This article on steelhead fishing in Michigan is a cooperative effort from three river guides to ensure it’s the most accurate and comprehensive article available. Our local Michigan guides tell you what you need to know about fishing steelhead in Michigan.
Steelhead fishing in Michigan runs twelve months a year with some peak times in the rivers and peak times in the lakes. Fly fishing, float fishing, and lures are most effective when fishing for Michigan steelhead. There are many small and large rivers in Michigan that get runs of steelhead.
Steelhead Fishing Michigan
Steelhead were introduced into Lake Michigan through Michigan’s steelhead planting and stocking program in the late 1800s in an attempt to bolster recreational and commercial fisheries around the state’s countless rivers.
Since then, they have adapted well and have become one of the most popular and sought-after game fish in Michigan.
There are many great guide services in east Michigan, UP Michigan, and west Michigan.
Over the years, the state of Michigan has been able to manage its steelhead populations using various fisheries management efforts such as annual steelhead stocking and regulations. This is done through the Michigan Department of Natural Resources.
The Michigan steelhead is lauded for its impressive strength, size, and appearance.
The average adult Michigan steelhead attains a weight of between 6-7 pounds but can extend up to 20 pounds.
After being planted or stocked in these Michigan rivers, these steelhead make their way to huge water bodies such as the Great Lakes.
By this migration, these steelhead can attain a much more rapid growth by being exposed to a much richer forage base which otherwise would not be gotten staying all year round in the same river.
After maturity, most steelhead return home to the river where they were stocked or born for the purpose of spawning.
With all being said, steelhead fishing in Michigan is a must-do experience for every angler.
The Best Michigan Steelhead Rivers
Michigan is nationally known as a quality steelhead fishing destination thanks to its enormous volume of water. This state boasts over 20,000 miles worth of water body with a lot of great rivers home to colossal steelhead runs to explore.
Some of these rivers are considered the best steelhead fisheries in the entire country. Some of the rivers or more like creeks being under 20 feet wide while others are over 100 feet wide.
Even the bigger rivers in turn have smaller tributaries attached to them, allowing for more steelhead finding and fishing opportunities in Michigan.
This means no matter where you are located in the state, no matter what your fishing skill level is, there are Michigan steelhead fishing opportunities all over for anglers that live in the area or fishermen that will be visiting.
With all these quality steelhead fishing destinations to explore, choosing where to go can be somewhat overwhelming. However, there are a few rivers that stand out.
Anglers have the option to fish miles of each river from the mouth of the river to the headwaters:
- Big Manistee River
- Muskegon River
- Pere Marquette River
- Grand River
- St. Joseph River
- Two-Hearted River
- Clinton River
- Kalamazoo River
Best Time for Steelhead Fishing Michigan
Michigan enjoys four runs of steelhead migration, plus there is also some fantastic steelhead fishing in Lake Michigan for anglers with boats or even shore anglers fishing from the pier and river mouth shorelines.
Although this article is primarily about river steelhead fishing in Michigan, there are some great opportunities to fish the great lakes for steelhead.
Inshore steelhead fishing can be very good in the spring and fall.
During the summer, most steelhead will be out deep, and therefore, often, your best best is a steelhead charter boat service.
Our contributing guide Captain Alex Bialik runs Fire Plug Charters in Western Michigan area. Alex targets steelhead, king salmon, and brown trout out in the lake and in the rivers.
For those looking for information on steelhead fishing out on the lake, check out Lake Michigan Steelhead Fishing – (coming Soon).
Having a boat or casting from the piers means that anglers can pursue steelhead any time of the year.
River Fishing Season
Typically, the river steelhead fishing season in Michigan starts in early fall to, get really good through the winter, and goes until late spring (September to May).
However, there are Summer run steelhead available in Michigan river as well. Summer run steelhead can be caught from June to March.
Anytime between mid-September (with cooler nights or cold rains) and even August, anglers get the opportunity to enjoy some good fishing for summer steelhead in Michigan.
Even though fishing for steelhead in MI rivers is possible at any time during these seasons, knowing what to expect during each season is important. It is equally important to learn the more productive Michigan steelhead fishing methods, and baits that work best during each season.
Bear in mind that steelhead also hold and feed differently throughout the season. This depends on the time of year, the river run-off rates, or the water temperature.
Anglers that know how to adapt during these seasons and conditions are those that will end up with the most steelhead.
River Mouths, Piers, and Shores
Steelhead fishing at the river mouths, the piers, and the inlets and shorelines of Lake Michigan can be very good fishing at certain times of the year.
