September 01, 2015

Just about the time the maples and aspens are beginning to show a hint of color King salmon will begin nosing up Michigan streams and rivers. In some streams, Chinooks begin showing up in early August, but the main run in most rivers begins right around Labor Day.

While just about every Michigan stream or river gets at least a token run of salmon, West Michigan rivers get an inordinate number of the salmon because that’s where many of them are hatched. Rivers like the Betsie, Platte, Big and Little Manistee, Pere Marquette and Muskegon produce hundreds of thousands, if not millions, of smolts. West Michigan rivers and streams offer ideal spawning habitat for salmon. Biologists are realizing that from 50 to 80 percent of the salmon found in Lake Michigan may now be the result of natural reproduction. These are fish that have been spawned and nurtured in a specific river that will return to that river to spawn two to four years later.

The naturally reproduced population of salmon has been steadily climbing, especially over the last decade or so. It was more than a decade ago when the last dam relicensing contacts were renegotiated on rivers like the Muskegon and Big Manistee. One of the good things that resulted from that was an agreed upon flow from the dams would be discharged at run-of-the-river levels instead of wildly fluctuating peaking and lowering. When levels were quickly raised or lowered, salmon smolts that could be found in the calm water along the edge of the river would often be left high and dry. With run-of-the-river and more consistent flows, more salmon smolts survived and the population has flourished. Just the Big Manistee and the Muskegon rivers alone are thought to be contributing more than a million salmon to the fishery annually.

Habitat improvements on many west Michigan streams have exposed more gravel to spawning salmon. Dam removal has also made more spawning habitat accessible on several streams.

Chinook salmon have been the real benefactors from natural reproduction because the fingerlings and smolts only spend six month or so in the river. Coho salmon, like steelhead, remain in the river for a year and a half before heading to the big lake. Even marginal streams can produce good numbers of chinook salmon. The only problem tiny salmon have in rivers like the Grand and Kalamazoo is the gauntlet of predators they have to evade while making their way to the lake.

Mature kings begin converging on natal river mouths in August. Pier anglers and small-boat fishermen can capitalize on the schooling kings before they enter the rivers. Pier anglers can catch pre-spawn kings on bait and spoons from the break walls. The most consistent fishing is during low-light hours or after dark. Kings will inhale alewives, night crawlers and spawn and will smash glow-in -the-dark spoons.

Anglers in small boats have a field day when kings begin schooling in the drowned river mouth lakes that exemplify West Michigan. Manistee, Pere Marquette and Muskegon lakes host flotillas of boats when the kings are staging in the drown river mouth lakes. Standard lures are J-Plugs and Silver Horde cut-plugs trolled slowly on long leads on downriggers. Platte Bay is famous for producing a phenomenal for Coho in late September and October. Red dodgers and flies are proven combinations for the silvers.

Salmon bite best when they first enter the rivers. The longer they’re in the rivers, the more their digestive systems shut down and the less inclined they are to eat and the more intent they are on procreation. But that doesn’t mean they won’t strike a lure or well-presented bait. The instinct to feed is still strong and lures can invoke reactionary bites if presented properly.

Dick Pulse of Fort Wayne. With a bronze King from the Big Manistee River. Mike Gnatkowski photos

Platte River

The Platte River near Honor is one of the few rivers that gets a substantial run of coho salmon. The reason is the MDNR makes huge plants of cohos in the Platte to insure that there are enough returning salmon to supply eggs for the state’s hatchery program. Portions of the river are closed during the fall and there are lure restrictions so be sure to check the fishing regulations.

Cohos seem to be more aggressive than chinooks on their spawning runs. Pre-spawn cohos will chase down in-line spinners and crunch them. Gaudy streamer flies will draw the wrath of surly cohos, too. Look for cohos to fill the deeper pools and use in-stream cover while on their journey upstream. Check the Michigan Fishing Guide for special regulations and closures on the Platte.

Betsie River

Anglers will find schools of king salmon in the lower river in late August in the area known as the “Meadows” just upstream from Betsie Lake. In past years, low water levels have prevented salmon from moving up the river, but now that Great Lakes levels are up the Betsie should see more salmon. The slow, deep bends there are the perfect location to drift a chunk of skein spawn under a bobber. Kings will inhale spawn even though their stomach atrophies and they are physically unable to swallow once they enter the river. Casting with crankbaits, stick baits or big wobbling plugs can draw jolting strikes here and where the river enters Betsie.

Another focal point is downstream of the old Homestead Dam site to US-131. The river here is fairly easy to wade in this stretch and salmon congregate in the deeper holes and under the cedar sweepers. Chucking spinners near the cover can draw arm-wrenching strikes from ornery kings. Look for fall rains to trigger runs of fresh fish that are more willing to bite.

For information on bait shops, amenities and lodging in the area contact the Benzie County CVB at or call 800-882-5801.

