Winter Steelhead Fishing Michigan

Winter steelhead fishing Michigan is when big steelhead like this are caught.
Michigan steelhead guides like John from Get Bent Guide Service know which tactics and baits are best, and they have a good idea of where winter steelhead hold, as well as their migration patterns, which keeps them catching a lot of steelhead in the winter.

While some guys pack it in when the snow hits the ground, I actually get out and fish more often. I do this for a few reasons. Winter steelhead fishing in Michigan can be tough for many anglers, which is why they stay home, but if you know how to properly fish for winter steelhead, you understand them like I do, you can do exceptionally well.

Some of my best days on the water were in the middle of the winter.

I still remember a client calling me up in late January during a warm spell and asking me if it was worth booking a trip at this time of year.

My response was simple: “There are fish in my river, so if they’re biting, you should do okay.” By the time we hit the second spot, he’d landed over 20 steelhead. In two days with me, he landed 72 steelhead, hooked over 100, and we didn’t see another angler because everyone was at home staying warm and dry.

This is what you need to know about winter steelhead fishing in Michigan:

  1. The Fish Are There: Thousands of fish move into the rivers from September to December, and then they stay there and wait for spring. So the fish are there all winter!
  2. Sleep In: AKA, start later…. One of the reasons many anglers struggle to catch fish is because they fish like it’s April. They show up at first light, they catch no fish, and then they leave by 10 am because the fishing sucks. I don’t even start fishing until 10 am.
  3. Temperature Trumps All: It does not matter if the pool is full of fish and you have the best bait and a perfect presentation. If the fish are cold, they won’t eat! Understanding temperature is the key to catching steelhead in the winter. FYI – Early morning is when the steelhead are the coldest!
  4. Fish The Right Spots: In the winter, deeper, bigger, and slower pools in the river are the best spots to fish because that’s where the steelhead will concentrate.
  5. Dress Properly: If you are cold, you won’t enjoy yourself. Layers, warm clothes, and extra gloves are important. So are my “stay warm tips”. I stand in ice-cold water for many days over the winter, and I rarely get cold because I know how to dress properly for the conditions.

Winter steelhead fishing in Michigan can be very good because the biggest fish are in the river at this time, there’s usually lots of steelhead in the river, and there are very few anglers around.

Good anglers adapt and adjust to the conditions, and this enables them to catch more winter steelhead in Michigan rivers.

Winter Steelhead Fishing Michigan

A winter Michigan steelhead
A winter Michigan steelhead caught by Alex from Fire Plug Charters. Click the image to book a trip with Alex.

Larger rivers like the Muskegon River and Big Manistee River never freeze during the winter months. Leaving anglers the option of fishing all winter long. Some of the best steelhead fishing in Michigan is during December, January, February, and early March. 

Betts Guide Service (3)

The winter steelhead season begins when temperatures fall below a certain threshold, generally, that starts in early December, when Ice starts to form on the edges of the rivers, and it can extend until early March.

Winter steelhead is a combination of winter run strains that enter rivers in late fall to April, and also some holdover Summer Run steelheads.

This all means there are a lot of steelhead in the rivers during the winter and the fishing can be good if you know what you are doing and you know where to fish.

The peak steelhead run occurs in early spring for most rivers, but fall runs can also be strong and overwintering fish can provide decent open water fishing through the coldest months of the year.

Daniel O’Keefe, Michigan State University – Study

Understanding Winter Steelhead

Dylan With a Michigan Winter Steelhead
Dylan with a silver winter Steelhead: See more great images from Dylan.

As a guide who fishes for steelhead seven days a week from late September until the river freezes in late December or January, I get to see how the steelhead behaviors change and how the fishing changes.

If I didn’t adapt and change with the steelhead throughout the fall and winter, my clients would rarely catch fish.

You need to adapt because fall spots that held a lot of steelhead and baits that worked great then might not be good now.

When To Fish?

PA winter steelhead Fishing

Winter steelhead are very temperature sensitive, so they can become lethargic and inactive at times. When the temperature drops, they become even more inactive.

At night, the air temperatures plummet, and so do the river temperatures, and that means early in the morning, the river is at its coldest after many hours of darkness. This also means the steelhead are not going to be active.

