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Steelhead Mother River


The "Little River"...


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The author carefully releases a Little Manistee River spring steelhead. Jim Bedford photos

April 01, 2010
We finally gained the upper hand on the sea lampreys in Lake Michigan in the 1960s and the steelhead that survived this fish-killing parasite from the Atlantic Ocean began their comeback. The steelhead run recovered rather quickly in the Little Manistee River and by 1966 our Fisheries Division was taking eggs and milt from returning adults to produce smolts for other rivers.

Today the Little Manistee continues to be the "Mother River" for all of our hatchery winter steelhead. Over the years, wild Little Manistee steelhead have also provided eggs or young steelhead for other Great Lakes states and continue to do so for Ohio and Indiana.

Every year we "borrow" several thousand adult steelhead from this beautiful but small river for our hatchery program. No steelhead are planted in the Little Manistee so we are dependent on the excellent spawning habitat and rearing capacity of this river to produce some "extra fish." The strong run of naturally reproduced steelhead in this special river allows us to always have wild parents for our hatchery smolts. This results in superior smolts for other rivers with none of the inbreeding problems often found on the West Coast.

The "Little River," as the Little Manistee is called by many anglers, begins a few miles south of the town of Luther when several creeks come together. It grows in size fairly quickly and is classified as a Blue Ribbon trout stream downstream from County Road 633 in Lake County. Brook trout predominate in the headwaters but browns quickly become the principal resident trout. Small rainbows, which are future steelhead, are found throughout the river. A small percentage of these steelhead parr become resident rainbows so you may be surprised by a good sized rainbow in the summer.

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The section between Spencer's Bridge and Johnson's Bridge is limited to fishing with flies only. Check the 2010 Michigan Fishing Guide for seasons and size limits in this special regulations water. The Little Manistee River below the flies-only water down to the harvest weir is also open to fishing from April 1st to December 31st.

While most steelheaders think of the Little Manistee as having lots of fast gravel bottomed water the fact is that the majority of this super river flows over sand. Downstream from the flies-only water there is good spawning gravel around Fox and Dewitt's bridge but downstream from Pole Bridge all the way to 9 Mile Bridge the substrate is mostly sand. There is some gravel near 9 Mile Bridge and about a mile downstream there is a transition to an all gravel bottom which continues to 6 Mile Bridge. Downstream from this popular bridge sand slowly takes over again and is the predominant substrate all the way to Manistee Lake.

The designated blue ribbon trout water ends at the Manistee County line but I think the trout fishing merits this status all the way to the weir. There is a big surge of groundwater via springs and small creeks above and below Six Mile Bridge keeping the Little Manistee cool in the summer and ice free in the winter. The result is lots of resident trout in this reach.

There is no doubt that spring steelheading is the big draw to the Little Manistee for many anglers. On the night before the April 1st opener you will see the access sites full of cars and trucks and lanterns dancing along the river. This is especially true below the weir that is located about three river miles below 6 Mile Bridge.

In most springs the DNR will be taking eggs from steelhead and the weir will be blocking steelhead on April 1st. Thus, many anglers concentrate their efforts below the spawning station trying to intercept fresh run steelies. You cannot fish within 300 feet of the weir but many steelhead tend to back off from the big concentration of fish just below the weir and also do not immediately swim up the diversion into the holding ponds.

The net result is very crowded conditions for about a half mile below the weir. Some anglers have good success but I think many are there to celebrate spring and renew friendships. Spots are staked out the day before and you can tell that the clock has struck midnight by the plop, plop of offerings hitting the water.

Fall run fish and those that have been stripped and passed provide fishing upstream. Some fish that enter the facility that are not ripe yet are also passed upstream. Concentrating your effort in the holes just above the weir (300 foot limit here too) and in the holes and runs near spawning gravel is a good plan. Usually by mid April the egg take will be completed and the weir opened. My favorite time to hit the river in the spring is a week or so after the weir has been open and steelhead have had free roam of the river. Fishing pressure will have dropped and fresh fish will have had time to spread out and reach the upper parts of the river.

