St. Joseph River Steelhead Fishing: Michigan

St Joseph River Steelhead Fishing

St Joseph River steelhead fishing is unique because it gets runs of steelhead all year long thanks to its summer run steelhead known as Skamania. St Joseph River steelhead peaks in fall and spring and anglers can effectively fish the river by foot or by boat.

Where Is the St Joseph River

Located in Michigan, the St. Joseph River is among the largest rivers with prolific runs of salmon and steelhead.

This river which is in the north-central of the United States starts near Hillsdale and flows to the west, then swings into northern Indiana through South Bend and Elkhart before reentering Michigan state. 

The St Joseph River is a 206 mile long river and is dammed at Union City in Michigan for hydroelectric development. It is also vital for industries and urban centers since it’s a significant water source in the area.

Steelhead and salmon can traverse some of the dams along the river but their migration stops at Mishawaka Indiana.

St Joseph River Steelhead

The Skamania steelhead can be found in the St Joseph River in the spring and summer months, which provides a unique warm-weather fishing opportunity for steelhead anglers.

Thousands of steelhead enter this river each year, making the St. Joseph River a great steelhead fishery regardless of your fishing experience or the methods that you use.

St Joseph River steelhead fishing also has fall and spring run steelhead that enter the river in good numbers with tens of thousands of fish entering the river some years.

The St Joseph River steelhead fishing is good for many anglers with average steelhead size on the St Joseph River being 5 to 6 pounds, but steelhead over 20 pounds have been caught from this large river.

The St Joseph River Steelhead Fishing Experience 

Commonly known as St. Joe River, the St Joseph River steelhead fishery flows fast and deep and can’t be waded easily in many sections. The river can get deep fast so anglers wading in deep should do so cautiously.

In the video, you can see a lot of forested banks and deep water close to the bank but there are some good sections for wading too.

St Joseph River steelhead fishing can be done by foot or boat. The most popular and effective fishing method in this river is boat fishing which we will discuss below.

Large deep runs and pools are present throughout the length of the St Joseph River. Consequently, you have to be cautious about its power regardless of where or how you choose to fish. 

The St Joeseph River has several dams near the towns of Berrien Springs and Niles. These can be great spots for fishing because these areas will concentrate steelhead.

These dams contain fish ladders that enable the upstream movement of the steelhead and salmon to the city of Mishawaka Indiana, which is the upstream limit for migratory fish.

Some tributaries of the St Joseph River such as the Pipestone Creek, the Dowagiac River, and Brandywine Creek provide good wading opportunities for steelhead anglers and are good options when the main river is flowing too fast and too high to fish.

These tributaries are also easier for some anglers to wade which makes the St. Joseph River steelhead fishing a great experience for all anglers throughout the year.

These tributaries will see runs of steelhead, and salmon when the water flows in the stream are high enough for the fish to locate them and make it easy enough to migrate up them. Some of these tributaries will also have some trout in them. 

Summer Steelhead Fishing On The St Joseph River

The St Joseph River has been stocked with hundreds of thousands of Skamania strain Steelhead which is a summer-run steelhead. The river is famous for these summer-run steelheads which you don’t often see on other rivers around the great lakes region.

Some Skamania will enter rivers as early as May and continue through to September which can provide a unique summer fishery for river anglers.

The St Joseph River gets one of the largest runs of Skamania steelhead making it the best summer-run steelhead river in Michigan.

Skamania are known to be one of the strongest fighting fish with long bodies a very large powerful tails.

The Skamania steelhead that enter the river in May, June, and July will often migrate from the St. Joe River into the colder tributaries if and when the main river gets above 67 degrees. They will often hold over in these tributaries through the warmer months.

These cooler tribs will often be where the steelhead will also spawn and anglers can often find big steelhead mixed in with resident trout throughout the summer months.

St. Joseph River Steelhead Fishing Methods

Although St. Joe has great steelhead runs throughout the river, anglers should fish areas that are 8 to 12 feet on average for the most success with steelhead and salmon.

