Winter Steelhead Fishing—A Great Way to Enjoy the Muskegon!

Kevin Feenstra
Feenstra Guide Service
231 652 3528

It was an extremely cold day today, and I left the house thinking that I would go out to the Muskegon River and do some steelhead fishing. I covered myself with multiple layers, becoming a human onion in a pair of waders. Unfortunately, my truck battery was dead, and by the time I arrived at the river, it was 2pm. Steelhead bring out anglers in even the harshest of conditions, and I was surprised to find anglers from as far away as Idaho fishing out of the boat launch at Pine street, despite air temperatures of 11 degrees. The Muskegon River is a fantastic fishing resource, and the steelhead we have are at the heart of the fishery. In the dead of winter, steel-head will take a fly or lure readily, and their numbers increase through the winter months in West Michigan streams. Despite a few challenges to the resource, it is a prime destination for anyone with the itch to fish during the winter months.

Photo courtesy of Kevin Feenstra

Steelhead begin to course into the Muskegon in late September and through the fall months. These fish remain in the river through the winter months, with new fish trickling in any time we have snowmelt or a weather event. During the fall, when water temperatures are warm, steelhead will move a long ways to eat a fly, lure or bait. However, during the short cold days of winter, their reaction time slows. The net result is that you will need to present your offering slow-ly in order to give the fish the chance to eat. For some anglers, this means presenting an egg un-der a float, or slowly rolling a fly or bait along the bottom. My favorite tactic during these cold pe-riods is to use flies that look like resident baitfish.

Because this river system is so fertile, it has a huge and very diverse baitfish population. Steelhead will prey on any number of these food sources. Their versatility is one of the key things to understand about steelhead. This feature is what keeps their numbers healthy when baitfish populations rise and fall in Lake Michigan. It also makes steelhead appeal to a large audience of anglers. Simply put, they can subsist on a variety of food sources and as a result will take a wide array of lures and baits.

Baitfish are vulnerable in the winter months. During the summer and fall, large weed beds fill the Muskegon. These weed beds provide cover for numerous small fish. As fall approaches, the weeds die off, exposing minnows to the predatory fish that lurk beneath. Some of these min-nows live above the bottom of the river; others live in the rocks and gravelly areas.

One of the things that steelhead really like to eat in the rocky areas of the Muskegon dur-ing the cold months is bottom dwelling baitfish such as sculpins and darters. During the winter, slowly swinging flies that looks like one of these yields steelhead, resident brown and rainbow trout, and occasionally walleye and northern pike. These baitfish are what are considered “earth toned” in color. This means that they look like the bottom of the river. In order to imitate them, we tie flies that are either olive, tan, or brown. In fact, earth toned flies can catch fish at any time of the year in the Muskegon. This tactic works in any of the popular fishing waters from Croton Dam all the way to the town of Newaygo. It is especially deadly when the water temps are 33-38 de-grees.

As February arrives, the water temps change and the days become longer. As temps rise, the biology of the river explodes, making steelhead active. There are two things that happen that really make things interesting. A type of insect that lives along the bottom of the river starts to move in mass toward the edges of the river. These early stoneflies are caught in the current and are an easy target for steelhead, which gorge on them. At the same time, wild king salmon fry begin to emerge from the gravel. These too are an easy target for roving steelhead. There is a chain reaction in our rivers as this happens: small food sources become active, fish large and small feed on the small foods and large fish may feed on the smaller fish that are feeding with abandon. The net result is that the steelhead are excited and they become more and more willing to move for a fly or bait. At the same time, the water temps come up, making fish more active in general. February and March are an exciting time to fish for steelhead!

As the river temperatures rise, not only are the fish more active but there are more of them, as spring runs of fish start coursing up the river in addition to the winter steelhead. Early spring provides greater numbers of fish, which can be very active. This is a great combination for the angler.

Because of their willingness to bite and their increasing numbers, you could say that win-ter and early spring steelhead are one of the best things we have going at that time of the year. These steelhead are a beautiful and abundant game fish that provide recreation and memorable outdoor experience for many residents and tourists to the Newaygo area as well.

The Muskegon River steelhead fishery does face some challenges. Because of the con-nections to the Great Lakes, invasive species effect various aspects of a steelhead’s life cycle. While out in Lake Michigan, serpent-like sea lamprey pose a threat to adult steelhead. Gobies, a small invasive fish that resembles a sculpin, provide food for steelhead and other predators such as smallmouth bass. However, they squeeze out native baitfish and change the forage base. More than a decade ago, zebra mussels had a profound effect on the biology of the entire ecosys-tem, including the Muskegon River. Initially, the Mussels cleared the water and reduced some of the food sources in the river, such as caddis larvae. Since that time, zebra mussels have be-come a part of the ecosystem Their population has stabilized or decreased over time. With in-vasive species, we always worry about the next one on the horizon. Asian carp could have dire consequences for our fish populations should they ever reach our rivers and streams.

Another challenge that the steelhead face in many of our fishing rivers, including the Mus-kegon, is warm summer water temperatures. Many of the steelhead that we have in the Mus-kegon are planted. However, wild fish also comprise a sizable percentage of our fish. The prob-lem that we have is somewhat amazing but sad at the same time. After the steelhead spawn in the spring, they head back to the lake. Soon thereafter, baby steelhead start to pop out of the gravel. I do not know the exact numbers of fry, but it is safe to say there are immense quantities of them during May and early June. At first, their life cycles are normal; they grow quickly up to an inch or two while spring water temperatures are cool. Young steelhead must spend a year of their lives in the river, so they cannot leave immediately. As water temperatures warm, it becomes un-comfortable for the newborn steelhead. As they become disoriented, they become less wary, and the many predator fish and birds along the river have a feeding frenzy. Often times, you will see trout that appear to be feeding on insects on the surface of the river. They are not eating insects, however they are feeding on these disoriented, helpless steelhead fry. It becomes obvious along the edges of the river. One day there are baby steelhead everywhere, and the next day it is hard to find even one. Keeping water quality high and water temperatures low directly affects the number of steelhead that survive through a given summer. If the summer is too hot, it is likely that the vast majority of the surviving wild steelhead come from small, cold feeder creeks that seep into the river.

Fortunately, the Muskegon is a vibrant resource, and has maintained constantly good fish-ing for decades in spite of the continuing threats. On that cold winter day, I finally made it down to the river and found some solitude on the river. As it became late afternoon, my line finally went tight, and a large steelhead broke the surface. What fun! Steelhead remain at the heart of our fishery, and are a resilient and wonderful game fish. Though anglers come from everywhere to fish here, it is very possible to find solitude on the river on a cold winter’s day. If you love the out-doors, and are getting stir crazy, look at steelhead fishing as a great all-season resource!

Photo Gallery Courtesy of Kevin Feenstra