As winter begins to loosen its grip, it’s time to check your gear and plan a steelhead trip to one of Michigan’s many streams that host the anadromous rainbows. Rivers that get good summer and fall runs of steelhead are the best bets for late winter and early spring outings. Last year, the fall run was below par, so fishing was tough until spring arrived.
We will zigzag our way north describing the best winter steelhead streams in the approximate order that their runs peak. While concentrating on winter fisheries, we will also give information on where to try when all the snow and ice melts. Tips on catching the silvery rainbows in frigid water will be provided as well.
SOUTHERN LAKE MICHIGAN STREAMS
The St. Joseph River in the southwest corner of the state is one of our premier winter steelhead venues. It is stocked with both summer and Little Manistee-strain steelhead with Indiana contributing all the summer-run fish and part of the others. While some summer fish quickly run all the way to South Bend, many remain in Michigan waters. The reach below the Berrien Springs Dam is the best for winter steelheading. This is the first obstacle for the fish up from Lake Michigan, and water never freezes near the dam. How many miles below the dam you can fish may be dictated by the weather. Wading is possible but limited to near the dam, so a boat is a better option. There is a public launch at Shamrock Park in Berrien Springs and several more farther downstream if lack of river ice allows their use.
Moving upstream toward Indiana, the dams at Buchanan and Niles keep the river open below them and concentrate steelhead. Similarly to below Berrien Springs you can do some wading, but a boat is better. The Dowagiac River, just north of Niles, can have good numbers of winter steelhead and is wadeable but large enough to float in a small boat or canoe. A low-head dam, about three miles upstream from the St. Joe, keeps steelhead in the lower part of the river.
Winter steelheading on the Kalamazoo River is focused below the Allegan Dam in central Allegan County. You can bank-fish at the dam, but launching a boat from the ramp below the spillway helps you cover a lot more water. The river stays ice-free for several miles below the dam. The area below the juncture of Swan Creek, about a mile below the dam, is a good section to concentrate if the fishing is slow near the dam. If the recent weather has been mild, you will likely find good numbers of steelhead where the Rabbit River joins the Kalamazoo about halfway between Allegan Dam and Lake Michigan. Both rivers freeze here when the weather is frigid. During high water falls, there are fishable numbers of winter steelhead in the Rabbit, but it is a better spring fishery with the best fishing in Hamilton and about five miles west of Wayland.
Because of natural reproduction in its tributaries, the Grand River receives a strong run of wild steelhead in addition to good numbers of hatchery fish. The reach below Sixth Street Dam in Grand Rapids is a good one for winter steelhead. Anchor ice can be an issue in cold weather, but the river stays open for several miles below the dam. There is a mile of easily wadeable water with great access via walkways on each side of the river in the city. You can also launch a small boat on the east side of the river just below the dam. Often steelhead hold below the rapids in deeper water in the winter. A boat is helpful to reach the fish and you can launch at a boat ramp at Johnson Park, located about seven miles downstream from the dam.
Upstream dams at Lyons, Portland, Grand Ledge and Lansing have open water and concentrations of steelhead below them. There are two dams in Lansing and the upper one at Moore’s Park has a cooling water discharge that keeps the river ice-free throughout the city all winter. The Rogue River, which merges with the Grand just north of Grand Rapids, is the most heavily planted tributary. Plentiful fall rain will put fish in this river for good winter steelheading. It is also a prime venue for spring fishing, as are Crockery, Prairie and Fish creeks and the Flat River. For more information on the St. Joseph, Kalamazoo and Grand rivers and their tributaries, talk to the fisheries biologists at the DNR in Plainwell at (269) 685-6851.
SOUTHEAST MICHIGAN RIVERS
The Huron and Clinton rivers stand out as top winter steelhead streams in Michigan’s most populous region. Most of the action on the Huron occurs from Flat Rock down to its mouth when cold weather doesn’t have the river iced over. You can wade some below the dam in Flat Rock, but a boat is best for the lower river. A ladder on the dam allows steelhead to continue upstream as far as the dam creating Belleville Lake. Steelhead are scattered in this stretch, but plenty of parkland provides good access. The adage, “less can be more,” holds in the upper Huron, as it is lightly fished and you are likely to have the water to yourself.
The Clinton River is smaller but gets a good run of steelhead. A low-head dam just upstream from Dequindre Road on the eastern edge of Oakland County concentrates the fish, and this is also the smolt stocking location. The river has a surprisingly high gradient for southern Michigan and moves quickly for several miles below the dam. You can wade it all the way to Utica. Similar to the Huron, parklands and road crossings provide good access to the river. Ice is only a problem in February when we have real cold weather. You can get up-to-date information on the run status and stream conditions for both the Huron and Clinton rivers from the DNR biologists at (248) 359-9040.
CENTRAL LAKE MICHIGAN TRIBUTARIES
Back to the west side, the Muskegon River receives a strong run of steelhead and remains ice-free between the Croton Dam and the town of Newaygo. This is a large river, but you can fish it fairly well on foot in February before the spring runoff swells its flow. Even in low water, many anglers opt for a boat because it helps them easily reach all the holding water. Public boat ramps at Croton Dam, Pine Avenue, Thornapple Avenue and Newaygo offer many options for launching and provide access for the wading angler.
The long gravel runs that alternate with deep pools and classic tailouts give the Muskegon a Western river look and also make it popular with fly-anglers. Guide Kevin Feenstra (231-652-3528) likes to swing streamers in February when the water is low and clear. He recommends patterns that imitate the chinook fry that are very common in the Muskegon due to the tremendous natural reproduction of these salmon in the river. Feenstra continues to swing flies in the spring but cautions that you really need a good anchor system to hold your boat in the right position when the water is up. The deep sand holes downst
ream from Newaygo also hold winter steelhead, but ice can be a problem during cold spells.
