As River Waters Cool Fish GoInto A State Of Hyper Activity…

Few things are as relaxing, soothing or as enjoyable as serenely floating down a river on an Indian summer day with the woods ablaze in color. About the only thing that could possibly make it better is if you had a fishing rod in your hands that was bent double. There are plenty of places in Michigan to make that happen.

Many sportsmen’s thoughts turn to hunting in the fall. That’s understandable, but there’s some great fishing to be had from September to year’s end too. As river waters cool its finned residents go into a state of hyper activity. Spurred on by more comfortable conditions and more oxygenated water, resident river species like trout, pike, walleye and smallmouth bass go crazy in the fall.

Other species, like salmon, make spawning runs in the fall. Steelheads follow the salmon upstream. You’ll find lake-run brown trout mixed in with them. Their seasonal abundance and concentrations create an autumn angling opportunity. Michigan’s bigger rivers host a potpourri of species that turn on in the fall. In many of these rivers you don’t really know what you’re going to catch. Don’t miss out on your opportunity to sample this angling smorgasbord this fall.

Big Manistee River

The Big Manistee is famous throughout the Midwest for its fall Chinook salmon and steelhead runs. People come from all over the country to sample the great fall fishing on the “Big M.” But while the draw may be salmon and steelheads, you really never really know what you’re going to catch, especially if you cast spinners or crankbaits. It’s not uncommon to catch smallmouths, pike, walleye, Coho and Chinook salmon, brown trout and steelheads, sometimes on the same trip. All of these species will readily strike in-line spinners or crankbaits fished down and across. Not really knowing what’s pulling on the other end of the line makes it fun.

The intent is to interest the salmon, which will lash out at a flashy, passing spinner. The key is to cast at a 90-degree angle to the bank and allow the spinner to swing downstream on a slow retrieve. Big No. 5 blades work best highlighted with different shades of tape. Kings seem to like green, chartreuse and glow colors and gold blades while the Cohos and steelheads prefer orange and pink with silver blades. The other species don’t seem to be too particular. The kings will average 12 to 18 pounds and their numbers peak in September. Cohos that average four to eight pounds show up in October. Some years they are abundant; other years they’re rare. Steelhead topping 12 pounds are pretty common and come in a summer-run variety or winter-run fish. The summer-run rainbows come into the river in June and July and stay until February or March when they spawn. The winter-run steelhead trickle in all fall with their numbers peaking in November. Fall rains dictate their abundance. Pike in excess of 40 inches move into the river from Manistee Lake in September to feed on rough fish like suckers. The bass are year-round residents as are some of the walleye, but some of the ‘eyes come in from the lake too.

Another proven method for the salmon and steelhead is to back-bounce with spawn or drift it under a bobber. Even though the salmon are not feeding when they enter the river they will ingest a cluster of eggs. Why isn’t clear, but slowly work a golf ball-sized hunk of skein spawn downstream behind a weight or under a jumbo bobber and chances are good an ornery Chinook is going to intercept it. The bite is often delicate with the eggs, but once you dive the hook home all hell breaks loose. Battling a rampaging Chinook in a snag-filled river is one of fall’s simple pleasures.

The best fall fishing on the Manistee occurs on the lower half of the river from the Bear Creek access all the way to Manistee Lake. You can gain access to the river at Bear Creek, Rainbow Bend, Bridge Street and Insta-Launch Campground. Insta-Launch Campground has bait, tackle, licenses, boat rental and information on guides. Contact them at (866) 452-8642 or online at

Au Sable River

The mighty Au Sable River is diverse river. It originates north of Grayling very close to where the Manistee begins. One goes east; the other goes west. In its upper reaches the Au Sable is a famous trout stream. As it meanders towards Lake Huron, several dams interrupt its journey. Behind the dams the river slows and takes on the characteristics of a lake or pond. Numerous warm-water species thrive in the lake environs. Trout thrive in the cooler water just below the dams. In the fall is a great time to sample the best of both worlds.

