Don't miss the Steelhead Made Simple seminar at the Grand Rapids Ultimate Sport Show

Get started on the right foot with expert advice on steelhead fishing at West Michigan show in March.

Man wearing waders is seen standing in the river holding a steelhead he caught.
Steelheading is a great way to beat the winter blues. No ice, no problem!

Steelhead fishing can seem like an overwhelming challenge at first. These are big, powerful fish that grow large feeding on alewife and insects in Lake Michigan before moving into West Michigan rivers. Commonly weighing 7 to 10 pounds, and topping out at over 20, the impressive size of an adult steelhead is coupled with speed and acrobatic ability. Known to jump up to 11 feet high to cross barriers on their upstream journey, the steelhead provides a real test of skill for anglers.

What’s more, the best fishing for steelhead typically occurs in rivers from late October through late April. Rain, snow, driving wind, and icy water are the norm when steelhead fishing. The environments they live in can also be daunting. Holes full of woody snags, boulder-strewn rapids, and churning tailwaters below major dams are all favorite haunts for this lake-run rainbow trout. At times it seems like steelhead are nowhere to be found, and when they do show up at popular spots the word gets out and “combat fishing” with shoulder-to-shoulder crowds ensues.

Like many people, I started steelheading after many years of fishing lakes for bass, pike, bluegill, and perch. The prospect of catching such magnificent (and delicious) fish in nearby rivers was enticing, but I was even more excited by the prospect of extending my open-water fishing through the winter months.

What gear would I need to buy? Do I need specialized tackle for steelhead? Is a 12-foot noodle rod the way to go? Are ultralight leaders needed to fool pressured fish? Are felt-soled waders or cleats a necessity? Is it better to follow the crowd or hunt for fish in overlooked waters?

It didn’t take me long to figure out that the 7-foot rod and spinning reel I used for bass and pike was good enough for starters. I waded into the boils below Sixth Street Dam in Grand Rapids with store-bought spawn sacks and found other anglers to be helpful, for the most part. By watching where other people waded and asking some questions, I got some idea of where to wade and how to fish. Eventually I even caught some steelhead.

More than 25 years have passed since then, and steelhead fishing is more popular than ever. New techniques have emerged, with centerpin fishing and swinging flies on sink-tip lines gaining large followings. These specialized methods are effective and fun, but a bit intimidating for the beginner.

'Steelhead Made Simple'

That is why I will be hosting a “Steelhead Made Simple” seminar at the upcoming Grand Rapids Ultimate Sport Show on March 11 from 3 p.m. to 4:30 p.m. This is your chance to learn some fundamental techniques and effective approaches to finding and catching steelhead. You’ll hear tips from experts and details on steelhead stocking in West Michigan, network with anglers from rivers around the state, and even have a chance at winning door prizes including books and a $20 gift card sponsored by Michigan Sea Grant’s Michigan River Steelhead Program. There is no charge for the seminar, other than the entry fee for the sport show.

Fish Fray on getting started float fishing

Davis Fray delivers top quality video content that blends beautiful scenery, exciting fishing footage, helpful instruction, and conservation ethics on his Fish Fray YouTube Channel. His favorite technique is float fishing on West Michigan streams. Floats have been all the rage in recent years, and with good reason. Floats are a great way to present a bait naturally in a river environment, and they help you avoid snags.

Jim Bedford on luring steelhead

inline spinner fishing gear is shown
Inline spinners are a great option for anglers new to steelhead fishing.

Known as the spinner guru, Jim Bedford has been fishing steelhead for over 50 years. Through his fishing course at Lansing Community College, books on steelheading including the Grand River Journal, countless magazine and newspaper articles, and seminars at shows and fishing clubs around the region, Jim has introduced more people to steelheading than just about anyone. Casting spinners, stickbaits, and other lures is still a great way to get started catching fish. The basics are easy to grasp, but some tips from the master will help you cut down on snags, lost lures, and the frustration of casting to empty water.

Jay Wesley on steelhead stocking

Jay Wesley is the Lake Michigan Basin Coordinator for Michigan DNR, and an avid steelhead angler who frequents the Kalamazoo River. Jay will provide insight on steelhead stocking locations around West Michigan. Steelhead are stocked to sustain many of our most popular fisheries, along with some smaller creeks that are off the beaten path.

Meet and greet

After the seminar, there will be time to meet one-on-one with speakers and other Michigan River Steelhead Program participants. Eric Lemaux will be on hand to talk Clinton River steelhead fishing. The Clinton is experiencing a boom in popularity, providing surprisingly productive and scenic fishing opportunities in Metro Detroit. Randy Terrian will also be available to answer questions on the AuSable and other Lake Huron tributaries. New stocking strategies hope to revitalize the AuSable’s steelhead fishery, while Atlantic salmon are providing a unique addition to the fishery.

Using the Great Lakes Angler Diary

Michigan Sea Grant launched the Michigan River Steelhead Program in 2020 to allow steelhead anglers to report their catches online using the Great Lakes Angler Diary. By recording fin clips and lengths for every steelhead you catch, you can help biologists learn more about how natural reproduction and stocking contribute to fishing success in rivers around Michigan.

Sign up online and record data for trips taken from now to the end of the spring run. Catches can be recorded using the Great Lakes Angler Diary website or apps for iOS and Android.  A new dashboard feature allows you to quickly calculate % clipped, catch rate, and the average size of fish you catch, so don’t forget to update your app if you are already participating!

Everyone on the agenda for the Steelhead Made Simple seminar has been active in the Michigan River Steelhead Program. This is a unique community of anglers dedicated to providing solid information and participating in open discussion of topics related to steelhead management. Through our annual survey and regular Zoom meetings we have been very effective at reaching advanced steelhead anglers and professional fishing guides, but we have not been able to connect with those who are relatively new to the sport.

Stop by the seminar to learn more, or sign up today and get started collecting data. Once you sign up, you’ll be invited to participate in Zoom meetings that feature presentation on steelhead science and fishing reports from around the state.

New for this year is a reward program, with a chance to win a $50 gift card if you collect data on all the steelhead you catch (even if it is only a few) and fill out our survey in early June to share your opinion on Michigan’s steelhead fisheries. We look forward to hearing from you!

Michigan Sea Grant helps to foster economic growth and protect Michigan’s coastal, Great Lakes resources through education, research and outreach. A collaborative effort of the University of Michigan and Michigan State University and its MSU Extension, Michigan Sea Grant is part of the NOAA-National Sea Grant network of 34 university-based programs.

This article was prepared by Michigan Sea Grant under award NA180AR4170102 from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, U.S. Department of Commerce through the Regents of the University of Michigan. The statement, findings, conclusions, and recommendations are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the views of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, the Department of Commerce, or the Regents of the University of Michigan.

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