Steelhead Fishing Michigan - Rivers of Steel
As the spring air blows across the great waters of Lake Michigan the steelhead invariably follow. Every year, making their long journey upstream, they are determined to pass along their genetics to future generations. Traveling thousands of miles to reach peak spawning conditions, steelhead (aka rainbow trout) are anadromous, meaning they spend part of their lives at sea before spawning in inland, freshwater rivers. In contrast rainbow trout spend the entirety of their lives in freshwater. Although they are the same species, steelhead tend to grow larger in size and differ in color variations from rainbow trout. Both are mighty fun to catch.
You’re never more than 7 minutes from a river or lake, and always within 85 miles of a “Great Lake” in Michigan. With Michigan’s vast amount of lakes, rivers, and reservoirs the state is well known for its fishing, and the perfect place to pursue steelhead. In the “Mitten State” you can get your hands on several trophy fish species such as smallmouth bass, salmon, northern pike, walleye, and sturgeon; but every spring the steelhead always seem to be the talk of the town.
How To Steelhead Fish in Michigan
As winter melts away, thousands of anglers flood to lower Michigan’s western coast. It’s here the fish make their route from Lake Michigan to inland streams to spawn, creating entire “rivers of steel.” With one singular focus, steelhead swim so hard towards their spawning grounds that thousands of fish pass away from the severity of the journey, never reaching their destination. Resilient would be an understatement, to say the least. MIchigan’s west side, the “Sunset Coast” tends to be the hot spot for die-hard steelhead anglers.
Lakeshore and riverside towns market towards and provide for these angler’s needs. Gas stations, hotels, bars, and restaurants all target spring fishermen with sales and aesthetics. You can be sure that any anglers you come across on the river you’ll be reunited with over a burger or beer at the diner in town. I would suggest one of Michigan’s finest, a Bell’s Two Hearted Ale. After you tell a day’s worth of fish tales, and get your belly filled, be sure to restock with all the necessities for another early morning of fishing. Even when fishing with the proper techniques you’re sure to lose a lot of gear. I know I do. Don’t let the sun rise and catch you being unprepared.
It’s tempting to hit the sack as soon as you get back to the cabin after a long day of fishing, but you should probably invest some time in practicing your knot-tying skills. Steelhead techniques vary, but they always involve weights, bobbers, jigs, and plenty of snags in the river. In fact if you aren’t snagging and breaking off on rocks or logs you are most likely doing something wrong. Or you are a fishing GOD and we should all bow to you! Probably not though, so be prepared. These fish like to hold tight to the cover of trees and rocks along the bottom.
Locate and target gravel-covered bottoms or ditches and avoid the sandy spots. More opportunities for snags and for fish are found here. While there can still be fish in the sandy bends they prefer gravel beds to lay their eggs and feed. Steelhead eggs hold better in the current on top of these gravel beds preventing the spawn from going down river. There is a slim chance these eggs will grow into fish if they are lost in the current since trout are a cannibalistic species that will eat their own spawn if they see it floating around.
Michigan Steelhead Fishing Techniques
Two of the most basic rigs for fishing steelhead are the float technique and bottom bouncing technique. Bottom bouncing is dragging your spawn bag or bead across the bottom till the fish picks it off the river floor. The float technique uses a float/ bobber to lift your spawn attempting to put it right in front of the steelhead’s vision. This float approach allows you to make bigger drifts along bends and it’s much easier to detect a strike, while the bottom bouncing gets the bait closer to the fish and tends to improve hookup and landing opportunities. Both techniques should be mastered and practiced if you are looking to catch your fill of steelhead.
This spring getaway has become an annual tradition for many Michiganders and even some out-of-state anglers. I really believe that comradery and kindness are very important to keep these fishing traditions respected. Anglers helping net strangers fish and supplying gear to another when needed are common practice on the river, uniting fishermen from all over. Striving to keep the rivers and banks clean from pollution and being unselfish about where you choose to fish are two keys to keeping this a great experience for future anglers. While you still will always have some people who don’t care to respect these things, the majority of fishermen seem to follow and respect these unscripted rules. Being careful to avoid casting over someone’s line, sharing river bends, keeping your paws off someone elses banked fish, and sharing local insider fishing information are all unwritten guidelines for the steelhead game that ensure everyone gets to have a great adventure.
