Ask any Michigan angler to start naming Michigan’s best steelhead streams and there’s a good chance he’ll name a dozen—maybe two dozen—before he even thinks about the Huron River in southeast Michigan.
He’ll start with Lake Michigan tribs, touch on a couple from Lake Huron, and even suggest a couple of Lake Superior streams before he gets around to Lake Erie.
There are a couple of reasons for this. Lake Erie isn’t like the others; it’s basically a warm-water fishery (think bass and walleye), not a salmon/trout fishery. And truth is, despite a century of steelhead fishing in the Mitten State, it wasn’t until about 35 years ago that Michigan’s Department of Natural Resources began stocking any of those steroidal rainbow trout into a Lake Erie trib.
But Roger Hinchcliff, who publishes the Steelhead Manifesto blog online, says guys who haven’t considered the Huron River don’t know what they’re missing.
A mortgage banker and devotee of all things steelhead, Hinchcliff considers the Huron his go-to stream, a river he discovered about 15 years ago and fishes two or three days a week—weather permitting—from mid-October to mid-March.
The Huron, which rises in northern Oakland County and flows 130 miles to Lake Erie, supports outstanding bass fishing upstream, mostly smallmouth in the free-flowing stretches and largemouths in the reservoirs, most notably Kent Lake and Belleville Lake. Walleyes, too. But below the dam at Flat Rock—and now, thanks to a fish ladder completed in 1997, upstream from there roughly 16 miles all the way to Belleville Dam—the Huron offers steelhead fishing within an easy drive of half of Michigan’s population.
I met up with Hinchcliff in December for what we hoped would be a day of plug-running from his drift boat, but when we got to the river, it immediately became apparent the conditions called for a change of strategy. It hadn’t rained a drop in more than a week and the current, at the launch ramp, was almost non-existent.
"Never fear" Hinchcliff said; "we’ll fish bobbers."
And that’s how we started, floating slowly downstream, fishing with either jigs and wax worms—which, from what I can tell, is the number one approach for Huron River steelheader's—or spawn bags. But as soon as we hit a stretch with a little current in, out came the plug rods. And within minutes, we were fast into a fish.
Hinchcliff likes to set up with all four plugs the same distance downstream from the boat.
“I call it the Wall of Death,” he said, even though we were letting the fish go. “They’ll go around the plugs if you run them at odd distances. If you do it right you’ll push the fish through the hole and when you get to the last third of the hole, that’s when you’ll get a strike. If it’s an off bite, you force then to bite by backing them down the runs. It’s more of territorial bite than a feeding bite.”
Hinchcliff fishes S-L-O-W-L-Y, inching his 15-foot Stealthcraft drift boat downstream. Over the course of a long day, we never covered more than a mile.
“If the plug goes slow enough through the run, the fish sees it as an invader in its territory,” Hinchcliff said. “If you go down through the run too fast, the fish will see it as a passerby and let it go. But if it’s in their face, that’s when you get that territorial strike.”
We ran wide-wobbling plugs, about three inches long. “Kwikfish and (Yakima) Mag Lips are my two favorite plugs to run,” Hinchcliff said. “If it’s low water, you’re not going to use bigger plugs. You don’t need that. But if the water’s dirty, you need a bigger–profile plug."
The key, Hinchcliff said, is using light enough leaders (eight-pound fluorocarbon) to get the baits down.
“It’s not because the fish are leader shy, it’s all about getting those plugs to dive deep enough,” he said. “The average steelhead is eight inches off bottom 90 percent of the time. It’s important to get the plug down there in their face. Get that plug slow and low. You’re going to get bit.”
While we inched downstream, we also fished bobber rigs, running the bait in between the plugs. (Hinchcliff covers the water thoroughly.) I caught two fish on jigs tipped with wax worms and our fourth of the day came on a spawn bag. Then we hit two fish at the end of the run on plugs, but both got off.
All of our fish came in six to eight feet of water.
“You’d be hard pressed to find 10 feet of water unless the river is up,” Hinchcliff said. “Most of that river is four to eight feet deep.”
Before the day was out, I caught another steelhead on a plug (a chrome and chartreuse Kwikfish, though Hinchcliff prefers white and pink with a black lip) and finished the day with a bright five-pounder that took a spawn bag.
Six for eight. Not bad in a steelhead stream almost nobody’s even heard of.