There are opportunities for anglers fishing the river mouths and shorelines of Lake Michigan to get into fresh silver and hard fighting steelhead.
It’s these fresh aggressive fish that attract the guys to these areas. These are the steelhead that are said to be the best fish to harvest.
During the spring and fall, the steelhead will often congregate near shore and near the river mouths waiting for ideal river conditions to start moving into the river.
Even in late spring as steelhead make their way out of the rivers after they have spawned, they will be hungry and will readily eat whatever food they can find, which provides an opportunity for anglers to catch steelhead at the river mouths as these steelhead are leaving the rivers, this happens a lot in April to the end of May.
This is a great time to be casting lures and baits out into the open water of the river mouth and Lake Michigan. Morning and evening are generally always the best times since the steelhead like to start their runs during low light hours. Any time of the year can be good at the river mouths.
Michigan steelhead fishing will slow down in June and July as most steelhead will be further out into the lake.
Fall Run Steelhead Fishing in Michigan (September, October, and November)
The fall season marks the start of steelhead pouring in from the Great Lakes into Michigan’s west-side tributaries, otherwise known as the spawning migration or the runs.
The fall run usually kicks off by mid-September on most rivers with smaller sporadic runs with what may be considered a summer run steelhead.
Fall season steelhead is characterized by abundant and beautiful colors along the rivers, and aggressive and acrobatic and hard fighting steelhead.
Anglers and river guides prefer to fish during this period because fishing is generally good because the summer and fall run steelhead tend to feed as they move up the river to the spawning ground and when they are holding in the pools and deeper waters.
Many steelhead will follow the Chinook and Coho salmon up the river and hold below them and feed on any loose eggs.
This is one reason why egg sacs and egg flies can be the most effective option at this time.
The fall steelhead runs only get better, but with better fishing comes crowds in the river. If you are into the salmon fishing, see Salmon Fishing: Methods and Baits.
This happens towards the middle of October and into November when the river gets around 60F after cold rains. At this time, the rivers are usually full of steelhead and anglers.
As it gets colder into late November and December, the steelhead remain in the river, but the crowds slowly disappear.
I break the fall steelhead run into three stages and fish them differently because if I don’t, my clients won’t catch as many fish.
- Stage 1 – (September to Early November). Warmer water stage, with fresh aggressive steelhead that will eat just about anything. Fish will be everywhere and will hold in the same spots for less time.
- Stage 2 – Colder water stage, (Early November to late November), the peak time of day starts to change, and the steelhead will hold in different spots than they did early in the fall, they move through the river at different times of the day and move less often, fewer sections of the river will hold fish and those holding spots will change based on time of day and the water temps.
- Stage 3 – Very cold water stage, (Late November to Late December), Steelhead feed less often, peak times and feeding windows are smaller, migration slows, and fish start stacking up and holding minor near winter locations.
If you are looking forward to fishing for steelhead in Michigan in the fall, I recommend that you take a look at my page Fall Steelhead Fishing: Proven Guide Tips And Tactics.
On that page, I discuss how to effectively fish for great lakes steelhead during the fall season, the tactics, and the best baits used by guides and anglers like me.
Recent related articles on Michigan Steelhead fishing:
- Fall Fishing For Michigan Steelhead
- Winter Fishing For Michigan Steelhead
- Summer Steelhead Fishing In Michigan
- Spring Steelhead Fishing In Michigan
Winter Run Steelhead Fishing in Michigan (December, January, and early March)
Winter is another great time for Michigan Steelhead Fishing with fewer anglers on the river, and with lots of summer and fall run steelhead in the river just holding and waiting for suitable temps to spawn!
In my opinion, winter steelhead fishing in Michigan starts in December when the river water temps get into the low 40s and high 30s, or when the ice starts forming along the river edges.
At this time, the steelhead will start to react differently. Their feeding windows change, their holding spots change, and the baits, lures, and presentations should also change.
There are some sunny winter days that will warm the water a bit and these days are often the most productive.
Winter steelhead are generally slow and very pragmatic in their movements when the water gets ice cold.
Thanks to the freezing and frigid waters, the steelhead will slow any migration and will hold in deeper, slower water to conserve energy.
This continues to happen till spring approaches and water temps start to rise by a few degrees or more.
During the winter, anglers will need to present their offering in a slow manner in order for the steelhead to have the chance to grab it.
The winter season is also a period characterized by a lack of fishing pressure, and this can make for some peaceful, beautiful days on Michigan’s rivers, but less pressured fish are also more likely to feed.
