The State of Michigan is surrounded by water on all sides and has more shoreline than California , with thousands of feeder streams, tributaries, lakes and many "Blue-Ribbon" streams and Wild and Scenic Rivers. Whether you are in Michigan 's upper or Lower Peninsula , you won't have to travel far to take advantage of the incredible fishery and enjoy the bounty that exists in the spring.
As soon as the weather warms a bit, Michigan fly fishing enthusiasts will be out chasing multiple spring opportunities. Spring brings some tough choices for the multi species angler.
It's true that fishing does not stop in winter. If you're a fly caster, winter means steelhead on the rivers or heading to some tropical destination for bonefish and other saltwater species. But its spring that we dream about all winter. Well time to stop dreaming, Spring is finally here!
As the water temperatures in the rivers rise from the arrival of warm air and sunshine, shore ice will break free and steelhead will start their migration to the gravel rich and fertile streams of Michigan and surrounding waters. Long frozen paths will become well tracked and muddied as anglers look to intercept them as they head up the rivers to the spawning grounds.
The action for steelhead usually starts on the west side of the State. Rivers like the Manistee, Muskegon , and the Pere Marquette have action all year long but by late February and March, things start to really get going.
Many of these steelhead are called holdovers, steelhead that come into the system in fall and stay through winter. Sometimes these fish will drop back to the lake when things get too cold. As the water warms they get active and are joined by fresh fish heading to the rivers.
This is a great time to get into the action. The crowds are thinner and the fish will eagerly take a fly as the water warms above 40 degrees. Guides are already out working the deeper holes and holding water. Smart clients will book this pre spawn period to get into great action with lots of open water to work without the crowds.
Spring rains trigger the spawning instinct and fresh chrome steelhead are sure to follow. Watch the water level tables at this time of year to time your trips. It does not take much rain for them to run the river.
Usually a couple of weeks behind the west side of the State, rivers on the Huron side will start to see some action as well. The Au Sable below Foote dam to Lake Huron, the Rifle River , and many other east side rivers have runs of steelhead.
When fly fishing the rivers at this time of year, patterns to use for steelhead should be small. Small eggs and nymphs are the norm in late winter and early spring. Favorites include; Hares ears, small black stones, pheasant tails and small and large hex nymphs as well. If the water is dirty after a spring rain, switch to flashier flies like the Chuck Hawkins Krystal Egg Pattern.
Don't forget the shoreline. Action can be hot and heavy for those looking to slug it out with steelhead and lake run browns from the surf around the mouths of some of these rivers. Heavier rods, sinking lines, open water and steelhead that are cruising the shorelines for alewives and other baitfish can make for some memorable action. Walks of a few miles are more are not uncommon and a great way to get back into shape, while you patrol the beach for schools of fish.
Some Basic Steelhead Techniques
When talking river steelhead techniques, indicator fishing is gaining steam. Most likely the result of centerpin style float fishing in Canada where it's effectiveness is well known. Indicator rigs are very popular in other Great Lakes states like Pennsylvania and Ohio , and more and more Michigan anglers are drifting with a float.
The "chuck and duck" style of rigging is a mainstay here for steelhead. While not a traditional technique, it is very effective and popular. Anglers use a running line or even a heavy mono line in place of a traditional fly line that is rigged with a long leader with a sliding weight stopped by a swivel. A tippet section is connected to the swivel with flies attached. This technique allows you to get down deep in those darker holding water areas and dredge down where the fish are.
Traditionalists will be seen swinging colorful flies on long single or two handed rods with sinking heads, Spey casting for aggressive steelhead that will move hard on a big fly. These long rods are also very effective when paired up to an indicatior or float rig, since the length of the rod makes it easy to control the drift and mend on the water.
Ray Schmidt of Schmidt Outfitters, shares this nice diagram on rigging for steelhead on the Great Lakes. Ray and his guides work the Manistee every day for steelhead and can attest to the effectiveness of these rigging techniques.
Michigan Trout and the Dry Fly
Trout fishermen can take advantage of the transition to spring as well. Nymph action is fair and the streams are quiet. Those streams that don't have migratory runs of steelhead that is. Many Michigan Rivers and streams are open year round to catch and release angling. Check the DNR regulations for a listing of open waters.