Tactics for spring steelhead on the Little Manistee are similar to those used on other streams but one must take into account the strength of the current and the tightness of the stream in the gravel bottomed reaches. Beefing up your leaders from the normal 4 to 8 pound test to 10 or 12 will help you land fish in the brushy fast current sections. The fish won't see your bait or drift lure long enough to be line shy.

Spawn is the most popular bait but yarn and drift lures are also effective. Suspending jigs baited with eggs, wigglers, or waxworms under a bobber will keep you from getting hung up as much. Whether you are using conventional drifting techniques or a float keep your offering up off the bottom. The steelhead are looking forward and up and can easily spot your bait or lure in the normally clear to slightly stained water. Too much weight and you will be hung up a lot and you can't catch fish when you are tying on a new rig.

Casting and retrieving lures will also get you hooked up to Little Manistee steelhead. Shiny spoons and spinners and brightly colored plugs will draw fish out from under the logs and streamside brush. Try to match the stream conditions with your lure. That is, use larger, gaudier lures when the water is up and stained and small, more subtle hued spinners and plugs when the water is low and clear.

Usually some steelhead linger in the Little Manistee well into May and many a trout angler has had his or her tackle severely tested by a late running rainbow. Most all of the hatches that occur in the Au Sable and Manistee Rivers also come off in the Little Manistee. The Hex hatch is usually not as strong but you can still do well in the sandy, slower moving reaches. Streamers in crayfish and muddler patterns will draw strikes when there isn't a hatch.

Anglers using ultra light spinning tackle in the Little Manistee can also do well. Small spinners retrieved by the streamside brush, logs, and undercuts will bring out trout looking for a larger meal. Minnow plugs work especially well in May and early June when the steelhead and salmon smolts are migrating to Lake Michigan. Crawlers and salmon eggs are excellent baits. Try to wade upstream tossing your lure or bait upstream and then retrieve or let it drift downstream. This results in a natural presentation with you staying out of the trout's sight.

In July wild chinook salmon begin ascending the Little Manistee. Almost always by the end of the month there will be fishable numbers. This run continues to build in August until it is stopped by the closure of the weir. Chinook are planted in the Little Manistee so we can have a source of eggs for the hatchery but most of the early fish are descendants of salmon that made it up the river in earlier years before the weir was put in place. You can also intercept chinook below the weir until the first of September when the river from the weir to Manistee Lake closes until November 15th.

Catching summer run chinook can be difficult because of the low, clear water. Fish the deepest holes you can find and try to plan your trip for a cloudy, rainy day. I've had little success catching them on purpose but have done battle with a number of them that were hooked when trout fishing. Usually it is a short fight before they steal your lure but I will always remember a bright silver 18 pound hen that took pity on me and tired herself in the same hole she was hooked. Utilizing the new thin but strong monofilaments and fluorocarbon leaders can increase your chances of hooking and landing a big king in the tight quarters of the Little Manistee.

Fall is my favorite time to fish the Little Manistee. Chinook salmon are blocked at the weir while steelhead and lake run browns are passed upstream. The result is steelhead that are not spooked by large schools of salmon or very many anglers. Usually you can count on good fishing when 1000 steelhead have been passed over the weir. You can find out how many fished have been passed by calling 231-775-9727 Ext. 6072. This is a recording you can call at any time and it will also give you updates in the spring. The weir is taken out in late October or early November each year and if we have moderate temperatures and some good rains many additional fish will run after the weir is taken out.

If you believe that the offspring of fall run steelhead are more likely to also run in the fall you will want to use restraint in harvesting these fish. Dr. Howard Tanner told me that this fall run begets fall run scenario is likely to be true. At a minimum it makes sense to release the females. Keeping some small males will not affect natural reproduction and these fish make better table fare. But, personally I think all fall steelhead should be released. These are our premier river game fish and they provide fishing throughout the winter.

Up to date information on the Little Manistee can be obtained from the DNR's Central Lake Michigan Management Unit at the same number as the weir recording without the extension (231-775-9727).

Additional info, including a map and access sites, can be found in the Flyfisher's Guide to Michigan which is available in most sport shops.

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