History of Michigan Steelhead
Steelhead Fishing

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By Capt. John King

Steelhead and Steelhead fishing has became one of the most sought after game fish and fishing pastimes in Michigan, rivaled by only the Chinook or King Salmon in popularity with Michigan anglers.  Steelhead fishing is a multimillion dollar sport here in the Wolverine State.  It is widely sought after and Steelhead are to freshwater, what a Tarpon is to saltwater,  a superlative game fish with extraordinary leaping abilities in aerial displays!


Little Manistee River Mouth     February 2001

Steelhead, a.k.a. "Salmo gairdnerii" can be caught with a multiplicity of methods including spawn, flies, spinners, wigglers, spoons and a wide array of artificial lures.  I've told my fishing guests over the years,  "it's a fish born with a bad attitude and will strike just for plain meanness with a correct presentation of your offering."  Contrary to popular belief, I don't believe they're a hard fish to catch, although they're hard to locate in some cases!

Below photos are thumbnails, left click to enlarge to full size.

AdamsPatrick.JPG (70943 bytes) BudRRickP.JPG (54154 bytes) RickP3.JPG (43528 bytes) SteelheadDave.JPG (121809 bytes)
November 2000             Jan. 15, 2001                Jan. 16th, 2001           Steelhead in July

Establishing the Steelhead Fishery in Michigan began in the late part of the 19th century (1890s).  Rainbow Trout were imported here in an effort to replace the diminishing Grayling fishery.  Deforestation and many other not understood reasons contributed to the demise of the "Thallmus Tricolor" or Michigan Grayling.  Steelhead are not a native fish to Michigan, but first let's first understand a little about the Grayling, now extinct in the State of Michigan, in spite of the latest efforts to reestablish it in the U.P.

The Grayling

It was a beautiful fish with a large pronounced dorsal fin that would lay down or in a folded position at rest and stand up like a flag when the fish became active, and was known as "Thallmus signifier" and now is the name of the Artic Grayling.  The ventral fins were strongly etched and the fish had a slight odor, but it wasn't fishy, it had the faint smell of wild thyme.

The Graylings habits can strongly be associated with the characteristics of the Rainbow Trout, living in the faster currents and rapid, shallow riffles.  They averaged less than a pound and could range anywhere from 8 to 14 inches.  The best known rivers holding outstanding numbers of Grayling were the Au Sable (hence; the city name of Grayling), Manistee, Muskegon Pine and Boardman and was considered the trout of the lower peninsula, because not many existed in the U.P.  While the Grayling have gone the way of the Dodo bird there's strong evidence to believe, their decline and extinction caused the M.F.C. (meaning the Michigan Fish Commission established in 1873 is now known as the D.N.R.) to find a replacement for the Grayling.  Their choice?...... Rainbow Trout.

Steelhead or Rainbow?

Authority has it that Daniel C. Fitzhugh Jr. of Bay City wanting to see how the western Rainbow Trout would do in his favorite stream brought the first Rainbow eggs to Michigan in 1876 and were planted in the Au Sable River.  Two years later in 1878 a 125 yearling Trout were purchased for a hatchery in San Francisco known as the Shasta Trout, but were known to Michigan anglers by "California Trout" and, so mentioned in the early Michigan conservation laws.  The first Rainbow eggs came from these fish.  The first official Rainbow or California Trout were sent to the Michigan Hatchery by the U.S.F.C. (United States Fish Commission) on 4/14/1880, 1800 fry were released in Van Buren and Charlevoix Counties.  At that time it was thought that these early Trout species were a freshwater fish without the migratory instinct associated with the modern day Steelhead.

Now, this is where a gray area exists between the varieties of Trout shipped to Michigan.  The genealogy of today's Steelhead is a hodgepodge of many different species all wrapped up in what we've come to know as Michigan Steelhead.  You'll notice I'm not mentioning the summer runs introduced in the early 1980's.  Summer run species such as the Skaminia, Rogue and Umqua would only cloud an issue that's already hard enough to explain.

Because, during the time of the initial plantings the State had received many different kinds of trout including Swiss Trout from Switzerland, Dolly Varden, Black Spotted Trout, Cut throat, Brown Trout from Germany and even the Loch Leven Trout from Scotland.  The list is endless, so let's get back to the Rainbow or Steelhead issue.  The State obtained the exotic Trout stocks mostly through trading it's vast supply, of much sought after Brook Trout eggs.

