, the dams at Buchanan and Niles keep the water open below them and concentrate the steelhead. Just like Berrien Springs, you can wade some below each, but a boat is better. During some winters — especially those that follow a wet fall — there will be good numbers of steelhead in the Dowagiac River near Niles. This is a good-sized but wadeable tributary to the St. Joe and there is a dam on it that concentrates the fish in the lower three miles of the stream.
Not as many steelhead are stocked in the Kalamazoo River, but it provides dependable winter steelheading. Allegan Dam, just west of the town of the same name, blocks the upstream movement of these silver fish and keeps the river ice-free for several miles in the winter. There is bank access at the dam, but wading is difficult below the dam. Fishing from a boat is the better way to go here, and you can launch just below the dam.
When the weather has been mild, you are likely to find steelhead around the juncture of the Kalamazoo River and the Rabbit River, which is about halfway between Allegan Dam and Lake Michigan. Both rivers freeze here during cold spells. Occasionally, there will be a good winter run in the Rabbit, but it is a better spring fishery, with the best fishing in Hamilton and downstream from Wayland.
The Grand River receives a strong run of wild steelhead due to natural reproduction in its tributaries, as well as good numbers of hatchery fish. The prime spot for winter steelhead is the area below Sixth Street Dam in Grand Rapids. Anchor ice can be a problem here during cold weather if the river above the dam is not frozen. Floe ice coming over the dam can also interfere with fishing. Once we have had enough cold weather to completely freeze the river above the dam, ice becomes much less of a problem down below.
The Grand remains quite wadeable throughout the mile of rapids below Sixth Street unless we have a major thaw or other runoff event. Access is excellent with walkways paralleling each side of the river. You can also launch small boats on the east side just below the dam. Many steelhead will also hold just below the rapids in the winter, and a boat is very helpful here. There is a boat ramp at Johnson Park about seven miles below the dam.
Concentrations of steelhead can also be found upstream below the Lyons, Webber, Portland, Grand Ledge and two Lansing dams. A cooling water discharge at the Moore Park Dam in Lansing keeps the river in town ice-free all winter. The Rogue River, which joins the Grand just north of Grand Rapids, is the most heavily stocked tributary, and late fall rains will put steelhead in it for the winter. The Rogue will be better in the spring, and you will want to try the other planted tributaries, such as Crockery, Prairie and Fish creeks, along with the Flat River when the weather starts to warm.
For more information on the St. Joseph, Kalamazoo and Grand rivers, contact the DNR Fisheries office in Plainwell at (269) 685-6851.
Continuing north with Lake Michigan tributaries, the Muskegon River is an excellent winter steelhead stream. It is heavily stocked, and the reach between Croton Dam and Newaygo remains ice-free all winter. You can fish this upper reach fairly well on foot even though the river is rarely crossable. But, again, a boat will allow you to cover all of the holding water. The public boat ramps at Croton Dam, Pine Avenue, Thornapple and Newaygo provide access for both boat and wading anglers.
The long gravel bars that alternate with deep pools and classic tailouts give the upper Muskegon the look of a classic Western steelhead river. The water is very clear, so lighter line and small baits are preferred here. Steelhead also stack up in the slow, deep sand holes farther downstream. You’ll need a boat to fish this w
ater and the weather must cooperate because prolonged cold spells will put ice on the river.
The storied Pere Marquette River near Baldwin hosts a very strong run of wild steelhead, and many of them migrate in the late fall, thus they provide an excellent winter fishery. The P.M. is also one of the few rivers that can get a spurt of fresh fish from Lake Michigan when we have a good midwinter thaw.
This free-flowing river is especially beautiful in the winter, with wild turkeys, deer and grouse frequently encountered along its banks. Most of the upper river between Upper Branch Bridge and the upstream limit for winter fishing — M-37 — is wadeable in the winter, although you may not always be able to cross where you want. Many anglers now opt for floating in a drift boat, small cartopper or canoe. Motors are not allowed on the upper river.
The reach between Rainbow Rapids and the Upper Branch Bridge almost never freezes and, while a bit more prone to ice, the flies-only section below M-37 holds many fish. The whole lower river fills with steelhead in the late fall, but ice can definitely be a problem. Floating the lower river when we have a thaw can be very productive. It definitely pays to cover a lot of water wherever you fish the Pere Marquette because the fish are usually scattered.
Continuing north, the Manistee River hosts a large run of steelhead, with many running in the fall. Tippy Dam near Wellston blocks the run, and there is good access for wading anglers on both sides of the river here. Suicide Bend, about a half-mile below the dam, is also a good location for anglers on foot, and there is an access on the northeast side of the river. The river stays open from the dam down to High Bridge even in frigid weather. Once you get away from the dam, a boat is needed to fish the river well. There are launch ramps at the dam, High Bridge, the Bear Creek mouth and Rainbow Bend. While the lower river often freezes, you can usually fish as far down as Bear Creek.