Good river guides and anglers will adapt and change tactics and baits based on the fish and conditions, and so should you. I discuss the changes that guides make when the steelhead are cold on my page, Winter Steelhead Fishing: Tips And Tactics Of Expert Guides.
Spring Run Steelhead Fishing In Michigan (March, April, and May)
Spring steelhead fishing in Michigan usually starts in late February or early March, and steelhead can be caught into late May, but the peak season for Michigan steelhead season is March and April.
As the spring approaches, Michigan’s waters gradually begin warming up, and this is when steelhead activity considerably picks up.
Thanks to these warming temperatures, all the steelhead that were holding in deep spots during the winter begin to move and will feed as they look for spawning mates and spawning grounds.
At the same time, Michigan rivers will also see fresh runs of spring steelhead that will start entering the rivers as the waters warm. This is why you will see darker winter fish and bright silver fresh fish in the rivers at same time.
It’s the rains and snow melt that will increase water levels and drive more steelhead into the rivers, especially on the smaller streams. Once the rivers go from muddy and flooded to greenish and clear, the fishing can be fantastic.
When it comes to steelhead fishing in Michigan, many anglers consider this to be the best time of the year for it.
However, that also means that this is the time of the year when Michigan’s steelhead rivers also have the most steelhead and anglers.
Steelhead fishing Michigan can be very good for spring steelhead if anglers understand the steelhead and the three stages of the spring steelhead run.
Stage 1 – Steelhead start moving due to warming water and higher water levels.
Stage 2 – The steelhead have moved onto shallower gravel shoals and where to lay eggs. This is the spawn.
Stage 3 – Steelhead complete their spawn and move off the beds to rest or hold in deeper pools and start dropping back to the lake.
Each stage can fish differently, so identifying which stage the steelhead are in and targeting specific steelhead (not the ones on the spawning beds) can greatly increase your chances and help you catch a lot more steelhead.
Spring is also the season when landing some of the biggest steelhead happens.
For details tips and tactics, best baits and flies, and how to fish the three stages of spring steelhead runs, which you really should know, check out my page Spring Steelhead Fishing: Tips And Tactics From The Guides.
Summer Steelhead Fishing In Michigan: July, August, September
Summer is another time for steelhead fishing in Michigan.
Although not as popular because there are not a lot of summer-run steelhead in the river, some anglers know about the summer fishing opportunities on some rivers and where to go to get them.
The image is Alex from Fire Plug charter with a summer run steelhead caught in September.
While many anglers are out chasing steelhead in Lake Michigan and Lake Huron, some anglers are chasing summer run steelhead in the rivers.
The summer steelhead season in the rivers kicks off in July and is known to receive a push of a unique strain of steelhead known as Skamania, and only a few Michigan rivers are stocked with these steelheads and get a good-sized push of this steelhead.
Unlike the common summer steelhead breed that begins its spawning run in the early fall, Skamania-strain steelhead begins theirs in the summer from June to November, with peak runs from July to September.
Summer-run steelhead enter Michigan streams, and they will remain there until early spring when they finish spawning.
And, while they are in the river these summer run steelhead will continue to feed, grow, and sexually mature. This means they can be easy to catch if you know where they are. To learn more about summer steelhead, check out my article Summer Steelhead.
Best Methods For Catching Steelhead Michigan
Successful fishing for steelhead in Michigan is largely dependent on the techniques anglers employ when fishing and how well they fish.
There are a variety of techniques for anglers to choose from when steelhead fishing Michigan.
However, you increase your chances of catching the most steelhead when you fish with the technique suited for the location and situation.
This is to say that some techniques will work more than others when it comes to fishing Michigan’s rivers.
Float Fishing Michigan Steelhead
A lot of anglers and guides consider this steelhead fishing method the most effective method for steelhead in Michigan and all around the great lakes region. Both our contributing and I spend a lot of time guiding with this method.
Float fishing is very popular and effective if you know how to do it well. As a guide that has been teaching float fishing for over 20 years, I know that doing it well is a skill and doing it well will catch ten times more steelhead.
This steelhead fishing method generally involves presenting a bait to Michigan’s steelhead in a natural-flowing, drag-free drift with the bait suspended below a river float/bobber.
The float helps to suspend your bait at the desired depth and serves as a bite/strike indicator. The skilled angler will also use the float to control the speed of the bait to make it drift at a more natural pace. Doing so greatly improves your catch rate.
Float fishing can be done with spinning reels, baitcasting reels, and centerpin reels.