Moving north, the free-flowing Pere Marquette River hosts a very strong run of wild steelhead and many of them migrate in the late fall resulting in a fine winter fishery. The P.M. is also one of the few rivers that can get a shot of fresh steelhead from the lake when we experience a thaw and rise in the river. The prime area for wading anglers is between M-37, the upstream limit near Baldwin and the Upper Branch Bridge. Many anglers also float this area in drift boats and personal watercraft.
The stretch of river between the Rainbow Rapids access site and Upper Branch Bridge almost never freezes and is my favorite for winter steelhead. The flies-only section below M-37 is a bit more prone to icing but holds many fish, and since it is catch-and-release, some steelhead get exercised more than once. With the best spawning habitat of the whole river, the flies-only section is also the place to be when spring finally arrives. While the whole lower river fills with steelhead in the fall, ice can be a problem even with just normal winter weather. Floating a stretch of the lower river just after a thaw that removes the ice can result in outstanding fishing.
During most autumns, large number of wild and hatchery steelhead run up the Manistee River. Tippy Dam near Wellston blocks the run and concentrates the fish. There is access for wading anglers on each side of the river at the dam and also at Suicide Bend, about a half-mile downstream on the northeast side of the river. The river stays free of ice down to High Bridge and many anglers launch boats at the dam and float down to the ramp there. Most of the river is better fished from a boat, and you can also launch near the Bear Creek juncture with the main river and at Rainbow Bend. The lower river will freeze, but in most years, you can fish down as far as Bear Creek.
Because the Manistee River receives plenty of angling pressure, fishing can get tough in the late winter if no new fish move upstream. Guide Dave Kane (231/510-2527) suggests you spend a fair amount of time fishing the smaller runs and pockets that aren’t fished hard every day like the main holes. He also related that in February steelhead tend to hold at the head of the hole rather than the tail. Snags often abound, so Kane suggests using floats to suspend your eggs or other offerings above the bottom.
If the Manistee is too busy or too high, Bear Creek can be a good backup. The negative here is that its fall run of wild steelhead is quite variable and the stream can be pretty empty some winters. For sure, it is a good option when spring arrives, however. Check with fisheries biologists at (231) 775-9727 for the latest scoop on what’s happening on these rivers.
LAKE HURON RIVERS
The best winter steelhead river on the sunrise side of the Lower Peninsula is the Au Sable. Most years, it receives the largest stocking of steelhead smolts and the returning adults are limited to about 11 miles of river between Foote Dam and Lake Huron when they return. Wading anglers can fish the river just below the dam, near the access site at Rea Road below the dam and at the Whirlpool access site on the south side of the river.
Most anglers fish for steelhead in the Au Sable from a boat. Small boats may be launched just below the dam and at the Whirlpool access site. Larger boats can also be launched in Lake Huron just south of the river mouth. The river near the dam remains ice-free, but shelf ice can build up in the Au Sable closer to Lake Huron. Pulling plugs is a great way to find fish, and drifting spawn under a float is another great way to catch steelhead in the very clear water of the Au Sable in February.
Just to the south of Au Sable, the free-flowing Rifle River normally gets a good fall run of steelhead. The problem is that in February the lower Rifle is almost always frozen. During mild spells, the upper river opens and this is where the steelhead are moving to as we get closer to spawning time.
Mike Batchelder (989-345-3234) guides on both the Rifle and the Au Sable rivers and knows the current conditions and best options. He favors floating the upper Rifle in his river boat when conditions allow but will give you the straight scoop on your best choices. The east branch of the Au Gres is a small river between the Au Sable and Rifle that receives some steelhead in the fall and can be a backup stream.
Most of the Upper Peninsula rivers are frozen in February and their main runs don’t get going until at least mid-April. The largest Lake Huron tributary is the exception. The St. Marys River that connects Lake Superior with Lake Huron remains ice-free in Sault Ste. Marie. When the weather is tolerable, you have the option of wading the rapids or fishing below the power plants in a boat.
Guide John Giuliani (705-942-5473) told me the river gets a consistent run of steelhead in the late fall. While you don’t want to be on this northern river when the wind chill is 30 or 40 below, there are plenty of days when you can fish comfortably each winter. John can tell you where your best chances are based on his almost daily contact with the river.
For more information on these Lake Huron rivers, call the DNR at (989) 732-3541 for the St. Marys and Au Sable or (989) 684-9141 for the Rifle and the East Branch of the Au Gres.
Steelhead actively chase lures and ingest bait with water temperatures at the freezing mark. So, when it comes to catching them in February, it mostly depends on anglers being comfortable and avoiding ice problems with their equipment. Dressing in layers so you can adjust to changing air temperatures and activity levels is a must. Generally, you need to dress more warmly when in a boat than when wading. As a veteran winter steelheader, I usually suggest boot foot neoprene waders and rain jacket as the final layer for wading anglers. Topping off with the same outfit when going for a float is also an excellent plan. It guarantees you will be impervious to rain, snow and wind and won’t have to worry about a wet boat seat as you drift the river.
Make this year the time you beat the spring rush to our Great Lakes tributaries and catch some silvery rainbows in February. Get their attention by using fairly gaudy offerings that both invade their territory and represent possible food. And cover a good chunk of water to increase your chances of finding some cooperative steelhead. Staying on the move will also help the wading angler stay warm, but the ultimate warm-up is hooking a brawny steelhead whether in a boat or standing in the river.