October 04, 2010
The hills of California may be full of gold, but these Michigan streams are full of silver -- silver in the form of summer steelhead and Chinook salmon, that is. Here's how to cash in! (July 2010)
The author hefts his silvery reward for a hard-fought battle on Pipestone Creek.
Photo by Jim Bedford.
For the first 20 or so years after salmon were introduced into the Great Lakes, anglers needed a large boat to catch them in the summer. But, through stocking and natural reproduction, that has changed. Now the angler on foot can tangle with Chinook salmon and summer steelhead in a number of Lake Michigan tributaries.
When Michigan first embarked on its Chinook salmon stocking program in the late 1960s the state went looking for a strain that would provide an open-lake fishery. Because of their availability and their tendency to stay in the ocean until they were almost ready to spawn, the "toolie" strain from Oregon was chosen for introduction. Of course, as western anglers already knew, that made the salmon relatively poor sportfish in our tributary streams.
However, in subsequent years, Chinook strayed into other streams and successfully reproduced. Slowly, after several generations of naturally reproduced salmon, a "Michigan strain" of Chinook salmon started emerging. In our cool northern tributaries these salmon kept returning earlier and earlier and many were bright silver as they began their river migration. I would speculate that the smolt from earlier spawners enjoyed a competitive advantage because the main runs of wild kings certainly migrate much sooner now than did their original ancestors. These king salmon begin running our northern rivers in July, with fishable numbers almost always available by mid-August if not sooner.
The Little Manistee River near Wellston receives the earliest run of Chinook salmon and is our only stream where you can count on fishable numbers of salmon in July. The river is planted with Chinook salmon and has a harvest weir where the Michigan Department of Natural Resources and Environment traps salmon to take their eggs and milt for the hatchery. But it also receives a strong run of wild kings. Because they close the weir at the end of August, the wild salmon needed to get upstream before then, and that is why there is a strong early run there. The best reach to intercept summer-run Chinook is between the harvest weir and Nine Mile Bridge. You can access the river from many points on the north side of the river where there is public land, as well as at Six Mile Bridge. This is a small, very clear stream and so a stealthy upstream approach is key to success.
Probably our premier river for wild Chinook salmon is the storied Pere Marquette. Salmon have never been stocked there but an excellent run has developed from the first fish that strayed into this beautiful stream. The lower sections of the Pere Marquette are the best places to intercept the migrating salmon in the summer. You can count on the salmon to be fresh, aggressive strikers, and super feisty between the point where the river enters Pere Marquette Lake and the town of Custer. You can wade some of the water, but floating is a better plan. The Big South Branch of the Pere Marquette joins the main stream about a mile up from Custer; above that juncture the river becomes more wader friendly.
The water gets a bit cooler as you move upstream. You can find good early Chinook fishing between Walhalla and Upper Branch Bridge. The Big South also gets a strong run of wild Chinook and receives much less fishing pressure than the main river.
Depending on the weather, the Manistee River can be a hotspot for Chinook in August. It can run a bit warm because of its impoundments, but if regulators are successful at cooling the water below its dams with bubblers that bring up cooler water from the depths to the turbine intakes, there will be good numbers of Chinook in August. It would help if we have another cool summer like last year. A boat is your best bet for the lower river, with several launch sites available. Waders can get around well below Tippy Dam. You will find more information on this river later when we switch to talking about summer steelhead.
Bear Creek is a tributary to the lower Manistee River and receives an excellent run of wild Chinook. Fish headed to this stream tend to stay in the main river until the end of August, but you'd never know. Last July I was trout fishing in lower Bear Creek when a bright silver king grabbed my stick bait. It toyed with me for a few moments and then proved my trout tackle was inadequate by making a long run into a logjam and breaking off. Lots of road crossings provide access to the stream.
Just a few miles to the north, the Betsie River hosts a great run of wild king salmon. While classified as a marginal trout stream, it obviously has great spawning habitat for Chinooks. The lower river, between the Homstead lamprey barrier and Betsie Bay, is the place to intercept fresh Chinook in the summer. There are public access sites at the barrier and at each of the next three bridges downstream. The river is very wadeable in the summer, but you can float the lower river.
Summer-run Skamania strain steelhead are only stocked in two Michigan rivers and both are tributaries to Lake Michigan. The highest numbers are stocked in the St. Joseph River at the southern end of the lake. Michigan shares this tributary with Indiana and it is our neighboring state that stocks the river. We actually trade fertilized eggs from our Little Manistee strain of winter steelhead with Indiana for summer steelhead eggs. All of Michigan's summer steelhead smolt are stocked in the Manistee River.
