Manistee River Fishing Report: Complete Angler’s Guide

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The Manistee River, or Big Manistee River, is renowned for drawing anglers to its pristine waters and abundant populations of salmon, steelhead and other game fish.

Flowing through scenic forests from its headwaters near Mancelona and stretching over 190 miles, the Big Manistee River is an iconic destination for novice and experienced anglers alike.

They come from every corner of the planet to test their skills on the Manistee’s steelhead, Chinook and coho salmon, resident and lake-run brown trout, and smallmouth bass.

This article will show you how to get the most out of each of those fisheries, and more.

Steelhead and salmon are the main attractions on Big Manistee, often overshadowing its epic trout and smallmouth bass populations as well as its walleye and pike.

Manistee Lake sits at the bottom of the river near the city of Manistee and Lake Michigan. It ushers the lake-run steelies, salmon, and browns into the river system.

Trout inhabit the entire length of the Manistee River and its feeder streams like the Little Manistee and Bear Creek. Smallmouth bass and a few other species round out this fantastic fishery.

The river once held huge grayling populations, though introducing brook and brown trout over the years ended the grayling dominance. There haven’t been any grayling catches reported in years. Who knows, you might be the one to get lucky.

Several guide services in the area will help you narrow down the river size and get on the action quickly. It might be worth the money to help avoid the crowds, and there are plenty of Manistee River charters.

The Big Manistee River and its Tributaries

The mainstem Manistee River has three main sections.

The lower section runs from Tippy Dam to Manistee Lake and Lake Michigan and is by far the most popular for salmon and steelhead.

Downstream from Tippy Dam, the first couple of miles is primarily a big riffle. The bottom is dominated by gravel, a lot of it used as spawning gravel.

Around the High Bridge access point, the water slows amid large amounts of submerged timber. These features stay constant in Manistee Lake.

The middle section runs between Tippy Dam and Hodenpyl Dam.

This section is a particularly good smallmouth and walleye fishery.

Tippy Dam Pond holds significant numbers of smallmouth and walleye, as does Hodenpyle Dam Pond upriver. Just below the Hodenpyl Dam to Tippy Dam Pond is a great section to float for trout, smallmouth, and walleye.

The upper river above Hodenpyl Dam Pond is prime brown and brook trout habitat. Plenty of submerged along with gravel, sand, and silt bottom runs most of the length.

The river ends at the confluence with Lake Michigan after flowing through Manistee Lake. The lake itself is a great spot to troll for salmon, steelhead, and lake-run browns as they prepare to head upstream.

Also in the lake, the northern pike action in the spring and summer is top-notch, as is the smallmouth fishing.

The Little Manistee River flows into the southern end of Manistee Lake and offers fantastic trout fishing. Salmon and steelhead also head up to spawn.

The Little Manistee River Weir is a DNR collection point for salmon eggs. The river beyond the weir is fantastic trout country.

Bear Creek, a tributary that flows into the middle section of the Big Manistee , is another can’t-miss fishery. The creek was home to what, until recent years, was the world record brown trout.

On the downside, there are a few access points along Bear Creek. It’s best to float the creek for several miles to experience its brilliance.

Manistee River Salmon Fishing

The Manistee River has some of the best salmon runs in the Great Lakes region. Chinook (king) salmon start running in late August, while coho follow a month or so later.

The river is renowned for its epic runs and spectacular fishing. Fall brings the crowds, though there’s usually room to cast a line.

There are smaller runs of pink, sockeye, and Atlantic salmon, though they don’t draw the same crowds as the Chinook and coho.

Chinook Salmon

The Big Manistee has some of the best Chinook salmon runs in Michigan. Its gravel bottom and slow-moving water bring thousands of kings up from Lake Michigan every year.

Starting in late August on the Manistee River, big kings enter the river and head to their spawning grounds miles upstream. However, the runs of Chinook pick up in numbers from mid-September through the peak of October.

Kings in the Manistee average from 12 to 16 pounds, with several approaching the 25 to 30-pound mark.

The 25-mile section from Manistee Lake to the Tippy Dam is far and away the most popular salmon fishing section of the river, with standing-room-only fishing on weekends near the dam.

The Bear Creek confluence is another epic spot for kings. They split off the main channel and head up Bear Creek to spawn. Bear Creek doesn’t have nearly the access the main river offers, but floating the creek can pay off big during salmon season.

Manistee Lake is an excellent option for those who prefer trolling. Many kings head south to the Little Manistee, where the DNR catches them at the weir.

Casting Thunderstick crankbaits or fishing skein egg sacks under a float works well for bank anglers.

