DIY Guide to Fly Fishing the St. Joseph River in Michigan

The St. Joseph River is not only found in Michigan but also passes the border into Indiana. This impressive river is huge and offers some of the best runs of salmon and steelhead in this part of the country. In addition, St. Joseph and its many tributaries provide fly fishers with the chance to catch smallmouth bass, pike and musky throughout the year.

If you're looking to hook-up with big fish, you'll be happy you made a trip to the St. Joe. It's the ideal place to throw a line for monster fish while drifting this Michigan classic.

Fly fishing the St. Joseph River in Michigan for steelhead

The St. Joseph River originates in Michigan and is located in the southern lower peninsula. As it moves away from its origin, it quickly gains volume and becomes faster through the help of its many tributaries such as the Dowagiac River. It travels through the town of Three Rivers before it starts to turn in a southwest direction to reach Indiana.

Steelhead Fishing in Indiana?

After the river passes the Indiana border, it goes through South Bend, Mishawaka, and Elkhart before it makes another turn back toward Michigan.

The trip through Indiana is well worth it though.  The state of Indiana stocks over 200,000 steelhead and 40,000 coho salmon in the St. Joe each year.  Who knew?!

Once the St. Joe reaches Michigan a second time, it passing through Niles and Berrien Springs before moving on to St. Joseph right on the southeastern shore of Lake Michigan.

Floating the St. Joe

The St. Joseph River is a massive waterway and often has an intense flow that makes it hard to wade in. Boat fishing is more common on the river since it tends to be easier (and safer) than wade angling. There are large pools and deep runs across the entire river, no matter where you choose to stop and drop a line.

In addition, this river has a number of dams that can improve the fishing available. The barriers at Niles and Berrien Springs are both considered some of the best parts of the river to fish. The dams are set up to let salmon and steelhead continue moving upstream toward Indiana.

Best Steelhead Fishery in Michigan

The steelhead in St. Joseph tend to be larger than those in other rivers in Michigan including the MuskegonManistee, and Pere Marquette. It isn't unheard of for a fly angler to bring in a fish that weighs more than 20 pounds.

Coho salmon enter this river in September and tend to grow up to five to eight pounds. Most of these fish are aggressive and will be found in schools. King salmon are also present and tend to show up after the coho have made a home in the St. Joseph River. The kings can weigh up to 12 pounds.

St. Joseph River Map and Fishing Access Sites

Map of the best places to fish the St Joseph 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 St. Joseph River

There are a variety of areas where you can access the St. Joseph River for fly fishing. The city of St. Joseph keeps several public parks open with fishing access for anglers that want the most convenience. Tiscornia Park in the north and Silver Beach Park in the south have fishing piers with access to both the river and lake.

Two parks are sitting at the river's mouth, and Riverview Park is located farther up the river. The John and Dede Howard Family Recreation Trail also follows sections of the river and the shoreline of Lake Michigan for access to each. Many boat launches and marinas are on Marina Island, which is formed by the Morrison Channel and the St. Joseph River.

Shamrock Park is another area to fish on St. Joseph. You can reach it on the north side of Michigan #139, less than half a mile from the Michigan #139 and Pokagon Road intersection. This access area has a paved parking lot and concrete boat ramp near the Berrien Springs Dam.

Anglers can also visit St. Joseph River Riverview Park for fly fishing. It is north of Michigan #63 between the Riverview Cemetery and Ansley Drive. Stop at 2927 Niles Road in St. Joseph to access a parking lot and a boat launch a few miles from Lake Michigan.

Best Time to Fish the St. Joseph River

As with other Michigan streams, the time of year for the best fishing depends on what species you'd like to land. 

Winter Steelhead Fishing

Unlike some streams in Michigan, the St. Joseph River is a great location for winter fishing. In fact, this is the best time of year to bring in steelhead since there is a huge run after fall is over with.

