Michigan’s steelhead streams are as diverse as America itself with one exception: They are all crowded in the spring. From March through May (and even into June during those years when spring arrives late) it’s almost like you have to take a number to get a good hole.
During the rest of the steelhead season, which typically begins around the third week of October, the crowds are more subdued, but by no means absent. Catch a warming trend in winter—when the only other angling option is drilling holes in the ice—and you’ll have plenty of company on the better-known rivers.
About the only time you can expect to have enough room to yourself to fish how and where you want is in the summer, when there are precious few steelhead around. Oh, there are some summer runs, most notably on the Manistee River or the St. Joseph River, but they are unpredictable.
But that doesn’t mean those steelhead streams won’t produce good fishing; they just won’t produce many steelhead. Actual angling opportunities are myriad and some offer outstanding sport. You’ve just got to think outside the box.
Denny Bouwens shows off a Muskegon River rainbow trout.
Take the Manistee River, for instance. Although it is known as one of the best anadromous streams in the state, it has a lesser-known but excellent fishery a few miles downstream from Tippy Dam. Bass fishing—mostly smallmouths, but some largemouths, too, when you get farther downstream, say, below High Bridge—can be outstanding.
Although I haven’t fished there in a number of years, I’ve had several days when a couple of us boated close to 40 fish, swimming plastic grubs, chunking Rapalas or stripping streamers around the log jams and deadfalls. And very few people know about it. I don’t think I’ve ever seen another boat when we’ve been bass fishing down there.
A similar fishery exists on the Au Sable River below Foote Dam, the farthest downstream dam on what is one of America’s most notable trout streams. A couple of years back, Chris Lessway—who is an outstanding trout guide/fly fisherman—invited me to spend a day below Foote Dam with him and Chad Fath (a sometimes fishing guide) chasing the brown bass. And though we planned to spend the bulk of the day stripping streamers, Lessway noticed a spinning rod with a Rapala tied on it in the back of my truck and suggested I bring that, too.
We met up in early afternoon on a hot, mostly sunny August day and headed downstream throwing streamers on sink-tip lines. Fath, who was fishing with an olive-colored fly, scored almost immediately and put a handful more into the boat in short order.
I was using a large, flashy, white streamer, which Lessway described as his “go-to” fly. The bass were chasing it—I saw fish on almost every cast come take a look—but I wasn’t connecting. After about 45 minutes of seeing, but not catching, fish, I switched to a dark-colored fly and immediately started hooking fish. (Were the bass keying in on crawfish, not minnows? Who knows?) Over the next 90 minutes, I put six in the boat, up to about two pounds, and I missed that many more.
But the heavy rod, sink-tip combination was giving my shoulder some issues. So I picked up a spinning rod and started tossing a No. 11 floating Rapala. The bigger bait drew larger average-sized fish and I put 10 of them in the boat in no time.
“I’ve had guys down here with soft plastic do very well, but usually we fish streamers or popping bugs,” said Lessway, with whom I’ve fished a half dozen times previously, always for trout. “We have a lot of 50- to 60-fish days. Some days more. There are days when it’s slow, too, of course, but I’ve never had a day when I’ve been skunked. And I’ve had clients out there who could barely cast a streamer and they caught fish.”
Lessway and Fath switched spots, Lessway fishing, Fath rowing. I went back to the fly rod and caught a couple more, then switched gears. I put on a large white popping bug and started working close to the sunken trees, which were everywhere. I drew a number of strikes, but failed to hook up.
An Au Sable River smallmouth that took a popping bug.
“Some days you get good action on the popper all day long,” Lessway said. “Other days, it’s best the last hour of the day.”
As the sun sunk below the trees—there are large pines and cedars lining both banks for much of this stretch, shading the river well before sunset—I went back to a popper, this time a chartreuse number. The bass seemed to zero in on it better than they had earlier and I caught a handful of bass over the course of our last hour afloat. Fath, who had again switched places with Lessway and was back to fishing, kept at it with the streamer. He caught fish, too.
I did the mental math. I’d caught 23 over the course of the afternoon. I imagine Fath and Lessway had that many, maybe more, between them, so we were pretty close to a 50-fish day. Not bad, eh?
One of my favorite steelhead streams, the Muskegon River, offers outstanding opportunity in the summer. It’s essentially a warm-water stream (it drains Houghton Lake, which is a classic warm-water fishery) but has become a trout stream because the dam at Croton passes enough cold water to keep the brown trout and rainbows that the Department of Natural Resources plants there happy. By summer, most of the guides who work the Muskegon—and there are plenty—have given up on trout fishing because they are all pretty much catch-and-release oriented and the warm water increases mortality. So they switch to smallmouths, though the trout are still there.
Denny Bouwens with a Muskegon River smallmouth taken on a spinnerbait.
I think this can be best illustrated by a float trip I took on the Muskegon a few years back with Denny Bouwens, an all-around river fishing guide, and his son, during the heat of the summer. We were largely bass fishing and doing well, catching mostly smallmouths (but some largemouths, too) on spinnerbaits, jigs with soft-plastic trailers and plugs. But late that afternoon—in short-sleeve weather with the sun beating down—something slammed the Rapala I was jerking that definitely wasn’t a bass. It was a dandy rainbow trout in the three-pound range. It was one of two nice rainbow trout we caught that day to go with 20 or 30 bass.