With such a short window for peak fishing time, you must be on your A-game every day. On average you have a three-week window each spring to get a good pattern of fishing in. Michigan’s crazy weather makes it very hard to predict when the best steelhead fishing will be. You know what they say right?
“If you don’t like the weather in Michigan, just wait five minutes! It will change!”
From March to April it can be anything from 75 degrees and sunny, to rainstorms, to 20 degrees with snow squalls popping up. This year we actually experienced all of those weather situations so it’s ideal to pack heavy and prepare for anything.
Michigan Steelhead Fishing Report
If you are looking for local and recent fishing reports the best spots are the local tackle shops. Most owners will love to help you key in on the recent fish activity. Understanding patterns, locations, and what bait or techniques are currently successful is extremely difficult and can change on a daily basis. Having to constantly change tactics and locations to locate the fish can be tough. I find it valuable to get advice from shop owners and experienced fisherman as I venture out in hopes of catching that big one. If the fishing is not going well, hit up a tackle shop and start asking questions. River dams, sandy bends, small creeks, and even the delta from the lake to the river can all have fish. If someone can point you in the right direction you might just have a lot more fun fishing that day!
3 Different Steelhead Fishing Experiences
So maybe you’re wondering what a day of fishing for steelhead really looks like? There is a choice of 3 different fishing experiences that you can make. You can
1. Fish from a boat casting down current.
2. Find a good dam or bend to hang at for the day, or…
3. You can load up that backpack and hike down river for miles fishing each deep hole you venture upon.
All three experiences will provide good opportunities and differing results. It’s good to be ready to do all of these options depending on the fishing and weather conditions.
For the fisherman who wants to relax in luxury while they fish, the boat is the way to go. There are several local guides available that will almost guarantee catching fish, like my friend Kyle, a younger angler with tons of experience, at XXL Chrome Chasing. If boating and hiking are not your thing try option 2. Head to the dam or a popular bend where you can set up base camp, have a bonfire, and spend the whole day picking off passing fish. Or, if you’re like my crew you might prefer option 3. Maybe it’s time to get your hike on and really get into this.
My cousins and I prefer to chase the fish down river looking for new holes to explore and things to learn about as we go. As all younger men, we don’t like to sit around and wait for the fish to come to us. Take my cousin Casey for example. Casey is the most driven and passionate steelhead angler I have ever met. From daylight till after dark he will be in that cold water fishing. Cold or wet he is too stubborn to give up until he reaches his daily fish catch satisfaction. With him you have to learn quickly or get left behind. In the fishing world that means he’d be catching all the fish and you’d be the guy netting them for him. No one wants to go home from an adventure and tell stories of someone else’s fish that they caught. You have to get on the ball quick, and catch your own!
With only about 10 days of fishing total over a four-year period, I don’t have much experience under my belt. Learning most of what I know from Casey who got me started, I’ve learned more and more and am always becoming increasingly prepared. My first few years were an absolute mess. I just wasn’t prepared with the right know-how or the right gear. Having the right type of boots, waders and clothing will either make or break your trip. Always check your waders for leaks before any trip because it will become an absolute nightmare if they leak. No matter how or where you learn to fish, the best teacher is experience. It is so important to keep at it, make the most of each opportunity, and learn from each day’s mistakes and accomplishments.
The best thing about steelhead fishing in Michigan is that it’s always worth it! Time spent with family and friends, memories of epic catches and sometimes massive balls of tangled line are priceless. Purchasing gear, learning tips and tricks, and continually digging deeper into the sport of steelhead fishing reaps awesome rewards, so get out there and learn the ways of the river. Let’s start mining that valuable “steel.”