By Jim Bedford
Have you patched your waders, tied up a bunch of steelhead flies and replaced the line on your reels? Well, it is time to do that because Feb. 1 marks the midpoint of winter, and spring will arrive sooner than you think. Shiny silver rainbows will start charging up their natal or stocked rivers as soon as the ice goes out of their entry points to the big lakes.
Last month we described some urban steelhead fisheries in southern Michigan, so this month we are going to concentrate on our premier northern streams. We will start on the northwest side of the Lower Peninsula, switch to the “sunrise side” and then go on to the Upper Peninsula. This is also the approximate order that the steelhead runs will peak.
The Muskegon River usually receives a good late-fall run, so there will already be steelhead present when you read this. You will find classic riffles and pools in this large river between Newaygo and Croton Dam in Newaygo County, along with a lot of prime spawning gravel. You can fish this reach in waders but will rarely be able to cross the river in the spring. A boat gives you a lot more mobility, and there are launch ramps at Croton Dam and Newaygo as well as Pine Street and Thornapple Avenue in between. Early in the spring you will often find more fish downstream from Newaygo in the deep holes and runs, and a boat is almost a necessity there.
Just about 10 miles to the north, the White River parallels the Muskegon. The prime steelhead water extends from the dam in Hesperia downstream for about 10 miles and is all quite wadeable unless heavy rains or snowmelt have swollen the river. While the White often doesn’t get a very good fall and winter run of steelhead, it does receive an early run of steelhead each spring. Access on the White is located at the bridges and at several Department of Natural Resources sites. The river is often quite crowded at the dam and the first couple of miles below the dam, but you can find more room by moving downstream.
Continuing north, there is an outstanding run of wild steelhead in the Pere Marquette River. The prime spawning habitat is located in the flies-only reach near Baldwin and it attracts a lot of anadromous rainbows. The only problem is that this section also draws a lot of anglers. Luckily there is some very good fishing to be found farther downstream. Between the Rainbow Rapids public access site west of Baldwin and Walhalla you will a wonderful mixture of gravel runs and deep holes. Three road crossings and the Su Lac public access site several river miles below Rainbow Rapids get you on this prime reach of steelhead water. You can also intercept migrating steelhead below Walhalla. Many anglers float this river but you can also wade, especially in the upper river.
The “Manistee Three” give you a lot of options for spring steelhead in one area near the small town of Wellston.
The Little Manistee River is south of Wellston and flows into the south end of Manistee Lake. The wild steelhead of this river provide all the eggs and milt for Michigan’s hatchery’s and several other states. It is closed to fishing until April 1, and fish are stopped at a weir about three river miles below Six Mile Bridge. This is a great stream for the wading angler, but the fishing depends on how good the fall run was and how many fish have been passed in the spring. You can call to get weir fish passage information at (231) 775-9727, extension 6072. The same number without the extension is the one to call for more information on all the rivers in the northwest corner of the Lower Peninsula.
The storied Big Manistee receives a big return of steelhead each year, and in the spring the fish stack up below Tippy Dam down to High Bridge just north of Wellston. You can wade below Tippy, but a boat becomes the best option farther downstream. Early in the run it will be best to fish in the lower river and then work your way upstream as spring progresses. There are public boat launches spread throughout the Manistee’s steelhead water.
Bear Creek joins the Manistee in the middle of the reach and is the sleeper of the “Manistee Three.” Like the Little Manistee it is completely dependent on wild fish but it doesn’t get as large a run. The good news is that it doesn’t get a lot of angling pressure, either. There are convenient bridges every mile from Brethren to Kaleva for access, and during most of the spring the creek will be wadeable. It tends to be quite flashy when it rains and gets muddier as you go downstream, so moving up a few bridges when it is riled up can pay off.
The Betsie River and Platte River offer excellent steelhead fishing opportunities each spring. The Betsie is larger and runs with more color while the Platte almost never goes out of shape. The prime spring fishing area on the Betsie is between U.S. Highway 31 and the Homestead lamprey barrier. Early in the spring you can intercept steelhead below this reach, and when spawning begins you can expect to find fishable numbers of steelies in the upper river. The upper Platte River doesn’t open until April 1, but you can fish below Platte Lake all year. Fishing just up from the mouth is a good way to catch new arrivals, while the upper river through the town of Honor will be the place to be when spawning has started.
Moving across the peninsula to the east side we find three prime spring steelhead venues. The Rifle River is the southernmost and usually gets a decent late-fall run. River ice then prevents winter fishing, so these steelhead will still be there when spring arrives. Try the lower river between Greenwood Road and U.S. Highway 23 early in the season and between M-55 and Sage Lake Road when the steelhead start hitting the gravel. The Rifle is quite wadeable except during high water, but a small boat or canoe will help you cover a lot of water in search of fish.
The East Branch of the Au Gres is a smaller river, and not many steelhead overwinter in it. Thus you need to wait until the spring run gets under way, which is usually not until mid-April. The East Branch is less than 20 miles east of the Rifle and clears faster than the Rifle after a rain, so it is a good backup when you find the Rifle too muddy. The reach between Alabaster Road and M-55 is the area to concentrate on once the spring run is well under way. For current information on both rivers, you can contact the DNR at (989) 684-9141.
To the north, the Au Sable River receives a very large stocking of steelhead smolts each year, and these fish are limited to the lower 10 miles of the river by Foote Dam near Oscoda. Thus we have a big concentration of fish when the run is on. This river gets one of the latest runs in the L.P. and often doesn’t peak until early May, with fish lingering until M
emorial Day. This is primarily a boating river, but you can wade near the dam and at several of the access sites. To contact the DNR for more information about the run in this river, call (989) 732-3541.
Crossing the bridge to the Upper Peninsula, there are several prime steelhead streams that drain into Lake Michigan. Runs usually peak here in late April and – from east to west – some of the best to try are the Black near Naubinway, Manistique, Sturgeon, Whitefish, Days, Escanaba and Cedar rivers. There are dams near the mouths of Manistique and Escanaba, but the others have more water to fish. For the latest on the runs, and other northern Lake Michigan options, contact the DNR at (906) 786-2351.
Virtually all of our Lake Superior tributaries receive runs of wild steelhead, and there are more than 100 of these streams. The best in the west from west to east are the Iron, Middle and East branches of the Ontonagon, Firesteel, Huron and Chocolay rivers. The runs usually don’t peak until early May, and by then every other trout stream tributary is also open to fishing. For the latest scoop on these streams, call the DNR at (906) 353-6651. The eastern steelhead rivers, draining to Lake Superior, that stand out are the Blind Sucker and Two Hearted rivers. Biologists in the Newberry office (906-293-5131) keep close tabs on these rivers.
Finally and fittingly since it receives the latest run of spring steelhead, we come to the St. Mary’s River in Sault Ste. Marie. To wade the rapids of this river you must enter from the Canadian side, but you can launch a boat at several sites on the Michigan shore. The run here doesn’t normally peak until late May or early June, so it really extends our spring steelhead season.
Additional information on motels, restaurants and tackle shops near each river can be obtained from local chambers of commerce. You can get their numbers by calling (517) 371-2100 or by logging on their Web site at www.michamber.com.
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