DIY fly fishers who want to catch steelhead, salmon, brown and brook trout will have their dreams come true at the White River in Michigan. It’s located only 20 miles from Newaygo and isn’t as well known as some streams in the state, but it offers up tons of great fishing experiences.
The White River offers natural spring waters that let fish grow to good size. The upper river is perfect for catching plentiful brook trout, while the lower river is one of the top steelhead and brown trout fisheries in the southern lower peninsula of the state.
Fly fishing for spring steelhead on the White River in Michigan
Upper White River
The upper White River is largely known for its abundance of brown and brook trout. It’s in Newaygo County and has natural springs that create cold water that build a fly fisher’s perfect environment. It rises out of the Oxford Swamp and then flows into the upland area, bordered by the small town of Hesperia.
Beyond that point, the White River moves southwest through the southern areas of the Manistee National Forest. Finally, it goes through Muskegon County, Oceana County, and White Lake. Both the river and lake discharge their waters into Lake Michigan near the towns of Montague and Whitehall.
White River Wetlands
The White River system drains an area of nearly 300,000 acres and includes over 250 miles of streams. It qualifies as a wetland river and is bordered by swamps for the majority of its length. The swamp-like conditions make it and its tributaries an excellent place for wetland wildlife such as beavers.
In the past, during the time of fur trading, trappers on this river found it one of the most productive in southern Michigan. As time went on, loggers would harvest large old timber next to the river. The logs were moved down the river to sawmills that no longer exist in Whitehall and Montague.
Lower White River Steelhead
The White River is a popular place for anyone who likes fly fishing, but especially those interested in steelhead and salmon. Fall salmon and spring steelhead bring anglers to the lower White River below the dam at Hesperia.
Steelhead and salmon arrive in the lower White River in the fall. The salmon arrive first in September, and the steelhead follow in October and November.
The best steelhead runs are in the spring though, typically in April.
The White might not be as popular as the nearby Muskegon River or Pere Marquette, but it has a lot going for it. It offers several types of fish, a unique environment that works especially well for wading anglers, and a glimpse at the beauty of the natural parts of Michigan.
White River Map and Fishing Access Sites
Best Places to Fish the White River
The White River moves through three counties in Michigan and has several access points for discerning anglers. Many individuals traveling to the river for fly fishing will spend time at the Hesperia dam, where there are both walk-in access points and spots to set out on a boat for a day of angling.
Many of these fishing spots dot the landscape all the way down to the Pines Point Campground. This is an excellent spot to stay during a fishing excursion if you prefer to avoid paying for a hotel room. You’ll have somewhere to stay while remaining close to the water so you can enjoy the White River as much as you would like.
From Hesperia to Pines Point, there are several areas where you can do some waded fishing. There are also a few boat launches or places where you can put a craft into the water without much trouble. Of course, the farther away from the dam or campground you get, the less crowded the river will be.
Best Time to Fish the White River
From March through May, the White River sees an excellent run of steelhead from Lake Michigan. Once the word gets out that the fish are running, the anglers follow.
The summer months from June through August see more mayfly and caddis hatches, and plenty of terrestrials as water temperatures start to rise. In late July through August, temperatures can get extreme and fewer hatches are present. However, terrestrials and streamers can still be used to bring in a few smallmouth bass.
During fall, Chinook salmon visit the White River and steelhead follow the spawning salmon. Trout fishing is also reasonable at this time since salmon eggs are on the menu for a variety of fish.
Coming into winter, the White River becomes quiet and tranquil. It’s a good time to do some fly fishing for brown trout, brook trout, and even some steelhead. While you walk along the cold banks of the river, expect to see Michigan wildlife, such as muskrats, eagles, minks, and turkey.
Stream Flow and Current Conditions
Be sure to check the stream conditions before heading out to fish the White River. The USGS stream gauge near White Hall, 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.
WHITE RIVER NEAR WHITEHALL, MI
- Gage height: 2.24 ft
Best Flies for White River
The season and type of fish you want to catch will dictate which flies and other equipment you need during your trip to the White River.
In spring, you can expect to find hungry trout searching for Hendricksons, blue-winged olives, sulphurs, brown and gray drakes, Hex, and white flies, caddis, and stoneflies.
The summer months from June through August see more mayfly and caddis hatches, and plenty of terrestrials.
Fall salmon and steelhead respond well to a swung streamer and Spey flies. Egg patterns are effective in the fall and spring as well.
Here is list of general fly pattern recommendations for the White 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 5-wt fly rod and matching fly reel with floating line is perfect for fishing for trout on the White 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 and salmon.
White River Fishing Report
Area fly shops, guides and websites that can provide a White 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
Most anglers fishing the White River will want access to Hesperia, so the closest airport is the Muskegon County Airport. However, it’s just over 35 miles from the heart of Hesperia so you will want to have a vehicle to get yourself to the river, tackle shops, and other locations.
Both campgrounds and hotels are available in and near Hesperia. You will also have access to several restaurants, small tackle shops, and other shopping destinations. All the necessities you could need can be purchased without going far from the White River.
Looking for more places to fish? Check out our DIY Guide to the Best Fly Fishing in Michigan