Au Sable River Fishing: Complete Angler’s Guide

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The Au Sable River is one of the finest trout fisheries in the country and then turns into an epic steelhead fishery from fall through spring in its last few miles below Foote Dam. 

The river also boasts healthy fall runs of Chinook, coho, and Atlantic salmon. 

Follow this guide to have your best odds at catching trout, steelhead and salmon in the storied Au Sable.

The river’s productive water comprises the North, South, and Main branches. The Au Sable is a large and, in some areas, formidable river. 

Prolific hatches, fantastic trout fishing for much of the year, and exceptional seasonal steelhead fishing all lend to this river’s fame.

Special regulations exist in many sections along the Au Sable River system. Fly fishing is the primary draw for many anglers who come from near and far to ply its famous waters.

Au Sable River Branches

The Au Sable starts north of Grayling and flows for about 100 miles before entering Lake Huron. The river flows south from its origin, flowing “side-by-side” with the Manistee River for a dozen miles before turning east toward Lake Huron.

The Manistee River, by contrast, flows southwest and into Lake Michigan.

The Au Sable is broken into three branches. The main branch is home to the “Holy Water” section of the river, which is just outside Grayling as the river flows past Burton’s Landing, starting an epic 8-mile fly fishing-only, catch-and-release area.

The South Branch flows out of Houghton Lake, passing the town of Roscommon and meeting the Main Branch just below Wakeley Bridge. A catch-and-release section for fishing with artificial flies stretches from Chase Bridge to Lower High Banks.

Brown, brook, and rainbow trout await anglers in the South Branch. Access areas are spaced along the river, providing perfect places to hop out of your car, dip your waders, and swing the long rod.

The North Branch flows through Lovells before eventually joining the Main Branch a few miles downstream from the South Branch. The North Branch is also an excellent fishery with a section devoted to artificial flies, from Sheep Ranch down to the confluence with the main branch.

The North is a beautiful river with perfect pools and quality trout. It’s a great dry fly fishery like the rest of the Au Sable River system. You can gain access at many areas along the North Branch’s path.

From Foote Dam to the confluence with Lake Huron, the lower section of the Au Sable River is a world-renowned salmon and steelhead fishery.

Foote Dam stops all migrating species, so if you’re after salmon or steelhead, the dam is only about seven miles by road upriver from the mouth at Oscoda.

The river here is big and precarious. Careful wading is a must. A boat provides the best and safest angling.

The Lower Branch is stunningly beautiful. It boasts large scenic overlooks, slow meandering bends, and nice gravel runs.

Fly anglers dream about water like this. There are plenty of primitive campgrounds, hiking trails, and some walk-in/wading access.

Fishing the Au Sable River

Trout, steelhead, and salmon thrive in this river’s cold, clean waters.

While trout are the primary target most of the year, when late summer turns toward fall, all eyes turn toward the salmon and steelhead runs on the lower Au Sable.

Au Sable River Trout Fishing

Just past Burton’s Landing is the start of the fly fishing only, catch-and-release section known as the “Holy Water.” This area runs for almost nine miles to Wakeley Bridge.

This stretch is predominantly sand and gravel. Deep pools, runs, and riffles dot the entire section. It’s a very productive and famous area. It is called the “Holy Water” for a reason.

And the stretch from Wakeley Bridge to Mio Pond equals the quality from Grayling to Wakeley Bridge. 

The river is larger and has more deep pools and runs for giant trout to hold in. Wading here can be challenging, so use caution.

Massive hatches of Hexagenia Limbata, locally called “Michigan Caddis,” are large mayflies abundant throughout this area.

Giant browns love this mayfly and can be targeted during this hatch.

Access points are at The Whirlpool off Cherry Creek Road and Parmalee Bridge.

Large browns and rainbows are in solid numbers throughout the section from Mio Dam to McKinley Bridge.

Like the upper areas, quality hatches make it an incredible stretch. The water is deep and swift, making wading a challenge. A boat is the best way to fish this part.

Dry fly fishing proves highly effective on the Au Sable River, especially during hatches. Tricos, caddisflies, and mayflies all make their appearances, providing a buffet for hungry trout.

Nymphing becomes instrumental when the trout are less active or during non-hatch periods.

With the Au Sable’s abundance of aquatic insect life, nymph patterns like the Pheasant Tail and Hare’s Ear are go-to choices.

Streamers imitating baitfish or other larger creatures, like mice, are more essential patterns that might entice the predatory instincts of brown trout.

Au Sable River Salmon Fishing

While the trout fishing is still good, anglers have another option when Chinook, coho, and Atlantic salmon migrate in healthy numbers every fall. 

Kings start entering the river as early as late August, soon overlapping with runs of coho, and then the Atlantic salmon make their move in mid-October through November.