My preference is the centerpin reel because I believe it is the most effective method.
I’ve been teaching centerpin fishing for over 20 years and can confidently tell you it’s worth learning.
For expert advice on best float fishing practices, check out my page Float Fishing: Tips From A Pro River Guide For More Trout.
Fly Fishing Michigan Steelhead
If I’m not float fishing for steelhead, then I’m fly fishing for steelhead.
Flying fishing is likely used by more steelhead fishing guides than any other method. That says something about the effectiveness of this method on steelhead.
There are typically three different ways to fly fish for Michigan steelhead. This includes nymphing, streamer fishing, and Spey fishing or swinging flies.
The choice of which method to employ will depend on the personal preference of the anger, however, some methods will fish better based on the type or condition of the river.
Nymphing for steelhead generally involves presenting your flies below the surface, such that it naturally imitates the steelhead’s food sources.
This is done with the help of an indicator and a long leader or using a tight line method known as Euro Nymphing.
The indicator helps in suspending the flies and indicates subtle bites. This method is best in 3 to 7 feet of water with moderate to fast currents.
Euro Nymphing is best in 1 to 6 feet of water and excels in small pocket water and shallow runs.
For more on how to nymph for steelhead in the Michigan Rivers, I have an entire page dedicated to discussing the art of nymph fishing for steelhead as well as the best flies and best setup that river guides use.
Check out my page, Nymphing For Steelhead: The 3 Most Effective Methods.
Streamer fishing for
steelhead is also effective and can produce a lot of fish in all depths of water.
Anglers will also use this method when casting out in the lake from a boat or from shore, and at the river mouths.
For more on this method, including the best flies and setups, see Streamer Fishing For Steelhead.
Spey Fishing: Swinging Flies
Swinging flies with a Spey rod and Spey line on the other hand has been a growing method of fishing for steelhead around the great lakes region.
One of my first experiences with Spey fishing was on the Pere Marquette River in Western Michigan.
Although Spey fishing is less common around the Great Lakes Region, West Coast steelhead and salmon anglers have been using this method for a long time. East Coast Atlantic salmon anglers have probably been using it even longer.
This steelhead fishing technique involves making a long cast across the river and allowing the current to swing your flies from one side of the river to the other.
Spey fishing is best done on mid to large rivers, where you can make longer casts and cover a lot of water.
To learn more about Spey fishing, check out Spey Fishing For Steelhead.
In my years of experience as an angler and river guide, this is one of the most effective (non-float) steelhead fishing techniques when fishing bigger deeper rivers with swift currents.
Drift fishing is a very flexible and effective method, but also very tough to master since many anglers struggle with learning strike detection.
With the drift fishing method, you can fish sections of the river that are 3 to 30 feet deep.
This fishing method simply means casting out your bait with the help of significant weight to help it sink t the bottom, and then allowing the bait and weight to drift and bounce along and across the bottom.
The goal is to keep the bait close to the river bottom and drifting at the same speed as the river’s lower current. No float is used, and the angler should maintain slight tension and set the hook with any stopping or tightening of the line.
As simple as this sounds, it can be difficult to get a natural presentation of your bait so you need to be sure you use the right amount of weight for both the velocity and depth of each spot, also have the proper leader setup, and read the line carefully to detect the subtle steelhead takes.
I discuss the best methods and setups, best baits, and types of water for successful drift fishing on my page Drift Fishing For Steelhead.
Similar to drift fishing but better on smaller starter spots and in pocket water is Bottom Bouncing. See this method at Bottom Bouncing Methods: Steelhead, Salmon, and Trout.
Plunking For Michigan Steelhead
Plunking for steelhead is an effective method just about any time, but it can be the best method when water levels are very high and when lots of fish are moving through the Rivers.
Plunking is used a lot at the river mouths, from piers, and the shorelines of the lake.
It’s also a perfect technique for beginner anglers or those with limited mobility.
This steelhead fishing method largely depends on the upriver migration and movement of steelhead since the bait is stationary and anchored to the bottom with a large weight. You basically cast out and then wait.
I discuss some best practices and a couple of setups for a successful plunking for steelhead in my article Plunking for Steelhead.
Lure fishing is popular and effective for Michigan steelhead. I’m going to go out on a limb here and say that lure fishing for steelhead is done more in Michigan by both river guides and anglers than anywhere else around the great lakes.
I think this is due in part to the larger wider and flatter rivers that are more common in Michigan.
In fact, it’s hard to find a river guide in states like Pennsylvania, Ohio, and New York that use lures.
