Ultimate Guide To Fall Steelhead Fishing In Michigan

Fall steelhead fishing in Michigan
A nice steelhead from Michigan’s Fire Plug Charters

Fall steelhead fishing in Michigan is easy if you know what you’re doing. If you know what you are doing, it’s possible to catch over twenty adult steelhead a day on the good days, and still consistently catch the maximum amount of steelhead even on the slow days.

Catching steelhead, or any fish for that matter, comes down to knowledge. The good news is that I enjoy teaching people how to fish, and I do it for free here on this website.

I have 37 years of experience fishing for steelhead around the Great Lakes, and 22 years of guiding experience, so I know my stuff.

If I fished the way 90% of steelhead anglers fished I’d catch ten times fewer steelhead. And so will you!

I do what other top guides do! And I do what they do because they catch 90% of the fish simply because they know how!

So, what do top guides know or do that you should know or do?

  • When to fish: If you’re on the river on the wrong days, you’ll struggle.
  • Where to fish: This means two things. Which rivers are hot, and where are the spots within the river that hold fish.
  • Gear: Rods, reels, lines, and waders. Use gear that makes it easier to fish.
  • Baits and Lures: Know what works, when it works, and why it works. Stop listening to guys recommend crappy baits and lures online. If guides don’t use certain baits or lures, you shouldn’t either.
  • Setup: A good leader and line setup makes a huge difference.
  • Fishing Methods: Know what methods to use, and how to do them properly. Or, pick a methods and learn to do it well.
  • Presentation: If you do not present your bait or lure well, you won’t catch many fish. This is a major problem for most anglers.
  • Approach: Know how to approach a spot, where to stand, and use the proper angles so you don’t spook fish and so you can get the best presentation.

I’ll be honest with you if you screw up one or two of these things, you drastically limit your success! After guiding thousands of anglers, I know it’s a fact!

Before you read on, this is the shortened and revised article. For more in-depth information, you can read the full article HERE.

Key Takeaways

  • Some Michigan rivers get runs of summer run steelhead, therefore you may catch both summer and winter run steelhead.
  • Fall steelhead fishing can start in September, peak in November, and still be excellent in December. We discuss which rivers get the earliest runs and which are good fishing in late fall.
  • All the methods such as such as float fishing, fly fishing, drift fishing, and lure fishing are used by local steelhead guides are covered in this article.
  • There are three stages to the fall steelhead runs in Michigan, and the steelhead will hold and feed differently during each stage. Adjusting your approach based on each stage will increase your chances.
  • Many of Michigan’s best rivers are listed.

About Fall Steelhead Fishing In Michigan

Fall Steelhead fishing with Dylan at mr_sandy_pond
Our team Photographer Dylan with a nice chrome fall steelhead.

Michigan offers some of the best fall steelhead fishing around the Great Lakes, and the numbers can often exceed the numbers seen on famous West Coast steelhead rivers.

Part of the reason is that thousands of steelhead will enter these smaller-sized Michigan rivers, where they concentrate and are easier to catch.

Michigan also has some of the largest rivers compared to other states and provinces around the Great Lakes. See Best Great Lakes Best Rivers.

Eli from SBS Outdoors Action with a late June summer steelhead
Eli from SBS Outdoors Action with a fall steelhead – Click to watch the video and see how crazy these fall steelhead are.

Michigan also has what is known as summer run steelhead, and a strain of steelhead known as Skamania, which enter the rivers starting around June and continue into the fall.

These summer-run steelhead provide early fall steelhead fishing for many anglers.

For more on the summer run steelhead, check out:

When To Catch Fall Steelhead In Michigan

For whatever reason, many winter-run steelhead will start entering the river in early fall.

They start moving in to the river in late September most years and in October, November and December they are at their finest. 

Chuck Hawkins – Hawkins Outfitters

Michigan fall steelhead fishing starts with a combination of summer-run steelhead and early winter-run steelhead, which can start showing up on some rivers in September and peaks in November.

Good fishing can continue into the winter.

Michigan Fall Steelhead Season

Michigan fall steelhead from Fire Plug Charters
Michigan fall steelhead from Fire Plug Charters.

Often, there is a small number of steelhead that will make their way into the rivers with the salmon in September.

The best Michigan fall steelhead fishing starts as the number of steelhead in the rivers increases in late October, and the fishing continues to get better through November and December.