I’d fished the upper Au Sable River a lot when I was young. I never ventured down to the big water between the dams. Friend Greg Ellison invited me to join him on a float trip from Alcona Dam to Loud Dam just before the regular trout season ended in September. I asked him what kind of fish we were going to catch.

“Don’t know,” he responded with his southern drawl. “Could be big browns, pike, smallmouth, walleyes. There’s some steelhead-sized rainbows in there too.” It sounded like my kind of trip.

It only took 45 minutes to make the run from the access point on Loud Pond to Alcona Dam in my jet sled. During that time the river transformed from a stump-filled impoundment to a raging trout river. The transition proved to be as diverse as the fishery. I would have never dreamed that this section of the Au Sable could be so beautiful. The banks were lined with tall cedars and firs interspersed with contrasting birches. Because the land is own by the power companies, there were no cottages lining the banks. The river ran clear over gravel bars and boulders with the occasional big, sweeping pool on the bend. A couple years earlier, the USFS in cooperation with Trout Unlimited and others, had large dead pines flown in by helicopter and placed in the river for cover. The trees have proven to be a magnet for trout and other game fish.

Greg set about chucking a No. 9 and 11 gold/black Rapala. He said that’s his go-to lure on the Au Sable, especially for trout. The technique was to cast the lures close to cover or current breaks, give the lure a couple of twitches and then retrieve it steadily across the current. I wasn’t convinced that stickbaits were the only lure that would catch fish so I resolved myself to experiment a little until Greg proved differently.

We came to a big sweeping bend that looked particularly promising. We positioned at the top of the run where a swirling back eddy near shouted, “Walleye!” I decided to bounce a jig and crawler through the hole. It only took a couple drifts before a chunky walleye intercepted the jig. The 22-inch ‘eye was a beautiful golden color. Further downstream, a twin to the first walleye jumped on a small crankbait and a slightly smaller walleye took a black in-line spinner. They didn’t seem too particular.

Greg continued to grudgingly throw the Rapala and was finally rewarded where a deep run tailed out up against an island. The big trout came rocketing out of the shallows, nailed the stickbait and instantly went airborne. It used the current to his advantage and it was several minutes before I could slip the net under the 27-inch golden-colored brown trout. “That’s what I’m talking about!” shouted Greg. His persistence and perseverance had paid off.

With the ice broken Greg proceed to catch a couple more 15- to 18-inch browns, plus a rainbow and a brook trout for the salmonid trifecta. Probably a dozen smallmouths and several pike added to our catch. The bass and pike frequented the slack water areas and current edges where there were stumps and weeds. In all we caught eight different species on a spectacular fall day and we didn’t see another angler.

For information on access, camping and other information on the Au Sable River contact the USFS- Huron Manistee National Forest Ranger District at (989) 739-0728 or online at

Muskegon River

The Muskegon River is one of Michigan’s longest rivers and it hosts good fishing throughout its entire length, but fall finds anglers focused on the area downstream from Croton Dam, which is the upstream limit for trout and salmon migration. Long gravel runs and sweeping bends exemplify the river from the Dam to Newaygo. The Muskegon River has become one of the major producers of naturally reproduced Chinook salmon in Michigan. When those salmon return each fall provides an angling bonanza.

Many anglers sight-fish for salmon that are actively spawning on the expansive gravel flats on the Muskegon. Wear polarized glasses to spot active redds and them look for the shadowy shapes of the salmon. Fly-fishing is popular here and anglers go armed with eight- or nine-weight fly rods and an assortment of gaudy attractor flies, eggs and dark-colored nymphs. Others use spinning tackle and toss yarn flies at the indifferent salmon. It often takes repeated casts in front of their noses before

they bite. An alternative is to use plugs, like Flatfish, Kwikfish or Hot-N-Tots, and anchor above a hole where pre-spawn fish are staging. The pre-spawn fish are more willing biters. The idea is to let the plugs dive and wobble in front of the salmon’s face until they get mad enough to strike.

