9 Best Steelhead Fishing Spots in Michigan

Sharing is caring!

The tributary streams in Michigan offer some of the best steelhead fishing in the world. Steelhead runs are active almost year-round, making Michigan a must on every angler’s bucket list.

The steelhead runs start at the Great Lakes and move up the major waterways throughout Michigan. Spring, fall, and winter runs will keep you busy chasing these magnificent fighters.

Jump in a boat and head out on the river or find some shore access and get after them. The fish are there in significant numbers, just waiting for an angler to offer the right bait.

Keep reading for the best steelhead fishing in Michigan, along with the best runs, baits, and tactics for targeting these monsters.

Michigan Steelhead Runs

First off, a little history on Great Lakes steelhead. Back in the 1890s, fisheries managers transplanted wild California steelhead into the Great Lakes. Other stocks followed, including from the Pacific Northwest.

For well over a century now, steelhead have adapted very well to the enormous lakes, similarly to the way their West Coast ancestors utilize the Pacific Ocean.

Steelhead in the Great Lakes region have adapted to spending their full lifespans in freshwater, fattening up in the lakes before returning to the rivers they hatched in when its time to spawn.

Each year, millions of steelhead make their runs upriver to start the cycle over again. That’s excellent news for the fish, the lakes, and the anglers.

Start searching for steelhead in rivers throughout Michigan during one of several runs.

Spring Steelhead in Michigan

The spring steelhead run is considered the prime run in Michigan. The steelies tend to be bigger, more plentiful, and tastier. The fall and winter runs hold in the rivers until spring to spawn, losing a bit of flavor over time.

Starting in the last week of February and lasting through May, the spring run starts heating up in March on select waters like the White River and the famous Pere Marquette River.

April and May see big numbers in the larger rivers. Muskegon River and Big Manistee River can be good through May and sometimes last into June due to the colder than average water temps.

Summer Run

The summer run steelhead found in Michigan are known as Skamania, from the area of Washington state where the stocks originated.

Summer steelhead hit the rivers in July and August. These runs are typically small, though fishing for steelhead in the summer is always fun.

The Tippy Dam is one of the best spots in the state for Skamania steelies.

Fall/Winter Steelhead Runs

Michigan’s fall run starts in October and flows into a winter run, lasting through the coldest months. Both runs stack up in rivers, waiting for the water temps to climb to the right level.

The best fishing on the larger rivers is December, January, and February. It’s freezing, but the pressure is much lower. So you might have the river to yourself if you can handle the temps.

Steelhead Gear and Tactics

First, get a steelhead rod/reel. The rod should be between 8 ½ to 11 feet with enough strength to handle a fish of 20 pounds.

The state average for steelhead is between 6 and 7 pounds, but there are some huge ones in part because steelhead (unlike salmon) can spawn more than once, putting on size feeding in the lakes between runs.

You’ll want a decent spinning or casting reel with room for enough line. For example, a series 4000 or 5000 spinning reel will hold enough strong line and handle the fight perfectly.

A 10- to 20-pound braid is an excellent main line, with an attached mono leader that’s less visible to fish and provides a bit of stretch.

Depending on your style of fishing, you’ll need the right tackle to match.

Below is some basic information about popular ways to fish for steelhead. For more techniques and tips, see the tips throughout this article as well as link at the bottom of this page to our free steelheading guide.

Fly Fishing

Steelhead love salmon eggs and salmon fry. If you’re casting a fly rod, think egg imitators and streamers that imitate salmon fry. Don’t leave the stonefly patterns at home, either.

Float Fishing

Perfect for deep holes, floats/bobbers can provide fast action for steelhead. It’s easy to set up, with a float, float stop set to the target depth, triple swivel, the hook line with a 4/0 or 5/0 hook, and a dropper line with your weight.

Make sure to match the float to the weight. It’ll ensure the bait floats naturally and also help avoid tangles.

Hook on a salmon egg sack, and you’re set.

Lure Fishing

Lures should have maximum movement and vibration. Use the current to create as much action on the lure as possible.

Bring along crankbaits or size 4, 5, or 6 inline spinners, and remember to check your knots often.

The Best Steelhead Fishing in Michigan

Michigan is covered in fantastic creeks, rivers, and lakes. Let’s look at the very best and when and where to fish them.

Manistee River

The Manistee River is an epic steelhead fishery. The steelhead start their run in the town of Manistee, then head up the entire river system.

The Manistee River spreads over 190 miles of the Northwestern Peninsula, and along the route, it has some very hot spots to check out.

The majority of the catch happens from the mouth to the Tippy Dam near Wellston. Wellston has the moniker of the “Steelhead and Salmon Capital of the Great Lakes.” It also has plenty of lodging, camping, bait shops, food, and everything else you might need.

The Tippy Dam is the first major obstacle the migrating trout face, and as such, they stack below it in huge numbers. This section is one of the heaviest fished waters in the state, so be prepared for a crowd.

Toss a salmon egg sack out there, and you’ll crush it. This area is also a perfect spot for beginner steelhead fishing.

Drift boats help you deal with the strong current, as wading can be tricky.

Night fishing at Tippy Dam has become a popular way to avoid the masses during the day. The river is big enough not to worry about too many snags and trees while casting.

Above the dam can be hit or miss, though several sections boast high catch rates.

The river has plenty of shoreline access throughout its length, so if anglers overrun one spot, head a short walk upstream and you’ll find room.

Don’t sleep on the Chinook run on this river. It can be as good or better than the steelhead at times.

