DIY Guide to Fly Fishing the Muskegon River in Michigan

There's no better option than the Muskegon River in Michigan when you want to catch smallmouth bass, rainbow trout, brown trout, salmon, and steelhead. The "Mighty Mo" ranks as the second-longest river, and one of the best tailwater fisheries in the state.

As a tailwater, the river doesn't freeze over and you can fish year round. It offers a variety of freshwater fish and provides a good chance of catching some really big game fish.

Even with so many fisheries in the state, the Muskegon is something special.

Fly fishing the Muskegon River for Michigan steelhead

The Muskegon River in a tailwater that flows over 220 miles from Houghton Lake down through Croton Dam and Muskegon Lake before reaching Lake Michigan.

The river is located in the western lower peninsula of the state. It's best known for its huge runs of salmon and steelhead alongside amazing trout and smallmouth bass fishing opportunities.

Since you can hook rainbow trout, brown trout, steelhead, and salmon, this river is a great source of fishing all year long. However, it hasn't always been available for anglers coming into the state.

Midwest Tailwater

In 1994, CMS Energy, which operates the Croton dam, started a controlled release schedule that improved the tailwater and made the river what it is today.

Nowadays, the tailwater is about 35 miles long and averages an impressive 200 feet wide. The best way to experience the lower Muskegon River is from a drift boat, but you can also find wading options on some stretches of the Michigan stream.

This river is a smooth flowing tailwater that resembles the Missouri River in Montana once it passes below Croton Dam.

The smooth water can make the Mighty Mo tricky to fish though. The current seams make it hard to make a good dry fly presentation and the resident trout can be selective. In addition, the vegetation found throughout the stream helps create a current that varies across areas.

The bottom of the Muskegon River is largely made up of soil and sand with small stones and includes some larger rocks and cobble.

All-in-all, the Mighty Mo ranks as one the top fly fishing destinations in Michigan, right up there with the likes of the Au Sable River, Betsie River, Boardman River, Manistee River, and the Pere Marquette River.

Muskegon River Map and Fishing Access Sites


Map of the best fishing spots on the Muskegon 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 Muskegon River

Since the Muskegon is such a massive river with miles of river to fish, there are plenty of fishing access locations.

The town of Newaygo is the hub for many heading to fish the tailwater below Croton Dam.

Boat ramps below the dam are available at:

  • Kimble County Park (Croton Drive)
  • Pine Street launch site
  • Thornapple Avenue launch site

Boat access lower down on the river can be found near the city of Muskegon at Cottage Grove. Take US 31 north five miles to Laketon Avenue before traveling west three miles to one popular access site.

Snug Harbor is another area with both a fishing pier and boat access in Muskegon. From the US 31 and Interstate 96 intersection, take US 31 eight miles to Michigan #120. Go west about two miles to Giles Road, go right five miles on Petersen Road, south one mile on Memorial Drive, and then right two blocks to Snug Harbor.

The Grand Trunk access point has a pier and provides boat access near Muskegon Lake. In addition, it has a wooden pier where bass and panfish can be found. Take Laketon Avenue west about two miles to reach the access site at the intersection of McCracken Street.

The last site to consider is Fisherman's Landing, which offers boat access. Take US 31 north for just under six miles before going west on Marquette Avenue. Hook a right on Ottawa Street and then turn left on Giddings Street to access this fly fishing destination.

Best Time to Fish the Muskegon River

Water temperatures in the Muskegon are regulated by dams and cold water springs.  Warm water from the dams help keep the river ice-free in the winter.  Cool water from the springs help keep the river cool in the summer.  These combine to provide a year-round fishery.

Spring

Springtime tends to be the best time for Muskegon River steelhead fishing. Spring steelhead begin their annual run up the Mighty Mo in March.  

The Mighty Mo also sees a run of Skamania (summer run) steelhead that enter the river at the end of May extending the steelhead season into late spring.

Summer

Since the Muskegon River enjoys a good amount of cold water inflow from springs, summer is a great time to for fish trout. 

The river level can vary depending on the year, but you can expect a selection of hatches that keep the trout active.

The Muskegon is also a fantastic smallmouth river.  With a strong population of this popular warm water fish, smallmouth bass fishing should not be overlooked.

Fall

As the fall months begin, salmon will start to make their way into the Muskegon River.

Chinook salmon and Coho salmon start entering the river the last week of August or in early September. King salmon fishing remains strong through late September and into early October.  Most Kings meet their maker by the third week of October.

Soon after, fall steelhead and lake-run brown trout will follow, which makes this location a great option for fishing throughout fall.  Fall steelhead fishing is particular fun as it is such a beautiful time of year.

Winter

For winter steelhead fishing, early winter is a good time to fish with early November being the best. You can expect to catch steelhead except on the coldest days of the year. 

Once it gets into January and February, and the cold weather set in, the fish start to become sluggish. Fishing will continue to be good compared to many Michigan streams though thanks to the warm water discharge from the Croton Dam that keep the river ice free.

Stream Flow and Current Conditions

Be sure to check the stream conditions before heading out to fish the Muskegon River. The USGS stream gauge below Croton Dam 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.

MUSKEGON RIVER NEAR CROTON, MI

  • Temperature: 59.36 ° F
  • Streamflow: 1780 ft³/s
  • Gage height: 5.38 ft
Temperature GraphStreamflow GraphGage height Graph
USGS

Best Flies for Muskegon River

During spring, aquatic insect hatches like small midges, tricos, black stoneflies, and sulphurs are a good choice. As the season progresses, the Gray Drake is one of best mayfly hatches and can be epic.

There are also plenty of caddis in the river. Fishing a caddis pupa and soft hackle tandem rig under an indicator will bring many violent strikes.

In summer, flies that imitate baitfish and crayfish work well, along with general attractor fly patterns.

Moving into fall, consider large nymphs and egg patterns for lake-run browns and steelhead that are searching for salmon eggs. 

You may want to switch between big streamers and egg imitations in the colder water in winter. Bouncing nymphs and egg imitations in slow tail outs can also be effective.

Here is list of general fly pattern recommendations for the Muskegon 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)
  • Egg flies (#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 and matching fly reel with floating line is perfect for fishing for trout on the Muskegon River. A tapered 9-foot leader, with tippet size 3X to 5X to match the flies you are throwing, is pretty standard.

You'll want to step up to a seven- or eight-wt fly rod for steelhead, salmon and lake-run brown trout.

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!

Muskegon River Fishing Report

Area fly shops, local guides and websites that can provide a Muskegon 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 place to touch down for fishing the Muskegon River will be at Muskegon Airport. However, Grand Rapids Airport is another reasonable option. The first will situate you right in town, where you can get fishing access, visit tackle shops, and rent a modest hotel room.

Having a car is necessary since you may want to head upstream to try some of the waters farther away. However, you can just as easily enjoy the trout and other fish only a few miles from the city if you prefer to stick to a single location.

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

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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