May 24, 2021
The Pere Marquette River was my savior. I had just moved back to Indiana after spending four years living in Montana and Colorado. Fly fishing for trout had become my greatest passion. Returning to the Midwest, I feared, would end regular opportunities to chase salmonids. Then I met Kevin Morlock and learned about the Pere Marquette, and all my fears disappeared.
I met Kevin during an open house at FlyMasters in Indianapolis where he had a table set up to promote his outfitting business, Indigo Guide Service (231-613-5099; indigoguideservice.com). He began showing me pictures of Pere Marquette steelhead, salmon and brown trout. Having grown up on the south shore of Lake Michigan, I knew a little about steelhead but had never pursued them in my youth. A guy with a golf-loving, non-fishing, non-hunting father could only squeeze in so many self-taught experiences.
A couple weeks after our chance encounter, I was in the bow of Kevin's drift boat hooked up with my first-ever spring steelhead.
The fish's acrobatic displays and hard-charging strength was like nothing I had ever experienced before. It was hard to accept that I had overlooked these fish for so long, but now I had found the Pere Marquette, and my addiction to spring steelhead was instant.
A PRISTINE PARADISE
The Pere Marquette River, regularly referred to as the "PM," is one of the premier steelhead fishing destinations in the Great Lakes region. It's also the longest free-flowing, undammed river in Michigan and an incredible brown trout and king salmon fishery. It's fairly unique because it doesn't receive supplemental stockings of steelhead.
The main branch of the PM runs uninterrupted for 70 miles through the west-central portion of the state. From its origin at the confluence of the Middle and Little South branches, the Pere Marquette River rolls along through wooded hills and lowlands until completing its journey at Pere Marquette Lake in Ludington.
"The PM is special for two reasons," Morlock says. "First, it has a large and dependable run of fish. If you plan a trip at the right time of year, like April, there will be steelhead. Second, it's the perfect steelhead stream, with a twisting and turning course through a beautiful forest with few houses or manmade development."
He adds that some days it can seem like you have the river to yourself—or, at the very least, a little part of it—even during the busiest times.
"It's a feel you just don't have on the larger rivers, with big motor boats continually racing around and other boats always fishing within sight," he says.
History has been kind to this gem, keeping her free-flowing and full of naturally reproducing fish. One of the PM's greatest claims to fame is being recognized as the first river in North America to be stocked with brown trout. Today, brown trout are found in all stretches of the Pere Marquette; however, the specially designated flies-only, catch-and-release section from M-37 downstream to Gleason's Landing is regarded as the best trout water. These days, steelhead are a big draw to the PM, and April is primetime. They'll leave the river by the end of May and won't be back until fall.
"The spawn is on in April," Morlock says. "Steelhead are racing up from Lake Michigan and hitting the gravels. If sight-fishing to spawners isn't your thing, then you simply need to target deeper water for both pre- and post-spawn fish. April is a great time to be in Michigan, with cool mornings that warm into perfect spring days."
Techniques for catching steelhead vary greatly. Fly fishermen find success swinging flies down and across the current and stripping flashy streamers. A general rule with flies is, unless sight-fishing to shallow cruisers, you must get your fly slightly above the depth of fish. Sometimes fish will want presentations just above the bottom; other times, they'll be aggressive in the middle.
Larger flies tied in leech or Bugger patterns generally do well. Flies imitating early-spring stoneflies or other active insects also produce. On the baitfish imitation side of things, Clouser Minnows and other flashy streamers can trigger aggressive fish. A sink-tip or full-sinking fly line helps get presentations down; split shot will drag down a floating line.
Conventional anglers have plenty of options, too. Spoons, spinners, jigs and stick baits all work. Change up your patterns, retrieve speeds and depths until you find what works. I like fishing from the bottom up unless it's obvious fish are on their gravel spawning areas. Counting down your presentations helps establish a pattern of probing different depths.
Live bait and spawn work as well. Be sure to check local fishing regulations when using live bait to know what's legal on the stretch of water you're fishing.
When in doubt about what to fish, Morlock offers a single piece of advice.