Some river guides find the slower current areas to be the best. In addition, you need to position your boat well above the logjams and other structures and then directly lower your baits down to the structure. Using spawn bags and working lures around the structure tends to work well. 

The best lures for St. Joseph River steelhead fishing include flatfish, wiggle warts, and hot-n-tots. To learn more about the best lures for river steelhead fishing, check out my page on Best Lures For Steelhead.

Fishing Methods For St. Joseph River Steelhead

Spin Fishing

Spin fishing is among the most popular fishing methods in this large steelhead river. Most anglers find it effective, especially when you follow the right steps and observe the different requirements, such as water coverage.

The spinning reel will allow anglers to cast far out into the bigger wider section of the river.

Common spin fishing techniques on the St. Joseph River include float fishing, casting lures, and bottom bouncing. 

I normally use these techniques in runs, pockets, and shallow riffles since it’s often the most effective method in these spots.

Nevertheless, you can also use spin fishing methods like plunking and drift fishing in larger and deep pools. 

Plunking for steelhead is popular when fish are moving through and anglers that strategically place themselves along the river in areas that funnel the steelhead can do well with this method. For more on this method, click here.

Bottom bouncing is one of my favorite spring fishing methods when the fish are in shallower water or in pockets or around big boulders in the river. Here are some of the essential tips and tactics that you can apply when executing the bottom bouncing technique.

Centerpin Fishing

Centerpin float fishing is very effective on this river because anglers can get very long smooth presentations with a Centerpin reel and a long 13 to 15-foot rod on this river.

The long rod also helps anglers control the steelhead and get them into the net.

Fly Fishing 

Another popular and effective fishing method that you will find the fishing guides and anglers of the area using for St. Joseph River steelhead is fly fishing.

I prefer using the traditional indicator nymphing on big rivers like this and will often change to euro nymphing on its smaller shallower sections and its tributaries.

If you like using fly fishing methods to catch steelhead, here is an article where I discuss the most effective guide methods for fly fishing for steelhead

The use of slinkies and sinking lines is also common when fly fishing in this river during the winter period.

Anglers will use what is known as the Chuck and Duck fly fishing method using a weight called a slinky because they will often need to get their flies down in the deeper water and when the fish start holding tight to the bottom and are less active.

Fall Fishing For St Joseph River Steelhead

The St. Joseph River receives great numbers of steelhead and salmon throughout the fall season. In fact, it is possible to land migratory steelhead in this river 12 months of the year but there are times when the St Joseph River steelhead fishing peaks.

Steelhead will often enter the St.Joseph River in September as the water temperatures start getting below 60f. Around the same time, anglers will also have runs of salmon and migratory brown trout.

The steelhead runs will often get bigger and more fish will move into the river in late October, November, and early December.

This is a peak time and these are great months to be on the river and take advantage of St Joseph River steelhead fishing along with the other migratory species that are present in the river at this time.

Later in December as the river gets ice cold, the salmon disappear and the migration of steelhead will slow down or stop completely.

Winter Fishing The St Joseph River Steelhead

Winter steelhead fishing on the St Joseph River starts around early December and continues to early March.

Getting your flies deep when fly fishing in the winter is important, but this is also when you need to get your baits down when float fishing and it’s when you also need to slow your lures down when lure fishing.

Float fishing allows anglers to get long slow drifts with their baits suspended just off the bottom and it’s even more effective during the cold winter months when steelhead are holding deep and won’t move far or fast for a bait.

Drift fishing is another method that works well during the winter months because it gets your bait deep.

When winter fishing I always find that using smaller baits tends to be more effective. Anglers should do well with smaller spawn bags, pink plastic worms, flies like stonefly and mayfly nymphs, live or dead or plastic minnows, and beads.

Winter and cold weather can present challenges for most anglers when trying to catch steelhead which is why I recommend checking out my page Winter Steelhead Fishing: Tips And Tactics Of Guides.

