Our Best Spring Steelheading
Written by Mike Gnatkowski - Gnat's Charters   
Tuesday, 27 February 2007 03:11
One of the most popular fish sought by Michigan anglers are steelhead. It’s easy to see why. Steelheads are great fighters and a challenge to catch. They can be found in rivers and streams all the way from urban centers like Detroit, Grand Rapids and Kalamazoo to near-wilderness streams in the U.P. If catch & release is your thing, steelheads are hardy fish that will give it their all and still revive to fight again. If you like eating fish, a fresh-run spring steelhead is hard to beat.

Following is a sampling of spring steelhead streams and rivers that are sure to strike any angler’s fancy.

Huron River

    “The Huron River hosts a pretty decent steelhead run and it seems to be getting better all the time,” said Lake Erie Management Unit fisheries biologist Jeff Braunscheidel. “With improved fish passage now anglers are going to have even more river to fish than ever.”

Image A recently completed fish ladder, which provides fish passage over Flat Rock Dam has opened miles of river to spring steelheads and anglers. Access to the Huron River is excellent as the river traverses through several public parks including Oakwoods Metropark, Willow Metropark, and Lower Huron Metropark upstream of New Boston. Anadromous fish will now stack up below the dam at French Landing.

Most of the Huron River has a moderate gradient. Where you find faster water the river exhibits the riffle-pool character of a typical steelhead stream. Most of the bottom is made up of gravel and cobble with large boulders present that provides ideal holding locations for steelhead making their way upstream.

Averaging over a 100 feet wide, the Huron River offers steelheaders plenty of room. Much of the fishing pressure is restricted to the one mile or so below the Flat Rock Dam. Boat access is limited, but anglers will find excellent access via the metro parks, in Flat Rock and at Rockwood.

    The Huron River tends to run dark and stained much of the time. Steelheads begin moving upstream once the water temperature reaches the lower 40’s sometime in March. Fresh-run fish tend to be the most aggressive and anglers do well with dark-colored flies, spinners and plugs when the fish are newly arrived. Bobbers and fresh spawn is a good way to entice spring steelies and keep your offering from getting hooked on the bottom in the Huron. The steelies average 5- to 10-pounds, and bigger fish are common. Most are the result of annual plants of 25,000 winter steelhead made in the river.

    For more information on steelheading opportunities on the Huron River contact the MDNR’s Lake Erie Management Unit at (734) 953-0241. For information on amenities and accommodations in the area contact the Monroe County Convention & Tourism Bureau at (800) 252-3011 or online at This e-mail address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it .

East Branch of the AuGres River
    The East Branch of the AuGres River was one of the streams I cut my steelheading teeth on. It was only a short drive from my home in Saginaw, so many spring days, and nights, were spent fishing the river.

Image    The East Branch, as we called it, is a relatively small stream, but is open enough for easy fishing. The holes and undercut banks are relatively easy to see and the 30- to 50-foot wide stream receives a good amount of fishing pressure. The rainbows there are often skittish and temperamental. One solution we found to the fishing pressure and the wary steelhead is to fish them at night. The fish came out of hiding then, new steelhead moved in and anglers went home. There’s some question as to whether steelhead bite at night, but we proved time and time again that they could be taken with regularity under the cover of darkness. It’s a wonder more anglers don’t catch on. There was many a morning when we’d run into anglers headed to the river at first light when we were heading out with a stringer of steelheads.

    The East Branch of the AuGres River rises from several creeks in Iosco County. The river travels south for about 15 miles before it turns abruptly east, its channel divert by Whitney Drain into Lake Huron. The mouth of the East Branch near Singing Bridge is a popular place for both surf casters and bank fishermen hoping to intercept steelhead on their way up river. Anglers can access the drain along Turner Road.

    The section of the East Branch from the junction of Hale and Smith creeks to Whittemore Roads is designated as a Blue Ribbon Trout Stream. This section offers some of the best steelheading, but much of it is private. Access can be gained at M-55 and other road crossings. Access can also be gain via state lands south of National City.

    Steelhead show up in the East Branch as early as late March, but the river is notorious for hosting a late run of rainbows that often don’t make an appearance until May, long after most anglers had gone home. Steelheads are usually present in the East Branch into June.

