DIY Guide to Fly Fishing the Pigeon River in Michigan

You might be wondering why a river would be named "Pigeon"? Well, the story isn't that far from what you might have already guessed...it was named after some pigeons.

The Pigeon River in Michigan was named for the massive migrations of the now-extinct Passenger Pigeons. The center stream in a trio of excellent trout streams heading north toward Lake Michigan and Lake Huron, the Pigeon River flows into Mullet Lake.  It's sisters, the Sturgeon River and Black River, fish equally well.

Like most other rivers and streams in northern Michigan, the Pigeon River is known for a its healthy population of brook, brown, and rainbow trout. 

In this fishing guide, you will learn what you need to know to have a successful fly fishing trip when visiting Pigeon River in Michigan.

Pigeon River Forest, Trout and Elk

Located in Michigan's southern peninsula, the Pigeon River has its headwaters just a few miles from Gaylord. According to the Michigan State Department of Natural Resources, the Pigeon River runs for about 42 miles. It covers a drainage surface area of about 88,000 acres.

This is by far one of Michigan's noteworthy trout streams and is a huge favorite with most fly fishing anglers who visit the state. 

Fly fishing the Pigeon River in northern Michigan River

It qualifies as a blue-ribbon trout stream and is also designated as a Natural River by the Michigan Department of Natural Resources. 

The river itself receives quite a bit of groundwater in its upper reaches and is surrounded by forest.  Most of it flows through Pigeon River Country State Forest, which is about 105,000 acres of pine and hardwood. This forest is also home to the Michigan elk herd.

This river is a great way to experience fly fishing in Michigan, especially if you want to find a quiet, private place where you can focus solely on the fish. It's largely located in Pigeon River County State Forest, so you can take in gorgeous pine and hardwood trees, as well as an elegant herd of elk.

Dam Removal Improves Fishery

In the past, the Pigeon River was known for having warmer water than the other streams in the area. This was due to a dam that was located a mile upstream of Sturgeon Valley Road. After several dam failures causing fish kills and habitat destruction, it was removed.

The drawdown of the pool near the dam was completed in 2014 and the barrier itself was removed in 2015 to create a natural flow of water. This has created cooler temperatures, a better transfer of sediment, and an exceptional place to do a bit of fly fishing.

Some people still think the Pigeon River is inferior to the other rivers in the park, but nothing could be farther from the truth. The waterways have recovered from the issues related to the dam and the area is now an exceptional fishery for anyone who enjoys fly fishing.

Pigeon River Map and Fishing Access Sites

map of the best fishing spots on Pigeon 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 Pigeon River

There are several access areas to reach the best parts of the Pigeon River. One of them is at Canthook Landing, where anglers can find steelhead, brook trout, and brown trout. Getting to this area involves taking Webber Road north from Webb Road before moving onto State Forest Road 14 and moving southwest for about a mile.

Afton Road is another popular destination for reaching the Pigeon River. It also happens to be one of the simplest access points for those who want to catch some rainbow trout. Afton Road should be taken two miles south from Highway #68 in Cheboygan County. There is a pull-off located near the bridge where an angler can fish directly over the river.

Located in Otsego County, anglers will find a third access point for this stream. You'll want to take I75 Highway toward Vanderbilt before exiting at Sturgeon Valley Road. Stay on that route until it turns into gravel before making a left onto Twin Lakes Road. Keep going for about two miles until you reach the river.

Easy Access Points

There are pros and cons to the fact that the Pigeon River is readily accessible even by vehicle.  

You can easily access it via:

  • I-75
  • M-33
  • M-32
  • M-68

Accessing the west fork side of the river's watershed is easiest via the I-75 since the highway bounds it. The east fork side is also quite accessible via M-33, while you can get to the south side of the river via M-32.

If, however, you are looking to access the mainstream, you can do so just a few miles after the river enters Mullet Lake, where the M-68 crosses it.

There are an astonishing 15 road bridges, a host of country roads, numerous forest trails, and quite a number of fire lanes that both access and cross the river.

In fact, you can access the river via a bridge roughly every three miles or so. The river is mostly located in Otsego and Cheboygan counties.

Despite the easy access, it is relatively easy to find solitude on the river if you are willing to do a bit of walking.

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

Best Time to Fish the Pigeon River

Because this river is home to a variety of trout, the best time to fly fish is when there are plenty of aquatic and terrestrial bugs hatching.  The Pigeon doesn't have the big-bug hatches, like drakes and Hex, that rivers like the Au Sable are famous for, but has plenty of smaller mayflies, caddis and even tricos.

  • Spring is when your usual mayfly hatches come off and hungry trout will ready take a well presented dry fly.  There is also a spotty spring run of steelhead venturing up the lower river from Burt Lake.
  • Summer is pretty good, too, except that the river is often much clearer, making it more difficult to catch the Pigeon River trout. Tricos grace the water most morning in mid-to-late August.
  • Fall brings with it hopper, beetles and even flying ants that are trout favorites.  Lake-run browns from Burt Lake also migrate up the lower river in the fall.  Below M-68, the fishing season remains open through December.
  • Winter isn't really the best time to go fishing for trout; they tend to be a bit sluggish and reluctant to bite.

Stream Flow and Current Conditions

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

PIGEON RIVER NEAR VANDERBILT, MI

  • Streamflow: 63.5 ft³/s
  • Gage height: 2.24 ft
Streamflow GraphGage height Graph
USGS

Best Flies for Pigeon River

Here is list of general fly pattern recommendations for the Pigeon 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 4-wt fly rod with matching fly reel and floating line is perfect for fishing dry flies and small nymphs on the Pigeon River. 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!

Pigeon River Fishing Report

Area fly shops, guides and websites that can provide a Pigeon 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 river is easily accessible by road and air. The nearest airport to Pigeon River and the state forest that surrounds it is Otsego County Airport. 

If you are driving, you can access the river via I-75, M-33, M-32, or M-68. There are gas stations and stopovers along the way.

The surrounding area is set up to offer all the necessities. There are shops, restaurants, and hotels for use by anyone who wishes to fly fish on the Pigeon River. There are also a number of campground situated along the river.

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

Feature image by Tim Kiser

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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