It wasn’t the only time I’ve been surprised by trout in the Muskegon. I remember a day, some twenty years ago, when I was drifting downstream for Newaygo, throwing crankbaits, looking for smallmouths, but wound up catching a handful of small—but still delightful—trout, mostly browns.
My old buddy John Hojnacki, who made his name as a steelhead angler, is also tuned into the bass.
“In the summer on the lower river with three guys in the boat you can catch 100 smallmouths a day if you put your mind to it,” he said. “And there are more and more largemouths there, too.”
Don Graham, who is as about as hard-core about fly fishing as anyone I know and guides on Muskegon River regularly, says he makes the change from trout to bass in early summer, based on the water temperature.
“When that water warms up it’s just too tough on the trout, so we go after the bass,” said Graham, who is a pretty doctrinaire catch-and-release angler. “When the water gets to 55 degrees, the bass fishing picks up and I like to leave the trout alone. You can find trout when the water’s warm because they are in some of those springs and seeps, in that colder water, but we just leave them alone.”
Graham said he makes the transition from trout to bass at the end of June or the first week of July, but that doesn’t mean he doesn’t catch the occasional trout while bass fishing. Or vice versa.
“One day we were fishing for trout with steamers when I saw something take something on the surface,” he said. “It was near the bank over a bunch of logs, so I told my guys to throw those streamers over there and see what it was. It was a smallmouth bass and we fished it for a while and caught quite a few bass out of those logs.”
Anglers who want to try to catch both should concentrate upstream of Newaygo, Graham said, but once he makes the switch to bass fishing, he goes downstream of Newaygo. He’ll fish for smallmouths from around Independence Day until late September—when he switches over to salmon—though there are exceptions to every rule.
“Usually by the end of October, the salmon are done,” Graham said. “But you never know; it depends on the year. A couple of years ago I was bass fishing, drifting downstream looking for salmon, when I hooked this fish, and I said to myself ‘that’s a good bass,’ and all of a sudden this steelhead comes out of the water. I hadn’t even seen a salmon yet.”
And bass aren’t the only warm-water denizens in the Muskegon. I’ve caught a handful of walleyes (including some whoppers) there, over the years, usually while steelhead fishing in March and April, but I’m told the guys who target them catch them in the summer, too.
Hojnacki says the walleye fishery is not as seasonal as some think.
“Walleye fishing is fabulous if you know what you’re doing,” Hojo says. “Most of the year most of the walleyes are in the Muskegon Lake out in 40 to 60 feet of water, but they’re all up and down the river, too. Once you get to Bridgeton on down, you encounter hard-core walleye guys who fish them year-around.”
Hojnacki says one technique he knows produces is rigging with a three-way swivel with a heavyweight on the dropper and a Rapala on the business end. You walk the sinker downstream—just as you would if you were walking spawn downstream for salmon or steelhead—through the deep holes. But that’s not his preferred method.
“You can troll upriver slowly and catch them in the summer, middle of the day, tubers bouncing off of your boat, trolling slowly, barely moving, with little small body baits. I like Shad Raps a lot. You want to turn a lot so the baits dive deeper. I remember one day in the summer, middle of the day, sun shining, I had four rods out and three of them went off at the same time, all with keeper walleyes. It doesn’t happen every day, but they’re out there. But hardly anyone does it.”
Another stream that fishes a lot like the Muskegon—though you’ll never catch a trout there in the summer, except for the occasional Skamania—is the St. Joseph River, which boasts a whole roster of warm-water fish: pike, bass, walleye, you name it. The local bass clubbers hold tournaments all summer and the smallmouth catches are noteworthy.
But what really sets the St. Joe apart is the excellent catfishing.
Though I haven’t been in several years, I’ve ventured out to the Joe a handful of times with catfish on my mind, both channel cats and flatheads.
I’ve often chased cats with Bob Warner—with whom I’ve fished a bunch of times for steelies and walleyes—usually during the hottest weather of the year. Warner likes to go out in the early evening, catching mostly channel cats until dark, when the flatheads start.
The last time I fished with Warner I was with my buddy Tom Goniea and his girlfriend Karen Bertrand. We were catching channel cats—up to about four pounds—until right before dark when Bertrand sunk the hook into something that was clearly bigger. Fifteen minutes later, Warner slid the landing net under what we’d come looking for—a monster flathead. It measured 43 inches and weighed 33 pounds.
Warner says he’s been fishing for catfish “forever,” and though he catches plenty of channel cats, he’s made a name for himself catching giant flatheads. The biggest he’s ever weighed was 47 pounds, he said, though he had one that bottomed out his 50-pound scale. He starts fishing for channel catfish in May and begins targeting flatheads in June, though they often don’t start biting well until the end of July.
“All I know about it is they don’t get to biting until they’re through spawning,” he said. “Then they strap in the feed bag.”
We fished until about 10:30 that night, with three-way rigs, with an ounce or two of weight on a dropper and a chunk of cut bait on a circle hook. We wound up with six channel cats to go with the flathead, two of which weighed well in excess of 10 pounds.
None of these warm-water fish will ever replace steelhead as the go-to species on Michigan’s steelhead streams. But when the ‘heads aren’t there, they offer a viable option to not going at all.
- written by Bob Gwizdz