Michigan: Best Rivers for Salmon and Steelhead

Michigan: Best Rivers for Salmon and Steelhead
Photo by Aaron Peterson

It is one of the most iconic inland fishing experiences in North America. Standing knee-deep in the waters of the pursued, casting for mean, tenacious fighting salmonids as they migrate back up the rivers and streams from which they came years ago.

The fish are on a journey borne of instinct, traveling hundreds of miles in some cases to return to the very gravel beds that were their origin.

It's a fall-time tradition.

And Alaska is not the only place that it happens.


Michigan is home to some of the finest salmon and steelhead fishing on the planet and the fall spawning migrations offers angling adventure that can rival those found anywhere.


Access is easy. Fish are abundant. And the fun is there for the taking.

While it's true that overall salmon numbers are down in Michigan, the fall runs are still substantial and you'll encounter more salmon here in a day's fishing when the run is on than you will in many places.

Michigan fishing licenses are a bargain – non-resident annual licenses are just $68. A 72-hour non-resident license is just $30. You can buy them online and print them out at home before heading for the river.

We'll start in the north and work our way south, hitting some of the best waters along the way.


MI-map-salmonrivers

MARY'S RIVER

The St. Mary's is a unique fishery in that it boasts opportunity for shoreline and wading anglers but is perhaps best suited for fishing from a vessel.


The river collects salmon and steelhead from both Lake Huron and Lake Michigan and the fish start showing up in the river as early as mid-July with action picking up steadily with a peak happening somewhere around Labor Day.

The St. Mary's is big water with plenty of current so wading anglers must use caution. Boaters employ trolling tactics with success.

The river features a power dam and the increased flow when the dam discharges can trigger fish activity – so pay attention to the timing.

The St. Mary's is perhaps best known, however, for its excellent Atlantic salmon fishery. This is a year-round fishery that's not necessarily tied to the fall migration.

 Salmon fishing in areas below dams pick up in mid-July and peak around Labor Day weekend. Salmon fishing in areas below dams picks up in mid-July and peak around Labor Day weekend. 

BEAR RIVER

The Bear River isn't one of Michigan's more well known fall salmon and steelhead rivers – and those who fish it probably would like to keep it that way. But it's a fall gem.

The Bear flows into Little Traverse Bay through one of Michigan's most beautiful towns – Petoskey. The fall run includes Chinook and Coho salmon as well as steelhead and some lake-run brown trout as well.

The river isn't overly big, which makes wading easy, though you'll need to do some work to find your own run and avoid the congestion that occurs near town.

Standard river-fishing gear will work: Spinning outfits with long, limber rods. Bouncing spawn on a three-way rig or using a float is a popular method. Fly anglers employ yarn flies and nymphs – tandem rigs can deliver both options at once.

Fly fishermen want to use bright-colored patterns that mimic salmon eggs. Fly fishermen want to use bright-colored patterns that mimic salmon eggs.

MANISTEE RIVER

The Manistee is one of Michigan's premier fall fishers for salmon and steelhead.

Salmon come first. The runs usually start as a trickle in late July and early August – when the water temperatures in Lake Michigan begin to drop and river levels are high, the fish come sooner rather than later. Warm temps in the rivers combined with low water flows will delay the start.

By September, things are really starting to roll.

Chinooks and Coho's alike can be had and later in the fall, steelhead begin to show up in earnest along with a few giant lake-run browns. Perhaps the best thing about the Manistee is its easy access.

The Man runs through millions of acres of public land in the form of State and Federal forests. Parking areas are easily found and trails often lead to the river. Do some exploring and you'll find inviting holes and excellent gravel runs that you can have to yourself.

Baitcasters and spinning rod enthusiasts have great success with salmon eggs. Baitcasters and spinning rod enthusiasts have great success with salmon eggs.

PERE MARQUETTE RIVER

I admit to having a bias in favor of the PM. It's my personal river of choice when chasing fall-run salmonids and I've had some truly amazing days on its waters.

Like the Manistee, the Pere Marquette receives a healthy flow of salmon and steelhead each fall. The PM is Michigan's longest dam-free river and has a wild and scenic beauty that's unmatched. It also flows through millions of acres of public land, which makes finding a spot to fish pretty simple.

