Manistee River Fly Fishing
The Manistee River is one of the finest steelhead, salmon, and trout rivers in Michigan and the Great Lakes area. Known as the “Big Manistee,” or just “The Big,” because of its neighbor the Little Manistee, the Manistee is one of the most diverse fisheries in the country. A pre-imminent river for the migration of Lake Michigan steelhead and salmon, it is also a quality trout stream.
In it’s 233 miles it changes from a small spring creek to a very large tail-water, fishable almost exclusively by boat. This river has a very diverse complexion and rivals any river in the world for scenic beauty. the upper river is a great brook trout producer, and some nice browns as well. As you float down you get into portions that are more famous for big browns. Every year there is at least one 30 inch brown taken in or around the “Flies Only” section of the Manistee.
As you continue down, the river gets bigger and bigger. The river takes on several complexion changes but always has lots of large wood structure, i.e. log jams. These log jams are left over from the rivers days as a logging river, where huge trees were floated down stream to mills along the way. There are several ten mile stretches of big water where you will not encounter one home, nothing but true wilderness.
Manistee Brooks and Browns
From its headwaters to the Lake Michigan estuary at the town of Manistee, the river is nearly 250 miles long. The upper stretch of river, from the eastern center of the state to near Mesick, where Hodenpyl Dam’s backwaters begin, is most well known as a Brook, Brown, and Rainbow trout fishery. We fish this section of river with streamers, nymphs, and dry flies for surprisingly large trout. Some of the river flows through national forest, but some holdings are private. Still, a day’s float lends solitude and woodland beauty to the fly fishing experience.
From Hodenpyle Dam downstream to the backwaters of Tippy Pond is one of the most wilderness-like fly fishing floats available anywhere. Large Brown Trout prowl both riffle and pool in search of bait fish and insect. A fly angler adept with streamer and sink-tip line has a remarkable chance to catch the wild trout of a lifetime. During the infamous hatch of Hexagenia limbata, the HEX HATCH, night fishing for trophies becomes a question of who catches whom.
There are two dams on the Manistee, Hodenpyle and Tippy. Between those two dams is fifteen miles of the most rough and wild water you will find between here and Montana. Huge water with equally huge fish, this is one hundred percent boat water. After the second dam (Tippy) you are in one of the biggest rivers we have to offer. This river can at times be one of the best steelhead fisheries in the world.
Big runs, and chrome bright fish are hard to beat anywhere. Here you can fish with the traditional techniques including spey fishing. This river, like the Pere Marquette, is very popular and should be booked for the peek seasons at least a year in advance.
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 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
Smallmouth Bass on the Manistee
In addition to the superb fly fishing for trout and salmon the Manistee is also ranked Michigan’s third best small mouth bass river! In July and August when the water temps put the trout off, fishing wild smallmouth bass heats up. The Manistee produces many 2 to 4 lb. bass as you float the river and cast streamers and “pop the top” with all kinds of top-water flies and poppers. T-shirts, shorts and sandals are the order of the day. A six weight fly rod is the ticket.