They hit hard, leap high, and run like a freight train when hooked, which is why hundreds of anglers converge each fall on rivers in the Grand Rapids-area hoping to hook a steelhead. Muscular and feisty, the chrome-colored fish begin running up Lake Michigan tributaries in late October and spend most of the winter in them feeding, very often waiting until spring to spawn.
Anglers know they are readily catchable. An assortment of lures: spawn sacks, plugs, and flies, all work. In Grand Rapids, anglers regularly gather downtown to fish the Grand River, just downstream from the Sixth Street Dam, where access is easy from Fish Ladder Park, on the west bank, and from Sixth Street Bridge Park on the east bank.
The downtown fall fishery is often a spectacle, one of shoulder-to-shoulder anglers wading in the river’s shallows and boils. Lucky onlookers observing from the banks, or from Fish Ladder Park, often can see the torpedo-like fish trying to jump the nine-foot dam, or working their way up the fish ladder.
“We typically have good fishable numbers starting the first week in November,” notes Jay Wesley, the Michigan Department of Natural Resources, the Lake Michigan Basin Coordinator. “It’s good fishing all winter if people can withstand the cold.
“We don’t know the size of the run, but it is thousands of fish - and they average six to seven pounds, though we also get 10- and 12-pound steelheads.”
That’s enough muscle to leave most any angler breathless after doing battle with one in a raging current. The Grand River can run high and fast so caution is needed if anglers choose to wade its rocky rapids, where deeper holes are often not visible. Anglers also are generally advised to use a wading staff when fishing there. Some also wear cleats for added traction.
The Grand River is readily fished from its banks too. A long-handled net is often helpful, or one secured by a rope to help pull it up, particularly when fishing from the east bank wall.
Two area angler wade-fish for steelhead on the Grand River just downstream from the Sixth Street Dam on the east side of the river.
Photo Credit: Howard Meyerson
Steelhead, a.k.a. rainbow trout, is a species native to the Pacific Ocean. On the west coast they spend most of their lives in salt-water before returning to fresh water streams to spawn. In Michigan, they spend most of their lives in the Great Lakes, different from resident rainbow trout which never leave their natal streams.
“They are exciting to fish,” exclaims Miles Hanley, a Kalamazoo area angler that regularly chases them on the Kalamazoo River, one of West Michigan’s better steelhead waters about 30 minutes from downtown Grand Rapids. “They have a violent strike and put up a good fight.”
It’s true. Stories of sudden line breakoffs and muscle-burn are legion among steelhead anglers. The burly fish can shame even the most bravado-prone anglers.
Hanley prefers the waters just downstream from the Allegan Dam when fishing the Kalamazoo River, but there are many places that anglers can wade or fish from shore.
“There is a boat ramp right at the dam and anglers don’t have to go far downstream to fish them,” Hanley said. “What I like about the Kalamazoo is they can’t run up a fish ladder. They (steelheads) congregate at the dam and settle in for the winter. On other rivers (with fish ladders) they are there one day, and gone the next.”
Other Kent County waters also offer good steelhead opportunities. The Rogue River, below Rockford, is fabled for its steelhead runs. The runs are often stronger in spring than fall, but the river offers plenty of good fishing once the leaves have come down.
Anglers gather on the wall at Rockford Dam to fish for fall steelhead.
Photo Credit: Howard Meyerson
“What’s really nice about the Rogue is it is very wadeable,” Wesley said. “One of the easiest places to find is in downtown Rockford, just below the Rockford Dam, but there is also a good DNR access site farther downstream which is located just upstream from the old Childsdale Dam site. I like to go in there and fish the deeper runs and holes with spinners, but you can also pick up fish with wax worms or spawn.”
Fall tactics are about attracting feeding fish. Anglers use a variety of techniques, from drifting spawn bags while fishing from shore, to casting crankbaits like Hot ‘N Tots, spinners in a variety of colors, and drifting spawn under Wobble Glos, or Lil Corkies.
“Steelhead key in on eggs (spawn),” Wesley said. “When they come upriver in fall there are still (spawning) salmon around, so bouncing spawn on the bottom, or fishing it under a bobber, is often a good tactic. They are still actively feeding.”
The lower Flat River, near Lowell, is another stream that is productive for steelhead. It is a Grand River tributary and they can be caught as far upstream as the first dam in town.
While the big fish may appear in other streams, most other Grand River tributaries are closed to steelhead fishing in the fall and reopen in spring for the regular trout season.
If you’re planning to give fall steelhead a try, be sure to dress warm. A Michigan fishing license is required. Those are available at Meijers and most bait and tackle shops. They can also be purchased online.