If you're new to salmon fishing, consider employing a guide. There are a number of top-notch operations on the Pere Marquette. You'll fish out of a drift boat, which allows you cover plenty of water, see the river in a way few have and find those out-of-the-way holding areas where fishing pressure is light.

The fall steelhead run on the PM can be incredible, but it's pretty dependent on water flow – high water and cool temps seem to bring more steelhead in. If you're not a deer hunter, late October and November can provide the best steelhead fishing of the fall and you'll have the river to yourself.

Smaller tributaries and more remote locations, like the Pere Marquette River, offer awesome opportunities to sight fish for salmon and steelhead in a totally wild environment. Smaller tributaries and more remote locations, like the Pere Marquette River, offer awesome opportunities to sight fish for salmon and steelhead in a totally wild environment.

GRAND RIVER

Flowing into Lake Michigan and passing through Grand Rapids, Michigan's second-largest city, the Grand brings "up north" fishing to southern Michigan.

The dam in Grand Rapids is the first congregating spot for both migrating trout and salmon as well as anglers.

Make no mistake; if you visit the Sixth Street Dam during the fall runs, you'll see plenty of fish and plenty of anglers.

 Tight lines! Here's where a local guide can really help you get on fish and land them. Tight lines! Here's where a local guide can really help you get on fish and land them.

But, thanks to a fish ladder, the salmon and trout don't stop there and you can often find a bit more solitude upstream as well as in feeder tributaries.

The tough part here is access. The Grand does run through some public lands, but it primarily flows through private land (especially the feeder streams). Access from public locations such as road crossings and bridges is possible; just make sure you stay in the river when traversing through areas where the land is privately owned.

At the end of the day, there is nothing like releasing a bright steelhead like this back into its native waters. At the end of the day, there is nothing like releasing a bright steelhead like this back into its native waters.

Great Eats For Anglers

In addition to fine fisheries, Michigan also offers visiting sportsmen a chance to sample the state's fine dining. Here are five must-visit eateries in salmon country.

Grand Traverse Pie Company

The Grand Traverse Pie Company is a Michigan icon. It's known for its excellent pies (hence the name) filled with the fruits that Michiganders love -- cherries, apples and blueberries.

But it also has a full menu of sandwiches and a killer potpie.

The Pie Company has locations in Traverse City and Petoskey.

Come for the angling but stay for the pie. Visiting anglers will love exploring Michigan's great places to eat. Photo Courtesy Great Traverse Pie Company Come for the angling but stay for the pie. Visiting anglers will love exploring Michigan's great places to eat. Photo Courtesy Great Traverse Pie Company

Frenchie's Famous

Located in downtown Traverse City, you'll need to look close to avoid missing this little gem.

Miss it and you'll regret it. Frenchie's is dubbed a "micro" cafe, and it is small. But it's worth the crowds.

You'll find top-notch coffee and breakfast is served all day. The homemade pastrami is worth the visit. Grab a sandwich to go and you'll have one of the best riverside lunches available.

Darrow's

To reach the Upper Peninsula of Michigan, you'll likely need to cross the Mackinac Bridge. The last town you'll pass through in the Lower Peninsula is Mackinaw City. There you will find Darrow's Family Restaurant.

Step inside. Look straight ahead. And you'll see it. The pie shelf.

Dozens of homemade pies await you as well as some top-notch home-style meals.

The hot beef sandwich is my personal choice but the fish and chips are excellent as well.

Prices are more than fair as are the portions. And, of course, there's the pie .

The Antler Bar

Located at the mouth of the Pentwater River, the Antler Bar offers plenty of local beer options and great food. But it's the atmosphere that sits this place apart. With plenty of outdoors-related decor and, of course, antlers everywhere, this is a fun place to sit awhile and contemplate the next river to fish.

The burgers are top-notch and a local favorite.

Beltline Bar

If you're a fan of Mexican food, the Beltline Bar is a must-visit. It's located in the heart of Grand Rapids, so it's not exactly an out-of-the-way location, but its giant, wet burritos are famous around here and worth every minute of rush-hour congestion.

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