DIY Guide to Fly Fishing the Little Manistee River in Michigan

The Little Manistee River in western Michigan has a reputation for excellent trout and steelhead fishing. Starting from the springs near Luther, this trout-filled stream offers about 65 miles of excellent fishing opportunities as it flows into Lake Michigan.

It's a relatively small stream being fed by a mix of run-off and natural springs, making it one of those ever-present rivers in Michigan. That can only mean one thing - plentiful fishing all year round.

If you are keen on wading and landing wild brook trout, brown trout, rainbow trout, steelhead and even salmon, then this is where you want to go fishing when in Michigan. Here is a guide that should help you plan your fly fishing trip to the Little Manistee River in Michigan accordingly.

Overview of Little Manistee River

The Little Manistee River is a tributary of the Manistee River, also known as the "Big" Manistee River, and is known locally as the "The Little River" or the "Little Man".

It originates in Lake County, the southeast corner of Ellsworth Township. This ever-present stream flows west-northwest towards the Manistee Lake found in Manistee County and eventually into Lake Michigan.

Underwater footage of naturally reproducing steelhead and Chinook salmon in the Little Manistee River in western Michigan

The stream is relatively small with lots of access areas thanks to the fact that it flows through a great deal of forest land. According to the Michigan Department of Natural Resources, the Little Manistee River drains about 145,280 acres, all in Mason, Lake, and Manistee counties.

The river free flows below Luther Dam for about 55 miles which presents excellent fishing opportunities for both waders and floaters. It's generally a gentle river with very few riffles.

It also features a few deadfalls, some undercut banks, and deep holes where fish can hide. The majority of the river's watershed is quite forested with conifers and northern hardwoods.

The river mostly has a sand and gravel bottom with some silt areas, which makes them the best place to find burrowing mayflies for your fishing.

Little Manistee River Map and Fishing Access Sites

map of the best places to fish the Little Manistee River in Michigan

Get directions to fishing access points and real-time stream flow data with the DIY Fly Fishing Map

Best Places to Fish the Little Manistee River

One of the great things about the Little Manistee River is how accessible it is for anglers. The most popular way to reach the stream is by parking near the Old Glade Campground outside of Luther and then walking to the water.

However, overall access is excellent throughout the stream. The only exception is a seven-mile area from Johnson to Spenser Bridge. This is largely controlled by a fishing club. Avoid this area or stay in the water while you move through it to avoid trespassing.

The best area to catch a variety of trout is near Luther. The stream becomes more powerful in terms of size and strength as it moves below Highway M-37 to the area beyond Bass Lake Road.

Anglers will also find good fishing in between the Six Mile and Nine Mile Bridges. The water at the former bridge is a bit slower and pools get deeper and longer. This creates an area ideal for bringing in large brown trout and steelhead.

Where to Catch Trout, Steelhead and Salmon

The Little Manistee River in the upper reaches is best known for wild brook trout and brown trout. The best fishing spots can be found further downstream near Irons, where the river gets about 30 feet wide. You are more likely to find browns in this location.

As you travel downstream from Irons towards Lake Michigan, you will enjoy about 20 miles of good fishing with a wide variety of brook trout, brown trout, and rainbow trout in plenty.

There are very few streams that offer such diversity as far as fly fishing options are concerned. Because the Little Manistee River runs through a forest, access to it is quite convenient regardless of your preferred fishing option (wading or small floats).

The one factor that often goes towards determining an anglers point of access is the kind of fish they want to land:

  • Luther to M-37: There is a 10 to 15-mile stretch above M-37 bridge that is perfect for those who enjoy catching colorful brookies and wild browns.
  • Below Highway M-37: As you head down past Bass Lake Road, the stream gets stronger and offers plenty of brown trout with the occasional rainbow.  This reach also holds long stretches of spawning gravel and is a great place to target steelhead in the spring.
  • Between Spenser Bridge and Johnson Bridge: This seven-mile section is strictly fly fishing only and portions are controlled by a private club.  Sizable browns are rumored to lurk here.
  • Six Mile to Nine Mile Bridge: The section between the Six Mile to Nine Mile Bridge is excellent for trout fishing.
  • Below Six Mile Bridge: This is where you want to head out to if you are looking to hook-up with early season steelhead and salmon.

Note: the DNR operates the Little Manistee River Weir at the Old Stronach Bridge from the August 15th to November 15th, and then again from mid-March to mid-April. This is where migrating steelhead, and Chinook salmon eggs are harvested.  All salmon collected at the weir are harvested, while all brown trout and steelhead are counted and released upstream.

You can access all Michigan and the Little Manistee River fishing access points via the DIY Fly Fishing Map.

Best Time to Fish the Little Manistee River

The seasons vary greatly depending on the kind of fish you want to catch.