The best months to fish for early Fall Steelhead is at the tail end of October, November, and December. Steelhead are on fire this time of year! With exciting jumps, drag burning runs, and excellent table fare, late Fall is an excellent time to fish the river.

Chad Betts – Betts Guide Service

Steelhead will often hold behind large spawning Chinook and Coho salmon, and they will feed on any eggs that drift down the river. At this time, they feed heavily, which is an advantage for anglers.

Early fall fishing can have anglers fishing in 80F, while late fall fishing can be below freezing. The key to fishing fall steelhead in Michigan is knowing how to adapt as the water temperatures gradually get colder.

Later in November, there is less angler pressure due to the start of the fall hunting season.

Pro Tip: Fall is hunting season for dear, so I and other anglers will wear bright orange vests, jackets, or hats.

3 Stages Of the Fall Steelhead Runs In Michigan

The reason I mention this is because a steelhead in September or October in warmer water will feed, hold, and migrate differently than a steelhead in the late fall in very cold water.

This means you need to adapt based on the conditions and understand why.

In early fall, the steelhead will be anywhere in the river, including fast rapids and shallow runs as well as deeper pools. They will even hold in different parts of the same pool in early fall compared to late fall.

They will also be more aggressive and feed on different baits and lures than they might later in the fall.

Lucky for me, as a guide who is often on the water seven days a week from late October until the rivers freeze in late December or January, I see how the steelhead fishing changes, and I’ve learned how to change tactics to catch them consistently. I share this knowledge on my page, Fall Fishing For Steelhead.

As an example, late fall steelhead in cold water won’t hold in rapids and faster water for long and instead can be found in slow to moderate water flows.

Even the time of day when they are active changes from early fall to late fall and then into the winter. In early fall, the optimum time to go steelhead fishing is early morning and afternoon. But later in the fall, I start fishing later and get off the water earlier because the best fishing times change.

When the cold fall weather starts in late November and early December, anglers will still continue catching steelhead using the winter steelhead methods I discuss in my article Winter Steelhead Fishing In Michigan and Spring Steelhead Fishing In Michigan.

The Best Ways to Catch a Michigan Fall Steelhead

John from Get Bent Guide Service with a big fall steelhead
John from Get Bent Guide Service with a big fall steelhead

There are several techniques to try when it comes to catching Michigan’s fall steelhead.

Although weather and water conditions must be taken into account, the strategies stated below should tilt the scales in your favor.

Float Fishing

Float fishing for steelhead is very productive, this angler hooked 50 steelhead this day
Float fishing for steelhead is so productive that this angler hooked 50 steelhead on a guided trip on this day. Another reason to learn to do it the right way.

Float fishing allows anglers to fish in a variety of depths and conditions. The float is used to hang the bait at a specific depth in the strike zone.

The depth may be adjusted by sliding the float up or down the line. Float fishing for steelhead can be pretty easy if done correctly.

Fly Fishing

Fly fishing

Fly fishing is popular and effective and used by a lot of steelhead and salmon river guides.

Artificial flies that imitate nymphs, baitfish, and eggs work the best. Some of the best steelhead flies to use include the worm fly, stonefly, and yarn egg fly.

Fly fishing for steelhead may be done in a variety of ways. Depending on the type of water or preference, this can range from nymphing to spey fishing to streamer fishing.

These tactics are usually excellent when it comes to catching Michigan’s fall steelhead.

Spin Fishing

On the river with Fire Plug Charters - Captain Alex Bialik
Fighting another steelhead on one of the smaller rivers with Fire Plug Charters.

Spin fishing is very popular for steelhead fishing. There are several techniques for Spin fishing for steelhead.

Jig fishing for steelhead, bottom bouncing, and drift fishing are all effective options for fall steelhead fishing.

Some anglers are also starting to use the new method known as Bobber Doggin.

Rivers to Fish for a Michigan Fall Steelhead

An angler doing some Ontario steelhead fishing on the Saugeen river
An angler on a Great Lakes steelhead river,\.

There are several rivers to explore when you want to fish for a steelhead, and thankfully, Michigan has lots to offer, from tiny creeks that can get decent runs of steelhead to massive steelhead rivers that anglers will fish with motor boats.

