Steelhead are special fish and one of their attributes is that they remain active no matter how low the water temperature drops. They will continue to chase lures even when the water super cools below 32 degrees. This makes it possible for Michigan anglers that prefer open water to ice fishing to continue to fish throughout the winter.
Even though winter steelhead will travel a considerable distance to grab a shiny lure it is important to give them a long look at the spinner, spoon, or plug in order to maximize the chance that they will hit it. Making quartering downstream casts and slowly sweeping your lure across the current will give the anadromous rainbows a long look at your offering. High action, deep diving plugs can be held against the current and slowly backed down the river. While winter steelhead do not actively feed you still can catch them by drifting spawn, single eggs and beads, and various larval insects. However, casting lures and moving a lot will keep you warmer and help you find scattered fish.
At times the challenge can be to find open water. Some streams have enough groundwater input to stay liquid but often, especially during cold spells, frozen rivers will limit your choices. Normally I don’t like dams. They disconnect our rivers and restrict the natural movement of fish. But, in the winter they can help us by creating some open water downstream from them.
Before we talk more about catching winter steelhead below dams we are going to describe some prime locations. We will concentrate on the Lower Peninsula because there are few dams that create open water in the colder Upper Peninsula. Starting with the St. Joseph River in southwestern Michigan, we will make a clockwise circle.
There are three dams on the lower St. Joe and they are all equipped with ladders to pass steelhead and salmon upstream. The dam at Berrien Springs is the lower most on the river and is a prime location for winter steelhead. Usually the river will be open for several miles below this dam even during cold snaps. Steelhead usually don’t ascend ladders when the water temperature drops into the 30s so the area below this dam is the only one on the St. Joe where you might find new arrivals in the winter. There is good access at Berrien Springs and you can launch boats just downstream at Shamrock Park. There is also good access at the next two dams upstream at Buchanan and Niles with less fishing pressure. Some wading is possible below all three dams.
The Allegan Dam on the Kalamazoo River west of Allegan keeps the water ice free below it and is the end of the line for steelhead on this river. This river is hard to wade but you can fish from the bank near the dam and launch a boat just down from the barrier. The Grand River has five laddered dams and offers prime winter steelhead opportunities. The 6th Street Dam in Grand Rapids is the first dam up from Lake Michigan and keeps the river unfrozen for at least a mile downstream. Floe ice and anchor ice can be an issue here when the weather is cold but these conditions ease when the river freezes over above the dam. There are excellent wading opportunities in the rapids below the dam and river walks provide access on both sides of the river. Boat anglers can access the river below the rapids at Johnson Park except during very cold weather. Low head dams at Portland and Grand Ledge will usually provide some open water but it will be limited during periods of cold weather. A prime upriver location is Webber Dam, north of Portland. This power dam keeps the river ice free for several miles downstream. At normal winter levels the river is quite wadeable and there is access on each side of the dam. The Moore’s Park Dam in Lansing will keep the river ice free in the winter as the power plant there also uses the river water for cooling, but this power plant will go off line in the near future. The water also stays above freezing below the North Lansing Dam. There is good access at both dams.
The Croton Dam on the Muskegon River keeps the river from freezing all the way down to Newaygo and much further during mild periods. The result is 13 miles of good winter steelhead fishing for both boat and bank anglers. You will also find open water in the White River below the dam in Hesperia. The Muskegon is close by if the White is too icy.
Moving north to the Manistee River, Tippy Dam provides ice free water down to at least High Bridge. There are lots of areas to wade and bank fish near Tippy and the reach between Tippy and High Bridge is a favorite one for boaters. On both the Muskegon and Manistee, resident brown and rainbow trout will add to the steelhead action.
The lamprey barrier that was installed when the Homestead Dam on the Betsie was removed continues to keep a short section of the river open and fishable in the winter below it. Moving across to the Lake Huron side, the 9th Street Dam in Alpena keeps the Thunder Bay River open for a short distance below it. Fishing here is not real dependable but if you are in the area it is worth a quick try. Foote Dam on the lower Au Sable keeps the river open and provides the best winter steelhead fishing on the east side. You can wade some below the dam and at the Whirlpool access site but a boat will help you cover more river.
In southeast Michigan the laddered low head dam in Flat Rock will keep the Huron River fishable in town. Further upstream, the dam that forms Belleville Lake will keep you fishing for a longer distance downstream. If you are really tough and rugged and want to fish for winter steelhead in the Upper Peninsula the level control dam and the power dams on the St. Mary’s keep the river open in Sault Ste. Marie. You will need a boat to fish below the power dams and need to travel to the Canadian side if you want to wade the rapids.
When you fish below dams for winter steelhead it is important to move around. The fish aren’t moving much at this time of year so you need to be mobile. Lures such as weighted spinners, spoons, and plugs help you cover water fairly quickly as they attract steelhead from a considerable distance. These lures attract steelhead both visibly and sonically.
The water is usually very clear in the winter so steelhead will be seeking cover and fairly deep water. They also won’t want to battle strong current but will orient to the flow. Submerged logs and boulders can provide both cover and block the current. Polarized sunglasses will help you spot submerged cover. Slight disturbances on the surface of the river can also indicate the presence of current blocking cover near the bottom.
Bright lures can excite relatively lethargic steelhead into striking when they invade their territory. However it is possible for your lure to be too gaudy. If the water is clear and the sun is out you will want to tone down the visibility of your lure. The goal is a lure that gets the fish’s attention and irritates them by invading their territory but does not spook them. In other words, you want to match the water and atmospheric conditions with your lure.
When you find fish with lures but think there might be steelhead that aren’t responding to your shiny offerings you can try to appeal to their meager appetite by switching to bait. If you are fishing from a boat you can bring along separate outfits for presenting the real thing. If wading you can still use your lure rods. Just carry some pre-tied leaders and bait in your vest. Simply attach a float to your main line and tie your leader to the end of the line you are using to toss lures. Using a duo lock snap, which helps you quickly change lures to match conditions, will make it even easier to switch to bait.
Drifting bait or drift lures like beads, jigs and wobble-glos under a float or bobber has become by far the favored technique of most steelheaders in Michigan and the other Great Lakes states. As winter progresses the steelhead resting below dams will have seen these offerings many times. This is another reason to give lures a try.
The convenient fish, the ones resting up close to the dam will have been heavily fished over by all anglers and all techniques. This is especially true if it has been a long time since a mild spell or rain has caused any significant fish movement. So a good plan is to extend your fishing well downstream from the barrier. Even if you have to battle ice shelves this will help you find fish that haven’t been pounded by other anglers. These steelhead will be much more likely to grab your offering and make your day.