Spring Steelhead Fishing on The Muskegon River

Spring is a great time to be outdoors here in Michigan as both plant and wild life comes alive with the warming days of April and May.  For those of us who like to fish and specifically fly fish, it’s even more appealing since this is when the rivers of Michigan “come alive”……..!

Beginning in March, thousands of Michigan Steelhead search out their natal rivers to migrate up and spawn in.  Some steelhead who either stayed in the river system after the fall run or trickled in during the months of January and February, will be the first to search out the right habitat and spawn.  The spring spawning run on west Michigan’s Muskegon river goes well into May in certain years, with water flow and temperature helping dictate the length of the run.

What are Steelhead ?

These fantastic game fish are essentially a big rainbow trout that are born in the river, live there for a year and then head out to the great lakes to fatten up on alewives (baitfish) and other food sources.  Once in their third year, they’re sexually mature enough to successfully spawn and do so that year, as well as one additional year.  Since they don’t die after spawning like their Michigan big game counterpart the Chinook salmon, they are available to the fly fisher before, during AND after the spawning process.  While many, like myself, prefer not to fish for actively spawning steelhead, it can be hard to keep aggressive males that are around females, from biting.  During the spawning process, the females create the bedding area, known as a “redd” and the males are fighting amongst themselves for spawning rights around these same bedding areas.  That said, we do try to leave the females alone and target the males, when no other option exists.

When to fish for Spring Steelhead

When entering the river system, spring steelhead are still nice and chrome in color and very energetic.  They can/do act like the acrobatic fish of fall at times, with 5’ high jumps and reel screaming runs being common.  During this “staging” time of their run, their bodies are not yet ready to actually spawn and they will “stage” in pools or runs close to spawning grounds.  Big, gaudy fly patterns get the most attention and best results for these fish as they have yet to see many/any flies come their way since coming into the river.  This time of year also finds the rivers running high and off-color, so attention grabbing fly patterns work best.

During the actual “spawn”, the female steelhead concentrates on creating the depression in the gravel bottom where she will ultimately lay her eggs.  This is done by fanning the gravel with her tail.  Once this depression is completed, she lays here eggs in it, followed by the male steelhead doing his part to fertilize the eggs and the redd is then covered with loose gravel by the female.  She will guard the redd until she cannot sustain in the strong currents that are part of the spawning habitat.  During the spawn, it’s possible to fish around that active female, without interfering with her much needed efforts of reproduction.  By casting large leech type patterns in low light, or attractive nymph and egg patterns into the drop offs or pools close by, males will often smack a fly without hesitation.   If I find such an area with very few/any males, but actively spawning females, I will pass it up and search out other fish.

A bonus to the Michigan steelhead fly fisher is the opportunity to fish for “drop back” steelhead.  Once the spawning process is completed, Muskegon river steelhead will “drop back” into nearby holes or runs and feed actively before heading back to lake Michigan.   It’s during this time that they are available to the fly fisher, using our most common techniques; drift fish nymphing, streamer fishing, or floating line-indicator nymph fishing.  Once you have a chance to see and feel a drop back steelhead emerge from dark water to smash your streamer pattern, it’s hard to NOT want to do it again, and again, and again……!

How to fish for Spring Steelhead

The most common and effective techniques for fishing spring steelhead on the Muskegon river include those just noted; drift fishing, a.k.a. chuck-n-duck, streamer fishing with either sink tip or sinking lines and nymph fishing with a floating fly line and indicator rig.  Fly patterns to have on hand include the large and attraction grabbing nymphs & leeches for high water or low light, standard nymph patterns such as caddis, hare’s ear, scuds, PT’s, sac-fry baitfish, sparrows, my “pharaoh” pattern, as well as egg patterns in varying sizes and colors.  Streamer patterns to have would include everything from large, gaudy, double jointed flies that look like they would be great for pike or musky, to slimmed down versions of baitfish and leech patterns.  The most common setups for chasing spring Muskegon river steelhead include rods in the 9-10’ lengths and in a 7 or 8 weight.  Other size and lengths of rods would certainly work, but I’ve found these to cover most of our needs while guiding on a big river such as the Muskegon.

Should you find yourself feeling the fishing itch that’s synonymous with great lakes big game fly fishing, certainly don’t hesitate calling or sending an email to ask for more specific information……..and, fish on !

Call  or email me for more information on Spring Steelhead fishing on the Muskegon River.  616-656-4172