Here are some of the top rivers to explore:

  1. Pere Marquette River – The Pere Marquette River gets some of the earliest steelhead. Early Runs come in with the King Salmon. Lots of access by foot or drift boat.
  2. Muskegon River – The Muskegon River is known for summer-run steelhead that gorge on salmon eggs. Good spots include Tippy Dam and Croton Dam below Lake Muskegon. Good winter fishing river below Tippy Dam.
  3. Manistee River – Known as the Big Manistee River, it’s a great Lake Michigan tributary.
  4. Little Manistee River – Known for big fish and excellent fishing for steelhead.
  5. Grand River – gets stocked with summer steelhead. Hot spots include Grand Rapids and the sixth street dam.
  6. Betsie River
  7. St. Joseph River – The St Joseph River is a large river that gets stocked with Skamania steelhead, and is good for smallmouth bass in the summer.
  8. The Boardman River
  9. White River
  10. Kalamazoo River – A lesser-known steelhead fishery on Michigan’s lower peninsula with less angling pressure.
  11. The lower Au Sable River – One of the best Lake Huron tributaries that is also known for great resident brown trout.
  12. The St Mary River – One of the larger rivers in the Great Lakes Region, you can target steelhead. It also gets a good run of Atlantic salmon and has cold water temperatures all summer from Lake Superior outflows.
  13. Clinton River

Just about all the tributaries flowing into Lake Michigan and Lake Huron will have some fall, winter, and spring steelhead running up them.

To avoid some of the crowds, anglers are encouraged to search out smaller, lesser-known rivers where you might still catch just as many steelhead without the crowds.

Fall Steelhead typically enter the rivers in mid to late October. The Manistee and Pere Marquette are first to receive Michigan Fall Steelhead.

Jacob Thomas – Michigan Fly Fishing Guides

Best Baits For Michigans Fall Steelhead

Egg Imitations are Great Trout Baits
Egg imitations are great baits for trout and steelhead without the mess of reel eggs.

Just about all good steelhead baits will work, especially in early fall when they are very aggressive.

Later in the fall or when the river is gin clear, you might want to be more selective. Some good steelhead baits worth trying are:

Fall Steelhead absolutely love fresh salmon eggs.

Jacob Thomas – Michigan Fly Fishing Guides

Best Lures For Fall Steelhead Fishing Michigan

Eli from SBS Outdoor Action with a nice steelhead caught on a lure
Eli from SBS Outdoor Action with a nice steelhead caught on a lure. Click to watch the action.

Lures can be great baits, and normally all steelhead lures will work, especially early in the fall.

Later in the fall, you may need to change lures, change sizes, and colors, and even change your retrieves just to get the steelhead to bite.

Good lures to try are:

  • Spinners: Mepps, Blue Fox Vibrax, Panter Martins
  • Spoons
  • Crankbaits
  • Plugs

To see more baits, the best colors, and sizes, and how to use them, check out Lure Fishing For Steelhead.

Tips For Michigan’s Fall Steelhead

While autumn appears to be a quiet season, going fall steelhead fishing is a different story. There are a few things to consider to have a successful fishing trip.

Dress Appropriately for the Season

Late fall fishing for steelhead is when the big steelhead like this are in the river
One of my client’s with a late fall fishing for steelhead. This is when big steelhead like this are in the river and it’s when the steelhead start taking on darker spawning colors.

The trick is to dress in layers so that you can respond to changing situations throughout the day, especially late fall, which is late November and Early December, and is also when the river and air temps can get very cold.

If the water or air is cold, consider a polypropylene base layer to remain warm. Then, add a fleece vest or jacket if necessary.

I discuss fishing steelhead in the winter, with tactics and tips for catching for steelhead as well as how to stay warmer and comfortable in my article Steelhead Fishing In The Winter.

A quality fishing vest is also a good idea because it is functional. The correct footwear or waders are also essential when going fall steelhead fishing, especially later in the fall when the water is cold. Check out Best Waders For Winter Fishing.

All The River Fishing Fishing Gear

Float Rods - Image By Dylan @mr_sandy_pond
Float Rods – Image By our team photographer Dylan @mr_sandy_pond

Regardless of the fishing method you prefer, it is crucial to have the necessary tools on hand.

Everything from a fishing rod and reel to fishing line, hooks, and lures is included.

I tell you what guides use and recommend to their clients on my page River Fishing Gear: Everything You Need To Succeed In 2023.

Michigan Steelhead Guides

Another way to learn how to lure fish for Michigan steelhead in rivers is to hire a guide. Check out our contributing guides at Get Bent Guide Service and Fire Plug Charters.

If you have a question or some advice on fishing for fall steelhead in Michigan, let us know in the comments section below.

Tight Lines,


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