Every fall in the Midwest, a cycle of life completes itself as Coho and Chinook salmon leave the great lakes and migrate up their natal rivers to spawn. Either via fish stocking or natural reproduction, these great game fish begin their lives in the coldwater rivers of Michigan and soon find themselves as the dominant resident of their respective great lake, although Lake Michigan prevails as the dominant salmon fishery of the 5 great lakes.
One of the longest rivers in Michigan, the Muskegon River, serves the role as host to some of the largest salmon runs in the Midwest. This “big water” fishery begins near the historic town of Grayling, Michigan and flows mostly south to begin with, then takes a turn west to the port town of Muskegon, Michigan where it empties into Lake Michigan itself. Between its origin and end, the Muskegon River has a number of dams, the last being the Croton hydroelectric dam in Croton, Michigan, which is north of Grand Rapids. None of these dams have fish ladders or means for passage, so all of the salmons migration ends at Croton dam. Although some Coho salmon do migrate up the Muskegon river, the Chinook dominate and can be found by the thousands in mid-late October each year. These great game fish can range from 10-20 pounds or more, depending on the health of the Alewife population, which is the primary food for salmon in lake Michigan.
We pursue the mighty “king” with both fly fishing and conventional equipment. The fly rods are in the 8-10 weight range and with good, large arbor reels to battle these freshwater brutes. The pound test line used as tippet can vary, although 10-12# will do just fine in most instances, fluorocarbon is best for clear water conditions. Techniques vary, although the most productive for fly fishing Michigan salmon in a river include bottom bounce “chuck-n-duck”, as well as floating line and indicator nymphing. The chuck-n-duck style of fishing can be done from either the comfort of a boat or while wade fishing, although line management can be a challenge when casting great distances while wading the river. The floating fly line and indicator rig can also be effectively fished by both wading and boat fishing, although it’s often best to wade fish while using this technique for a number of reasons. Utilizing very long, 2 handed rods, a.k.a. “spey rods”, is a great way to pursue salmon with the floating line and indicator technique. Smaller versions, “switch” rods have found their place within the indicator nymph fishing category.
Swinging streamers on 8-10 weight, fast action rods, with sink tips in the 8-15′ length, with a moderate sink rate of 2-3″/second will get your fly where it needs to be. I’ve found that streamers flies that mimic the bright pastel’ish color combinations of lures used by charter boats in lake Michigan, work in the river as well. Articulated flies, those that are double jointed and often with 2 hooks, wiggles and waggles in the water with a medium speed retrieve. I don’t hold back on tippet, often using 15-20#+ test line to ensure I can get a good hook set into the jaw of a large king salmon.
Conventional tackle include both open face spinning and bait caster reels, matched to the appropriate medium heavy – heavy action rods for casting-retrieving lures and running bobber rigs with some form of attractant or bait. The casting rods would be shorter, in the 7-8′ range, with good tip action and PLENTY of backbone to turn fish. The bobber rods would be longer, in the 10-11′ range, also with good tip action and stout lower section of the rod for maneuvering fish. Lures used would include Rapala type body baits and even some spinners in gold and silver.
The first salmon show up anywhere from late August – early September, however those can be a very limited number of fish that just trickled in with a timely drop in lake Michigan water temperature and river temperature. A bulk of the run comes in mid September to early October. Salmon can be found in the river through mid to late November most years, however October is the prime month for our Chinook salmon on the Muskegon River.
Once in the river system, salmon are either “staging” or “spawning” and available during both phases of their migration to the angler. The staging fish are those who have come up the river, but their body is simply not ready for the actual spawning process. They can stage anywhere from a couple days to a week+ and do so in deep, dark pools and runs that provide them cover. The later in the run, the shorter the staging period, as dropping water temperatures make for a quicker turnaround time from “run” to “spawn”. Since Chinook salmon are essentially done eating as they enter the river mouths, they are in the process of dying throughout their spawn and end their lives following the completion of the reproduction process.
The Muskegon River is one of many west Michigan rivers to receive good salmon runs each year. We often find ourselves searching out alternate rivers early in this cycle, such as the Pere Marquette and Betsie, as they will get good numbers of fish from late August, through September. The Muskegon comes into prime time for migratory salmon in the month of October and can go into November as well.
For additional information or specific details on this great fall fishery, please call (616) 560-3195, or click HERE to send an email.
Take care ! ~Jeff