"Always remember the classic saying: ‘You can fish anything you want for steelhead, as long as it's an egg.'"
In truth, many baits will work, but an egg or egg pattern has always been a reliable producer.
WADE OR FLOAT?
The Pere Marquette is not a big, heavily-boated river. Most of the PM offers a firm bottom in fairly shallow water, which makes wade-fishing a fun and effective means of covering a lot of the river. Wading allows you to keep a lower profile than fishing from a boat—an advantage in low and clear water.
There are many access areas along the upper PM, with trails to public water. The most famous of these would be the flies-only waters near Baldwin. There is also the Maple Leaf parking area near Walhalla. The lower PM gets deeper and softer with fewer good places to wade.
You don't need a boat to fish the PM, and you can't run much more than a canoe, raft or drift boat in the upper stretches. Yet, if you want to fish from a boat, it can have certain advantages.
A boat offers you access to the entire river and the ability to fish spots that might be too deep or have an unsuitable bottom for wading. A boat also provides a higher line of sight for spotting fishy places—or fish themselves. When the river is ripping with high water and is unsuitable for wading, a boat allows you to fish from an anchored position or while drifting.
Steelhead demand tough equipment, and Morlock stresses the importance of arriving with the right gear and some fighting know-how. He's learned that many anglers don't understand how to fight big fish with light gear in a river. Often, he says, they wrongly assume that by simply keeping pressure on the fish, they'll cause it to expend energy and eventually tire out. In reality, this just isn't the case.
After the first minute or so of the fight, many steelhead will settle down, often downstream of your position. They'll find the spot of least resistance and set up for the long haul. In effect, the angler is just holding them in the current. You need to move them, and this takes a rod with enough backbone to do so.
Morlock offers several tricks to fight and land fish quickly, which is crucial if you intend to release them—a requirement in certain river stretches. His first piece of advice is to move downstream with the fish when possible. This makes it impossible for them to rest on the line. The next, he says, is to alter the rod angle and pressure, which keeps fish off balance and forces them to fight harder. His final suggestion is to fight fish with a high rod and land them with a low rod.
"When the fish is really fighting, a high rod will pull its head up and keep it off balance, similar to someone pushing on your shoulder," Morlock says. "When the fish slows, you can drop your rod tip to the water and glide the fish smoothly toward you. Then at the last second, raise the rod and sweep the fish into the net. When [you fight] properly, it is surprising how quickly you can land a big fish."
STEELHEAD ADVENTURE AWAITS
The Pere Marquette River is a timeless destination. It's pure Michigan with its sandy bottom, clear water and the mix of pines and hardwoods beyond its river banks. The towns of Ludington and Baldwin have all the amenities a traveling angler could possibly need, and the whole region is just enjoyable to visit. The PM is a must-fish destination for any angler who wants to tangle with strong and attractive steelhead in a beautiful environment.
SEARCH FOR STEEL
Other top Midwest steelhead rivers.
BIG, BAD MANISTEE
- After fishing the PM, head 30 miles north to the Big Manistee River. Access sites are prevalent, but one top spot to try and land a steelhead is below Tippy Dam.
BOIS BRULE BRUTES
- A Wisconsin DNR report showed 77 percent of all steelhead sampled from the Bois Brule River's 2019–2020 run ranged from 20 to 25 inches long, weighed from 3 to 5 pounds and were 4 to 5 years old. Only 6 percent were over 26 inches.
HIT THE TRAIL
- Trail Creek is a small water that dumps into the "Big Lake" at Michigan City, Ind. There are several public-access sites along the creek. A $45 annual membership to Friendship Botanic Gardens buys you access to private water.
- It's hard to pick one river in Ohio's "Steelhead Alley" and say that is where to fish, but Grand River should not disappoint. With more than 50 miles of fishable water, the Grand gives anglers room to spread out.
THE KNIFE'S EDGE
- Starting on the North Shore of Lake Superior, Minnesota's Knife River has 70 miles of accessible steelhead water. With two sets of falls, the fish have to work to reach the upper stretches, but many do. Look for steelhead to enter the river when water temperatures push past 40 degrees.