Grand River Steelhead by Bob Gwizdz

Grand River Steelhead by Bob Gwizdz

It was cold on that early December day, in the 20s, and the water temperature couldn’t have been much warmer. But the advantage to fishing in nasty weather below the dam on the Grand River in Grand Rapids is that you don’t have the competition that you get on a nice day.

I was fishing with Department of Natural Resources fisheries biologist Tom Goniea at what I believe to be one of the premier urban fisheries anywhere in America. We waded, carefully, across the river to the edge of a hole and started casting crankbaits across the current and retrieving them slowly as they swept downstream.

It took only minutes before Goniea was fast into a fish.

He fought it for a few minutes, maneuvered it towards his feet, and when it came close, I slipped the landing net under a six-pound steelhead. We were in the plus column.

steelhead grand river michigan

Not too many minutes later, Goniea’s parrot-colored Hot ’N Tot found another willing steelhead. He brought it to net.

Goniea, 36, has been fishing at Grand Rapids since 1998, when, as an undergrad at Michigan State, he was invited by a fellow student.

“The very first cast I had a fish on,” he said. “I lost it. My buddy hooked and landed a fish, then I hooked and landed a fish. We landed two fish apiece in what amounted to 10 casts total. The fish ran big that year, too—they were averaging nine or 10 pounds.”

He’s been hooked on the Grand River ever since.

We moved to another hole. I hadn’t had any success with a chrome, blue-back Hot ‘N Tot, so Goniea suggested I try something else. I tied on a red Willy’s Worm (baits that I believe are no longer available, sadly) and I had a strike, but failed to connect.

Goniea put on a similar bait in a different color and missed a strike, too.

“The Willy’s Worms runs deeper and slower,” Goniea said. “The hooks on the Willie Worms are thicker—you really have to drive them into the fish. The hooks on the Hot ’N Tots are smaller—they pierce better.”

We moved a little downstream—still in the same hole—and went back to the Hot “N Tots. I immediately hooked up and landed a steelhead, a chrome hen. A short while later, I caught another.


Goniea is all about plugs for steelhead, but he doesn't start fishing the Grand until the weather gets good and cold.

“In the early fall the fish are there, but they don’t seem to be readily interested in plugs,” he said. “But there comes a time period where three to 10-fish days on plugs can be had."steelhead crankbait fishing plugs

We moved to a third hole and Goniea smacked another fish; that made five between us. One more and we’d have a limit (though we weren’t keeping them all, anyway).

“I usually keep one,” Goniea said. “I don’t care to freeze fish so I usually only keep what I can eat fresh.”

We plied the hole thoroughly but couldn’t coax another bite. The next hole was quite a ways downstream, Goniea said, and involved a tricky wade. Goniea told me he could no longer feel his toes and perhaps we should call it. I agreed. (Fact is, I had on lightweight waders and had lost contact with my feet a while earlier—I just didn’t want to sissy out on my host.)

“If it wasn’t for the fact that you’re catching fish, you’d be miserable standing out here. I’ve never been able to figure out how to go fishing in the winter and last more than 2 ½ hours in the river.”

Two and half hours was plenty.

We’d gone five for seven on rainbow trout—all better than five pounds—on a freezing day in a metropolitan area of about a million people. That in itself would be almost unbelievable to most anglers most places in America.

And it wasn’t my best experience on the Grand, which I’ve been fishing for about a quarter century now.

I remember an early spring day some years back; it was raining when we started, steady but not too hard, when the situation turned decidedly south. The clouds poured water on us like it was coming out of a bucket. In no time, we were soaked, despite hunkering down in our foul-weather gear. There was water up above the vinyl floor boards of Ric Heller's aluminum jet boat.

But inclement weather be danged. Heller never even considered leaving. That’s because, rain or not, the water conditions on the Grand River were just like Heller likes them, he said.

"As soon as you get that first big (snow) melt and the water comes up and crests, then starts falling, that's when the fishing's the best. We're here about the perfect time."

It was slow for the first couple of hours that morning.

Fritz Heller, Ric's big brother, caught a dark male steelhead. About 30 minutes later, Ric caught his twin. But about 10 o'clock—about the time the sun poked out of the clouds—things started to change. We started getting bites a lot more often and the fish—the ones we managed to get out of the river and into the net—were shiny and bright.

heller fishing grand river michigan

"We've got fresh fish moving through," Heller said, as one of us either hooked, or missed, a fish on nearly every drift as sat we anchored below the dam in Michigan’s second-largest city.

"Either all that water brought them in from the lake or they were staging in the holes down river and started moving through in pods."

That seemed to be how it played out for the four of us in the boat, including Fritz's buddy Todd Dubord. We were fishing three at a time, taking turns taking a break. We hit fish consistently for 45 minutes or an hour before it would slow for a stretch, then we'd start hitting fish again.

