Each autumn, as the leaves begin to tint and turn, Chinook salmon—also known as kings because of their great size—leave Lake Michigan by the tens of thousands in search of natal rivers all along Michigan’s west coast.
Within weeks the fish will spawn and die, but until then they provide some of the best fishing of the year for inland Great Lakes anglers. And adding to the fishing bonanza in those same streams are steelhead, lake-run rainbow trout known as “steelies” or silver bullets.
Guiding anglers to both salmon and steelhead on Michigan’s Muskegon River is a longtime fishing guide Jay Allen. Based in Newaygo, Michigan, Allen estimates that he’s on the water with clients about 150 days per year, and has been doing so for the past 20 years. The only time of year he’s not fishing the Muskegon is two months each summer when he’s guiding backcountry trout fishermen in Wyoming.
“I don’t guide on any other Michigan rivers, mainly because the Muskegon is so productive,” said Allen. “It is also the second-longest river in Michigan, the Grand River being the longest. The Muskegon begins at Houghton Lake and flows 216 miles to Lake Michigan; most of it good salmon and steelhead habitat.”
Allen guides from a flat-bottomed, 17-foot aluminum jet-sled boat with a 65-horsepower Yamaha jet-drive outboard attached. If you’re unfamiliar with jet-drives, they have no propeller. Rather, water is forced through the engine’s lower unit which propels the boat forward, much like a jet airplane operates as compared to a prop plane. Allen says that jet-drive outboards typically produce about 30 percent less power than similar sized prop-driven outboards. The advantage of a jet-drive, however, is that it allows him to navigate and fish shallower water without the worry of banging a standard outboard’s lower unit on a rock or other obstruction.
Mainly a fly-fishing guide, Allen provides Orvis, Sage, or Scott fly rods and reels for his clients’ use. If clients want to bring their own rod(s) so much the better. Allen suggests an eight-weight rod, measuring about 11 feet in length. To the main line of his flyrods he ties a 12-foot leader of 15-pound test, adding a 10-pound tippet.
As to terminal tackle for fall salmon and steelhead, Allen likes a single, bare #8 Gamakatsu egg-hook with a single plastic trout bead threaded on the line immediately above the hook, the bead color anywhere from pale to bright orange, mimicking a salmon egg. About 18 inches above the hook he ties a six-inch dropper line, to which he then attaches anywhere from one to four small split-shot, depending upon the depth of water he wants clients targeting.
If you’re a spin fisherman rather than a fly-rodder, no problem; Allen says those anglers usually use the same type of terminal tackle for salmon and steelhead. Early in the season—and sometimes early and late in the day later in the season—spin fisherman also cast lipped crankbaits such as Thundersticks.
“The best time on the Muskegon for a combined fishing trip for both salmon and steelhead is definitely the month of October,” Allen said. “That’s a little later than it is for most Michigan rivers farther north.”
The salmon don’t actively feed after entering the river, according to Allen, so he believes it’s more of a reaction bite when one strikes. And he says the males tend to get more aggressive as the females begin dropping eggs. Allen estimates that about 80 percent of the Chinook salmon returning to the Muskegon are wild fish; for steelhead, he says it’s about 50-50.
“The salmon are four years old when they return,” he said, “usually weighing between 10 to 12 pounds on an average year. But last year (2017) they were above average, weighing 14 to 16 pounds, mainly due to the high alewive population in Lake Michigan, their main prey.”
If Allen’s clients have not had much experience fly fishing for fall salmon and steelhead, he instructs them to allow the end of the fly line to actually drop into the water on the backcast.
“I tell them to wait until they hear the split-shot plop into the water behind them before starting their forward cast,” he said. “The shorter the distance between the split-shot and the end of the rod, the more difficult it is for most people to time their release. And when the split-shot hit the water behind them, it tends to take any slack out of the line and help ‘load’ the rod. That prevents the person from hitting themselves in the back of the head with the split-shot during the forward half of the cast.”
Learning that chuck-and-duck technique from Allen last fall during a weekend in late October were Mark and Robin Askins, a husband-wife fishing team from Kansas. “We love starting the day early, pushing off from the boat ramp in the dark,” said Robin. “It truly enhances the anticipation of a guided trip. And with all of the digital technology encroaching on our lives these days, it’s good just to be on the river—morning coffee always tastes better there.”
Mark added, “We enjoy fishing with Jay not only because he’s a good fisherman, but also because he’s a family friend. He’s a real student of the river and always does his homework, paying attention to water temperature, barometric pressure, water levels, changes in flow, what’s hatching. He’s the real deal.”
The Askins landed many salmon during their two days of fishing last fall on the Muskegon, as well as a few steelhead.
“When I land a large salmon, I feel like I’ve been in a wrestling match,” said Mark. “But when I get a steelhead to the net, I feel an even greater sense of accomplishment, knowing that I’ve been able to withstand all of the fish’s twists, turns, jumps, sprints toward me, and runs away from me. Hooking and landing a nice steelie is truly an exhilarating experience.”
As for Robin, she hooked and landed the largest fish of her life during that weekend last fall, a 20-pound king salmon. “I know fly fishing for salmon and steelhead is more difficult than using spinning gear, but what a sense of accomplishment when you hook and play a large fish all the way to the net. Especially the fish of a lifetime!”
If you’d like to fish with Jay Allen this fall on Michigan’s Muskegon for salmon and steelhead, he can be reached by mobile phone at 307-690-2962, or by email at email@example.com; he’s also on Facebook.
- written by W.H. "Chip" Gross
W. H. “Chip” Gross is a veteran Ohio outdoors writer and Great Lakes angler. To purchase a copy of his book, Steelhead & Salmon: Use the Secrets of the Pros to Catch More and Bigger Fish, give him a call at 419-512-6064, or send an email to firstname.lastname@example.org.
Table for Two, Please…
One of the unique things that separates Jay Allen from dozens of other fishing guides on Michigan’s Muskegon River is not only his ability to consistently put salmon and steelhead in the boat, but the fact that he also serves gourmet shore lunches to his clients.
Allen’s wife, Heather, a professional caterer, provides Jay tasty meals that he quickly grills onboard the boat and serves on a small folding table, even complete with tablecloth!