Steelhead Fishing in Michigan

Steelhead fishing during the Spring on Michigan’s famous steelhead rivers, the Manistee River, Pere Marquette River, and the mighty Muskegon River.

Michigan winters can give anyone cabin fever ! After months of cold weather and feet of snow, the air temperatures warm, spring arrives, and so does the desire to hit the river. Spring steelhead season in Michigan starts with good numbers of steelhead moving into tributaries that flow into Lake Michigan. Rivers such as the Pere Marquette River , Manistee River , and the Muskegon River are some of the best rivers to fish for spring steelhead in Michigan. The 33 miles of Manistee river  (fishing report) between Lake Michigan and Tippy Dam (upstream limit for migratory fish from Lake Michigan) has some of the finest steelhead fly fishing in the world and spring is one of the best times to fish it, as spring is the spawning season and all mature steelhead will enter the river to spawn from mid March to early May. Water temps at this time are in the mid – lower 30’s, but climbs quickly to the magic 40 degree mark, at which time fish are coming, going, spawning, and the fishing is great!

 Spring steelhead have three stages we look for as anglers. The pre-spawn, spawning fish and post spawn. Depending on when each fish enters the river, these cycles overlap each other providing great opportunities for anglers over several months. Water levels, water temp & clarity, and fishing pressure are all conditions that control how long it takes for fish to spawn and leave the river system for another year in the Great Lakes. Patterns such as Hex (Hexagenia Limbata), Stone flies, caddis, leeches, other small mayfly nymphs, eggs, and attractor patterns work well for catching spring steelhead in Michigan. The best steelhead are ones that have just entered the river system and are still feeding before the spawn. Spawning fish feed or take a fly out of aggression or a feeding instinct rather then hunger. Post spawn fish are looking to feed in order to build energy for the journey back to the Great Lakes.

Water levels on the Manistee can rise from the winter flows of 1200-1500 cubic feet per second to as much as 3000 cfs . Because the fish are less active when water temperatures are cool (below 36 degrees) anglers need to work runs and pools thoroughly and methodically, the flies need to bump the fish on the nose it seems like on some days.

In early to mid March fresh runs of dime bright spring steelhead begin to ascend the Manistee River, and the run is on. Water temps usually start creeping up the scale, as does the steelhead’s activity. Start looking for fish in the runs and slower pools below spawning gravel areas. Fish the seams located in the slower pockets and slow moving runs to locate spring steelhead. Water conditions in the spring are always on the move with warm days followed by cold days, and water color can be changed quickly by the melting snow. During higher colored water conditions try larger sized eggs, leech patterns, large stones and dark wooly buggers to get the fish’s attention. Size 4 and 6 are not too large if the water is high and off colored. Good anglers are willing and able to move to different locations on the river because fish are moving. They won’t necessarily be in the same location each day, as they are on a mission to find gravel and spawn.

During the spawning time fish will be throughout the system from Manistee Lake to Tippy Dam. There will be higher concentrations of fish near Tippy Dam (upstream limit.) The good numbers of fish also bring higher concentrations of anglers. Fishing to spawning fish works, but the most aggressive fish are in the dark water near gravel getting ready to step into the spawning mode, and most of the time will feed on your presentation better then spawning fish. These areas will hold the freshest fish in the system, the ones that are more likely to eat a fly. When water levels are dropping fly size should shrink accordingly, as well as the tippet fished. One of my favorite flies this time of year are egg patterns because of the amount of fresh eggs in the water. A size 8 egg is still the most realistic looking egg pattern in size and shape and are available and all kinds of fish will eat it readily. Other proven patterns are: Caddis larva , early black stoneflies , and smaller hex patterns . With the hen steelhead digging the gravel to make their spawning beds, and a good amount of wade traffic on the river bed, lots of caddis and small nymphs are being dislodged and are drifting downstream. This causes the fish to key on this little morsel and not flee from a larger pattern and heavy fishing pressure.

The post spawn fish are the least targeted of the spring steelhead, and yet can provide some great days of spring fishing in Michigan. After the spawning rigors the fish are hungry. Look for these fish throughout the system as they are heading back to the lake, and will eat a fly with authority! This is the time that you are most likely to take a fish on a streamer in the spring, and most drop back steelhead are around in the end of April and into May which can provide some great fishing in some great weather. Keep moving, make a few presentations and then move to the next spot. Most anglers will be gone, trout season is open and the weather is warming. Salmon fry from the fall salmon season the year before will be hatching and steelhead and resident trout will feed heavy on the small salmon throughout the spring season. This is a great time to hunt for big trout and steelhead on the swing with streamers , or drifting baitfish patterns .

Manistee River steelhead are big, strong, hard fighting fish. Whether you pursue them with chuck and duck, strike indicator rigs (Indy rig) or swinging a streamer for spring steelhead in Michigan , they will provide the fly angler with a Michigan spring steelhead experience not soon forgotten!

How to rig for spring steelhead fishing in Michigan

Guided fishing for “Michigan Spring Steelhead” provides the angler with safe and unlimited access to all the pools and runs that the great steelhead rivers of “North West Michigan” have to offer. From fishing the early runs of spring steelhead on the snowy banks of the Pere Marquette river in Michigan during Mid to late March, to fishing the big runs of the Manistee river in April, to fishing the late run of spring steelhead that enter the Muskegon river and fish well until mid May, Michigan spring steelhead season is the best cure for cabin fever in any fisherman’s book!

Although the access and wade fishing is good on Michigan rivers, the use of a guide will always provide a safe, exciting educational experience, and put you on the best fishing the river has to offer at that time of year.


Jon's Guide Service offers guided fly fishing and instruction on Michigan's famous steelhead Rivers:

  • Guided Manistee River Spring Steelhead fishing
  • Guided Muskegon River Spring Steelhead fishing
  • Guided Pere Marquette River spring Steelhead fishing
  • Michigan Guided Spring steelhead fly fishing
  • Michigan Guided spring steelhead fishing on light tackle


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