The Rifle River in Michigan drains into Lake Huron and originates from Arenac and Ogemaw counties. According to the Michigan State Department of Natural Resources, the Rifle River drains an area covering about 385 square miles and flows for about 60 miles in a southeasterly direction towards Lake Huron.
Like the Au Gres River and Au Sable River in the region, the Rifle River experiences a series of topographical changes on its way to Lake Huron.
The sections near the headwaters are narrower and much steeper than the lower sections that enter broader flat areas that offer excellent fly fishing and wading anglers opportunities.
The river is renowned for its abundance of brown trout. However, that's not all that can be caught in this gentle stream. Come fall, sparse runs of Chinook salmon and a few steelhead, along with lake-run brown trout, make an annual run up the Rifle.
If you are looking to land trophy brown trout almost all year round, your best bet would be to head out to Rifle River in Michigan. Here is a guide providing the information you need to enjoy your fly fishing trip to Rifle River.
Rifle River in Michigan
An introduction to the Rifle River Recreation Area in Michigan
The Rifle River starts out in the northeastern part of Ogemaw County as an outlet from Devoe Lake. A variety of tributaries add flow to the Rifle en route to Saginaw Bay. The most notable is Houghton Creek where a 37-inch brown trout was caught in 1952 and held the state record for may years.
The first ten miles of the upper area of the Rifle River is located on public lands, most notably the Ogemaw State Forest and the Rifle River Recreation Area. Most of the lower river is bordered by private grounds and requires a canoe or kayak to access.
The upper reaches tend to be fairly slow-moving, but as the landscape steepens, the river becomes quicker with various deep holes and several shallow riffles. One exception is north of the Arenac and Ogemaw County Line, where the water is calm and peaceful in nature.
Most of the land near the Rifle River is an upland forest with aspens in the northern areas. As you move south, aspens continue along with oak and jack pine. The lowlands bring in even more variety with maple, black ash, spruce, and balsam in some areas.
The bottom of the stream is an even mix between sand and gravel with underlying clay that is especially noticeable in areas with riffles.
There isn’t a ton of fish cover on the river, but some fallen trees and tag alders give the fish a place to hide from anglers. Many parts of the river are next to large, exposed sandbanks, especially in the southern half of Ogemaw.
How Geology Affects Fishing
Unlike most other streams and rivers in Michigan, the Rifle River isn't quite stable, geologically speaking. The biggest difference here is that this river is largely affected by glaciation. Ogemaw County, one of the places where the river originates, is predominantly made up of rolling hilly moraines.
There is a massive glacial moraine to the west of this watershed known as the West Branch Moraine, while there is yet another one to the east known as the Gladwin moraine.
The river's entire mainstream runs through outwash plain, and much of this watershed is underlain with nothing but clay pan. This leads to rapid water runoff and cloudy water after rainfalls.
Other than that, the stream is typically clean, clear, and water quality quite high. That's one of the main reasons why it's an excellent trout stream in Michigan and offers an angler a great fishing opportunity. However, it's also one of the main reasons why it isn't the easiest of streams to fish; since the water is often so clear, the fish are difficult to sneak up on.
Rifle River Map and Fishing Access Sites
Best Places to Fish the Rifle River
Because the Rifle River in Michigan runs through a large forested and hilly area, the ease of access really does depend on where you approach the river. There are a host of places that offer you easy access, while some would take some trying.
Here is a list of some of the places that would offer you easy access to the river:
- Ranch Road
- Twin Lake Road
- Peters Road
- E. Peters Road and Klacking Creek
- Kenneth Drive
- Greenwood Drive
The ease with which you can access the river does depend on the season, but for the most part, the above-named access points should be fairly easy.
You can access all Michigan and Rifle River fishing access points via the DIY Fly Fishing Map.
Best Time to Fish the Rifle River
As is the case with most fisheries, when you visit determines what you will catch, and the Rifle River isn't an exception to this rule even though it's predominantly populated by brown trout and the occasional brook trout.
Here are some tips on when you can go fly fishing on the Rifle River in Michigan:
- Spring: You can expect good brown trout fishing up until the final week of June. The river also supports an exciting and bountiful white sucker run that stems from Lake Huron and Saginaw Bay. Granted, most of the action will be centralized in the lower part of the river near Omer; the bounty does extend to most of the river's system.
- Summer: This season isn't entirely bad for fly fishing, but the river tends to warm up and you'll have to contend with many canoeist and kayakers.
- Fall: Is a great time to target lake-run browns, steelhead and salmon migrating out of Lake Huron.
- Winter: Depending on how frigid the weather is, an angler can still land a few fish here and there at their favorite fishing spot, but winter isn't really the best time to go fly fishing since the fish are rather sluggish due to the frigid weather.
Stream Flow and Current Conditions
Be sure to check the stream conditions before heading out to fish the Rifle River. The USGS stream gauge near Sterling, 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.
RIFLE RIVER NEAR STERLING, MI
- Temperature: 32 ° F
- Gage height: 2.30 ft
Best Flies for Rifle River
The Rifle sees decent hatches of mayflies, stoneflies, and caddisflies. Reliable hatches include blue-winged olives, Hendricksons, cahills, sulphurs, and white millers, along with occasional Hex.
Here is list of general fly pattern recommendations for the Rifle River:
- 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)
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.
- Adams Dry Fly
- Elk Hair Caddis
- Blue Wing Olive
- Royal Wulff
- Griffith's Gnat White
- Stimulator, Organge
- Chernobyl Ant
- Rubber Leg Nymph, Brown
- BH Pheasant Tail Nymph
- BH Prince Nymph
- BH Hare's Ear Nymph
- Barr's Emerger Nymph
- Zebra Midge Nymph, Black
- Wooly Bugger, Black (Size #8x2)
- Wooly Bugger, Olive (Size #8x2)
A 9-foot 4-wt fly rod and matching fly reel with floating line is perfect for fishing dry flies and small nymphs on the upper Rifle River. A tapered 9-foot leader, with tippet size 3X to 5X to match the flies you are throwing, is pretty standard.
On the lower Rifle River you'll want to size up to a six- or seven-weight to target the lake-run browns, steelhead and salmon.
Rifle River Fishing Report
Area fly shops, guides and websites that can provide a Rifle River fly fishing report and update on current conditions are listed below:
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
Getting to Rifle River in Michigan is easy and straightforward, either by road or air. If you’re flying, fly to Au Gres Airport, then drive 8.6 miles via US-23 S/ E Huron Road and S Hale Road.
If driving, you can use Intestate Highway 75, 65, 23, and Manor Road. You can make stop overs on your trip to fuel your car or grab snacks from the many convenience stores along the way.
Being a popular fly fishing destination, you will find plenty of places to stay while you are there. Whether you’re looking for a camping ground, a bay resort, or a private cabin, the options are plenty and fit various budgets.
Looking for more places to fish? Check out our DIY Guide to the Best Fly Fishing in Michigan
Feature image by George Thomas