The Muskegon River is a large system in the western part of our state. It is more similar to some of the large streams in the western part of the US than its smaller counterparts here in Michigan. Due to its size, we are going to focus on the portion between Croton Dam and the town of Newaygo. This is going to be the most popular section for fly fisherman, and is a true four season gem. The runs of steelhead and salmon are stopped by Croton Dam, and most of the good spawning gravel is found in this section. An experienced Muskegon River angler can probably fish this whole section in a day. Armed with an outboard motor and local knowledge, one could skip around to all the “honey” holes and usually find success.
Drifting the river is quite relaxing compared to the Betsie River or Pere Marquette. With lots of landscape to work with and a gentle current (relative to its size), the section from Croton Dam down to Newaygo is pretty docile. With that being said, we usually take out our 13′ Stealthcraft drift boat (review here), and with the spring run off we have found it difficult to get an anchor to hold us in place. This can make a short line presentation, like chuck-n-duck, a little difficult in heavy flows. Due to the large width of the river, it can be hard to anchor your boat in prime position to cast these heavily weighted rigs to the sweet spots. We think you may be better served fishing floats and swinging streamers to cover these large runs. With these tactics you can anchor in softer water and attack the entire run more methodically.
We also strongly suggest at least a strong trolling motor to help re-position the boat often to cover as much water as possible. You will notice most people on the Muskegon are equipped with outboard motors to handle the sometimes heavy current.
As usual we suggest checking in with local shops to get water conditions as well as the local favorite methods and flies. We always make a visit to the Muskegon River Fly Shop – they are always more than helpful and generous with their knowledge.
Muskegon River – Species and Tactics:
While the Muskegon River is best known for its fall/winter/spring Steelhead run, it is also a formidable fishery for brown trout, smallmouth, and walleye. Check the regulation for walleye (well check for all fish actually), as they do regulate when you can target and harvest these fish.
In the summer people will target smallmouth and resident brown trout. There is enough aquatic diversity here to support all methods of fishing. From stripping and swinging streamers, nymphing, and an improved insect hatch for dry fly fishing, the Muskegon River covers all the bases.
The Salmon run usually starts in September and runs into October. The primary method for these fish is going to be chuck-n-duck with egg flies and leach patterns.
Steelhead come in behind the salmon in October. They will feed heavily on egg patters while the salmon are spawning and stay in the river system until their spring spawn. Change your egg colors to match water conditions, but also be mindful of the presence of spawning salmon. If there are salmon actively spawning up stream, then focus on your bright “fresh” egg colors. If the salmon have spawned out then try switching to duller “dead” egg colors.
Once the cold weather hits the fish will move to the deeper winter lies. Eggs are still a good searching pattern to keep on a two nymph rig, but nymphs like caddis, stone flies, hare’s ears and hex will probably pick up more fish. Streamers also become a better option in the cold months. You will have to work for it, but a large meal is the only thing that will move these fish in the coldest months.
Spring brings in more fresh steelhead looking to spawn. The egg bite will heat up again as fish move to gravel. The fish will stack up behind active spawners and pick off eggs. Black stoneflies start to come off in early spring, and both resident trout and steelhead will take them. Once fish start to spawn out and turn back to the lake swinging streamers becomes effective again. These “drop-back” fish are ready for a big meal, and can be aggressive as they travel back to Lake Michigan.
There are four main access points on the Muskegon River between Croton Dam and the town of Newaygo. They all have boat ramps and ample parking. We will add more access points as we explore this great river.
- Croton Dam – The end of the line for anadromous fish like salmon and steelhead. It is just a short 1 mile float down to the second access point
- Pine Ave – This is our usually launch point. Croton Dam draws the most traffic, so this avoids some of the circus. Plus you get the advantage of hitting the water below before the people that launch at Croton Dam. It’s about a 2 hour float down to the next spot. There is a good mix of wood along the banks, gravel bottoms, and outside turns to make this short float a full day trip.
- Thornapple Rd – This boat ramp offers probably the best walk-in wading access. The road in can be a little bumpy. Its about a 2.5 hour float to the last access point.
- Henning Park – The end of the road for most fly fisherman. It is our understanding that below Newaygo the Muskegon River gets a little more “featureless” (as a local referred to it), and is probably better explored back trolling or throwing crank baits. Topwater for smallmouth is also going to be good down there.