Most guides in these states and in Ontario Canada use fly fishing methods, and some will use float fishing methods.
Lures like spinners, spoons, crankbaits and plugs in sizes 2 inches to 4 inches are most effective.
With lures, just casting it out and dealing it in but fishing the water systematically and covering the river thoroughly at the right angles and right depth are key to catching more steelhead. For more on advanced lure fishing methods, covering water, depths, and best lures, check out Steelhead Fishing With Lures.
Jigs are another type of lure that can be very effective and are something you should try if you spin fish for steelhead. There are two ways to fish jigs for steelhead. One is to drift them under a float or with the drift fishing or bottom bouncing method.
The second method is to cast out and twitch jigs in a swimming or jigging motion. Jig fishing is not as popular as other methods for steelhead, but as my clients will tell you, it can be very fun and very productive. Learn more at Jig Fishing For Steelhead.
Other steelhead fishing methods include:
- Bobber Doggin – A new and unique west coast method of bobber fishing. Find out if it’s good or bad.
- Back Trolling / Plug Fishing – An effective boat fishing method used in rivers for steelhead. This method is used more in Michigan than anywhere else around the great lakes region.
Best Baits For Steelhead Fishing Michigan
Like most steelhead around the great lakes, Michigan steelhead are opportunistic and will eat almost any well-presented bait. However, there are times when certain baits will be better than others.
I know you want to know what the baits are that guides use because they are the most effective baits.
So I’ll share them with you, but before I do, I’ll stress two things.
First, just because you use great baits or the same baits that guides use, if you fish it poorly or you fish it on a bad leader setup, you will still struggle to catch fish.
I discuss this in detail on this website, so there are no excuses for a bad setup.
Second, just because a bait was working well yesterday, or last week, or even last month doesn’t mean it will be the best bait today.
This means having a good assortment of baits, and then change when the steelhead are not responding to your bait. Be sure to rotate through your baits, sizes, and colors to figure out what they want. Good guides will do this when the fishing slows on one bait.
The baits that Michigan river guides and veteran anglers use the most are:
- Eggs – Spawn sacs and Skein.
- Beads – Beads have become a staple for most good steelhead anglers and guides.
- Worms – 80% of the steelhead I catch the last few years have been on 3 to 4-inch plastic worms in various colors. See Fishing With Worms For Trout and Steelhead: 10 Guide Tips.
- Flies – Flies like nymphs are not just for fly fishing, and on busy rivers where everybody is using spawn sacs, flies can often be the best bait to use for pressured steelhead.
See my list of the 11 best baits and the colors and sizes that work best on my page Best Baits For Steelhead.
When fishing worms, I wacky rig my worms on a size #8 or #10 egg-type hook or spawn sac hook.
Pink, red, and brown worms in that order work best for me most of the time, and I use worms in water from gin-clear to steelhead green and even almost muddy.
Beads are another fantastic bait that might be new to some anglers. Beads can be good in all conditions. Fishing With Beads: 5 Guide Tips For More Fish
Rules and Regulations For Steelhead Fishing Michigan
Michigan no doubt provides a plethora of steelhead fishing opportunities for anglers. However, before one heads out for some Steelhead Fishing MI, it is important to be prepared and properly informed.
There are rules and regulations surrounding Michigan steelhead fishing activities, amongst other fishing. You want to be informed on how, when, and where steelhead fishing in Michigan is allowed.
For instance, before you’re allowed to target steelhead fish in Michigan public waters, you need a license if you are 17 years or above.
There are more regulations that anglers need to be aware of. If you are interested in trying Michigan Steelhead Fishing, you can learn more about how to get started here. Additionally, you can access the fishing rules and regulations of Michigan as published in the DNR’s Fishing Digest.
Michigan Steelhead Guide Services
You can learn so much from a guide in just one day on the river. Not only will they show you the setups they use, the best baits, and proper gear, they are great guys to be on the bank or on the boat with.
Local guides have extensive knowledge of the rivers, the area, and the fish, so being side by side with an experienced and being coached by them can cut your learning curve by years.
Check out these recommended Michigan steelhead guides:
- John Weilinga in West Michigan at getbentguideservice_mi.
- Captain Alex Bialik at Fire Plug Charters.
Special thanks to John and to Eli at SBS Outdoors Action for sharing their awesome images with us. Check them out on Instagram at @sbsoutdooraction and watch their steelhead fishing adventures on YouTube.
Steelhead Fishing Michigan Q&A
That concludes our article on steelhead fishing Michigan. If you have any questions or advice, let us know in the comments section below.