Au Sable River

Some parts of the Au Sable River are a fly angler’s paradise. Trout and salmon can be enormous in stretches of this Lower Peninsula stream.

Steelhead are most prevalent in spring, from March through May. They’re in the river for eight months of the year, though, so you could find them from October to May.

The best section for steelhead stretches from Foote Dam to the mouth of the river at Lake Huron, near Oscoda. As the steelhead move upriver, they stack in the deeper pools along the lower section.

Try tossing streamers and egg patterns or float some salmon egg sacks. Check current regulations for any special rules.

Grand River

The Grand River is a top steelhead river from its mouth to Grand Rapids. There’s plenty of lodging, food, and shops for everything you need in Grand Rapids or Grand Haven at the mouth of the river.

The Grand is long, but most of the steelhead fishing is done in the lower sections.

Fishing in Grand Rapids can be great along the Sixth Street Dam. There are spots along this section where the steelhead will stack up and hold for lengths of time.
It’s a fun spot to fish, with buildings rising up all around.

Bait fishing is good here, using a float approach with salmon eggs. Fly anglers should consider tossing a stonefly pattern or egg pattern. Lures work well throughout the lower sections, though float fishing tends to be the most productive.

Muskegon River

Just north of the Grand, the Muskegon River is known for its fantastic trout fishing, especially in the lower section from Croton Dam to Lake Muskegon. (Lake Muskegon connects to Lake Michigan.)

The city of Muskegon sits at the mouth of the river and has plenty of amenities for those looking to stay the night or pick up gear.

The river from Muskegon to the Croton Dam stacks up with steelhead. The size of the river allows anglers to find some elbow room, whether from a boat or shore.

Try trout beads, small salmon egg sacks, and jigs tipped with wax worms. Steelhead really go after jigs in this area.

Plan your trip for late February through April. The Muskegon River is stacked with spring steelhead that will aggressively take a winter stonefly.

Use streamers that mimic Chinook or coho salmon fry or sculpin. These flies work great around the Croton Dam area and can be successful throughout the winter. Green Caddis flies work well in the spring and late fall.

Pere Marquette River

The Pere Marquette is a Lake Michigan tributary and can have epic steelhead runs.

The mouth empties into Lake Michigan at Ludington, which has some nice beaches and plenty of amenities.

The Pere Marquette River is listed on the National Scenic Waterway registry for its beauty. They should include steelhead fishing on that list.

The river has over 60 miles of pristine, free-flowing water from the mouth on up. It’s the longest undammed river in Michigan’s lower peninsula.

Most of the stretch is limited to fly fishing only. Therefore, it gets less pressure during the runs and is perfect for the fly anglers among us (we know you’re there!).

As with other waters in the state, take along salmon egg imitators, streamers, and some stonefly nymphs. You should be able to catch quite a few and do it in a calm, beautiful setting.

St Joseph River

St. Joseph River, or St. Joe River, is full of steelhead almost year-round. It benefits from the Skamania run in July and August.

However, the best fishing at this southwestern Michigan stream is in late fall and throughout the spring. It’s not a huge river, but it has a strong current and can quickly get deep. Be careful wading it.

Drift boats are everywhere during the run, so be prepared for elbow-to-elbow fishing in spots. The river is long, so you can find more secluded spots.

Target fish in 8 to 12 feet of water.

Standard techniques work great, as does plunking for steelhead. Plunking is close to the same rig as float fishing, just without the float. Instead, the bait sits in the channel, waiting for steelhead to come by.

Boardman River

The Boardman River is another Lake Michigan tributary that fishes well in the fall and winter. Traverse City has great access points to catch some steelhead after work.

Float fishing works well here, allowing you the reach to fish through the depths and comb the entire stretch.

Fly fishing can be good with egg patterns and streamers. Find out the latest at the fly shop before heading out.

Mid-winter calls for a slightly more finesse approach. The water is cold and clear, and the fish spook easily. Use the lightest setup you can manage, with an 8- or 10-pound line and a 6-pound fluorocarbon leader.

White River

Steelhead on the White River are abundant in late fall and spring. They offer a great fight, and the fishing can either be incredible or non-existent.

Fall fishing is as simple as egg patterns, float fishing with salmon eggs, or using jigs and lures.

Winter fishing slows everything down. Target fish with your biggest streamers. You’ll be surprised what you pull out of there. Steelhead, as well as big, lake-run brown trout, hold in the pools along the river.

Try your luck bottom-bouncing nymphs in the slower pools. You can also throw a nymph on with an indicator and just sit back as it drifts through the pool.

The White River is just north of the Muskegon and south of the Pere Marquette, so you have plenty of opportunities to find steelhead in the area.

Lake Michigan

Lake Michigan offers the best chance for big fish in the summertime. Plenty of guides are around the lake to take you out after big, 15-plus-pound steelhead.

Trolling is a great way to find them, as is plunking near the mouth of rivers. The lake is massive, so check out local reports and be familiar with the area to boat safely. Or go with a fishing guide.

Lures and jigs are good throughout the spring and summer, with the possibility of catching any of the big three here. Chinook, steelhead, and coho will aggressively hit jigs in the summer as they fatten up for the spawn.

Targeting the shallower areas near tributaries is the best option throughout the summer. This works well in neighboring Lake Huron as well, though numbers aren’t as high there.

Look for spots that start to form channels along the tributaries and go to work. You’ll find them. And who knows? Maybe you’ll set the next record!

Catch More Steelhead

Want to dive deeper into steelhead fishing? Check out our full article with plenty of techniques, tackle, and other tips for successful steelhead fishing.