Drift boaters often try back-bouncing plugs or skein eggs in the lower sections of the Manistee River.

Fly fishing, spin fishing, and bait fishing are all productive options.

Fly fishing for Chinook salmon is especially challenging, but large streamer flies that mimic the appearance of baitfish can be effective.

Spin anglers often use plugs, spoons, and other lures that imitate the movements of prey fish. And big Chinook can be suckers for bait drifting down into their faces.

For salmon fishing, you’ll need appropriate tackle and gear. This can include medium to heavy fishing rods and reels, along with lines that can handle the weight and fight of a large fish.

Depending on the technique you’re using, you’ll want to have a variety of lures and flies. Skein eggs are the go-to for bait anglers.

Make sure you’re up to date with the fishing regulations for the section of the Manistee River where you plan to fish. Fishing regulations can vary based on location, species, and time of year, so it’s essential to adhere to these guidelines to ensure the sustainability of the fishery.

If you’re new to the area or new to salmon fishing, hiring a local fishing guide can vastly improve your chances of success. Guides are familiar with the river’s currents, salmon migration patterns, locally effective tactics, and the best fishing spots.

Coho Salmon

Coho season starts around Labor Day and lasts through late November when huge numbers head up the river towards the Tippy Dam area near Wellston.

The Manistee’s coho salmon run often peaks during September and October.

Smaller runs head south in Manistee Lake, and anglers pick up fish heading down there. Trolling plugs is a key lake tactic while intercepting coho that haven’t yet reached the weir.

Spinning tackle, bait casting, and fly fishing all can work well for coho when they’re on the bite. Skein eggs and crankbaits are popular, along with streamers mimicking baitfish. Spinners, spoons and jigs also can trigger aggressive coho.

Hit the river after a solid rainstorm, and you’ll find them in big numbers. Rains tend to signal the fish to start heading upstream. Northeast winds also play into beginning the migration.

The Big Manistee River is one of the few rivers in Michigan where anglers can target coho and Chinook together, with steelhead also entering the river during the fall runs.

Catch More Salmon

First, find the best salmon fishing spots in Michigan.

Then, check out our basic guide to salmon fishing, with techniques and tips to help you catch more Chinook and coho.

Manistee River Steelhead Fishing

Steelhead might be the biggest draw of all on the Manistee. The river has two primary runs, with Skamania steelhead and fall-run steelies ready to destroy your lure or egg sack.

Fly fishing works great with egg patterns and streamers. Nymphs work well in the winter. Steelhead will rise for a well-placed egg pattern around Tippy Dam and farther below.

Turn to cold-water patterns and baits in January and February.

March and April signal the spring steelhead run. The majority of spawning gravel beds in the lower river are within a few miles of Tippy Dam. Be prepared for crowds if you’re fishing the Tippy Dam area at the height of a run.

Bear Creek also has some tremendous spawning grounds if you can manage access.

The Little Manistee sees a solid run of steelies in the spring. Be ready for some sight fishing near the weir. It can be an intense experience. Again, it’s going to be shoulder-to-shoulder in the evenings and weekends.

There’s a small summer run, though it generally gets overlooked by anglers chasing the area’s smallmouth.

October marks the beginning of the annual fall run. These fish are known for their fighting ability and beauty. Any cast might bring in a monster, though steelheading can be hot and cold from one day to the next. So it might take one cast … or a thousand.

Many anglers consider the Big Manistee among the best, if not the best, steelhead rivers in the Great Lakes region. In addition to steelhead, lake-run browns make their appearance in the fall, providing yet another target during this busy time of year.

Keep it simple. Cast a salmon egg sack out there for the best odds, even for a beginning steelheader.

Many of the same lures used for coho also will fool steelhead, including jigs, spinners, spoons and drift setups with or without bait.

Wading can be tricky in spots, and driftboats will give you a significant leg up.

Night fishing at Tippy Dam is less crowded and relatively easy to accomplish in this large river.

Manistee River Trout Fishing

Browns, brookies, and the occasional tiger trout thrive in the upper river sections. Tigers are a combo of brown and brook and fight like they’re angry that you’d dare cast to them.

The rare rainbow shows up on the hook, though it’s common for anglers to mistake younger steelhead for resident rainbows, since they’re essentially the same fish with a travel bug.

Brown Trout

The Big Manistee held the all-tackle world record for brown trout of over 41 pounds until 2020. The fish, which retains the state record, technically came out of Bear Creek but was close enough to the confluence the Manistee gets credit.

Lake-run browns clearly grow to massive sizes. Wading in the late evening tossing a mouse pattern for rising browns can lead to an epic battle with one of these beasts.