By 4 o'clock, when we called it a day, we'd boated 22 steelhead (as well as four walleyes and a sucker, all of which were released, by the way) and there's no telling how many we missed.

Fishing was, in a word, excellent.

"The Grand (River), in my opinion, is one of the best fisheries in the state," Ric said. "You have a lot of great tributaries up above—the Rogue, the Flat, Prairie Creek—and all the fish have to come through Sixth Street (dam) to get there. If you add up all the plants from those rivers, plus the fish they plant in the Grand, you come up with incredible numbers."

Not that incredible, really, fewer than several other rivers. But DNR fisheries chief Jim Dexter said stocking more isn’t necessary because there seems to be a fair amount of natural reproduction in some of the Grand’s tribs. 

“A lot of those tributaries are cold water, especially on the north bank of the river,” Dexter said. “A stream like Prairie Creek is a pretty good-sized stream. It’s probably producing 10,000 or 15,000 fish. So if you add in all those tributaries there’s probably about 100,000 smolts coming out between the stocked and naturally produced fish.” 

But the number of fish isn’t the whole story.

Because the Grand is a large river with some wadable stretches (as well as some bank fishing opportunities) below the dam, the Grand lends itself to a wide variety of techniques. 

"This fishery allows people to fish in any manner they want," Heller said. "If they want to bobber fish, there are places to bobber fish. If you want to pull plugs, there are places where you can pulls plugs. And if you want to bounce bottom . . . that's how I grew up fishing. I learned on the Betsie from my dad and that's my preferred method. I have a lot of confidence in it. You're getting down to the fish and you've got it in front of their face. To me, it's the most effective method."

That's how we did it, using yarn on spinning gear.

Yarn outperforms chunks of spawn because it stays on the hook better, Heller said. He generally uses two colors of yarn—he carries 22 colors in his box—for his fly, using a smaller tuft of yarn to form an "eye" when he ties up.

yarn ball fishing steelheadThere was fair amount of boat traffic the day we fished and we saw anglers tossing plugs and spinners, using bobbers and bouncing bottom. Although none seemed to be ringing them up the way we were—maybe we just had the best spot?—virtually all techniques will work at one time or another.

John Hesse, a hard-core spinner fisherman from Clinton County, who has fished for steelhead all over the state, considers the Grand River his home water.

“I don’t know of a more productive fishing area anywhere than downtown Grand Rapids,” he said.

Hesse uses a No. 4 spinner when fishing for steelhead and generally wades downstream, casting in front of him but at a sight angle from perpendicular.

“I use the lightest spinners I can use that will flutter through the holding spots but still be somewhere near the bottom,” he explained. “Ninety-plus percent of my strikes come on the downstream sweep.”

Hesse says most of the time the steelhead smash the bait, but occasionally, when the fish are heading upstream, they just sort of suck it in and knock slack in the line. “That’s when you know when to set the hook,” he said.

Denny Bouwens, who guides anglers on a handful of rivers, says there are so many places to fish with so many different techniques it would take a book to scratch the surface.

“When you think of the Grand, 95 percent of steelhead and salmon fishermen think about Sixth Street, the “Miracle Mil” from the dam down, but there is so much water to fish—there are bottlenecks, there are cuts, there’s holes, there’s a lot of old wing dams in that river,” Bouwens said.” The thing you want to do when you fish the Grand is eliminate water. You can’t be afraid to cover a lot of water.”

Bouwens says he likes fishing the river in November, when most guys are sitting on their deer stands.

He often launches at Johnson Park, which is about seven miles downstream from Sixth Street. But as winter progresses and when the weather gets tough, access becomes an issue.

“When the ramps are all frozen up, that pretty much limits you to Sixth Street,” Bouwens said. “You can actually back an 18-foot jet sled down there at the dam and launch.” 

Bouwens says he prefers to walk spawn simply because it covers so much water, But he also runs plugs and sometimes does both at the same time.

“You can stick on a plug and set it in the rod holder on one side of the boat and walk spawn on the other side of the boat and you can catch them on both—I’ve done it—caught doubles, one on a plug one on spawn. But spawn is my go-to bait on that river.

“I like to fish a dime- or quarter-sized bag, but if I’ve got fresh skein, I like walking a chunk of that. Fresh skein is hard to beat. But I’ve had good fishing on bobbers and jigs and wax worms, too, in deep water. There are a lot of things that work on that river, low water or high water—you just have to try everything until you hit on what’s going to work,” he concluded.

So let’s get this straight:

Here’s a river with a good run of fish, with lots of productive water, that’s easily accessible to waders, boaters and bank anglers, and produces action on just about every technique known to man.

I’d say that’s rather Grand, wouldn’t you?

- written by Robert Gwizdz


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