Michigan Fly Fishing 5 min read

DIY Guide to Fly Fishing the Coldwater River in Michigan

Ken Sperry

Posted by Ken Sperry

August 19, 2022

Brown trout from Coldwater River in Michigan.

One of the best places for fly fishing is none other than Michigan. The state offers thousands of miles of water, much of it with full public access, and a variety of fish for both new and experienced anglers to catch. Michigan has a long history with fly fishing and it’s surprising that more people don’t travel to the state to fish for trout.

While lesser known than the Pere Marquette and Au Sable Rivers, the Coldwater River is a great little trout stream. It has some challenging areas but is overall an ideal place for even someone completely new to fly fishing.

About Coldwater River

Fly fishing for trout in the Coldwater River in Michigan

As far as southwest Michigan goes, the Coldwater River is one of the most high-quality locations for fishing. It’s mid-sized at 20 miles long and is home to many species of fish, including brown trout and rainbow trout. 

A recent survey by the MDNR indicates the Coldwater holds more trout per-mile than many similar nearby waters.

Many areas have fallen trees, and sunken logs placed by the local TU chapter, to create the perfect hiding spots for wary fish.

Stream Improvements

In recent years, improvements have been made to the stream in an effort to sustain more fish than ever. The Coldwater River Watershed Council also keeps a watchful eye on the river to help ensure it remains healthy for years to come.

As a result, the population of trout has increased since this time, something that local fly anglers have been taking advantage of ever since.

Trout Fishing

The Coldwater River is a tributary to Thornapple River just south of Grand Rapids. It’s mainly known for its trout, but other fish can also be found in this gentle flowing stream. Most trout average nine to 13 inches, but larger fish reaching up to 18 inches are not uncommon.

About 20 miles of the river flows through Kent and Barry counties near Freeport and Hastings, Michigan. The Coldwater River and nearby Tyler Creek are designated trout streams. They have been a focus of conservation efforts for many years.

Conservation Efforts

The Coldwater River could be considered an example of a partnership between the Michigan Nature Association and Trout Unlimited. In addition, the Coldwater Rivershed Council has received grants from several sources as a way to improve the fish population from 40 fish per mile to 800 fish in each mile. 

Gilchrist Brown Trout

The Gilchrist brown trout was introduced many years ago and the species has been thriving ever since. Anglers who take the time to seek out this river will also encounter other fish, primarily rainbow trout and brook trout.

Coldwater River Map and Fishing Access Sites

Map of the best places to fish on the Coldwater River in Michigan.

Get Directions to the Fishing Access Points shown above with the DIY Fly Fishing Map

Best Places to Fish the Coldwater River

One of the most popular access points for the Coldwater River is at the Dolan Nature Sanctuary. This location is right off of Bake Avenue and has about one and a half miles of streambank access. When the river is flowing normally, it offers easy wading, but some deep holes exist so be careful.

Another access point is at Coldwater River County Park, which is found off of 100th Street Southeast in Alto. It can also be accessed from Morse Lake Avenue Southeast. The water is close to the roads and there is a bathroom in the area for use by anglers.

If you are starting your journey in Grand Rapids, you can leave North Division Street and take Interstate 196 east to reach Coldwater River. Then, take Interstate 96 east to Michigan #50 until you reach exit 52. Continue on Michigan #50 and drive to 100th St in Bowne Township to reach the river.

Anglers can visit Coldwater River Park in Alto, Michigan, to fish on the river. The park spans six acres and offers an excellent place for those learning to fly fish. There are facilities available, including picnic areas, restrooms, and more. The park is small but offers a convenient way to experience the fun and excitement of fishing on Coldwater River.

Best Time to Fish the Coldwater River

You’ll want to follow the Michigan trout season calendar while fishing the Coldwater River. Many anglers find spring is the best time to fish since there are all sorts of different hatches happening. Since this is largely a trout stream, summer is also a good time to enjoy fly fishing in the area.

Fishing remains good throughout the fall. The trout tend to get a little faster and more active than they might have been in the summer. Keep in mind that there are restrictions on this stream, so the fishing season runs only from the last Saturday in April through the end of September. 

Because of the restrictions, winter and early spring fishing aren’t possible. However, the weather in Michigan can get cold during those months, so it’s not the best time for fly fishing, regardless of location. 

Stream Flow and Current Conditions

Be sure to check the stream conditions before heading out to fish the Coldwater River. The USGS stream gauge on the nearby Thornapple River near Hastings, MI provide a good indication of current conditions in the area.

The graph below shows the stream flow (discharge) for the past 7-days. If flows are considerably above or below historical norms (yellow triangles on the chart) then fishing conditions maybe not be ideal.


  • Streamflow: 696 ft³/s
  • Gage height: 4.41 ft
Streamflow GraphGage height Graph

Best Flies for Coldwater River

The Coldwater River has healthy populations of mayflies including Hendricksons, sulphurs, and BWO’s. Burrowing mayflies like Hex and drakes, are unfortunately not very common. There are also plenty of caddis and stoneflies.  Early season little black stoneflies are especially prevalent.   

Here is list of general fly pattern recommendations for the Coldwater River:

Dry Flies

  • Yellow Sally (#12 – 16)
  • Yellow Humpy (#10 – 18)
  • Parachute Sulphur (#14 – 18)
  • Parachute Adams (#12 – 22)
  • Light Cahill (#10 – 18)
  • Elk Hair Caddis (#8 – 16)
  • Yellows Stimulator (#8 – 14)
  • Chernobyl Ant (#8 – 12)
  • Griffith’s Gnat (#16 – 24)


  • Pheasant Tail (#12 – 20)
  • BH Hare’s Ear (#12 – 20)
  • Rainbow Warrior (#14 – 22)
  • Pat’s Rubber Legs (#4 – 12)
  • Golden Stonefly (#6 – 10)
  • Tellico Nymph (#12 – 18)
  • Zebra Midge (#16 – 22)
  • WD40 (#16-20)
  • Y2K Egg (#12 – 16)


  • BH Wooly Bugger (#2 – 6)
  • Sculpzilla (#4)

Gear Recommendations

A 9-foot 5-wt fly rod and matching fly reel with floating line is perfect for fishing for trout on the Coldwater River. A tapered 9-foot leader, with tippet size 3X to 5X to match the flies you are throwing, is pretty standard.

Coldwater River Fishing Report

Area fly shops, guides and websites that can provide a Coldwater River fly fishing report and update on current conditions are listed below:

Fishing Regulations

The state of Michigan requires that all people who are 17 years of age and older have a valid fishing license. There are resident and non-resident sport fishing licenses available.

You can purchase a Michigan state fishing license and learn about the most current regulations through the  Michigan Department of Natural Resources.

Trip Planning Tips

The best thing about fishing the Coldwater River is its location. Reaching Grand Rapids is easy with a simple flight into Gerald R. Ford International Airport. From there, you can rent a car and visit the stream at its many access points for great Michigan fly fishing.

The city is large and you can find hotels, shopping options, and restaurants to keep you comfortable during your fly fishing trip. In addition, there are several tackle shops in the area and other attractions and events if you want to do something new. With all the work that has been done on Coldwater in recent years, it’s an absolute dream to fish. 

Looking for more places to fish? Check out our DIY Guide to the Best Fly Fishing in Michigan