When we reach midsummer in Michigan the fishing in lakes often slows down, especially for predator fish like bass, walleyes and northern pike. That period, for us, is often called the “dog days.” While you can still catch fish in lakes, switching to rivers will result in more action. Lower water levels concentrate the fish and their food and that often puts our river fish on the prowl.
Many of our rivers can be fished with a boat, but wading and bank angling can also get us a crack at good fishing. Smallmouth bass, walleyes, northern pike and channel catfish are our most widely distributed sportfish but we can also catch muskies, flathead catfish, rock bass, brown trout, brook trout and anadromous fish like steelhead and Chinook salmon in our rivers and streams.
Here, we are going to divide the Lower Peninsula into four quadrants and the Upper Peninsula into halves and guide you to some great spots for Michigan river fishing. Let’s get started.
SOUTHWEST LOWER MICHIGAN
There are three big rivers in southwestern Michigan and they, along with their tributaries, offer a bunch of midsummer fishing opportunities for many species. Smallmouth bass are found in good numbers throughout the length of the St. Joseph River. Walleyes in the upper river are most concentrated as the river heads south toward Indiana, especially between Colon and the state line. When the St. Joe re-enters Michigan, you will find good numbers of channel catfish mixed in with the bass and walleyes. Below the Berrien Springs Dam, flathead catfish make their presence felt with fish weighing more than 30 pounds. If the weather has been cool, some summer steelhead will run the St. Joseph. Look for those fish to hang out near the mouths of cold tributaries. The Dowagiac River is the largest coldwater tributary to the St. Joe and it offers good fishing for brown trout. Summer steelhead will move into the lower two miles, just north of Niles, to cool off. The Paw Paw River is another major tributary that has good numbers of smallmouths and some pike. It tends to run clearer and to be less affected by rain; it is a good alternative when the St. Joe is muddy.
Moving north, the Kalamazoo River provides some very good fisheries for a number of species. Smallmouth bass are present throughout the river but the best fishing for them is found in the middle part from Battle Creek to the Allegan Dam impoundment. Walleyes are found in the lower two-thirds of that section and really become numerous below the Allegan Dam where they are joined by channel and flathead catfish. Upstream from Battle Creek, the Kalamazoo is home to good numbers of northern pike along with the smallmouths. Above Albion, the river is split into north and south branches, and has the attribute of being very clear and very slow to muddy after a rain, making it a good backup if your chosen stream is too turbid. The clarity makes for exciting fishing when 3 feet of northern pike follows your lure and inhales it. Fish that size even start to make you wonder if it is safe to be wading among such toothy behemoths. The Battle Creek River is a tributary of the Kalamazoo and is another very good pike river.
The Grand River is our longest inland river and probably has our best mix of smallmouth bass, walleye and channel catfish fishing over much of its length. The reach between Eaton Rapids and Grand Rapids has just the right flow and firm bottom structure, except where impounded, for those fish. Large flathead catfish are found in the lower river and move up into the rapids at Grand Rapids, giving wading anglers a crack at them. Northern pike tend to be most numerous above and below the prime smallmouth water, with plentiful fish below Jackson and in the lower river in Ottawa County where there are a good number of bayous along the river. The reaches below the dams on the river seem to provide especially good fishing. There is good access at the Sixth Street Dam in Grand Rapids and upstream at the Lyons, Webber, Portland, Grand Ledge and Lansing dams.
Large tributaries like the Thornapple, Flat, Maple, Looking Glass, and Red Cedar Rivers offer good smallmouth fishing along with some pike. The lower ends of those rivers will usually have some walleyes, and there are good numbers of catfish in the Maple. You will find brown and rainbow trout in tributaries like the lower Rogue River, Coldwater Creek, Fish Creek and Prairie Creek, along with numerous smaller streams.
SOUTHEAST LOWER MICHIGAN
The Huron River offers the best inland stream fishing in southeast Michigan. Smallmouth bass are again the prime predator species but you will also find walleyes and channel cats mixed in with them. It begins as the outlet of several lakes in Oakland County and then is impounded by the dam that forms Kent Lake. This keeps the upper river clear, and so walleyes in Kent Lake move into the river to join the smallmouths. The northern pike is another species that tends to move out of the impoundments into the flowing sections in the summer.
The Shiawassee, Flint, and Cass rivers are southern tributaries of the Saginaw River, and all are loaded with smallmouth bass. The lower sections of those rivers will also have some walleyes and channel catfish. The Bad River is a tributary of the Shiawassee and is a good pike river, especially near the town of St. Charles. The Saginaw River itself contains smallmouths and walleyes that move back and forth between Saginaw Bay and the river. The Clinton River offers so-so fishing for smallmouths, but it and its tributary, Paint Creek, offer southeast Michigan residents some close-to-home trout fishing. Interestingly, the Clinton River starts out very warm as the outlet of some lakes but then cools off as it goes underground through the city of Pontiac. Try the river just east of the city in the town of Auburn Heights and also near the mouth of Paint Creek for stocked browns.
NORTHEAST LOWER MICHIGAN
The Tittabawassee River is the largest tributary of the Saginaw River, flowing mostly south before joining the main stream. Where it is not impounded, the Tittabawassee is mostly dominated by smallmouth bass. Channel catfish and walleyes will mix with the bass in the lower river and below the Sanford and Wixom dams. The Chippewa and Pine rivers are tributaries and provide very good smallmouth fishing. There are some trout in their headwaters and the upper branches of the other Tittabawassee tributaries; the Tobacco and Cedar rivers, for example, are very good trout streams. Both the Tobacco and Cedar rivers will offer a mixed bag of smallmouths and big browns as you move downstream.
