Spring, Steelhead, and Michigan’s Muskegon River

Tom Kuieck

(An educator, now retired, Tom Kuieck is a professional fly fishing guide with RiverQuest Charters, Jenison, Michigan and wrote this article for EDTU.)

Western Michigan fly fishermen, as exemplified by the Schrems West Michigan Trout Unlimited Chapter’s having received TU’s prestigious Gold Trout Award for 2010, care deeply about their rivers, not the least of which is the Muskegon, located just 45 minutes north of Grand Rapids.

“Catch and Release,” respect for the resource and its users, and the use of fly tackle mark a strong cadre of fishermen (and women), who earnestly seek to help others appreciate the merits of improving the quality of the river and one’s experience with it. Work remains, but the Muskegon today flows all the better thanks to the determined efforts of those who love the river and all it means to them.

Even now, as winter winds swirl and snow piles ever deeper, pods of flashing bright steelhead ascend the Muskegon. By mid-March, numbers will swell to distribute steelhead throughout the system: soon it will be spring, and primal urges must be heeded.

Swift flowing, broad, and Pacific northwestern in character, the Muskegon offers spring steelhead fishing of national quality. Though its banks are largely privately held, public access is available, though wading may be limited by forests shedding their cloaks of winter white. Drifts and swings through promising runs and glides are best accomplished from the mobility and safety of a drift boat or jet sled. Moreover, steelhead move: a run productive one day may prove stingy the next. Hence, floating the river to probe run after run, pool after pool is well advised and pleasurable to boot.

Deep nymphing or “Chuck and Duck,” as the method is either derisively or affectionately labeled, is the default method for meeting steelhead with the fly on the Muskegon. Swift, deep runs and pools render sink-tip or sinking line methods challenging, though not without success. Steelhead take insect and egg patterns softly, and deep nymphing with its iconic rigging—floating shooting line affixed to leader with weight, then to tippet with two flies—minimizes drag and maximizes sensitivity, thereby enabling the fly fisher to detect the softest of pick-ups. Indeed, it’s all about touch—discerning rock and log from take—that separates skilled deep nymphers from those new to the method. Nonetheless, it’s a method novices may quickly learn and with which they may experience success. Stripping line off the reel onto the floor of the boat and with a water-borne or soft lob cast, the fisherman presents the flies to the waiting steelhead. Black stones, green caddis, hexes, and egg flies drifted drag-free through runs, glides, and pools prompt the steelhead to move to the fly.

Subtlety, though, is decidedly not the game when swinging Spey patterns with a switch or Spey rod. Steelhead aggressively smash these flies, as one would expect, given the fact that they imitate swiftly moving prey. One take, with all its fury and speed, is worth any number of steelhead brought to hand by other methods, say swung fly devotees. Truth is, one will experience fewer hookups when swinging flies, especially in the spring as opposed to fall, than with other methods, but the encounter is so exhilarating that increasing numbers of fly fishermen accept the trade-off. Moreover, when swinging

flies, one covers miles of river, affording the fisherman an opportunity to see and appreciate the Muskegon all the more fully. In all, it’s a high-risk, high-reward equation in the spring, but for those who swing flies, the rewards render it worthwhile and most satisfying.

Finally, spring steelheading on the Muskegon, mid-April through mid-May, offers the fly fisherman the opportunity to cast weight forward lines with or without indicators over shallow runs and glides. This is classic nymph fishing, line mends and all, and it’s an effective method to present nymph and egg patterns over staging steelhead. Males, frustrated with their repeated inability to move the alpha male from a spawning hen’s side, course back and forth in the runs below the gravel, only seemingly to take out their aggression on morsels of feather and floss drifted to them. Females, not yet ready to move onto gravel, join them. Indy fishing with light rods, whether single or two-handed, is a delightful method; it combines much of what we love about trout fishing—the cast and line management—with the thrill of bolting steelhead clearing water as they rip fly line to backing.

By mid-February, deep nymphing the dark pools of the Muskegon becomes ever more productive, though fall run steelhead still in the river will cooperate in the very chill of January and early February. By mid-March, add runs and glides, and by early April through early May target shallow runs and glides below gravel. Whatever the time, the truth is, the Muskegon and its steelhead make for one extraordinary fly fishing experience.

The tackle, jet sleds, and expertise necessary to fly fish steelhead on the Muskegon effectively are available from the professional guides of RiverQuest Charters (www.riverquestcharters.com). TU members and supporters, RiverQuest guides love fly fishing and guiding; they understand their privilege and responsibility to give clients a great day on the water no matter how challenging or generous the river may prove to be. Then, too, the Muskegon River Lodge (www.muskegonriverlodge.com), a full log chalet set on 400 feet of the Muskegon, is the perfect base from which to fly fish. Later, at day’s end, retreat to the soothing warmth of the hot tub, sauna, or lodge itself. Refreshed, head to the lodge lounge, replete with antique German bar, poker table, billiards, Foos-ball, darts, HD television, leather couches, and humidor stocked with select cigars.

Spring steelheading on the Muskegon: it’s a special time in a special place, thanks in part to the resolute efforts of those who love it and seek to make it all the better for generations to come.