    There is plenty of good spawning gravel in the East Branch and natural reproduction undoubtedly contributes to the 30,000 steelhead that are planted in the stream each year. Riffles, pockets, holes and undercut banks offer trout plenty of places to hide and for anglers to probe.

    A variety of techniques will fool the East Branch’s steelhead. Most anglers bounce bottom with spawn or flies, but spinners can be productive too. A friend uses small plugs and lets them wiggle under overhanging bushes and dark bends and does well.

    For maps, tackle and fishing reports contact Frank’s Great Outdoors at (989) 697-5341 or online at www.franksgreatoutdoors.com .

Rifle River

    The Rifle River has been called the Pere Marquette of Michigan’s east side. Even though the Rifle has been compared to the fabled P.M. it remains somewhat of a “sleeper” when it comes to steelhead.

    Traversing Ogemaw and Arenac counties, the Rifle River has been confronted with some problems that are being addressed and should improve the fishing. High summer temperatures in its upper reaches, beaver dams that blocked fish passage and further warmed the river and a lack of trout habitat are problems that have been corrected in recent years. As a result, steelhead fishing on the Rifle might be better than it’s been in quite some time.

    The section of the Rifle River between Sage Lake Road and M-55 offers excellent spawning gravel and attracts plenty of spring steelhead. The area features good access via the Rifle River State Recreation Area. Anglers will find plenty of picturesque holes and runs in the stretch of river between Greenwood Road and Maple Ridge Road, but the prime water is few and far between and anglers need to cover some ground to fine the best spots.

    Averaging 30 to 50 feet in its upper reaches to more than 100 feet farther downstream anglers have plenty of room to practice any technique on the Rifle. The often-stained flows make it a natural for those who like to toss flashy spinners. Fly-fishers do well where fish are actively spawning. Spawn will take fish from the holes as they move upstream.

    For more details on steelhead fishing on the Rifle River contact the MDNR’s Southern Lake Michigan Management Unit at (989) 684-9141.

Au Sable River

   Even though steelhead fishing is restricted to the lower 20 miles of the AuSable River, it probably produces more fish than all the other east side rivers combined. The AuSable River receives heavy fishing pressure in the spring, but steelhead anglers willing to stick it out will find good fishing well into June most years.    

    The access below Foote Dam at Rea Road is popular with drift boaters who ply the holes and runs with plugs while working their way down to the take out at the Whirlpool public access site. The entire river below Foote Dam is no-wake. Bank anglers can take numerous trails, which access the river and several undeveloped sites. Popular areas include the Highbanks, the Boy Scout Run, and Three Pipes. Some fishing is for visible, bedding fish, but a better tactic is to work the darker water for unmolested fish. Flies, small spawn bags, wigglers and yarn all take their share of steelhead on the AuSable.

    Rainbows enter the AuSable in late March and the run lasts well into May. In fact, waiting until the crowds are gone in April is a good tactic. You can have a nice stretch of river pretty much to yourself and more steelhead than you can shake a stick at.

    For information on bait shops, guide services and amenities in the area contact the Oscoda Area Convention & Visitors Bureau at (800) 235-4625 or online at www.oscoda.com .

Platte River

    In spite of the Platte River’s northern latitude the river sees one of the state’s earliest runs of spring steelhead. It’s often mid- February or early March when steelheads move in from Platte Bay into the lower river. The popular Rope Hole has steelhead stacked like cord wood in it during early March. The pool looks like a giant aquarium with schools of big rainbows cruising around in it. But the gin-clear water of the Platte makes the steelheads difficult to catch. To do so requires super-light line, small baits and bobbers to keep the offering suspended off bottom in the slow current. Landing the mint-silver rainbows on such tackle is no easy feat.

    The Platte River begins at Lake Ann and travels some 30 miles to Lake Michigan. The best steelheading water is from the state fish hatchery near Honor to the mouth near M-22. In between the river averages 30 to 50 feet or more with lots of gravel, holes and fish-holding cover. The Platte runs crystal clear and the fish can be difficult to approach.  Anglers will find good access in the section between the state hatchery and Honor via road crossing and public campgrounds.

