Ice & Steel
October 04, 2010
Hopeful of the spring spawning ritual, an army of fall-run steelhead awaits the battle of fin versus fisherman just outside the icy grip of winter on a river near you.
Virtually all of Michigan's steelhead spawn in the spring, but not all of them wait until spring to run up our Great Lakes tributaries. In a few streams, there will be summer-run steelhead that entered their stocked or natal river last summer. A much larger group will migrate upstream in the fall and spend the winter in the river waiting for springtime procreation.
Steelhead remain active all winter despite river water temperatures that are typically in the low 30s. Stronger fall runs tend to occur in the larger, heavily stocked rivers and in the streams that have good natural reproduction of steelhead. River ice can be a concern in some tributaries, but even during cold spells you can still find open water.
At press time, there was no way to know for sure how the steelhead run would be this season, but Jim Dexter, the Michigan Department of Natural Resources' chief Lake Michigan fisheries biologist, told me that there were good numbers of steelhead in the lake and they appeared to be healthy. Charter boat captain Bill Bale echoed Dexter's comments, saying they had encountered many large, deep-bodied steelhead on their forays over the summer.
Our Lower Peninsula provides the best opportunities for winter steelhead. We will make a clockwise swing around the southern half of the state, highlighting the top winter steelhead rivers.
ST. JOSEPH RIVER
Perhaps our best winter steelhead river flows into Lake Michigan in the southwest corner of the state at Benton Harbor. The St. Joseph River is shared with Indiana, and both states stock high numbers of winter steelhead smolts. Indiana also stocks summer steelhead in the river, almost guaranteeing that fish will be present in the winter because many of these fish linger in the Michigan part of the river until spring.
The first dam up from Lake Michigan is located in Berrien Springs, and the reach below this dam is a prime one for winter steelhead. The river is always ice-free below the dam for several miles. While the river is best fished from a boat, there is an area for wading anglers below the dam on the west side of the river. You can launch a boat at Shamrock Park in Berrien Springs or at downstream ramps at Benton Township, Riverview and Corrunde Parks. The lower ramps may be iced over during especially cold weather.
Farther upstream there will also be steelhead present below the Niles and Buchanan Dams in towns of the same name. A boat is still the best plan, but it is possible to do some wading below each dam. If you prefer a smaller river, there are usually some winter steelies in the Dowagiac River. This good-sized tributary joins the mainstream near Niles and a low-head dam on it keeps the steelhead in its lower two miles. You can easily wade the Dowagiac at normal winter flows.
The Kalamazoo River flows into Lake Michigan at Saugatuck and can produce good steelhead fishing in the winter. The focus of its fishery is the Allegan Dam, west of the town of the same name. The dam concentrates the steelhead and ensures open water all winter. There is limited bank-fishing right at the dam, and you can launch a boat just below the dam. Usually there will be several miles of open water below the dam, and fishing the deep holes there is a good plan.
Steelhead are also planted in the Rabbit River, a tributary of the lower Kalamazoo. This small river is prone to freezing, but you might try it in the town of Hamilton after a mild spell. A low-head dam tends to concentrate the fish there.
My home river, the Grand, is heavily planted with steelhead, and several of its tributaries contribute wild fish to the run. Your best bet for winter steelhead is the reach below 6th Street Dam in Grand Rapids. The river stays open here, but anchor ice can be a problem when the weather is frigid and the river hasn't yet frozen over. Floe ice coming over the dam can also make fishing tough. Ironically, once we have had enough cold weather and the river freezes over above the dam, ice becomes much less of a problem down below.
You can wade throughout the mile of rapids below the dam at normal wintertime water levels. Small boats can also be launched on the east side of the river just below the dam. Often steelhead will hold below the rapids in the winter and a boat is really helpful to get at the fish-holding water. There is a boat ramp at Johnson Park, about seven miles below the dam. If you want to motor all the way up to the dam, you need a jet-drive outboard to negotiate the shallow water and four low-head cofferdams.
You will also find fishable numbers of steelhead upstream below the Lyons, Webber, Portland, Grand Ledge, and two Lansing dams. The Rogue River, which enters the Grand just north of Grand Rapids, will often have good numbers of steelhead in February, especially if there has been ample rainfall in the late fall.
