Fly Fishing for Steelhead on Michigan’s AuSable: Catch Steelhead from Boats or While Wading

Michigan’s AuSable river, downstream from Foote Dam, is a beautiful, yet treacherous stretch of water where steelhead come to spawn in the spring. The timing of the spawn varies from year to year, but the peak time usually occurs in mid-April. Most anglers go after steelhead with spinning rods, but a 7 to 8 weight, 9 to 10 foot fly rod can provide an exciting way to hook and land the big trout.

Find Steelhead from a Boat

Working the river in either a flat-bottom boat with a modest-sized outboard motor or in a float boat is one of the most effective ways to find the fish. Being able to move readily from place to place allows fishermen better likelihood of finding the places where the fish are holed up.

However, due to the many trees and logs in the river, great care is needed to navigate the river safely. The trees and logs also present many opportunities to lose a fly on a snag.

Wading for Steelhead

The waters of the AuSable are downright chilly, so neoprene waders are highly recommended. In order to cast to the deeper holes, anglers may wade into waist-high or even chest-high water. The water is moving fast, so great care is necessary to avoid mishaps.

This is pretty extreme angling, so fishermen must be in good shape to attempt it, and definitely need to have at least one buddy along. Moving down the river in a kayak or canoe, then wading when a fishy-looking spot comes along combines the aspects of mobility and wading adventure.

Flies and Presentations for River Steelhead

Typical trout wet flies, such as egg patterns, nymphs, and wooly buggers are good choices. The fly needs to get to the bottom of a deep spot, where the big fish lie in wait of the food that is delivered by the river currents. This requires weights. However, as one experienced trout fisherman says, “Really big, old, wise fish are sinker shy.”

The solution is putting the weight, whether a sliding sinker above a swivel or shot on the tippet, distant enough from the fly to pull it down without being detected by the fish. Generally, this will be a couple of feet, but can vary depending on the current.

If floating line is used, there needs to be about 10 feet of heavy leader on the reel, followed by a couple of feet of 4X tippet. With sinking line, a shorter leader will work.

The cast is not the usual false-cast-and-place fly fisher’s method. Called the “chuck & duck” by some, the technique involves positioning the leader so that the weight is a few feet from the rod tip, then, swinging the rod in a slow arc, letting the line go when it is just past the angler’s head.

This should result in the line lobbing up and forward in a nice arc that goes almost straight down to the water and allows the weighted fly to sink immediately. The cast should land just upstream from the targeted hole, so that when the fly reaches the edge it is already on the bottom and slips provocatively on down into the trout’s feeding area.

The line is stripped back quickly to avoid snags, and the process is repeated. When a big steelhead hits, a real fight ensues. The angler will need to use the reel to play the powerful fish.

Fishing for steelies on the AuSable is demanding fishing, but it can provide some real thrills when the big trout take the fly.

Donald S. Cochran

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