  • Spring: In April, the bi-annual run of steelhead is in full swing, and you can also enjoy dry fly fishing for the different types of trout in the river thanks to the numerous hatches.
  • Summer: Salmon tend to migrate to the river in July and very early August. You can also catch a lot of trout in the evening thanks to the a plethora of hatches as well as the cool waters.
  • Fall: If you visit in early Fall, you will be treated to amazing brown trout fishing as well as some steelhead.
  • Winter: If you are strictly looking to land steelhead, you might want to visit in November and December.

Stream Flow and Current Conditions

Be sure to check the stream conditions before heading out to fish the Little Manistee River. The USGS stream gauge near Wellston, MI provide a good indication of current conditions.

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.

MANISTEE RIVER NEAR WELLSTON, MI

  • Temperature: 38.3 ° F
  • Streamflow: 1900 ft³/s
  • Gage height: 8.92 ft
Temperature GraphStreamflow GraphGage height Graph
USGS

Best Flies for the Little Manistee River

Trout in the Little Manistee respond well to typical dry fly, nymph and streamer patterns that mimic the many caddis and mayfly hatches that occur in the river. 

The siltier sections of the Little Man (above M-37 and Indian Bridge) support Hex and brown drakes. You'll want some large dry fly patterns to imitate these big mayflies.

Egg-patterns are also effective given the number of spawning steelhead that return to the river each year.

Dead-drifting big nymph patterns over the gravel bars is the name of the game for catching steelhead.

Here is list of general fly pattern recommendations for the Little Manistee 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)

Nymphs

  • 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)

Streamers

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

Need flies? 

Ventures Fly Co. offers a great selection of dry flies, nymphs and streamers that will catch fish just about anywhere.  Set includes 40 high quality, hand-tied flies (see list below) and waterproof fly box. 

Dry Flies
- Adams Dry Fly
- Elk Hair Caddis
- Blue Wing Olive
- Royal Wulff
- Griffith's Gnat White
- Stimulator, Organge
- Chernobyl Ant

Nymphs/Wet Flies
- Rubber Leg Nymph, Brown
- BH Pheasant Tail Nymph
- BH Prince Nymph
- BH Hare's Ear Nymph
- Barr's Emerger Nymph
- Zebra Midge Nymph, Black

Streamers
- Wooly Bugger, Black (Size #8x2)
- Wooly Bugger, Olive (Size #8x2)

Gear Recommendations

A 9-foot 5-wt fly rod with with matching fly reel and floating line is perfect for fishing for trout on the Little Manistee River. For steelhead, salmon you'll want to step up to a 6-wt or 7-wt fly rod. A tapered 9-foot leader, with tippet size 3X to 5X to match the flies you are throwing, is pretty standard.

Need Gear? 

Below are recommendations for essential gear to make the most of your time on the water.

Quality rod, reel, line and rod tube at a reasonable price. Backed by Orvis 25-yr guarantee, a brand you can trust.

High performance nylon leader, great for fishing Dry Flies, Nymphs and Streamers.

Excellent knot strength, stretch and suppleness make this the finest nylon tippet.  3-pack of the sizes you'll need the most.

Heavy duty, waterproof, yet breathable.  If you are tough on waders, these are for you. Backed by Simms Wader Warranty. If they leak, they got your back.

Most durable, yet comfortable, boot on the market.  Excellent foot and ankle support.  Great for rocky rivers. Lightweight and designed for all-day wear.

Sweet pack with ample storage. Unique harness system reduces neck strain. Sleek tapered face improves visibility - you can see your feet when wading!

Durable and lightweight. The carbon fiber frame floats.  Hooks don't get stuck in the rubber mesh bag . Extra length makes it easier to net fish.  Simply the best nets on the market.

Tough, waterproof and priced right. Hold 900+ flies in slotted foam.  If you need more storage - you have too many flies!

Simple, sharp nippers at great price. Clip on retractor keeps this must have gear at your fingertips.

Strong with a fine tip. Perfect for removing split shot and hooks. Simply the best fishing pliers.

The 580 Glass polarized lenses are super clear and somehow relaxing on the eyes.  Game changer.

Note: DIY Fly Fishing earns a commission (at no cost to you) on sales made using the links above. Thank you for your support!

Little Manistee River Fishing Report

Area fly shops, guides and websites that can provide a Little Manistee 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 nearest airport is located at Grand Rapids Gerald R Ford International Airport when traveling to Little Manistee River. After reaching your destination, you’ll likely want to rent a car to get around the area. The town of Manistee has plenty of shops, restaurants, and other necessities.

If you prefer a road trip to the river, drive to Manistee County, then take US-31 S and E Free Soil Road to get there. From bed and breakfast spots to motels and lodges, there are plenty of places to stay as well as campgrounds and campsites where you can pitch your tent.

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

Feature image by jimflix!

About the author

Ken is an avid fisherman of 40+ years who loves to explore and find new places to fish. He created DIY Fly Fishing to help you do the same.

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