The lower section below Tippy Dam is the most heavily fished area, but it’s worth tossing some roe for these opportunistic feeders.

Stocked brown trout grow very well here and can reach large sizes. The stocked brown trout fishery is often overlooked, as anglers associate Tippy Dam with salmon and steelhead fishing.

Fly fishing is a popular way to catch Manistee River brown trout, although bait fishing with eggs or tossing lures can also be productive.

The Manistee River here is very wadable, with large gravel riffles punctuated by pockets and deeper holes. From here, anglers can hike downstream for several miles, giving you access to Suicide Bend and Tunk Hole. These spots are renowned for their deep runs and massive browns.

There’s a stairway at the Tunk Hole access point. It’s a long one. Reaching the river from this access site requires descending (and then climbing back up) a long stairway of several hundred steps. It’s great cardio!

But be warned: The steps are not shoveled in the winter and can be covered in snow and ice, making them treacherous. Watch your step.

Above Tippy Dam Pond, you’ll find a fantastic resident brown population. Resident browns bring fly fishing enthusiasts from around the area for the chance of landing a 20-inch plus fish.

Brook Trout

Big Manistee Brookies

The upper portion of the Big Manistee, or Upper Manistee, is classic Michigan trout water in its truest form and contains some of the best fly fishing opportunities in the Great Lakes region.

This river is a beautiful stretch for significant trout populations with overhanging cedars, and oxbow bends, and plenty of submerged timber. 

Special regulations throughout much of the system ensure quality angling experiences for generations to come.

This is where modern-day freshwater streamer fishing got its start. Streamer fishing the Upper Man can make for an epic day on the water. 

Hatches are also incredibly prolific, so don’t leave the dry flies and nymphs at home. Bring a healthy number of terrestrials as well.

Brook trout are mainly found above Tippy Dam Pond. Fly fishing is particularly popular here due to the insect life and the river’s unique currents.

Anglers can also opt for spin fishing and baitcasting, depending on their preferences and experience level.

The best area to find big brookies is in Antrim and Otsego Counties. They are in the upper section and hold some of the biggest brookies, along with resident browns and the occasional rainbow.

Little Manistee Brookies

The Little Manistee is one of Michigan’s best brook trout streams. Brook trout inhabit the stream in fair numbers from Luther Pond downstream as far as M-37, where they finally give way to browns and rainbows.

Approximately 20 miles of relatively narrow (15-25 feet) and brushy river exist between Luther and M-37, with nearly half of the shoreline in public ownership.

Canoeing is practically nonexistent in this extremely shallow stretch, allowing a nearly disturbance-free bank fishing experience that is becoming rare in this day and age.

Natural cover and stream improvements provide fishable holding water for the resident populations of brookies up to 12 inches.

The late-June caddis hatch above M-37 is fair and draws nighttime anglers familiar with the stream in hopes of catching the larger browns and brookies in a careless mood.

Fly Fishing the Manistee

Catching massive browns on a mouse or brookies on a Chernobyl Ant can make any seasoned angler smile. Let’s dig into some of the flies for the resident trout in the Big Manistee.

If dry flies are your go-to, the following should give you a well-rounded box to catch most trout in the stream:

  • Yellow Humpy (#10 – 18)
  • Parachute Adams (#12 – 22)
  • Light Cahill (#10 – 18)
  • Elk Hair Caddis (#8 – 16)
  • Chernobyl Ant (#8 – 12)

When fishing nymphs, try these standbys:

  • Pheasant Tail (#12 – 20)
  • BH Hare’s Ear (#12 – 20)
  • Rainbow Warrior (#14 – 22)
  • Golden Stonefly (#6 – 10)
  • Tellico Nymph (#12 – 18)
  • Zebra Midge (#16 – 22)
  • WD40 (#16 – 20)

For streamers, try a BH Wooly Bugger (#2 – 6) and Sculpzilla (#4 – 6). Salmon prefer the larger #2, while brookies and browns in the upper river may go after a #6.

Smallmouth Bass Fishing

If you’re looking for smallies on the Manistee, launch at Red Bridge. You then have the entire stretch of water from Hodenpyl Dam to Tippy Dam to fish.

Close to Hodenpyl Dam, look for both smallies and trout.

The Tippy Dam Pond backwaters hold epic numbers of smallies (and stumps; watch out for them).

Cast your lures near cover and structure and retrieve them at a slow to moderate pace. Work the river’s shallower weed beds and stumps.

Topwater lures are great in the morning and evening. Try some poppers, buzzbaits, or walking baits.

Soft plastics work wonders here. Texas rigs or Ned rigs can really bring a strong bite when things are going slow. Even the most finicky smallie will go for a well-placed soft plastic.