Spring Steelhead Fishing On St Joseph River

Spring fishing for St Joseph River steelhead is often the best time to be on the river. As the water warms in early March, combined with snowmelt and rains, increased flows and the urge to spawn will bring in a lot of big steelhead.

I apply the same method that I use on many great lakes steelhead rivers in the spring. One thing for anglers to consider at this time of year with the increased flows is using larger baits at this time of year.

Large spawn bags that are the size of a dollar coin, large 4 and 5-inch plastic worms, and large flies like wooly buggers and white Clouser minnows can be most effective.

For more information on the best methods for spring fall and winter steelhead fishing check out my article Steelhead Fishing – Most Effective Methods For Steelhead

Boat Fishing For St Joseph River Steelhead

Similar to many large river steelhead fisheries, boat anglers have the upper hand in fishing for steelhead on this river since they can fish a large portion of the river and get to spots the bank anglers can’t get to.

Boat anglers will do well at times with methods like side drifting with lures or baits. Boat anglers can also anchor and fish spots using methods like fly fishing with indicators or chuck and duck methods.

Boat anglers can also anchor and float fish or drift fish spots thoroughly.

The river has a few good boat ramps near the mouth and up the river, especially between the Berrien Springs and Lake Michigan. 

Boaters can try launching boats at Shamrock Park in Berrien, the DNR boat ramp just off U.S. 31, and at the lower river, there’s a ramp near Exit 28. 

If you’re a novice angler, hiring a guide on this large fishery will help you get the most out of it. Guides can teach you the best methods and the best spots and are often well worth the money.

What’s the Best Way To Access St. Joseph River for Steelhead Fishing?

St. Joseph River has numerous access areas along the river.

Since routes 31, 33, and 12 cross or parallel the St. Joseph River in sections and you can often access the river in these spots. 

You can also use access points such as bridges, parks, and trail areas along the river.

Best Fishing Reports for St. Joseph River

Whether you’re a beginner or an expert steelhead angler, you need current information on access points, water levels, temperature, and other conditions that may affect your fishing results.

The USGS website is one of the best river flow reports that you can refer to before you go and fish since it is accurate and runs by a reliable government body. 

You can also find good flow information at SNOFLO. This report website provides gage information. They also give you access to rating information and a peak chart to help you determine which direction you should take and the most suitable fishing technique in that spot and season. 

What St. Joseph River Steelhead Fishing Regulations Should I Follow?

Are you an experienced angler who has just moved to Michigan? Don’t be anxious about fishing for steelhead on the St. Joseph River; you can find the regulations connected to this fishery here. And although different areas will have distinct law requirements for fishing, the regulations for St. Joseph River steelhead fishing are more similar to other large rivers.

Suppose you don’t understand any of the laws for St. Joe River; you can consult the authority to expound for you what they imply. This will enhance your steelhead fishing experience, helping you catch more fish and improve your business. If you’re doing it for fun, it will help you enjoy the moment in the waters without getting into trouble. 

Below are some of the sites you can visit to familiarize yourself with the different laws and regulations for fishing for steelhead on the St. Joseph River.

St Joseph River Steelhead Fishing Q&A

If you have any tips, comments, or questions, let us know in the comment section below.

Tight Lines


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  1. Thanks Graham,I appreciate the feedback. Those rivers and creeks are all in Michigan which isn’t too far from where I’m located in Indiana. But wasn’t sure if there were tributaries in Indiana off the St. Joe that you were aware of. Again,thank you for the information.

  2. Hi, Graham- I often fish the St. Joe for smallmouth bass (as well as the Paw Paw river and other creeks in the SW Michigan) but want to fish steelhead/trout also. I’d be interested in hiring you as a guide for a day while you are in the area. Please drop me a line if that’s a possibility.


  3. is there a steelhead association that one can join? dies it give you access to both southwest Michigan and indiana fishing?