    The rainbows typically run 7 or 8 pounds and bigger fish are present though difficult to land in this small stream. Restrictions on hook size and hook type makes micro spawn bags, wigglers and flies the best choices. Check the current fishing guide for special regulations and opening dates for different sections of the river.

    For tackle, live bait and fishing reports contact the Back Cast Fly Shop in Benzonia at (231) 882-5222.

Betsie River

    Even though they are only a few miles apart, the Betsie and Platte rivers are like night and day. While the Platte River runs clear year round, the Betsie is rarely clear during the spring steelhead run. Much of this is due to the fact that the Betsie River has a big problem with erosion and the soil and clay it contributes. Nonetheless, it gets a sizable steelhead run.

    A popular gathering site for spring steelheaders is the old Homestead Dam site near Benzonia. The river averages 100 feet or more here and features excellent gravel bars, pools and runs from the dam to US-31 making it a prime area for spring steelies. Anglers can gain access to the river at the dam, US-31, River Road and Grace Road. The Betsie River is popular with drift boaters who use deep-diving crankbaits in hot colors to antagonize spawning rainbows into striking. Wading anglers rely on yarn, flies, spawn and flashy spinners. Because of the darker currents of the Betsie, anglers can get away with heavier line than they would use in the Platte. The chances of landing a big red-sized steelhead improve then. Rainbows approaching 20 pounds are not unheard of on the Betsie.

    For information on Betsie River steelhead contact the Central Lake Michigan Management Unit of the MDNR at (231) 775-9727.

Little Manistee River

    The “Little River” is one of Michigan’s premier spring steelhead streams. Steelheads collected at the weir on the Little Manistee provide eggs and milt for hatching that will produce smolts for planting in rivers around the state. Fisheries managers annually collect upwards of 5,000 adult steelhead at the harvest weir. Once the eggs and milt are taken from the fish, they are released to continue their journey upstream and to challenge anglers.

    A fairly swift river with plenty of obstructions, steelheading on the Little Manistee is a challenge. The river averages close to 50 feet wide. The close quarters and myriad of logs the fish can get into means more steelheads are lost than caught. Anglers who resort to spinners or plugs with heavier line stand a better chance of landing fish. Drifting spawn bags is also popular and productive.

    While much of the property along the Little Manistee is privately owned, anglers can gain access at several bridge crossings at 18-Mile, 9-Mile and 6-Mile bridges. There are several other access points upstream. 

    For more information on fishing the Little Manistee contact Pappy’s Bait & Tackle in Wellston at (231) 898-4142.

Muskegon River

Image    The Muskegon River between Croton Dam and Newaygo has some of the finest spawning gravel of any stream in Michigan. The Muskegon is a big river, averaging 150 to 200 feet wide and is best suited to boating. Wading anglers and bank fishermen are restricted to access sites at Croton Dam, Pine Street, High Rollaways and Henning Park. There are launch ramps at each of these sites also.

    Spring steelheads on the Muskegon generally show up in late March. The fishing peaks in April, but good fishing can be had well into May. If the river is high, drift boaters can enjoy great sport from Croton Dam to Newaygo. Fish will be staging behind gravel beds or on the gravel itself and wobbling plugs like Wiggle Warts, Hot-N-Tots and Hot Shots can trigger vicious strikes from defensive steelhead. Try metallic colors. If the river is running clear, boat traffic and anglers pestering fish on beds makes it difficult. Many of the fish are intentionally snagged or “lined” as fast as they go on the beds. A better option is to work the dark water behind the beds or the deeper runs for drop back or fresh-run fish.

    Fishing pressure drops off dramatically between Newaygo and Bridgeton, even though there is some beautiful water in this section of the river. Drift boaters will find more room to work and bottom bouncers will find fish that have not been continually harassed. Good access to the river is available just below Newaygo at a DNR access, at Felch Avenue, Old Women’s Bend and at Bridgeton.         

    For live bait, tackle and fishing information contact Parsley’s Sport Shop in Newaygo at (231) 652-6986.

    After enduring a long, cold Michigan winter it’s nice to know that spring, and spring steelheading, are just around the corner.

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