Rainbow trout are native to the Pacific watershed — not Michigan, but they have been around so long most sportsmen consider them a state treasure, much as foodophiles laud Sanders hot fudge or Vernors ginger ale.
Rainbow trout first came to Michigan as eggs from California in 1876, and the subsequent hatchlings have found themselves at home in rivers and streams across the state.
And in lakes, too: Some rainbow trout, which have come to be known as steelhead, migrate downstream in their youth and live in the waters of the Great Lakes until they reach sexual maturity; then they return to their natal streams to reproduce.
Steelhead typically grow much larger than their stream-dwelling brethren — think of them as rainbow trout on steroids — and specimens exceeding 10 pounds are common. Steelhead are highly prized for their sporting characteristics and delectability on the table.
Spawning season is in spring, though the fish begin showing up in the river many months before they take to the gravel to do their thing. Peak numbers occur in the rivers in late February to April, when snow melt increases the flows in streams and stimulates the upstream migration. Steelhead fishing remains steady through mid-May in most northern streams.
Michigan is among the steelhead-fishingest states in the Union. The plentitude of cold-water rivers and the presence of Great Lakes on six sides make the marriage of Michigan and steelhead blissful.
Here are five of the best steelhead streams in the world:
Manistee River: Considered the crème de la crème of Michigan’s steelhead streams, the Big Man, as it’s called by anglers, boasts the largest runs and some of the most diverse opportunities for state anglers. Tippy Dam near Wellston stops all upstream movement, so anglers often gather shoulder-to-shoulder below the dam, though there’s fair access downstream for both waders and boaters.
Grand River: Although it offers fish passage all the way upstream to Lansing, the Grand River in Grand Rapids is perhaps the finest urban fishery in America. Both waders and bank sitters gather below Sixth Street Dam, though boating anglers have many miles to themselves just downstream. There are lots of fish for lots of fishermen.
Au Sable River: Better known for its trout fishing upstream, the Au Sable River offers the best of Lake Huron’s steelhead fishing for the 14 miles it flows from Foote Dam all the way to the piers at Oscoda. There are a handful of guides who offer fly-fishing, bait-fishing and hardware expeditions, but there’s enough wadeable water that anglers on foot have plenty of opportunity to become one with a steelhead.
Two Hearted River: Lake Superior’s cold water and relative infertility means the fish in this stream rarely reach double-digit weights, but who says size matters, right? Untamed by dams its entire 34-mile length, the river is surrounded largely by public land, so there’s a ton of access. A beautiful place to fish, the Two Hearted peaks later — mid-May, usually — than most other state steelhead streams.
Huron River: Lake Erie, which is shallower and warmer than Michigan’s other Great Lakes, was the last in the state to be stocked with steelhead — first done in 1980. Now it’s stocked with 60,000 yearlings annually and produces good fishing in southeast Michigan within easy driving distance of where half the state’s population lives. Besides fishing right at the dam at Flat Rock, there’s limited access for wading anglers in the 12 miles downstream to the lake, though there is a boat ramp, and a number of guides offer boat fishing. A fish ladder allows passage of fish upstream all the way to Belleville Dam, but most anglers are extremely tight-lipped about it.
Bob Gwizdz is an award-winning outdoor writer who works for the Department of Natural Resources and resides in East Lansing with his wife, son and a crazy English setter.