Michigan Fly Fishing 5 min read

DIY Guide to Fly Fishing the Manistee River in Michigan

Ken Sperry

Posted by Ken Sperry

November 12, 2021

Manistee River, Michigan

Also commonly referred to as the “Big” Manistee, the Manistee River offers an assortment of fishing opportunities for those willing to visit Michigan.

Not to be confused with the “Little Manistee River,” which is one of its tributaries, the Big Manistee has a commendable resident trout population, and bi-annual salmon and steelhead run.

The river is medium-sized in its upper reaches and has plenty of trout for fly fishing enthusiasts. Once you get lower than Tippy Dam, it presents a large dynamic salmon and steelhead fishing alternative.

While trout fishing kind of slows down in the fall along upper Manistee River, an angler can enjoy salmon fishing which picks up pace around August. This is closely followed by large runs of Coho and Chinook salmon in September.

As you head into October, steelhead comes into play. It enters the river to enjoy feeding on the salmon roe, making the Manistee River a wonderful fishing destination almost every month of the year.

Here are a guide and everything you need to know about fly fishing on the Manistee River.

Overview of the Manistee River

Fly fishing the Upper Manistee River for wild brown and brook trout

The Manistee River originates a few miles east of Mancelona and flows south for about 12 miles. The headwaters of the Manistee River parallels another famous Michigan trout stream, the Au Sable River, that is just a few miles due east of it.

The biggest difference between these two rivers is that they parallel one another for a few miles and then turn in almost opposite directions as the Au Sable flows East into Lake Huron. The Manistee flows Southwest into great Lake Michigan.

From its headwaters all the way to Lake Michigan, the Manistee River flows for about 100 miles, with the mainstream covering about 78 miles and draining an area of about 590 square miles. According to the Michigan State Department of Natural Resources, the Manistee River’s watershed touches five different counties:

  • Otsego
  • Missaukee
  • Crawford
  • Antrim
  • Kalkaska

It’s important to note that there is a Special Regulation Section along the Manistee River covering Michigan #72 all the way downstream to the CCC Bridge. Within this section, anglers are allowed to use only artificial flies. On the plus side, this particular section is home to plentiful trophy size trout.

Apart from the fact that massive trout are commonplace in some sections of this river, it also plays host to huge runs of salmon and steelhead, which enter the river at its lower section just below the Tippy Dam. The stream itself has a sand and rock bottom, making it quite suitable for steelhead and salmon spawning.

As far as fishing goes, the Manistee River is a mixed bag of fishing holes with some sections being flat and suitable for wading, while most of it has deep runs, pools, and riffles, which makes it ideal for drift boat fishing.

In fact, fishing from a boat is advisable since this river has more deep waters than not; a drift boat allows you to cover more fishing ground and get access to those bountiful fishing holes that you wouldn’t get to when wading.

Manistee River Map and Fishing Access Sites

map of the best fishing spots on the Manistee River in Michigan

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

Best Places to Fish the Manistee River

With just about 100 miles of fishing waters provided by the river, access to the Manistee River is quite easy. Access to the river’s upper sections where the best trout can be found is near M-38 or Mancelona Road #38.

Once you get below Mancelona Road, there are plenty of access points giving you excellent opportunities to fly fish the Manistee River. The most notable locations include:

  • Off Fayette Road in the town of Deward
  • The CCC Bridge
  • Country Road 612 Bridge
  • Sharon Bridge

However, if you are keen on accessing the lower river where you will find great salmon and steelhead during the right months, you can do so via:

  • North Bridge Road, which crosses the river just below Tippy Dam
  • M-55 River Road
  • East River Road

You could also choose to go fly fishing at Bear Creek, a tributary of the Manistee River, as salmon and steelhead tend to congregate here due to its cool waters. Even though the Manistee River is best known for its salmon and steelhead runs, it does provide anglers with amazing fly fishing opportunities all year round.

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

Best Time to Fish the Manistee River

As is the case with almost every fishing destination, when you go depends on what you intend to catch, and the Manistee River is not an exception to that rule.

  • Spring: If you are trout fishing, you should visit the Manistee River during spring. That, however, doesn’t mean that it’s just about trout; you can still land some steelhead even as late as the end of April.
  • Summer: This is also an excellent time for trout fishing.
  • Fall: While trout fishing remains quite excellent even through the fall, salmon begin to enter the river, followed by steelhead as early as mid-September.
  • Winter: Unless it’s extremely cold, winter is a good time for steelhead fishing. This fish species tend to be quite sluggish on the coldest of days, but you can still land a few regardless of the weather.

Stream Flow and Current Conditions

Be sure to check the stream conditions before heading out to fish the Manistee River. The USGS stream gauge at Sherman, 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.


  • Temperature: 65.12 ° F
  • Streamflow: 975 ft³/s
  • Gage height: 11.92 ft
Temperature GraphStreamflow GraphGage height Graph

Best Flies for Manistee River

Here is list of general fly pattern recommendations for the 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)


  • 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 with floating line is perfect for fishing dry flies and small nymphs for trout on the Manistee River. For steelhead or salmon you’ll need to step up to a 7-wt or 8-wt rod. A tapered 9-foot leader, with tippet size 1X to 5X to match the flies you are throwing, is pretty standard.

Manistee River Fishing Report

Area fly shops, guides and websites that can provide a 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

As an angler about to embark on your trip, you can either fly into Michigan or take a road trip to your preferred destination. Several towns are located near the Manistee River, such as Mesick, Wellston, and Mancelona. You can reach all of these locations by flying in through Cherry Capital Airport.

If driving, you can access it via Interstate Highway 75, Highway 72, 131, 77, and 31. The routes have plenty of places you can stop over for bathroom breaks and refueling.

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

Featured Image by Eric Schmuttenmaer