Crankbaits can imitate injured prey fish. Choose colors that mimic local baitfish and vary your retrieval speed.

These lures are great for covering a lot of water quickly. Retrieve them along the edges of the cover and structure. Don’t cast across the river; cast down the edge of cover.

Smallmouths in the Manistee’s lower section nestle right along the bigger-name species. The lower river has great smallie fishing if you can find the room.

Summertime is generally less busy than spring and fall, so float the river and have a 50-plus fish day. Bass are particularly active during the summer months and are known for their aggressive strikes.

Hit Manistee Lake and prepare for some epic smallie action. The lake is packed with them, making it an excellent smallmouth destination.

More Manistee Game Fish

Northern Pike

Spring is also prime time for pike fishing in the Big Manistee.

Many of the river’s backwaters hold good numbers of pike, and when the water starts to warm, they will move to the mainstream, looking for food opportunities.

Manistee Lake and the lower section of the river are full of hungry pike from April through July.

Little Manistee also has a fair number of pike cruising the lower section. 

Hit the lake with Rapalas, bladed baits with a skirt, or bucktail spinners. Try green/chartreuse colors.

Target the shallow bays on the north end of the lake around Penny Park and Seng’s Marina and behind the sewage plant. Anchoring and casting works well. Float bobbers with suckers and shiners while casting, particularly in May and June.

The same tactics work in the river. Target shallow weed beds and hold on.

Hit these guys with a 7-weight rod and some giant streamers. They’ll put up the fight of your life. Catching pike while fly fishing is nothing short of epic.


As if all of the above weren’t enough, Manistee Lake is among the best spots in Michigan to catch walleye, along with all those salmon, bass and even crappie.

It’s worth wetting a line.

The lake record walleye was caught through the ice and weighed 15.94 pounds. And maybe there’s a bigger hen in there somewhere.

Though unremarkable in appearance, the amount of forage hiding under the surface leads to fat walleye that will eagerly snatch a leech throughout the summer and fall.

The river has a fair number of walleye, though they’re often overlooked for the more popular species in the spring and fall. Minnows and crankbaits work wonders in the spring.


Tippy Dam Pond is among the better places in Michigan to catch these scrappy and tasty panfish.

The lake offers an abundance of crappie-perfect structure, including submerged timber and stumps, islands, humps and plenty of good shoreline for the spawning season.

Though not a great ice fishing option, you can start hitting this lake right after ice-out and into the spawn for peak fishing. Summer and early fall also can be great if you want a break from catching more famous fish in the Manistee River.

Planning Your Trip

The Manistee River is a must-fish for anglers in search of massive fish in big numbers. Whether you’re targeting the Big Manistee, Little Manistee or Manistee Lake, you’ll easily find accommodations near your preferred water. 

It gets jam-packed in the fall, so plan in advance for lodging or camping.  

Remember that Manistee is one of the most famous steelhead rivers in the country, so solid planning needs to happen to ensure a smooth trip. Don’t sleep on this.

Boat and Shore Access

There are several boat launches on Manistee Lake and between Manistee and Lake Michigan. Marinas offer all the bait and tackle you’ll need. 

Above the lake, you can access the river at several boat launches. Shore access is readily available through a well-planned trail system running most of the lower 25-mile section.

High Bridge Boat Launch, Sawdust Hole Boat Launch, and Bear Creek Launch will all put you onto fish. Bear Creek Launch is one of the few access points to Bear Creek.

In addition to its famous shore fishing, Tippy Dam is a common entry point for floating the river’s most popular reach.

Above Tippy Dam Pond, there are a few great spots to launch.

Red Bridge launch is prime for heading up or downstream to Hodenpyl or Tippy Dam.

Hodenpyl Dam is a no-fee access point just below the dam. Glengarry Bridge offers a primitive launch and access site.

Harvey Bridge is an excellent free site with a concrete launch.

The Manistee River Roadside Park (US 131 Roadside Park/River Access) is a full amenity facility with easy drop-in access to the Big Manistee.

Just to remind you of expectations, the Tippy Dam area will have shoulder-to-shoulder fishing at times during the fall peak.

To avoid the heaviest crowds (you probably can’t avoid them all), try fishing at night. Also, the trails along the river can offer enough room to spread out if you’re willing and able to hike a bit.

Lodging and Camping

The Manistee River area offers plenty of accommodations, including campgrounds, lodges, cabins, and hotels, but book well ahead to ensure you have a spot to rest your body, weary from reeling in all of those big fish.

Manistee has all the food and gear you’ll need. Most of the marinas in the area also provide tackle and food.