Bear Creek gets a good run of wild fish, but its fall run is not dependable, so it is better to hit this tributary in the spring. You will find winter fish holding downstream from the Bear Creek confluence.
Pine Creek — a small stream that joins the Manistee River downstream from High Bridge — also attracts steelhead off its mouth. While this designated trout stream tributary also produces wild steelhead, its main attraction now is water temperature. With its high groundwater content, it is considerably warmer than the main stream.
Moving north and east, the Jordan River near East Jordan hosts a good run of wild steelhead. It is open to winter steelhead fishing from Graves Crossing down to its mouth at Lake Charlevoix. It is lightly fished, and your chances are best in the lower river. You can do some wading, but a boat is often helpful.
There are a number of streams in the northwest Lower Peninsula that may yield good winter fishing but are not dependable due to ice or lack of fish. The White River below Hesperia and the Betsie River near Benzonia are both fine steelhead streams but are prone to freezing in the winter, especially the lower Betsie. The Lower Platte River below Platte Lake doesn’t have the ice problems, but in some years, the fish don’t hold in the river and move into the lake. But you should keep these streams in mind as we get into March.
Also, the Little Manistee and Upper Platte rivers don’t open for steelhead fishing until April, but they are two of Michigan’s premier steelhead streams. You should keep them on your list for spring fishing.
The fishery biologists for this region are avid steelheaders, especially Mark Tonello and Tom Rozich, and you can reach them at (231) 775-9727 for more information on Lake Michigan rivers from the Muskegon on northward.
LAKE HURON TRIBS
On the Lake Huron side of the Lower Peninsula, the Au Sable River stands out as the top winter steelhead stream. It normally receives the largest plant of steelhead smolts each year. There are only about 11 miles of river between Foote Dam and Lake Huron, so the steelhead are likely to be found in all of the good holding water. Anglers on foot can fish below the dam and near the access site at Rea Road just down from the dam, and the Whirlpool access site on the south side of the river.
Most anglers ply the steelhead water of the Au Sable from a boat. You can launch small boats below the dam and at the Whirlpool access site. You can also launch in Lake Huron a mile south of Oscoda and motor upstream. The upper river near the dam remains ice-free, but cold weather can build shelf ice in the lower river.
While it may seem like there is a limited distance of river on the Au Sable for steelhead anglers, it is quite lengthy compared with the Thunder Bay River in Alpena. There is barely a mile of river between Lake Huron and the Ninth Street Dam. Steelheading can be very good or non-existent on the Thunder Bay River; thus, it is not a good destination spot, but it is always ice-free and if you find your target river too high or icy, it can be a good backup place to fish. If you are in the area for another reason, it is also always worth a quick fish since you can hook fish from the bank below the dam and determine if the fish are there in a short time.
Check with the Northern Lake Huron Management Unit at (989) 732-3541 for the latest on the Au Sable and Thunder Bay rivers.
Two other Lake Huron tributaries often receive good runs of steelhead in the late fall, but the rivers are frequently too frozen to fish. We mention them because they can be quite good when we have a mild spell, and they are also rivers to try when spring shows up. The Rifle River flows into northern Saginaw Bay, and the best reach for winter fishing is between M-55 and Greenwood Road. There are likely higher concentrations of steelhead closer to the mouth, but the river is almost never fishable there in the winter. The East Branch of the Au Gres is much smaller than the Rifle and slightly less prone to freezing. It is found about 16 miles east of the Rifle near Hemlock, and the best fishing is below M-55.
Additional information on both rivers can be obtained from the DNR at (989) 684-9141.
Frigid winters and a relative paucity of groundwater feeding the rivers severely limit winter steelhead opportunities in the Upper Peninsula. But one possibility is the Chocolay River just east of Marquette.
The best fishing on the Chocolay is between U.S. Highway 28 and Lake Superior, and fishing as close to the big lake as river ice allows is a good plan.
To learn about current conditions, you can call the DNR in Marquette at (906) 228-6561.
If you are really tough and rugged, the St. Mary’s Rapids in Sault Ste. Marie is also a winter option. Realistically, though, the time to fish for steelhead in the Upper Peninsula is in the spring, and the late runs to the Lake Superior tributaries extend your steelhead season well into May. Some of the best are the East Branch of the Ontonagon and the Huron in the western
U.P., and the Two Hearted on the eastern side.
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Since it is winter, knowing the condition of the rivers you plan to fish is especially important. You can obtain the phone numbers of local tackle shops by contacting the area chambers of commerce. The local phone numbers can be obtained by calling the Michigan Chamber of Commerce at (517) 371-2100, or go to the Web at www.michamber.com.
This year, lengthen your steelhead season by watching the weather forecasts and donning your cold-weather gear when the prediction is relatively “balmy.” Steelhead hit well in the winter. Go find out for yourself!