DIY Guide to Fly Fishing the Ontonagon River in Michigan

Most anglers will never have the chance to visit all of Michigan's trout-filled streams, but the Ontonagon River in the western Upper Peninsula is one of the best in the state and one you don't want to miss.

This river is best known for its native brook trout, brown trout, and rainbows. Read on to learn how to fish this wild and scenic river.

Fly fishing the East Branch Ontonagon River for brook trout in the Upper Peninsula of Michigan

The Ontonagon River is a tributary of the Keweenaw Bay of Lake Superior. It flows for about 96 miles and drains an area of about 1,000 square miles in the Upper Peninsula of Michigan.

Its main tributaries are the west, east, middle, and south branches, each of which flows at least partially through the Ottawa National Forest.

West Branch Ontonagon River

The West Branch Ontonagon River is located entirely within Ontonagon County. It starts at the outlet of Lake Gogebic near Bergland and then flows in a primarily northeastern direction for just under 35 miles. The South Branch meets up with the West Branch before moving through a dam that creates the Victoria Reservoir.

South Branch Ontonagon River

The South Branch Ontonagon River starts out in the southwestern part of Ontonagon County near the confluence of the Cisco Branch Ontonagon River and Tenmile Creek. The Cisco Branch begins at Cisco Lake in Gogebic County and then moves to the northeast for about 33 miles. It meets the South Branch and then heads north as it goes through Ewen to connect with the West Branch.

East Branch Ontonagon River

The East Branch Ontonagon River is almost 60 miles long and starts out at Jingle Lake in the northern part of Iron County before moving in a northwest direction. It goes into Houghton County before reaching Ontonagon County and joining the Middle Branch.

Middle Branch Ontonagon River

The last part of the river is the Middle Branch Ontonagon River, which is over 70 miles long. It starts at Crooked Lake and then moves in an eastern direction while passing by Watersmeet before connecting with the Tamarack River. It continues north while collecting the Baltimore River until it reaches the East Branch.

Ontonagon National Wild and Scenic River

Part of the waters has been designated the Ontonagon National Wild and Scenic River since March 1992. This includes the middle section of the West Branch from the Victoria Reservoir to Cascade Falls, the entirety of the Cisco Branch, and the upper areas of the Middle and East branches located in the national forest.

Ontonagon River Map and Fishing Access Sites

Map of the best places to fish the Ontonagon 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 Ontonagon River

Largely populated with brook trout, brown trout, and seasonal steelhead, the Ontonagon River has a few different access areas for fly anglers. One of them is at Sparrow Rapids on the East Branch of the river. Both wild and stocked fish can be caught at this location.

Sparrow Rapids

From Kenton, take Forest Highway 16 north to Sparrow Rapids Road and follow it for just over four miles. Then, park the car and walk one-quarter of a mile down a gravel road to the Ontonagon River. You can also go three miles down the road to the campground for rapids rather than gentle, deep water.

Burned Dam Campground

Anglers can take advantage of the waters at the Middle Branch of the Ontonagon River at Burned Dam Campground. This location offers a campground with bathrooms, picnic tables, and areas for camping in a tent or a trailer. Keep in mind that the facilities are only open from the middle of May through September.

Take US 45 north from Watersmeet for one mile to US 2 before turning right. Keep going about seven miles and then turn left onto Farm Road 4500 before moving another mile. You will reach the campground and find parking access at this location.

Best Time to Fish the Ontonagon River

The Ontonagon River follows the regular trout season except in any special regulation areas.

Spring

In the springtime, anglers can fly fish on the river for trout as they start feeding on prolific aquatic hatches. This is also one of the best times of year to haul in a large steelhead or two that typically start to run in the first few weeks of April.

Summer

Things tend to slow down a little in the summertime months, but you can still catch plenty of fish as the temperatures rise. The water will remain pretty chilly in most areas. It might take a bit more patience and knowledge of local fly hatches and fly patterns to bring in the largest fish.

Fall

Fall can also be good for fly fishing, especially since this is the spawning season for brown trout. The fish may not be as lively as they are in spring, but they are easier to catch than during the summer months. If you do decide to fish during fall, some of the largest trout can often be found.

Stream Flow and Current Conditions

Be sure to check the stream conditions before heading out to fish the Ontonagon River. The USGS stream gauge near Rockland, 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.

ONTONAGON RIVER NEAR ROCKLAND, MI

  • Streamflow: 1700 ft³/s
  • Gage height: 7.29 ft
Streamflow GraphGage height Graph
USGS

Best Flies for Ontonagon River

The major hatches in Michigan give you a lot of insight into what kind of flies you should use. Some of them include hex, brown drakes, black caddis, and Hendricksons. Sulphurs, cahills, isonychias, and mahoganies can also be good for trout. 

Here is a list of general fly pattern recommendations for the Ontonagon 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 and matching fly reel with floating line is perfect for fishing for trout on the Ontonagon 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!

Ontonagon River Fishing Report

Area fly shops, guides and websites that can provide a Ontonagon 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 closest airport to the Ontonagon River is the Houghton County Memorial Airport. However, the two locations are about an hour away so a rental car will be a must for anglers coming into the area.

Along the way, there are also many hotels and restaurants.  Several campgrounds also provide convenient lodging including:

  • Burned Dam Campground
  • Marion Lake Campground
  • Taylor Lake Campground

There are also a few tackle shops up and down the river so you can stock up for your Michigan fishing journey.

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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