As the sun starts to warm up the river, the steelhead can become active again.

When winter fishing, remember that dropping water temps shut fish down, prolonged stable temps can be good or bad, and rising temps will often activate steelhead. Even a 1-degree temperature increase is all it takes to make steelhead feed.

Fishing For steelhead
This is my client. There was ice where he is standing when we arrived. I broke and cleared the ice so he could fish. Although I made a lot of noise, and he thought I was spooking the fish, he landed 7 big steelhead.

The best time of day for winter steelhead fishing is between 11 AM and 2 PM, especially on sunny days.

Where To Fish?

John Wielinga Get Bent Guide Service Michigan
A beauty January Michigan steelhead caught by John Wielinga from Get Bent Guide Service in Michigan. Click for more or to book your trip.

Winter steelhead start to congregate in deep and slow-moving water when the water gets around 40F.

Based on my experience, winter fishing tactics are required when I see ice forming on the edges of the rivers, and this is when the steelhead are holding deep.

How To Fish?

Spey Fishing For Winter steelhead

When it comes to winter steelhead fishing in Michigan, the name of the game is slow and low!

The steelhead are in the slower, deeper water, and they will usually be belly-to-the-bottom.

Michigan winter steelhead can be lethargic and less active so I fish my baits, my flies, and my lures as slowly and as deep as possible. My goal is to slow my baits down and get them as close to the steelhead as possible.

Baits, Flies, And Lures

Steelhead caught on a bead from Fire Plug Charters. Click the Image to see more or to book a trip.
Steelhead caught on a bead from Fire Plug Charters With Captain Alex.

At this time of the year, often smaller less intrusive baits and lures are best. However, not always!

As I do at any time of the year I will rotate through baits, lures, flies, and colors and sizes to figure out what they want.

But, often, the rivers in the winter are very clear and that often means more subtle colors, and smaller baits will work best.

This is why I start with smaller baits and gradually get bigger and brighter in color if the small and subtle baits aren’t working.

The top baits for winter steelhead fishing in Michigan are:

  • Spawn Sacs
  • Beads
  • Worms
  • Flies

If you want more detailed information on methods, tactics, and baits, check out Winter Steelhead Fishing: A Complete Guide.

Top Michigan Rivers for Winter Steelhead Fishing

Michigan has many rivers that are perfect for winter steelhead fishing.

Bigger rivers tend to be the better winter rivers to fish because they tend to stay ice-free longer. They are also deeper which means more steelhead will holdover through the river.

Best Lake Huron Steelhead Rivers

  • Clinton River – In the southeast portions of Michigan, the Clinton River is great for winter steelhead fishing. It is home to a significant population of wild steelhead, giving anglers a good chance of catching one. Anglers can enjoy fishing in the upper reaches of the Clinton River’s North Branch.
  • Huron River – The Huron River is another small eastern river with a good run of steelhead. For both the Clinton and Huron River and all other rivers listed here, check the state fishing regulations to be sure winter steelhead fishing is still permitted.
  • Au Sable River – The famous Au Sable River also gets good runs of steelhead and is one of the best winter steelhead rivers flowing into Lake Huron. The steelhead will make it about 11 miles up the river to the Foote Dam, where their migration is stopped.
  • Thunder Bay River – The Thunder Bay River in Alpena has a mile-long stretch of river before the steelhead are stopped by the dam. But this river is known to stay ice-free when other rivers are frozen, so it’s worth checking out.
  • Rifle River – The Rifle River flows into northern Saginaw Bay, and it gets runs of late-fall steelhead. The fishing can be good on this river until it freezes or during warm spells.
  • Au Gres River – The East Branch of the Au Gres is another smaller river that gets runs of fall steelhead. It can be good in early winter until it freezes.

