Rivers of Steel
Why Do Steelhead Run In The Fall?
November 01, 2010
Michigan steelhead waters come in all shapes and sizes. They run the gamut from jump-across creeks to wadable streams and mid-sized rivers to big water that is best fish from a boat. It's these bigger rivers that seem to host the most reliable steelhead runs in the fall. Constant water levels manipulated by dams, which control their flows and ensures a continual plume of water that attracts schools of fall-run steelies.
Why steelheads run in the fall is anyone's guess. Steelheads are spring spawners and a major portion of the annual steelhead run moves into rivers during the spring runoff in March. Most of those fish spawn in April. Steelheads that run upstream in the fall stay in the rivers throughout the winter and then spawn during late winter or early spring. During any given year, as much as 40% of the total steelhead run will move into the rivers from September through December.
Some speculate that fall-run steelhead are following runs of Pacific salmon upstream feed on their drifting eggs, but Michigan rivers enjoy good fall runs of steelhead long before there were any salmon.
Besides consistent water levels in the fall, Michigan's largest rivers get an inordinate number of steelhead, which increases your odds. Rivers like the Manistee, Muskegon and the St. Joe get sizable plants of yearling steelhead each year and after several years of bulking up in the Great Lakes, the silvery rainbows naturally return to their original planting sites. Rivers like the Manistee and Muskegon get an additional boost from natural reproduction, too. Rivers are now maintained at a constant flow or run-of-the-river level, which has caused an explosion in the number of naturally reproduced rainbows in these rivers.
Big Manistee River
The "Big M" as locals call it, is not only Michigan's most famous and consistent producer of fall-run steelheads, but it is considered by many to be the finest steelhead stream in the United States. Indeed, October finds parking lots along the Big M filled with trucks and trailers that boast license plates from around the country.
Steelhead fishing is confined to the lower 30 miles of the Big Manistee from Lake Michigan up to Tippy Dam. The area around and just downstream from Tippy Dam is popular with wading anglers. Famous fishing locations include Suicide Bend, the Sawdust Hole and The Rock Pile.
Anglers typically bounce bottom or drift bobbers, with salmon spawn being the preferred bait. Flies, night crawlers and imitation spawn are other good bets. Weekdays and nasty weather finds fewer anglers on the river and produces the best fishing.
Downstream from Tippy Dam is mainly a boat fishery, although there is public access between the dam and High Bridge, where wading and shore-bound anglers can fish. The river averages 100 to 200 feet wide or more in places and there some holes in excess of 15 feet. Manistee steelheaders use a variety of crafts including flat- bottomed Jon boats, V-hulls, drift boats and jet sleds.
Popular access sites with paved launch ramps on the lower river include High Bridge, Bear Creek, and Rainbow Bend. The United States Forest Service operates these access sites and a fee is required to use them. There are several other private access sites scattered along the lower river. Many anglers launch at the end of Bridge Street in Manistee or at Insta launch Campground near Manistee Lake.
Steelhead begin filtering into the Manistee River in September, hot on the heels of the Chinook salmon run. Fall rains often determine when the first surge of fish arrives, but the Manistee generally gets a fall-run of steelheads earlier than any other Lower Michigan river. Pods of steelhead amass off the mouth of the river and in Manistee Lake throughout the fall. Anglers trolling Flatfish, Tadpollys and Hot-N-Tots on flat lines or off in-line planer boards score on the chromers before they head up river. Anchoring and soaking spawn bags with floaters in them is popular off the mouth of the river, too.
Most of the bottom of the lower Manistee River is sand. Isolated gravel stretches attract spawning salmon and concentrate steelhead lurking behind the beds gulping drifting eggs. Many anglers cast and bounce bottom using split shot, pencil lead or slinky-type sinkers with spawn bags. Snags are frequent, but every so often a silvery steelhead will intercept your drift and go cartwheeling across the surface.
A popular alternative to bottom-bouncing is called back-bouncing. When back-bouncing anglers drop a sizable chunk of skein spawn anchored by a one-ounce sinker off the back of an anchored boat and slowly work the spawn downstream using a lift-and-drop technique. Anglers can methodically cover the run in this fashion using an ultra-slow presentation.
