Michigan’s Top Steelhead Spots
Derrek Sigler 05.19.14
The Pacific Northwest features prominently on many anglers’ lists of steelhead dream fishing destinations. But while the steelhead populations out West have varied, the population in Michigan has remained steady and strong for quite some time, making the Great Lake State one of the top destinations for steelhead anglers worldwide.
What makes Michigan a top steelhead destination is the very thing that sets Michigan apart from any other state: the Great Lakes. Steelhead are, in essence, migratory rainbow trout. The fish are born in rivers and migrate out into lakes to grow big on abundant baitfish before they migrate back into their birthplaces to spawn. Unlike salmon, these fish migrate back out to keep eating, growing, and returning. Some fish migrate in during the fall, following the salmon runs, ready to feast on abundant eggs. Other slowly trickle in during winter months, actively feeding all the while. When spring hits, the urge to spawn takes over and the fish do their business of life before dropping back into the lakes. There is a unique summer run of Skamania strain that runs primarily in the late spring and summer months, making for a fishery that is productive almost year-round.
Anglers looking to hit the top Michigan steelhead rivers don’t have to travel far to find them. Steelhead can be found in many of the streams and rivers in the state. There are, however, some spots that are hotter than others.
Big Manistee River
The Big Manistee is 190 miles of premier fishing that has its origins in the northwest Lower Peninsula’s Antrim County. It is often considered one of the best trout fisheries east of the Rocky Mountains. While the upper stretches of the river are packed with awesome populations of trout, the area of the river around Tippy Dam in Wellston in Manistee County is a steelheader’s dream. Huge runs of fish start during the fall and really pick up in the spring months, meaning that there’s plenty of large, accessible fish and a fishery that lasts for months.
With so many accessible areas of the river to fish, narrowing it down to just a few hot spots is almost impossible. Some of the most accessible spots are right at Tippy Dam. It is not uncommon to find anglers shoulder to shoulder during peak times of the season, but anglers can almost always find a decent spot to fish within easy walking distance from their car.
The Muskegon River starts its course toward Lake Michigan in Houghton Lake in the central part of the Lower Peninsula, flowing 216 miles to reach the big lake. It is Michigan’s second-longest river and like other rivers in the state, it has gained notoriety as a top trout, steelhead, and salmon fishery.
Being as big as it is, the Muskegon also boasts a lot of good accessible fishing spots for anglers looking to get into some fish.
Pere Marquette River
The Pere Marquette, or PM, is a blue-ribbon fishery. It is one of the most scenic rivers you’ll find anywhere and it is listed as a National Scenic Waterway. The PM is a destination river for many an angler looking to latch into trout salmon and steelies. Much of the river is designated “flies only.”
Josh Mead, manager of the Pere Marquette River Lodge in Baldwin, Michigan, has fished many rivers in the state and now spends his time guiding and fishing the PM.
“The PM has it all,” he said. For anglers looking to catch steelhead and get the entire experience of fish in close, amazing runs, breathtaking leaps from the water, and, of course, the most scenic river in the state, you can’t beat the PM.”
The Grand River, Michigan’s longest river, flows through the second-largest city of Grand Rapids and has a solid run of steelhead. Fishing for them at the Sixth Street Dam in the city’s downtown area is a good bet for great catches.
“The Grand has really caught on as a fishing hot spot for steelies,” Mead said. “It’s kind of surreal to fish in the midst of buildings, concrete, and city life, but it is a great place to get access to some nice fish.”
St. Joseph River
The St. Joseph, or St. Joe, River starts out in Indiana and empties into southern Lake Michigan. It has a reputation for being a solid trout and steelhead fishery, as well as salmon. Being in the southern part of the state, it boasts one of the earliest steelhead runs in a typical season. Being a short drive from the Chicago area makes the St. Joe a popular destination for out-of-state anglers.
“I grew up fishing the St. Joe and have guided there off and on for years,” said Jay Frolenko, owner of Strike Zone Charters. “The St. Joe has an excellent steelhead run and great early lake fishing action for salmon and steelhead out of the port on Lake Michigan.”
Detroit-area anglers know all about what Mead calls Michigan’s “sleeper” steelhead fishery—the Clinton River in the southeast part of the state. At a short 83 miles long, the Clinton dumps into Lake St. Clair and is a real up-and-coming trout and steelhead fishery.
The north branch of the Clinton River is an area anglers want to look at for steelhead, although access can be limited. Fishermen looking to get on the river can find access at numerous metro parks.
There are many great rivers in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula, but few hold the lore of the Two Hearted in Luce County, near Grand Marais. The short river that feeds into Lake Superior was the background for author Earnest Hemingway’s story, Big Two-Hearted River, which chronicled parts of his childhood.
Besides being very scenic, the Two Hearted offers anglers a challenging fishery for trout and steelhead with a touch of nostalgic class to go with it. Lots of access and national forest land make this a popular destination.
Fishing for Michigan steelhead this year is going to be a fun and exciting challenge. Massive winter snows and lots of spring rain mean that high, fast moving steelhead-harboring water is dirty and full of debris. Conditions like these have made fishing tough, but not insurmountable.
“Fly patterns that work well as stone flies, salmon fry imitators and egg patterns,” Mead said. “”It’s really hard to say in general, but those would be my top three recommendations to have with you.”
Floating spawn and finesse fishing can be a great technique, said Tim Roller, longtime guide and host of Tim Roller’s Whitetail Journey. Crankbaits can also produce a lot of fish, either by casting or back bouncing through holes from a boat.
The massive amount of water flowing downstream has actually helped prolong the season, Mead said.
“I think a lot of spring fish got pushed back out into the lake when the flooding hit,” he said. We’re still seeing a lot of fresh, chrome-colored fish coming in.”
Fallback fishing is another great way to tackle a Michigan steelhead. Hitting the piers at the river mouths with crankbaits, spoons, and large spawn clumps can result in a lot of fish and some amazing action.
“Hitting the fallback bite is a great way to get some action,” Frolenko said. “These fish are aggressive on the bite and while the weights will be down, the fight is amazing.”
One thing is for sure, Michigan has a lot of great steelhead fishing for anglers looking to tie into one of the hardest-fighting fish out there. With abundant streams and rivers holding lots of big fish, the Great Lake State is one of the premier destinations for steelhead fishing anywhere.
This article was produced in partnership with Pure Michigan.