From the world-famous Pere Marquette, to the mighty Manistee, Michigan’s rivers turn chrome in late fall. Thousands of steelhead make their way out of Lake Michigan into these tributaries, and if you can put up with shifting lake-effect weather, numb hands, and the booger faucet, November and December offer steel hunters of every ilk shots at heavy fish minus the crowds found on the rivers of Ohio, Pennsylvania, and New York this time of year. By drift boat and jet boat, “Hook Shots” host Joe Cermele teams up with some of Michigan’s top steel guides to find out how the locals tie in. Part endurance test, part lesson in dirty little steel secrets, part skills challenge when boating double-digit weight chromers, it’s a fitting season end and homage to the “chosen frozen” that will chase these fish all winter.
The Deal: Michigan has one of the best steelhead fisheries on the Great Lakes, thanks to a stocking program that has helped develop an incredible population of wild-spawned fish. Some streams and rivers on the western side of the peninsula receive fresh steel every year; others only get runs of purely wild fish. Between the amount of fish, the amount of water, and the diversity of that water, Michigan offers something for every kind of steelheader. If you love back-trolling or drifting eggs, try the lower section Big Manistee. If swinging streamers at logjams is more your speed, the upper Pere Marquette—which cuts through gorgeous pine forrest—is for you.
When To Go: Steelhead start running in Michigan in September, following Chinook and Coho salmon out of the lake during their spawning run. By mid-October, you can expect strong numbers of steel in the tribs. Of course, everything is dependant on flows and rainfall, which can push the run back, or make it start early. But given that the salmon are done spawning by late October, November is the true steelheader’s month in Michigan. The salmon crowds are gone, leaving you free to roam and fish without competing for good runs. The trade-off for fishing in November or early December, however, is that the weather can swing wildly from comfortable to downright brutal. Luckily, most steelheaders agree that the nastier it is outside, the better the chrome bite.
What To Bring: When the water starts to chill off in November, plan on swinging beads and egg patterns close to the bottom if you want to flyfish. Seven- or 8-weight outfits get the nod, with 9-footers being ideal for drift boats, and 10-footers a good choice for wading, because the added length lets you high-stick more effectively. Floating lines with a strike indicator work well on the smaller streamers, but if you’re fishing on the low ends where the holes tend to be deeper, you might want to play the dirty (though highly effective) chuck-n-duck game. Skip fly line all together and spool your reels with flat mono or shooting line. It’s not sexy, but it’ll get your beads and bug down fast, and it guarantees your rig is in the zone on the bottom. Center-pin float fishing from a boat on the larger rivers also produces a lot of steel. Opt for 9-foot conventional outfits with a soft top ends and lots of backbone. Spool with 10-pound mono, and you’re good to go.
How To Fish: Many of Michigan’s rivers are loaded with logjams and root snarls. Unfortunately, it’s this kind of cover that steelhead post behind on their way up river. Any wood that breaks the current is worth a drift, swing, or float. Just be prepared to lose a fair amounth of rigs. Stock up before you hit the water.
Where To Stay: Lakeside towns like Ludington and Manistee offer plenty of lodging choices, but they also put you on the low ends of the Manistee and Pere Marquette Rivers. During out shoot, we stayed in the town of Baldwin on the upper Pere Marquette. While this section of river wasn’t the money during our stay, Baldwin is centrally located, allowing you to drive to wherever the bite is hot in all directions in less than an hour. We stayed at the BBT Motel (which is part of Baldwin Bait & Tackle). It’s a classic fishing crash pad that’s clean, homey, and reasonably priced. For more lodging options, check out Michigan.org.