When the wind is howling, the temperature is in the single digits, and the snow is coming down heavy, trout fishing is usually not on the mind of even a die-hard river angler. But every winter we have many days when the air temperature rises to near freezing or above and the itch to be on a trout stream becomes strong. Luckily Michigan anglers have lots of trout water that is open to year around angling.
As I write, this winter has already arrived. While there have been some good sized steelhead this past fall, their numbers have been below par based on the fishing of my steelhead buddies and myself and the various fishing reports. So if you are finding the steelheading slow, it might be time to give winter trout fishing a more serious try. Some options are described and, of course, many trout streams also receive runs of steelhead.
We will concentrate on the Lower Peninsula because often river ice prevents fishing in the UP even when the weather breaks.
The Clinton River in southeast Michigan is primarily a warm water stream but the reaches just below Pontiac and the confluence with Paint Creek down to Ryan Road does hold trout all year. Browns are stocked just below Pontiac and there are steelhead smolts that didn’t migrate and became resident rainbows along with a few browns that probably moved down from Paint Creek. Like many streams we will describe, the Clinton receives a run of steelhead and this is the prime reason the river is open all year.
Moving north on the east side, the Rifle River is open all year for trout fishing below Sage Lake Road in Ogemaw County. This river is prone to freezing in the winter but it will open up during extended thaws, especially the upper reach which also happens to offer the best trout fishing. The size limit on all trout is 15 inches. Similar regulations exist on the East Branch of the Au Gres which flows parallel to the Rifle about 20 miles to the east. The best trout fishing is found in the first few miles below M-55, which is the upstream limit for winter fishing.
All of the flies-only reaches of the Au Sable and its branches are open to fishing all year. Catch and release rules are in effect in the winter. These reaches of the mainstream, North and South Branches tend to stay ice free except during very cold weather. Brook trout are present in all three and they tend to be a bit more active than the browns in the cold water.
At the top of the Lower Peninsula there are three more trout streams open for catch and release winter brown and brook trout fishing. The Ocqueoc River in Presque Isle County is open from Barnhart Lake all the way to Lake Huron. The best trout fishing is found in its middle reach but you must wait for mild weather to thaw it out. Ice is much less of a problem in the Pigeon and Sturgeon Rivers. The Pigeon is open from M-68 down to Mullett Lake in Cheboygan County and offers fishing for browns along with a few brook trout. Just to the west, the Sturgeon River is open in the winter from Afton Road down to Burt Lake. Brown trout are the main resident species here but you will also encounter many small rainbows and maybe a large one that has moved up from Burt Lake.
Continuing our counterclockwise circle, two Lake Charlevoix tributaries are open in the winter. The Boyne River can be fished from the P. H. Dam south of Dam Road down to Lake Charlevoix. More water is open on the pristine Jordan River where you can fish from Graves Crossing down to the lake. It is catch and release for both browns and brookies in these streams but you can keep a rainbow or two for a winter trout dinner. Further south, the Rapid River offers similar fishing. It is located just north of Kalkaska and is open from Antrim Pond down to its confluence with the Torch River. All three of these streams have strong groundwater influx and seldom freeze.
The Platte River in Benzie County is open from the US-31 bridge downstream. There is a good population of resident brown trout between the upstream limit and Platte Lake. Single hooks are required here and the browns must be released. Just to the south the Betsie River flows through Benzie and northern Manistee Counties. The best trout fishing is found between the upstream limit for winter fishing at Kurick Road and U.S. 31. You will find browns, rainbows and occasional brook trout here. Unlike the upper Platte, river ice can be a problem here when we have prolonged cold weather.
There are many miles of water open to the winter angler on the Manistee River. The lower river below Tippy Dam is open all year and the best trout fishing is between the dam and High Bridge. Large numbers of browns are planted at Tippy and there is a 15 inch size limit. Upstream there is catch and release angling for browns and brookies in two long sections. It is lures and flies only between County Road 612 and flies only from M-72 to the CCC Bridge in Kalkaska County, while you can use any method between U.S. 131 and M-115 in the middle part of the river.
The Sable River is open in the winter for catch and release angling downstream from Freesoil Road with the best fishing near the upstream limit. The Pere Marquette is open to year around fishing below M-37 as is its Big South Branch. It is flies only down to Gleason’s Landing and good trout fishing continues down to Walhalla. Check the Fishing Guide for special regulations below Gleason’s Landing. The mid reach of the Big South Branch offers the best winter catch and release angling for brown trout. While the White River freezes relatively easily you can catch browns in the first few miles below
Hesperia during mild spells. Its North Branch is less prone to icing up and there is catch and release winter angling from Arthur Road to its mouth.
The Muskegon River between Croton Dam and Newaygo offers ice-free conditions for good winter trout fishing. You can keep fish here that are over 15 inches in length. Upstream, two of its tributaries, the Little Muskegon River and Tamarack Creek are open to catch and release winter trouting.
Moving south there are several Grand River tributaries that are open all year. The Rogue River is one of the best bets and is located north of Grand Rapids, The best fishing is in and the few miles just upstream from Rockford. Crockery, Buck, Coldwater, Fish, and Prairie Creeks are smaller tributaries that you can fish in the winter for trout. These are all catch and release and you should check the regulations for the sections that are open.
In southwest Michigan the Dowagiac River is the only sizable stream where you can fish for trout in the winter. You can keep browns greater than 15 inches below the dam near Niles but the upper river is catch and release. Some additional small streams where you can wet a line for trout in the winter in this part of the state are Augusta and Portage Creeks and the Gun River near Kalamazoo.
Winter water temperatures will always be below the most active range for browns and brookies. But these fish still feed through the winter. Fishing mild periods when the water temperature is on the rise is very important to your success. Plan your trip for the later part of a January thaw so that the shelf ice will be gone or reduced. And, concentrate your fishing on the warmest part of the day from mid to late morning to late afternoon. This is one time of year when sunny days are often better than cloudy ones. Pick lures or flies that will be a substantial meal for the trout and give the browns and brookies a long look at them.
Always dress in layers, wear a warm hat, and make sure the top garment is a wind and waterproof hooded jacket. Boot foot neoprene waders are ideal for ice water wading. Using a wading staff will help prevent a frigid dunking.
You can get recent information on stream conditions and fish activity by calling the DNR Management Unit for the stream or streams you are interested in fishing. The phone numbers are listed in the Michigan Fishing Guide that you get with your license. You can also visit the DNR on the web at www.michigandnr.com.