Two other hot tactics for Big M steelies require using plugs or deep-diving crankbaits and in-line spinners. Plugs excel as waters cool during November and December and salmon spawn becomes increasingly scarce. Steelheads tend to hold in slower, deeper runs and holes then and they need to be agitated or provoked into striking. The long, deep runs and undercut banks on the Big Manistee are ideal for hot-shotting or drop-back fishing with plugs.
In-line spinners allow anglers to work snaggy bends, logjams and undercuts of the Manistee that provide ideal cover for steelhead. The best tactic is to slip-the-current using a bow-mounted trolling motor and then cast and retrieve the spinners across the current. Spinners in gold or silver highlighted with fluorescent tape work best. When a Big Manistee steelie clobbers your spinner, you'll feel it all the way to your shoulder.
For more information on lodging, accommodations and bait shops in the area contact the Manistee Area Chamber of Commerce at 231-723-2575 or online at
While the Muskegon River is similar in size to the Big Manistee, the upper Muskegon from Newaygo to Croton Dam is mainly gravel interspersed with long, deep sinuous bends that provide ideal spawning habitat. The Muskegon fills with runs of Chinook salmon during September through early October and some steelhead show up with the salmon, but the majority of the rainbows linger in the lower river, taking their time about moving upstream. It's often well into November before good numbers of steelhead make an appearance above Newaygo.
The most heavily-fish section of the Muskegon is between Croton Dam and Newaygo. Shallow gravel flats make sight-fishing popular here and fall-run steelies can often be found shadowing the beds. Fly-fishing is popular in this section and anglers bouncing bottom with spawn score as well. A bonus is the chunky resident rainbows and browns that intercept spawn intended for steelhead.
Many areas between Croton and Newaygo offer wading access, especially during periods of low water. Boaters can launch at a park just below Croton Dam, at a DNR access at Pine Street, and at High Rollaway off Thornapple Road and at Henning Park just upstream from Newaygo.
The middle section of the Muskegon offers slower, deeper holes that hold fall-run steelies for prolonged periods. The area also sees a lot less fishing pressure. The deeper water is conducive to plugging from drift boats and jet sleds. Gravel is present in certain areas, though not nearly as prevalent as upstream from Newaygo. Drifting spawn is highly productive behind the isolated redds for those who know the river. Good launch sites are at Felch Avenue, Old Woman's Bend, Bridgeton and Maple Island.
Farther downstream anglers can access the river at Mill Iron Drive. Pods of bright, fresh-run rainbows can be found in this section anytime from mid-October throughout the winter.
For more information on the Muskegon's fall-run steelhead contact Parsley's Sport Shop in Newaygo at 231-662-6986.
Saint Joseph River
"The St. Joe is the best fishing river in the world," said Dick Parker of Parker's Central Park Bait in Mishawaka, Indiana. Parker is a little biased, being a steelhead guide on the St. Joe, but figures might back up his claim. More than 19,000 steelheads passed over the dam at South Bend last year. And the best part is that Michigan anglers get first crack at them.
Even with St. Joe's southerly latitudes the river gets a run of steelhead from mid-summer through early fall thanks to healthy plants of Skamania steelhead by Indiana. Winter-run steelies make an appearance in October and their numbers build through the winter.
October finds pods of steelhead poised between spawning Chinooks and gravel runs that are common downstream of Berrien Springs. The gravel runs average 4 to 8 feet deep, but steelhead also collect in the holes, which can approach 20 feet in places. Spawn bags, yarn flies and artificial eggs bounced along the bottom will tempt fresh-run chromers. Another favorite St. Joe tactic is to back-bounce chunks of cured salmon spawn. Plugs come into their own as water temperatures drop.
Access to the St. Joe is available at Shamrock Park near Berrien Springs, at the Sportsman's Club off Napier Avenue (membership required) and a DNR facility upstream of I-94 at Oxbow Bend. Wading anglers are basically restricted to the area near the Berrien Springs Dam.
For information on fall steelheading on the St. Joe River contact Tackle Haven at 269-925-0341 or online at www.tacklehaven.com or B. J.'s Sport at 269-429-8271 or online at www.bjsportsonline.com.
No one really knows why steelheads are drawn to flowing water in the fall. Those of us who fish for them against the backdrop of brilliant fall colors are just happy they do.