Best Lake Michigan Steelhead Rivers

  • St Joseph River – One of the best southwestern rivers for winter steelhead fishing in Michigan is the St Joseph River. This is one of those rivers I mentioned that gets Skamania, summer run steelhead, and late fall and winter steelhead. At times, this river is loaded with steelhead, and winter fishing here can be excellent.
  • Kalamazoo River – The Kalamazoo River can fish well in early and late winter and is worth checking out. For guide trips here, contact John at Get Bent Guide Service.
  • Muskegon River: The big Muskegon River can be great at any time of the year, but it’s an excellent river for winter steelhead fishing, and it rarely freezes. Steelheads will most likely be drawn to the Muskegon River’s plethora of baitfish species, so lures, and streamers can be good. Therefore, a broad selection of lures is a good idea. Baits also work well here.
  • Manistee Rivers – The Big Manistee and Little Manistee Rivers are good rivers for winter steelhead fishing. While on the Manistee River, the lower parts near Lake Michigan are ideal for catching steelhead. These two large rivers generally never freeze during the winter, making them an excellent location for winter steelhead fishing in Michigan. For guided trips on this river, check out Fire Plug Charters.
  • Pere Marquette River – This river has deep pools and rapids that are ideal for winter steelhead fishing and holding areas. Gleason’s Landing is a notable campsite on the river’s banks, and its stretch has extraordinary value, as it can provide anglers with up to a 15-pound winter steelhead.
  • Grand River – This river has the biggest yearly migration of Michigan’s winter steelhead. So as long as it is not frozen over, it’s definitely worth fishing.

Preparing For Winter Steelhead Fishing in Michigan

An angler winter steelhead fishing Ohio river
Winter steelhead fishing often requires anglers to stand in ice-cold water and below-freezing air temperatures for hours.

Winter has its own set of challenges for anglers. Here are some tips and recommendations that I give to my clients to help them stay warmer.

●     Appropriate Winter Gear – The main thing you need to do is to stay dry and warm. In most cases, layering your clothing is the best option.

  • Base and Middle Layer of Clothing – Wear multiple layers
  • Winter Fishing Gloves – Bring an extra pair of gloves incse your main gloves get wet.
  • Winter Wader Pants – I wear thermal winter wader pants.
  • Insulated Socks – I wear insulated or thermal socks overtop of a thin base layer sock.
  • Waders – Some waders are warmer than others. The key to warmer feet is insulated boot foot waders that are one or two sizes up. Or heated insoles. See Best Winter Waders.
  • Winter Headwear – An insulated hat is best.
  • Hand and Feet Warmers – I always have plenty of disposable hand warmers, and I really like my electric heated insoles.
  • Jacket – A good wading jacket or any insulated winter coat.
  • Fishing Vest or packs are a must for storing your gear.

Ever wonder how river guides keep themselves warm when they are on the water all day in freezing water and air temperatures. I’ll tell you all our tips and tricks for staying warm on our page Fishing In The Winter – Stay Warm With These 10 Tips.

Pro Tip: If you are fishing from a boat or wading in the river, bring an extra set of clothes to leave in the vehicle in case you happen to fall in.

Best Ways to Catch a Michigan Winter Steelhead

Late winter steelhead fishing can product some of the biggest steelhead on the year.
Photographer Dylan with a later winter steelhead. Late winter steelhead fishing can product some of the biggest steelhead on the year. Click the image to see more from Dylan.

With so many fishing tactics available for winter steelhead fishing in Michigan.

The methods listed below are effective for catching one.

●     Fly Fishing – Fly fishing is an angling technique that includes using an artificial fly as bait. Anglers must prepare the best flies to catch a Michigan winter steelhead. It can be a stonefly, worm fly, or yarn egg fly.

●     Float FishingFloat fishing is the preffered method for fishing in the winter because you can really slow your presentation down.

●     Lure Fishing – Lure fishing is also good in the winter if the steelhead are active. Using slow moving lures like Kwickfish, or using methods like back trolling are good options.

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Winter Fishing Saftey

An angler with a nice winter Steelhead
One of my clients with another large steelhead from this spot. Other anglers fished this spot before us and left. My winter tactics allowed my clients to land seven big steelhead in a couple of hours out of this one spot.

Do NOT walk out on the ice over a river. Currents create weak spots. One area can be a foot thick, and a few feet over it could be very thin. It’s best to stay off the ice at all times.

This is the revised and shortened article. To see the full in-depth article click HERE.

If you have a question or comment regarding winter steelhead fishing in Michigan let us know in the comments section below.

Tight Lines,



  • US Climate Data – Michigan Weather Statistics
  • – Winter Steelhead Distribution (1,2)
  • Michigan State University – Overwintering Steelhead (3)

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