But Hinchcliff said it was fairly typical; he usually catches four to eight steelies per trip, he said.
And frankly, that’s been my experience on the Huron.
I first started fishing the Huron for steelhead about a decade ago. My first trip was with Scott Zaleski, a local guy who said he fishes the river 25 to 30 days a year. Unlike Hinchcliff, Zaleski likes the water low and clear.
So, of course, the day we fished it was just the opposite. High and roily. But we caught a half dozen fish anyway.
“They’re a little more spooky, when it’s low and clear, but they’re more concentrated, Zaleski said. “They’re in the deepest holes, you know they’re there, and it’s a little bit easier for you to fish for them.”
Zaleski is a bobber guy. He generally puts in a boat—there’s a public launch ramp run by Wayne County where the river crosses Jefferson—and motors back upstream to fish. He likes to stop downstream from a hole, anchor, and get out and wade. Zaleski prefers to fish with jigs and wax worms (though he’s not above running spawn bags, too). He prefers a white marabou jig (1/32nd ounce) with a pink lead head on a four-pound test leader.
“I think that pink jighead might look like a single salmon egg floating downstream,” Zaleski said. “We’ve caught them plenty of times without any wax worms on it, too. But maybe they clomp down on it better when they get a little taste of it."
Joe Robison, a wildlife biologist who runs the nearby Point Moullie Game Area with whom I’ve fished the Huron, is a bobber guy, too.
“All I ever fish is a bobber because that’s all I’ve ever had to do,” said Robison, who said he fishes the Huron about 12 to 15 times a year. “I like to fish a few days after a warm rain, after the water’s cleared up a little bit, but not too clear. I generally just go down below the dam at Flat Rock, but if you put in a boat at the ramp just below Telegraph Road, you can fish a couple of deep holes right there. I recommend fishing out of a boat, just to get away from the pressure.
“On a good day with two of us fishing, we’ll land a dozen to 15 fish,” he said. “A typical day, we’ll catch four or five apiece.”
Not everyone does so well.
“I consider it a success any day I catch one,” said Scott Miller, a charter boat captain from Dearborn, who runs the Kingfisher on Lake Erie for walleyes and fun fishes the Huron.
Miller said he fishes the Huron 15 to 20 days a year and has for a number of years. And though he’ll often run down to the river and fish a hole or two for an hour or so in boots, he prefers to fish by boat.
“The right way to fish the Huron is by boat—there an only a very few places you can safely wade,” he said. “Most places it’s four or five feet deep. If you’re wading and you can only fish one spot and they’re not there, then you’re in trouble.”
(That’s downstream from the dam, of course. Upstream, above the fish ladder, the water’s a lot more easily waded. And there’s excellent access from several Huron-Clinton Metroparks that line the bank. There’s much better gravel in that stretch than downstream, too.)
Like Hinchcliff, Miller prefers running plugs.
“Most of the fish are in the wood and you can’t get down in the wood with bobbers,” he said. “Lots of guys do well with plug fishing. Day in and day out, that’s probably the best way to do it, and that’s how I prefer to fish.”
But unlike Hinchcliff, Miller doesn’t get generally get started until winter.
“The best fishing is from the middle of February to about the 15th of April,” he said. “It’s not that good in the fall.”
Although Zaleski will sometimes drop back plugs, too, when the water’s up, he says running baits like that is a tough proposition because the Huron is so snag-infested. “All you do is lose all your Hot’n Tots, Wiggle Warts and Flatfish,” he said. “I like to watch the bobber go down myself.”
One thing about fishing the Huron River: it is not the Manistee; it has neither the scenery, nor the fish. The DNR stocks about 60,000 a year—that’s up from the 20,000 it stocked when the program first started—but the biologists figure they only get about a 3.5 percent return for their effort. That figures out to be about 2,100 fish. I’ll bet there are single days, during the peak of the run, that that many are caught in the Manistee.
The Huron River will never be one of Michigan’s best-loved steelhead streams; it’s unlikely it will ever support natural reproduction as many of the other lakes' tributaries do. And the river lacks the ambience of just about any northern Michigan stream. But the flip side is there are about five million people within easy driving distance of the Huron River. And with plenty of parks, road crossings, and other access points, there’s no reason a guy can’t fish from the bank and catch steelhead. Lots do.
-Written by Robert Gwizdz