DIY Guide to Fly Fishing the Paint River in Michigan

The state of Michigan offers some of the coolest, cleanest, and fish-friendliest streams for trout out of anywhere in the United States. One of the best in upper Michigan is the Paint River. Located in the Ottawa National Forest in the western Upper Peninsula. It offers top brook trout and brown trout for anglers year after year.

The Paint River offers a blue-ribbon trout fishery as well as excellent smallmouth fishing depending on what part of the river you choose to visit. This designated 'Wild and Scenic' river is one that any fly fisher can appreciate while in Michigan. 

Fly fishing the south branch of the Paint River in Michigan's Upper Peninsula

The Paint River is considered the dominant river system for Iron County. It has been an important location since the initial explorers came into the area in around 1840. It has a common history that several other rivers in northern Michigan share with it.

From Trapping to Fishing

First, the Paint River was used by trappers and traders who were visiting the area. Later on, it was used by loggers as an essential pathway to move giant logs. In the modern age, this impressive river is used as a source of electrical power and for all sorts of water-oriented activities like canoeing and fishing.

Paint River Origin

The name of the Paint River comes from an Ojibway term that means “it is red” and later morphed to be “Paint.” The red color mentioned is more of a rusty brown where the river picks up from lowland areas where it drains.

Paint River Branches

The main section of the Paint River consists of two branches, both of approximately equal size. The South Branch and the North Branch both move in a mostly eastern direction throughout Ottawa National Forest before the rivers come together to create a main stream near Gibbs City. The main stream heads southeast to the Michigamme and Brule Rivers, among large waters and power dams to form the Menominee River.

North Branch

The origin of the North Branch is the Mallard Lake, where the stream flowing over the dam moves over boulders and rocks before taking on a leisurely pace. The full North Branch is largely associated with brook trout, while the South Branch has a large number of browns.

South Branch

As for the South Branch, it starts at Paint River Springs. Public access is limited until it reaches Elmwood. Conifer swamps and private owners are why it is limited. However, the entire branch has great fishing waters, especially for brook trout and an occasional rainbow or two.

Make sure to also check out Cooks Run, another blue-ribbon trout stream and tributary to the South Branch. 

Paint River Map and Fishing Access Sites

Map of the best spots to fish on the Paint River in Michigan's Upper Peninsula.

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

Best Places to Fish the Paint River

One of the best spots for trout angling is on the South Branch of the Paint River. Both brook and brown trout are present and can grow up to 12 and 20 inches, respectively. This waterway is great for fishing by wading or boating but can experience low flow during some seasons.

Take US Highway 2 from the Iron River west for eight miles before turning right onto Amvets Highway. Go half a mile to National Forest 1470 before turning right and heading to the bridge over the Paint River. Roadside parking is available for up to four cars and there is easy access to the river.

Another area for easy access to the Paint River is at the Paint Rider Bridge Boat Launch. From Crystal Falls, take Superior Avenue east until you reach a bridge. Pull off and into the parking lot and you will find an area where you can launch a boat to catch trout and other fish.

Blackhouse Campground is another option located within Ottawa National Forest. From Silver Creek, anglers can hike or otherwise travel down Blockhouse Road to reach the tranquil waters. There’s a place to put a kayak in the water as well as plenty of wading access.

Best Time to Fish the Paint River

The main branch of the Paint River is an excellent choice for fishing from a canoe or kayak at all times of the year. Spring is always a good time to fish for trout since insects are starting to hatch and fish are becoming more active after the chill of winter. 

Spring offers so much to anglers because there are all sorts of insects hatching near the water. So naturally, the fish are interested in the bugs and more likely to come looking for similar flies. In addition, spring offers warmer temperatures after the cold that comes with Michigan winters.

Summer is also a good time to spend days beside the Paint River with a rod and reel. The fish are going to take a little more work to bring up, but there are plenty of them and fly anglers can work on their techniques. As long as the water doesn’t get too warm, trout will still be prevalent throughout the river’s waters.

Trout continue to be a good choice for fishing at the Paint in the fall. However, as winter comes in, the fish will start to slow down. As the temperatures drop, the fish can become more sluggish and harder to catch.

Stream Flow and Current Conditions

Be sure to check the stream conditions before heading out to fish the Paint River. The USGS stream gauge near Alpha, MI provides 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.

PAINT RIVER NEAR ALPHA, MI

  • Gage height: 3.57 ft
Gage height Graph
USGS

Best Flies for Paint River

Some common fly hatches that you will encounter on the Paint River include mayflies, caddisflies, stoneflies, and midges.  The Paint River also supports a healthy population of bait fish.

Here is a list of general fly pattern recommendations for the Paint 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 Paint River. A tapered 9-foot leader, with tippet size 3X to 5X to match the flies you are throwing, is pretty standard.

Paint River Fishing Report

Given the relatively remote location there aren't any local fly shops that  can provide an update on fishing conditions.  Come spring, the odds are the fishing will be pretty good, so go anyway!

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 way to get to Michigan to fish the Paint River is through Sawyer International Airport. However, you’ll be a few miles from the river, so you'll need a car, truck, or SUV to get you around the area. You can find a few hotels in the area or trek to one of the nearby campgrounds for lodging.

While fly fishing in the area, you’ll also find a selection of restaurants, shops, and convenient stores so you can stock up on anything you need.

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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