If you get board with the salmon try fishing some small spawn bags or single eggs behind the salmon redds. Resident browns and rainbows will gather behind the spawning salmon to suck up drifting eggs. The trout range from 12- to 18-inches and many times provide more sport than

the salmon. Downstream from Newaygo to Maple Island, anglers are likely to encounter some spunky smallmouth too. The river there has less gravel and more sand, but it’s a great place to get away form the crowds near the dam. Good access points on the Muskegon include Pine Street, High Rollaways, Henning Park, Old Women’s Bend, Bridgeton and Maple Island.

For bait, tackle and licenses contact Parsley’s Sport Shop at (231) 652-6986 or online at

Tittabawassee River

The Tittabawassee River is a buzz of activity when the walleye season opens in late April. The river sees a fair amount of activity for a couple of weeks and then is devoid of anglers the rest of the year. It’s not because the fish aren’t there.

The Tittabawassee has an untapped population of smallmouth bass. Low water levels in the fall concentrate the bass. Look for structure in the form of pilings, lay downs or ledges. You can use anything from flies to crankbaits to jigs and catch fish. Many times you can catch several bass from one spot and never move. Most will be 12 to 16 inches, but bass topping 20 inches are not unheard of. Because of years of pollution the bass aren’t fit to eat so return them to fight another day. Try the area between Tittabawassee Road and State Street either from a boat, canoe or wading.

A wet fall will trigger runs of shad into the Saginaw River system and with it schools of hungry walleyes. High water will cause the walleyes to move into the Tittabawassee River. It’s then that fall anglers can have a ball catching a potpourri of species that includes walleye, smallmouths, pike, perch, white bass and several rough species. You don’t know what might be stretching your string. Good launch sites are available at Imerman Park, Center Street and at Wick’s Park near the mouth of the river.

Contact the Saginaw County Convention & Visitors Bureau at (800) 444-9979 or online at for information on bait shops, amenities and lodging in the area.

Iron County

A crisp morning, brilliant fall colors and orange-finned brook trout and you have all the ingredients of a prefect September day in Iron County. This western U.P. County has five Blue Ribbon streams that are among the finest brook trout waters in the state. Come September, the bugs are gone, the woods are

ablaze and the brook trout are adorned in spawning colors. You’ll find great fishing on the Paint, Iron, Cooks Run, Fence and Brule rivers. Grab you’re county map book and GPS and go searching.

Most of the brookies you’ll catch will measure between 7 and 10 inches, but specks topping 16 inches are caught from these streams every year. Some of biggest brookies will be moving upstream to find suitable spawning gravel. Try small Panther Martin and Double Loon spinners or

live bait. Use a stealthy approach, wear drab clothes and make accurate casts. Nothing better than pan-fried brookies! Michigan’s regular trout season closes on September 30.

Contact the DNR’s Crystal Falls office at (906) 875-6622 for more information on Iron County brook trout.

Chocolay River

Marquette County’s Chocolay River has something many U.P. streams don’t have in the fall- water. With an ample supply of groundwater and four main tributaries you can be sure that the Chocolay will have enough water to attract a good run of fall trout and salmon.

The Chocolay is one of those rivers where you’re not really sure what you might catch. Although the Chocolay has not been planted in recent years, its water quality and volume attracts plenty of fish that reproduce naturally. The river is open year-round to fishing from the confluence of Big Creek to the mouth at Lake Superior. The river features brush and logjams, which hide fish, deep bends and riffles which offer great habitat and challenging angling.

A few Chinook salmon stray into the river and their numbers build through September. Pink salmon add to the mix. Naturally spawned Cohos make an appearance in September along with the occasional lake-run brown trout. The Cohos love orange spinners or crankbaits. Work the spinners under the in-stream brush or let the plugs wiggle in the deeper runs. Steelheads show up beginning in October and fishing remains good for the rainbows through December. A nickel-sized spawn bag of fresh Chinook or Coho roe is pretty hard to beat for the rainbows.

For maps and fishing information contact the MDNR Baraga field office at (906) 353-6651.

It is always hard to resist the temptation to put away the fishing rod and break out the shotgun or bow once the lure of autumn rolls around in Michigan, but try to keep the fishing gear out a little longer this year and you won’t be disappointed.