Stick to the lower section below Foote Dam. Fish stack up in the tailwater area and spawn in the gravel beds along the last few miles of the river below the dam.

Casting egg patterns, streamers, and nymphs will get you onto fish. They’re eager to take a fly when they first enter the river.

When the water runs clear, cast natural baitfish patterns like gobies, sculpins, and leaches.

The most productive colors for flies tend to be a blend of natural-colored bodies finished with bright pink, purple, and chartreuse heads.

October into November brings the Atlantic salmon run.

Atlantics prefer to hold near structure like drop-offs, deep bends, and submerged timber. They can also be found in shallow ambush locations.

Nymphing with traditional nymphs and egg patterns under indicators to target more selective fish in long runs and tail outs can be fantastic.

It’s best to target only pre- or post-spawn fish. Atlantic salmon spawn and return to Lake Huron to spawn again in a few years.

Au Sable River Steelhead Fishing

Fall is the best time to pursue steelhead with a fly rod, but good fishing can continue clear into early spring, weather permitting.

Using a sinking tip line and streamers with a good amount of flash and color will bring in these chrome monsters.

The key to these flies is in their movement. You want flies that look alive. Having a bright steelhead come up from the bottom and smash your fly is as epic as it gets.

Dead drifting flies using split-shot and a strike indicator is a very productive way to target steelhead. It works like catching trout during the summer, but everything’s a bit bigger.

Float rigs work great.

Use a sliding float, a series of shot that decreases in diameter as you get closer to the fly, and a swivel. An egg or nymph fly 18 inches off the swivel on a 6–8-pound test tippet finishes the setup.

Cast into a likely seam, mend upstream, and feed line out as the float carries the fly downstream. If the float moves, set the hook. It’s that simple. Adjust for depth to keep your fly in the zone.

Planning Your Trip

The Au Sable River is renowned for fly fishing. Ensure you have an appropriate fly rod, reel, and lines.

Bring a variety of flies, including dry flies, nymphs, and streamers, to cover different fishing conditions. Remember essentials like leaders, tippets, pliers, and other fishing accessories.

Good-quality waders and durable boots with adequate traction are crucial if you’ll be wading in the river.

Bring a life jacket or personal floatation device (PFD), especially if you plan to float the river but also for wading tricky waters.

If you’re unfamiliar with the river or new to fly fishing, consider hiring a local guide. They can provide invaluable insights into the river’s nuances, ensuring a more successful and enjoyable fishing experience.

Boat and Shore Access

The Au Sable has quite a few areas to fish. Starting in the upper river, where trout fishing is king, we’ll point you to several good spots to hit the river.

Ausable River Public Access is in the heart of Grayling. It’s great for anglers looking to explore the stretches around the town and for reaching the famous “Holy Waters.”

An access area known as the Rayburn Property or Rayburn Tract is just downstream of Grayling and offers fishing from the shore.

A bit farther downstream, Burton’s Landing is another favored access point. It provides access to the river and is used by both wading anglers and boaters. This is also the start of the “Holy Waters” section on the Main Branch.

Louie’s Landing is just downstream from Burton’s and offers additional bank fishing access.

Whirlpool Canoe Launch is off W. Cherry Creek Road above Mio Pond Dam and offers a chance to put in or take out your watercraft or fish from shore.

Canoe Harbor Campground on the South Branch offers a designated area for shore fishing. It’s a good option for those who prefer not to venture out on the water, but there’s also a canoe launch for those who do.

Also along the South Branch, Wallace Park in Roscommon offers a pleasant area for shore fishing. It’s especially popular for families.

For the river below Mio Dam, the Mio Au Sable River Launch (near M-33 Bridge) provides easy access to the upper reaches of this section of the river. It’s a popular starting point for drift boats and canoes.

There are several more canoe landings along the river as it winds its way to the lowest pool.

Down in the lower river below the Foote Dam Pool, where migratory salmon and steelhead join the trout catches, a well-developed shore fishing spot is immediately below the dam just off Rea Road. Also, just around the bend, you’ll find the Foote Site Boat Launch near the bridge.

From there, it’s a few miles downriver to the Whirlpool Angler Access, roughly between Oscoda’s schools and the airport west of town. Additional boat ramps and access points are right in Oscoda near the river’s mouth.

Where to Stay

If you prefer the outdoors, consider camping in one of the many campgrounds near the Au Sable River. Be sure to reserve your campsite well in advance, especially during peak fishing seasons.

Several lodges and cabins are available for rent along the river, providing comfortable accommodations for a range of budgets.

For those seeking a bit more luxury, there are hotels and inns in nearby towns that offer a comfy stay. There’s plenty of dining, amenities, and fly shops in the area as well.