Little Manistee

The Little Manistee is one of Michigan’s most prolific rivers for natural reproduction. The river has exceptional habitat, excellent water quality and produces exceptional numbers of chinook salmon, steelhead and even coho salmon. “The coho population is really taken off in the Little Manistee,” claimed Central Lake Michigan Management Unit Fisheries Biologist Mark Tonello. Coho salmon need consistent water temperatures and levels to spawn successfully. Unlike chinook salmon, which only spend six months in the river, young cohos spend 18 months in the river before heading out to the big lake. Therefore, it’s critical that river temperatures remain cool during the summer months in order for coho smolts to survive.

The Little Manistee River has such good natural reproduction that the MDNR relies on it as one of its main sources for chinook salmon spawn. A weir near Six-Mile Bridge blocks the upstream movement of salmon and egg harvesting operations take spawn from mature Kings and Coho in early October. Steelhead and brown trout are passed above the weir to provide a fishery upstream. Some early-run chinooks that run during the summer make it past the weir before it is closed around August 15. The river downstream of the weir to Manistee Lake is closed to fishing from September 1 to November 14 each year.

In 2012, the MDNR harvest 12,327 chinooks at the Little Manistee weir. In 2013, 6,427 Chinooks were harvested, which mirrored the trend seen in Lake Michigan of fewer, but bigger fish. Other salmon harvest weirs in Michigan are located on Medusa Creek near Charlevoix, on the Boardman River in Traverse City, on the Platte River near Honor (upper and lower weirs), and on Swan Creek near Rogers City. Coho salmon eggs are taken at the upper Platte River weir, and Chinook salmon eggs are taken at the Swan Creek weir.

Anglers will find good numbers of early–run Kings in the lower Little Manistee River before the weir closes on September 1, but landing them in such confined quarters is another story. With the population of naturally reproduced cohos building, anglers will find good fishing for silvers and steelhead above the weir after November 14. Exciting action can be had off the mouth of the Little Manistee near Stronach in Manistee Lake, but the area has been prone to closures in years past so make sure the area is open to fishing.

Big Manistee River

The Big Manistee River, from the town of Manistee upstream to Wellston, is one of Michigan’s premier salmon streams. Thousands of king and coho salmon make their way upstream each fall to waiting anglers. kings begin their journey in late August through September. Cohos begin entering the system in late September through October.

The Manistee River changes dramatically from its confluence with Manistee Lake upstream to Tippy Dam. In its lower reaches, the bottom is largely sand with little substrate for spawning. Still, this is one of the best areas to intercept salmon on their upstream migration. Anglers will find good access just above Manistee Lake at Insta-Launch Campground and Bridge Street. There is a long stretch of river between the City of Manistee and the next upstream public access at Rainbow Bend. Schools of bronze-colored kings pack into holes and runs in this section of river in early September. A preferred method is to back-bounce with spawn or roe either behind a weight or under a bobber. Even though it’s common knowledge that salmon quit feeding once they enter the river, salmon will inhale a chunk of skein spawn. Kings will also slam a wiggling plug that blocks their path upstream and casting in-line spinner and stick baits excels when salmon are packed into undercut banks and woody structure during midday hours.

Anglers will find additional access at Bear Creek, Horseshoe Bend, Blacksmith Bayou and High Bridge. Gravel and spawning salmon are more common here, but there are plenty of deep runs and undercuts that will hold fresh-run salmon. From High Bridge to Tippy Dam the Big Manistee is almost solid gravel and is the final destination for the majority of the salmon. Once the spawn is over in November, dead carcasses stacked 10-fish thick can be seen in calm pools. The dead and decaying salmon provide vital nutrients to the river and food for the next generation of smolts.

Coho salmon can be hit or miss in the Big Manistee, but when it’s good, it can be very good. Cohos seem to cluster in the area near High Bridge. On certain days they can be extremely receptive to gold/orange spinners. When active, it’s not uncommon to have several Silvers chasing your spinner with the most aggressive fish grabbing it and shaking it like a dog with a bone. But like most spawning salmon, the Cohos can have a Dr. Jeckle/Mr. Hyde mentality.

Pere Marquette River

The P.M. River might be the most prolific salmon producer in the state. The upper reaches near Baldwin and its tributaries offer miles and miles of prime spawning gravel that is covered with salmon during the spawn. The flies-only section is very popular with fly fishermen, but the dark salmon there are largely disinterested by the time they reach the upper river. Catch them then requires lining the salmon, where a long leader allows the fly to swing into the salmon’s open mouth, and is common practice.

Kings are much more receptive to striking when entering the lower Pere Marquette up to Indian Bridge. The river here is largely sand with deeper holes and runs that loads up with kings headed upstream in September. There is a long stretch of river between US-31 and Scottville that is difficult to access. There are numerous long undercuts and in-stream structure that salmon relate to. Floating spawn under a bobber or casting spinners can be dynamite for pre-spawn Kings. The Custer Bridge offers good access for bank anglers.

Muskegon River

Long, deep runs and pools characterize the Muskegon River between Old Women’s Bend and Maple Island all the way to Mill Iron Bridge. It’s perfect water for dropping back plugs or back-bouncing spawn from a boat. Silvery kings begin filling pools and runs beginning in mid-August and runs are strong in early September. Salmon numbers have been improving in recent years with increased natural reproduction. The lower Muskegon River might be one of the best-kept salmon secrets in the state.