Spring Steelhead in Michigan
Spring steelhead fishing in Michigan is a different animal from fall steelhead fishing. The difference is due to several factors, water temperature, the urge to spawn, and available food supplies.
Steelhead begin moving into our rivers in fall. Their motivation is available food and the urge to spawn. The salmon spawn puts millions of eggs in the river that the steelhead feast on. During the salmon spawn it’s almost difficult to catch steelhead on anything but egg imitations. The steelhead spawn doesn’t occur until spring. No one knows for sure why steelhead that ascend the river to eat steelhead eggs in August and September and then stay after the eggs are gone. Sometimes they don’t! Coming early and staying is likely due to some of our original steelhead planted had to travel great distances to spawn so they started early. That urge may have remained in our Little Manistee River strain of steelhead.
Water temperature plays a big role in determining where to look for spring fish. The smaller rivers like the Pere Marquette River warm faster than the Big Manistee River. The earlier warm up has the fish moving up river to different runs, closer to spawning gravel. Spring Steelhead are motivated by Mother Nature , the spawn is the primary trigger for them to migrate the river. When fish are moving up river towards spawning gravel how do you change your tactics? Fish pinch points, funnels, and heads of pools versus the tailouts. We definitely find more fish in the spring at the head of runs, most of these spots are deeper and slower and you find fish there moving up river toward the spawning grounds. This is likely to occur in a normal year (who knows what that is anymore??) in February. On bigger waters with dams this movement generally takes place in very early March.
The warming water also triggers a change in available food sources. In fall you can make a living imitating eggs, that’s what these fall fish are eating. While a steelhead will always eat eggs, in spring you have two other substantial food sources, black stoneflies and salmon alevins.
Clown eggs, black stoneflies, and alevin patterns are all fished very effectively using the same indicator fishing method we use in fall. See this diagram for indicator setups for big rivers like the Manistee versus smaller rivers similar to the Pere Marquette and Betsie (diagram to the right). In spring we also fish the stones and alevins with a floating, tight line presentation. Both the stones and alevins are moving so swinging these patterns close to wood piles can be effective early on.
The urge to spawn plays a big role in the location of steelhead in the spring. Spawning gravel locations are important information. Fishing behind gravel spots in the drop-offs will yield results with all of the above mentioned flies.
Spring steelhead fishing also presents another opportunity that is one of my favorites, drop back steelhead! After steelhead complete the spawning cycle they are not predisposed to die. They start heading back to Lake Michigan. They are hungry and looking to rebuild their strength after focusing on the spawn. These steelhead act a lot like resident trout and will eat flies readily. Stripping streamers, like the Flash Monkey, Nutcracker, and Triple Double while on the move between runs can produce both steelhead and resident browns.
The bottom line is that spring steelhead require that you change offerings, tactics and locations to get consistent success! As always we are here to take you fishing. Give Cherie a call at 231-228-7135 and get a spring date.
Capt. Chuck Hawkins