For most that chase trout with a dry fly, April signals the beginning of the trout season with the opener. The opener draws the second largest migration of people to the north of Michigan . Second that is to deer season. Almost a ritual event with more people seemingly focused on the ritual and festivities than actually the trout.
There is a long tradition here dating back to the early 1900's at places like the Douglas Hotel in Lovell's, where gentlemen of old, gathered and fished our wonderful waters.
Recently renovated and now back in business as a lodge and outfitter, Fullers North Branch Outing Club and the Douglass hotel looks like it did in it's heyday when wealthy industrialists headed to the area to float down the streams in Au Sable riverboats guided by veterans guides of the day.
Breakfast at the Douglas Hotel will take you back almost a century in time. The Fullers' have done a wonderful job with the place and host an annual breakfast at the old hotel on opening day. Scenes from last year even had an old Model T Ford in front that is now used to ferry anglers to there entrance to the river.
Opening day is usually a week or so away from the Hendrickson hatch. This is the first major hatch of the season and big trout will be looking up for the first time in many months. Various hatches will continue into the fall, confusing anglers but not the trout.
While the "holy waters" of the Au Sable River on the mainstream, the North Branch, and the South Branch are invaded by the dry fly enthusiasts, plenty of other rivers and streams will spread out the pressure. Lots of good books and friendly fly shops can help you in your quest for spring trout action.
Ice out Northern Pike
As the ice melts on lakes around the state, warm water opportunities come into full swing for these toothy species. Ice out brings hot "pike on the fly" action to those willing to dare brisk temperatures. Pike become active at the first thaw outs and cruise the shorelines looking for hapless prey.
While in the shallows, pike will smash a streamer with vigor. Target the edges where baitfishes are. Sometimes you can even see their wake as they swim the shallows looking for any easy meal. Spring and the fall are the best times for trophy pike action in the Great Lakes .
Don't forget the Muskie. The First Saturday in June signals the Muskellunge opener on Lake St Clair . You can count on me being there casting 8-10? flies on a ten weight for these bruisers. A fish of ten thousand casts they call it. Better start working out!
Late spring brings Smallmouth Bass and Carp
Michigan 's tremendous smallmouth bass action also gets going in the late spring. Season opens for Michigan Great Lakes waters the Saturday before Memorial Day. Shallow waters in the Great Lakes shorelines that have boulder strewn cover will be hot spots for smallmouth bass looking to spawns. This is some of the best action of the year for them. There is plenty of great smallmouth water up Michigan's thumb and along the huron coast.
St. Clair is one of the top smallmouth bass lakes in the country. Lake St. Clair smallies are off limits until the third Saturday in June. The opener has big bass fattening up after the long winter and spring spawning activities. These great fighters will be hungry and willing takers on the fly.
Carp also head the shallows in spring. While not interested in a fly when the mating urge is on, post spawn brings explosive carp action in the flats. This makes for a great time in late May and early June which is peak time to target them. This is great fun and gaining in popularity in the metro Detroit area with Lake St. Clair also being an excellent choice for carp on the fly. Traverse City and Michigan's thumb are the other hot spots for carpin.
Michigan's Tough Decisions!
In the spring anglers are faced with some difficult decisions. Not only where to go, but what species they want to target. I have covered only the small fraction of the opportunities for you to participate in.
As a transplant to Michigan , these waters were foreign to me when I moved here 10 years ago. Now I can't imagine a better place to be in the spring. Winter is another story though! If I had it my way, I would work all winter and take spring through fall off to fish the Great Lakes . Not likely soon unless I get a winning lotto ticket! Then again I wouldn't have to work in winter.. Ok, a man can dream anyway.
The amount of published information on fishing Michigan is staggering. With a great many books related to fly fishing in Michigan , anglers can get detailed information on the locations, techniques, timing information etc. Lots of online resources are available as well like this one - my favorite, by the way.
Below is a list of related information that may help guide you through the hard choices, that we happy Michigan fly fishermen are faced with every spring. Spring is a very special time in Michigan and all over the Great Lakes region. Enjoy your time on the water. We already are.
Article by Jeff Selser
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