Spring Steelhead Fishing

Moving into spring, those same steelhead remain in the river until the spawn in April. By the time the temperatures start to get warmer in summer, the winter steelhead has dropped back down to the lake. 

Summer Steelhead Fishing

A summer run of Skamania steelhead starts to show up around May and will stay in the river until the end of September. While the summer steelhead will leave the St. Joseph River before fall is upon Michigan, the winter-run fish will take their place. 

Smallmouth Bass Fishing

The St. Joe has an excellent population of smallmouth bass, with plenty of fish in the high-teens and even some pushing twenty inches!  The bronzebacks get active toward the end of May and fishing remains good into October.

Pike and Musky Fishing

If you are a fan of chasing monster pike and musky on the fly, then the St. Joe is for you.  These apex predators prowl the waters of the St. Joe feasting on juvenile steelhead and salmon.  Summer is the best time to target the water wolf.

Fall Salmon Fishing

Fly fishers can expect to start seeing coho salmon in September, while Chinook salmon will follow soon after and be available in the river in October.

Stream Flow and Current Conditions

Be sure to check the stream conditions before heading out to fish the St. Joseph River. The USGS stream gauge at Niles, 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.

ST. JOSEPH RIVER AT NILES, MI

  • Temperature: 66.02 ° F
  • Streamflow: 4170 ft³/s
  • Gage height: 6.47 ft
Temperature GraphStreamflow GraphGage height Graph
USGS

Best Flies for St. Joseph River

Since this river has so many large fish, that tend to each other fish, many fishermen use large streamers, spey flies, or large marabou patterns. Dark colors like black and purple are common, although some prefer brighter hues like pink and orange. Again, a bit of trial and error can be used to see what the fish like.

Need flies? 

If you like to swing flies, RiverBum offers a great selection of classic steelhead flies that will catch fish anywhere. Set includes 30 high quality, hand-tied flies (see list below) and durable fly box. 

Classic Steelhead Streamers

  • Purple Peril
  • Copper Top 
  • Comet
  • Jock Scott 
  • Bomber Black
  • Joe Gert
  • Blue Charm
  • Brite Pink
  • Egg Sucking Leech
  • Black Bear Green Butt  

If you prefer to dead drift flies, BASSDASH offers a great selection of some of the most effective egg flies and attractor patterns. Set includes 57 flies (see list below) and high-grade double-sided fly box.

Deadly Egg Flies and Attractor Patterns

  • Antron Egg
  • Glo-Bug
  • Crystal Egg Fly
  • Dot Egg Fly
  • Crystal Meth
  • Milky Nuke Egg
  • Ultra Maggots
  • Egg Sucking Worms
  • Flash Candy Fly

Gear Recommendations

Big fish demand big gear. You'll want a seven- or eight-wt fly rod and matching fly reel for steelhead, salmon and smallmouth bass. Nine- through eleven weight fly rods are common when targeting pike and muskie. 

Need Gear? 

Heading out to do some steelhead or salmon fishing and need an affordable fly rod, reel and line to get started?  

Look no further than the Orvis Encounter Fly Rod Outfit.  An 8 Wt. setup that is perfect as a first big-game outfit or backup travel rod.

  • 8-wt, 9-ft, 4pc Fly Rod
  • Large Arbor Reel
  • WF Floating Line
  • Cordura Rod Tube
  • 25-yr guarantee

St. Joseph River Fishing Report

Area fly shops, guides and websites that can provide a St. Joseph 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

Anglers who wish to fly fish in the St. Joseph River will typically fly in through South Bend International Airport and rent a vehicle to move from one access point on the river to the next. Since South Bend is a reasonably sized city, it's simple to find budget lodging, good restaurants, and other entertainment.

There are a few different fishing shops in the South Bend metropolitan area, both on the east and west side of the city. Anglers can visit to stock up on gear, learn more about the river conditions, and inquire about additional tips for fly fishing on the river.

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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