Summer steelhead move into the tributary streams starting in late June and continue through September. Cool, rainy weather is the main trigger for these fish to run in July and August. Often the water temperature is too warm in the St. Joe and Manistee Rivers for these fish to run in midsummer. That is especially true for the St. Joe where the water temperature can be in the upper 70s to low 80s when it merges with Lake Michigan. That is too warm for summer steelhead and so they will not run. You can look for fish to move upstream when a cold front drops the river temperature to 72 degrees or lower.
Skamania steelhead do not home to their planted tributaries very well, and often stray to other nearby streams. Colder water is always a draw in the summer and often attracts them to a non-stocked stream. After summer steelhead enter the St. Joseph River they often seek out cold feeder creeks and springs. A thermometer is an important tool when looking for summer steelhead. These fish can survive water temperatures in the upper 70s for a short time, and in the low to mid-70s for a fairly extended length of time. But summer steelhead much prefer water temperature in the 50s and low 60s. It is possible, but difficult, to catch them when the water temperature rises above 70, and almost impossible to succe
ssfully release them.
So a good plan during warm weather is to seek out colder water where the fish will be more likely to strike and will survive if you choose to release them. The steelhead will fight better in the cooler water as well, and the awesome leaps of these fish are something to behold. It is pretty easy to get excited about summer steelhead when you find yourself looking up at a 10-pound slab of silver while standing thigh-deep in a cool stream. Usually cold showers are not desirable, but when they are caused by the splashdown of a big steelie on a warm day, they are very welcome.
If the water temperature in the St. Joe is at or below 70 degrees, you can look for fish to be most concentrated in the first mile or so below the Berrien Springs Dam. You can wade along the west shore of the river there and reach the rest of the river via a boat by launching at the ramp less than a mile below the dam. Fish should be concentrated below the next two dams at Buchanan and Niles. You can wade or launch a boat.
When the water is above 70 in the St. Joe, you might try the South Branch of the Galien River in the reaches above and below US-12 just north of the Indiana line. The Paw Paw River and Hickory Creek flow into the St. Joe just before it empties into Lake Michigan. Because they will be cooler than the main river, they should attract some steelhead.
A number of small, cold creeks join the St. Joseph between Lake Michigan and the Berrien Springs. Most are too small to fish but attract steelhead to their mouths during warm spells. An exception is Pipestone Creek, which joins the big river about six river miles up from the lake and is large enough to wade and fish.
The prime cold tributary to the St. Joe is the Dowagiac River just north of Niles. It is a good-sized stream that also contains good numbers of resident brown trout, and so you know it will be cold enough to attract steelhead. The fishing is limited to the first three miles or so because a low-head dam stops migration.
The Manistee River doesn't get as warm as the St. Joe but it likely will be warmer than ideal. As mentioned earlier, work is being done to cool it down. The prime reach for summer steelhead is the first mile or so below Tippy. There are access sites on both sides of the river at the dam and just downstream from it, as well as a boat ramp on the north side.
Summer steelhead stack up below the confluence of Pine Creek and the main stream when the river is running on the warm side. This small, very cold tributary joins the Manistee from the south about four miles west of High Bridge. A national forest campground provides access for anglers on foot and you can launch a boat at High Bridge.
Sometimes the steelhead swim up into the lower reaches of Pine Creek and it can be very exciting battling the acrobats in tight quarters. The Pere Marquette River gets a modest run of wild summer steelhead and they usually will be present earlier than the Chinook. They are not really present in large enough numbers to target, but an encounter can really spice up the action when fishing for early-run kings.
Both steelhead and Chinook are very cover oriented when they enter the tributary rivers. Chinook especially like slow, deep holes with lots of logs and other woody cover. You can find steelhead in similar water but they like a bit faster flow and have a special affinity for deep riffles. The choppy surface helps hide them and they are usually quite aggressive when holding in the faster water.
In situations where both species are present, big schools of salmon often cause the summer steelhead to vacate the "crowd' in the deep hole and move to faster, shallower lies.
Invading the space of these migrants with lures is a good way to get hooked up. Even though the steelhead aren't actively feeding and the Chinook can no longer swallow and digest food, salmon eggs tied in large bags or cured in the skein will catch lots of fish. But I think lures are a lot more fun and definitely less messy.