A Tailwater Fishery – Fishing Guide – Jeff Bacon
Michigan’s Muskegon River is a very large river system, spanning over 100 yards wide in certain spots and travels over 200 miles through the lower peninsula of Michigan, passing through 6 counties along the way. Starting in the northern part of “the mitt”, near the historic fishing town of Grayling, it meanders mostly south, with a bit of west tossed in along the way, before it empties into Lake Michigan at the port town of Muskegon. The river flows through 4 dams in the mainstream, 3 of which are hydroelectric dams generating power for nearby towns and businesses. For the most part, the river is moderate in depth and a relatively slow current, with a bottom made up of primarily rocks and sand shelves. Once near the town of Newaygo, which is about an hour north of west Michigan’s largest city, Grand Rapids, the river flows through the last of the hydro dams near Newaygo and is then a free flowing river from there to Lake Michigan.
The Croton Hydroelectric dam outside of Newaygo produces enough cold water to support a good trout fishery and as good of a summer smallmouth bass fishery. It also serves as host to migratory activities of many other fish, both cold and warm water species. The most sought after are the fall migratory salmon and spring steelhead. It’s during the months of summer though that the river comes alive with incredible hatches of caddis flies and mayflies that start as early as mid May and go well into September. During these hatches, dry fly fishing to surface feeding trout can be very good, often producing fish in the 20” class on a regular basis. With the passing of each month comes the emergence of different flies and with some insight, we’re able to “match the hatch” most of the summer.
Starting in mid May, Cinnamon Caddis emerge during the day and bounce, hop and skip their way across the many stretches of riffle water in the Muskegon. Shortly after, we see the arrival of the first significant mayfly for the trout, sulphurs. We see 2 different Sulphurs on the Muskegon; the first is a larger #14, fly and is followed by its #18 cousin about month later. These creamy-yellow mayflies are slow to complete the actual process of emerging from an underwater insect, to flying adult and are an easy target for trout keyed in on them.
Come early June, you can find both Caddis and Sulphurs on the water, which makes for some pretty consistent dry fly activity throughout the day. It’s also during this time that we have what may be the single largest bug hatching-mating-spinner fall event of the summer, the Gray Drake. These #12 dry flies swarm over riffle water in early evening and can be active up until dusk. Females fly through swarms of males to complete the annual cycle of reproduction and after “hooking up”, they fall to the water and become an easy and large meal for hungry trout. Some of the largest surface feeding trout of the summer are caught during the Gray Drake hatch.
Typically, around late June we see the arrival of the second Sulphur, the #18 bug that will emerge in similar water to its larger cousin. These are found in calm flats both above and below riffles, but I’ve found some very good and consistent emergence above riffles –vs- below.
The last big trout bug of the summer to hatch on the Muskegon River is the Isonychia. This #10 mayfly rarely shows itself during bright day time hours, instead preferring to emerge closer to dusk and be a target of trout into the dark hours of the evening and night. It’s a plump mayfly that emerges in/near riffle water and the nymph has incredible swimming capabilities. We fish emerging Isonychia patterns (nymphs) by swinging them through riffles, like one would a soft hackle pattern. When a trout strikes a swinging Isonychia nymph, there is NO question…they smack it !
Not to be left out is our tiny, but at times very important, BWO or Blue Winged Olive. These range in size from relatively large #18, to much smaller #22 and even #24. Found being fed on by trout in mostly calm water, this diminutive mayfly is present for nearly 3 months and can baffle the dry fly fisherman who is not aware of this flies presence and significance to trout. More than once we’ve been on the water, with 2 or 3 larger bugs out, but trout are keyed in on this mini-meal. A great test for the fly caster, putting the right pattern in front of a feeding fish is a challenge, but worth every bit of effort when you feel the tug on a tiny #20 fly at the end of your line.
Although the focus of many fly fishers, trout aren’t the only quarry to choose from in the Muskegon River. Come early summer, smallmouth bass become more prevalent and provide some great late summer fishing for both fly and spin casting angler. Not known for being particularly finicky, smallmouth target crayfish, leeches, baitfish and large insect such as hellgrammites. Find the right habitat, with compatible water temperature and you will likely find smallmouth bass eager to feed. The most common way to fish for smallies is subsurface, using sinking or sink tip lines, with streamers. How heavy of a sinking system depends on current speed and matching the natural actions of the food source that an anger is replicating with their fly. During late summer smallmouth fishing trips, it’s not unheard of to come across an early king salmon that decided to get into the river sooner than they should be. They aren’t a fish to necessarily target at this time, but don’t be surprised if one takes a swipe at your streamer.
From brisk mornings of late spring to scorching days of late summer, this great tailwater fishery has something for every angler. Whether it’s streamer fishing in between hatches, day time Caddis action or night time Isonychia hatches that are fished well into the dark, the Muskegon has something for every fly fisher to do. Make the most of your summer months here in the great lake state of Michigan and get out and fish !