Moving north, the Au Sable offers the whole gamut of river fishing opportunities. Obviously the upper river and its branches are known for their very good trout fishing. As we move downstream, though, the trout get bigger but are fewer in number. Smallmouth bass also join the party. There are a number of major impoundments on the lower river with good smallmouth fishing continuing in the free-flowing portions of the river system. Because of the strong flow of water through them, the fishing in these “lakes” is often better than in natural lakes in midsummer. The lowermost reach below Foote Dam is the place to find good numbers of walleyes and channel catfish mixing in with the smallmouths.
NORTHWEST LOWER MICHIGAN
The Muskegon River is best known for its steelhead and salmon run but you can also find good fishing in the middle of the summer for resident species. The river starts as the outlet of Houghton Lake, and you’ll find a good mix of smallmouth bass and northern pike in its rather sluggish upper reaches. Between Croton Dam and the town of Newaygo, brown and rainbow trout are stocked heavily and provide a good fishery. The trout fishing will improve if someone can figure a way to get more cold water out of the impoundment in the summer months. Smallmouths begin mixing in with the trout almost right away, their numbers increasing dramatically in the lower river where some walleyes and channel catfish join the population.
The Manistee River is the Au Sable’s counterpart on the west side of the state. You’ll find prime trout fishing in that river upstream from the Hodenpyl Impoundment at Mesick. The reach between Hodenpyl and Tippy Dam contains large browns and a good population of large pike. Below Tippy Dam, large numbers of browns and rainbows are planted, but smallmouth bass and northern pike soon take over, along with a few walleyes, as you move downstream. In August, Chinook salmon begin entering the lower Manistee. There will also be summer steelhead in the river, but they tend to move fairly quickly up to Tippy Dam. Warm temperatures will cause both the Chinook and steelhead to seek the mouths of cold tributaries like Pine Creek below High Bridge Road. The Pere Marquette and Betsie rivers are two others that receive August runs of Chinook salmon and you will find a mix of salmon and big northern pike in their lower reaches.
WESTERN UPPER PENINSULA
The Menominee River forms our border with Wisconsin and it offers some of the best fishing for smallmouth bass in the Upper Peninsula. There are a bunch of dams on this river and the reaches below them are loaded with smallmouths, along with some walleyes and northern pike. The Hattie Street Dam is the first one up from Green Bay and that reach is the best for walleyes; there are lots of smallmouth bass that are larger than average.
The Michigamme and Brule rivers join to form the Menominee and are great places to fish in the summer. The Michigamme is a warmwater stream from the start and has a nice mix of smallmouths, walleyes, and pike wherever it is flowing between its several dams. The upper Brule contains good numbers of brook and brown trout, but smallmouths and walleyes begin to mix in near Pentoga and increase as you go downstream. The Paint River is a major tributary to the Lower Brule, and offers good fishing for smallmouths, walleyes and pike along with a decent shot at a muskie near Crystal Falls. The South Branch of the Paint is one of the best trout streams in the western U.P.
EASTERN UPPER PENINSULA
Two of Michigan’s best brook trout streams, the Fox and its East Branch, join together to form the Manistique River. While there is still a chance for a big brookie in the Upper Manistique you will find that a fine mix of smallmouth bass, walleyes, and northern pike are present throughout the main stream. There is a dam near the lower end of the river and below that dam you will find some channel catfish mixing in with the bass and the walleyes. In late August you may also encounter some Chinook salmon in the lower river. The Indian River joins the Manistique near its mouth and is home to brook trout in its headwaters and big browns near the town of Steuben.
The Tahquamenon River is best known for its falls, but you also will find fine fishing in the heavily tannin-stained river. There are brook trout in its headwaters but the trout give way to walleyes and smallmouth as you go downstream. Below the Dollarville Dam, northern pike join the mix in good numbers and there’s also a decent chance of hooking a muskie. The best brook trout fishing is found in the Tahquamenon’s East Branch with its blue-ribbon water beginning at Strong’s Corner and continuing downstream for about 20 miles. Just to the north of the Tahquamenon flows the storied Two Hearted River where you will find fine fishing for brook trout and rainbows.
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As you approach a new river, keep in mind the habitat that your target species prefers. Smallmouth bass like a hard, rocky bottom with a moderate current. Pike will be found in slower water waiting to ambush prey. Walleyes and catfish like a firm bottom, but with a bit slower current than do the smallmouth bass. All species are cover oriented. Logs, boulders, and aquatic vegetation help hide them from predators and diminish the current they must fight. The cover also allows them to sneak up on or ambush their prey.
Fishing with lures is a good way to find fish and thus determine if you are working good holding water. Spinners, spoons, jigs, and crankbaits attract strikes from all of our river fish. Rock bass are frequently present with smallmouths and walleyes, and always seem to be willing to strike. They will be a good clue that you’re fishing prime water. Once you have found a good stretch, you can switch to live bait if needed. The real thing is especially effective for walleyes and catfish. Michigan DNRE fisheries biologists can be a big help on pinpointing good locations and relating up-to-date river conditions. You can find the proper phone numbers in the Michigan Fishing Guide that you get with your license.