Manistee River Spring Steelhead

After a long cold winter in Michigan many fly anglers and their quarry begin to feel the stirrings of desire to run the Manistee River. Steelhead are looking for spawning gravel and mates to begin the spawning process. Fly anglers are looking for one of the ultimate prizes in the fly fishing world, catching and releasing a chrome, silver bullet fresh up the river. The 33 miles of Manistee river between Lake Michigan and Tippy Dam has some of the finest steelhead fly fishing in the world and spring is one of the best times to fish it.

As we talk about “spring” steelhead we are really dealing with three separate and distinct seasons, pre spawn, spawning and post spawn. A Manistee steelhead angler will be prepared for all of the seasons with Crystal Eggs, Puff Balls, Clown eggs (click here for step-by-step), caddis, stones, buggers, and hexes from sizes 4 to 10. Six to nine weight rods set up for whatever method you prefer chuck and duck, strike indicator or spey.

Pre-spawn is really late winter fishing. You are looking for fish in slower pools and near cover because of the colder water and their slower metabolisms. Water temps are usually less than 35 degrees at this time. Water levels on the Manistee are rising from the winter flows of 1200-1500 cfs to as much as 3000 cfs. Because the fish are less active due to temperature work runs and pools thoroughly and methodically, the flies need to bump the fish on the nose.

In early to mid March fresh runs of dime bright fish begin to ascend the river, the run is on. Water temps usually start creeping up the scale, as does the steelhead’s activity. Start looking for fish in the runs and seams near gravel spawning areas. Water will start getting high with some color caused by the melting snow. Try larger sized eggs, caddis, stones and buggers to get the fish’s attention. Size 4 and 6 are not to large if the water is high and off colored. At this time be willing and able to move to different locations on the river because fish are moving. They won’t necessarily be in the same location each day.

During the spawning time fish will be throughout the system from Manistee Lake to Tippy Dam. There will be higher concentrations of fish near Tippy Dam. That also brings higher concentrations of anglers. When fish are actively spawning on gravel fishing to them should be avoided. There are still plenty of fish to target that are not yet on gravel. The most aggressive fish are in the dark water near gravel being worked. These areas will hold the freshest fish in the system, the ones that are more likely to eat a fly. At this time water levels are starting to recede and fly size should shrink accordingly.

One of my favorite flies this time of year is Peach Crystal Eggs because of the amount of fresh eggs in the water. A size 8 Peach Crystal Egg is still the most realistic looking egg pattern available and all kinds of fish will eat it readily. Another proven pattern is Hawk’s Caddis (recipe below). With the hen steelhead pounding the gravel to make their spawning beds, lots of caddis are being moved downstream. This causes the fish to key on this little morsel.

The post spawn fish are the least targeted individuals. After the spawning rigors the fish that survive are hungry. Look for the fish throughout the system. The steelhead there will eat a fly with gusto. This is the time that you are most likely to take a fish on a streamer. Keep moving, make a few presentations and then move to the next spot. Most anglers will be gone, trout season is open and the weather is warming. This is a great time to hunt for big fish on the swing.

Manistee River steelhead are big, strong, hard fighting fish. Whether you pursue them with chuck and duck, strike indicator rigs or swinging a fly they will provide the lucky angler with more excitement per pound then any other game fish available.

Hawks Caddis

  • Hawks Caddis works in the spring
  • Size 6 to 10 Dairikki 135
  • 50/50 blend of caddis green and cream SLF dubbing
  • Peacock head
  • Gold Micro Tinsel rib

Clown Egg

  • Steelhead love clown eggs
  • Size 4 to 10 TMC 105
  • Bright thread, whatever you prefer
  • Combination of 4 to 5 different yarn colors
  • Personal favorite (OC, steelhead orange, chartreuse, egg, and cherise)
  • Cut yarn to desired size