By 1896 State realized the migratory nature of these imported stocks and even some very large Rainbows were caught in the Great Lakes. It was even thought when giant Rainbows started appearing in the Little Manistee River, it was because the Chicago World's Fair had closed in 1893 had emptied it's fish tanks into Lake Michigan.  

These early Rainbows adapted well in Michigan and started becoming wide spread by 1915 with purists being absolutely against any further propagation.  Rainbows had  over taken many blue ribbon Brook Trout streams much to the dismay of the anglers of the early 1900's.  Even the though Brookies spawned in the fall and the Rainbows spawned in the spring and there was no competition for prime spawning areas.

A Steelhead is a completely different specie that a standard Rainbow Trout because of it's migratory nature.  A Steelhead is a strictly anadromous fish, meaning it returns to the river where it was born, it's ancestry can be traced to both Salmon and Rainbow Trout.  By migrating to huge bodies of water like the Great Lakes, these fish have a much richer forage base to feed on, and can attain size never achieved by staying in the same river all year.  The point I'm trying to make here is; the State never knew exactly which specie they received back in the late 1800's.

Steelhead First Introduced in 1905

The first truly documented specie of Steelhead was in 1905 and 1908.  In 1910 15,000 of them when into the Muskegon River and some were planted in Lake Superior, this could have contributed to the early controversies between Steelhead vs. Rainbow.  Although, by then there were resident populations in the Little Manistee and other rivers.  Our fish are a result of forced hybridization or contamination between several different groups.  By the early 1920's weirs were set up to collect eggs off the mouths of several different rivers and the remains of one even to this day, can be seen at the mouth of the Little Manistee River, left over from bygone era.

Steelhead have been called Steelies, Ironheads, 'Bows and numerous other things.  It is said that because of the blue tinge of steel, it resembles the fresh run fish entering a stream they became known as Steelhead.  One thing here nobody will disagree with, they're one of the strikingly attractive fish you'll ever gaze upon.

The Existing Fisheries

We now have a trilateral fishery for Steelhead in Michigan today.  The first one is the outstanding "World Class" river fishery we have from January thru April.  The fish, until February for the most part are pre-spawning fish, waiting for 38 degrees of water temperature to move into the faster areas of water and gravel beds or redds for reproductive purposes.  Look for these fish that are in a holding pattern, to be in the slower or slack currents of the river or stream you plan on fishing.  Once on the gravel, they'll hit just about anything near their nest.  
I don't have any respect for river fishermen who sight fish bedding Steelhead until they get a hook in it.  Leave these nesters alone, or stealing from your Steelheading future.

May, June and early July can be some of the most exciting fishing you'll ever do on Lake Michigan.  These fish are on the surface and the feed, growing at an incredible rate compared to their river brethren.  Vertical thermobars, or thermoclines with the Steelies feeding in a wide selection of minnows. alewives, terrestrials (insects off land, blown onto the water) and the emerging aquatic life in the Great Lakes.  In the past I had as many as 9 fish on at a time, when the conditions are completely right.  Explosive! Is the way I rate Off-Shore Steelheading.  Also, I've seen many Octobers on Lake Michigan produce fantastic catches beyond belief.

Fall fishing, means chromers milling about off the piers and beach until mother nature calls the fish back to the river.  At this time of year these fish are in prime condition and just plain beautiful to admire.  It has often been said, "they enter the river in the fall to feed on Salmon spawn," I don't believe this.  I think it's in their nature because some of the "west coast" river systems like the Columbia (before the dams), are thousands of miles long and they need the additional time to reach to parenting gravel.  Keep in mind, I'm not saying they won't fall victim to a spawn bag on the way up, I've caught way to many of them on spawn sacks  during October and November.  By sometime in November, Steelhead will become much more orientated to plugs and spinners once the water cools into the 40 degrees range, but they'll still have a fondness for flies, wigglers, spawn or anything that looks like chow and is natural to the river or stream.  Bottom line is that there's more ways to catch Steelhead, than you can shake your fishing rod at!!!


MichiganSportsman Copyrightę2001

Many of the factiods and dates mentioned here came from "Trout of Michigan" Copyrightę1938
by Harold Hinsdill Smedley which I used as a reference to supply the dates and facts! 
Without his efforts much of this info could have been lost to history.