Continuing north on the west side we find more prime winter steelhead water. The Muskegon River is heavily stocked with steelhead smolts, and the reach between Croton Dam and Newaygo remains ice-free all winter. The river also remains open well below Newaygo unless we experience very cold weather. This is a broad, western-style river and you can do some wading along the shore. A boat allows you to fish all the water, and there are public launches at Croton, Pine Avenue, Thornapple Avenue and Newaygo. These sites also provide access to wading anglers.
The White River is a favorite of wading anglers. Look for steelhead to be concentrated in the deeper runs and hole in the first five or so miles below Hesperia where a low-head dam halts their migration. A number of bridges provide access. Cold weather can freeze this river, but if you find too much ice you can always head to the nearby Muskegon. The Pere Marquette River receives a wonderful run of wild steelhead and provides one of our more dependable winter fisheries. You can float or wade this river, but no motors are allowed in the upper river. The flies-only reach below M-37 is popular and will have good numbers of fish. The stretch between Upper Branch Bridge and the Rainbow Rapids access site is also a prime one and is least likely to have too much shelf ice during cold spells.
The Manistee River gets a strong run of fall steelhead and is planted with summer steelhead. There is a good bank fishery on both sides of the river just below Tippy Dam, and the Suicide Bend access site about one half-mile below the dam on the northeast side of the river is also a good winter steelhead spot for the angler on foot. Boat anglers can fish the river as far downstream as lack of ice cover allows. The Manistee will always be open and fishable
down to High Bridge Road, and usually there will be open water well below. Success often improves as you go downstream and find less pressured fish. Bear Creek is a major tributary to the lower Manistee. It receives a strong run of wild fish, but sometimes the steelhead don't arrive until the spring, so the winter fishing can be iffy.
Steelhead runs are improving on the Betsie River near Benzonia and should provide good February fishing this winter. The lower river is prone to freezing, but often you can find some open water below the Homestead lamprey barrier and the upper river near County Line Road. The Jordan River is another small northwestern Michigan steelhead river. The best winter fishing here is on the first few miles upstream from its confluence with Lake Charlevoix at East Jordan.
AU SABLE RIVER
Moving across the peninsula to the sunrise side, the lower Au Sable River offers the most dependable winter fishery for anadromous rainbows. This river is heavily stocked with steelhead smolts each year. Foote Dam blocks the fish about 10 miles from Lake Huron, so the steelies are relatively concentrated. A boat allows you to fish the entire lower river and there are launches at the dam and the mouth and on the south side of the river at the Whirlpool access site. Wading anglers can do well near the dam and at several other access sites in the upper part of the steelhead reach.
While there are only a few hundred yards of flowing water below the Ninth Street Dam on the Thunder Bay River in Alpena, the steelhead fishing can be very good when the fish are present. It will only take a short time to find out if you should stay or move on to another river. For anglers preferring small rivers, the Rifle River and the East Branch of the Au Gres receive good runs of steelhead. The problem is that these rivers freeze easily and require a lengthy mild period to be fishable, especially their lower sections, where most of the steelhead will be in the winter.
CLINTON & HURON RIVERS
We complete our winter steelhead circle in southeast Michigan. The two prime rivers are the Clinton and the Huron. On both streams, passable low-head dams focus the winter steelhead action. Flat Rock is the location of a laddered dam on the Huron where steelhead tend to concentrate. This is the best area for bank-fishing and wading. A boat will allow you to move downstream to intercept less pressured fish, but river ice may limit how far you can go. Farther upstream, Bellville Lake Dam halts the migration of steelhead and there is always open water below this barrier.
The best reach for steelhead on the Clinton River is from the town of Utica up to a small dam just upstream from Dequindre Road. The river flows quite quickly here, and in addition to access at the bridges, there is considerable parkland along the river. Nice weather will draw quite a crowd to the access site at Dequindre Road, so try a bridge downstream for more solitude.
There are lots of excellent ice-fishing opportunities in Michigan during this time of year, but if you yearn for some open-water fishing, be sure to try our world-class steelheading. For more information on the areas near the rivers you want to fish, including tackle shops, you can obtain contact information for local chambers of commerce through the Michigan Chamber of Commerce at (517) 371-2100 or www.michamber. com.