For some, fall is the best time of the year.

Of course, some become pilgrims of all things pumpkin spice but for those who like to fish — fall is a fun and exciting time of year. There are the fall salmon and steelhead runs but also continued fishing on inland lakes before the lakes freeze up and offer hardwater fishing opportunities.


Michigan Department of Natural Resources Fisheries Management Biologist Mark Tonello said this year's run didn't come early.

In the last few years, Tonello said there have been significant numbers of fish in the rivers, the Betsie, Manistee, and Pere Marquette, in August but this year they didn't start showing up until early September. With that in mind, Tonello said he hopes that means there will be quite a few fish to come during the next few weeks.

As for the length of the annual fall run, Tonello said that is dependant on a few things, but as a rule of thumb by the beginning of October most of the fish have started to spawn, which means they will not bite.

"This time of year (early-mid September) is when they bite. The next two weeks really is the best time for river salmon fishing," he said. "There really should be plenty of fish in the rivers and some that are still fresh."

As for the number of salmon, Tonello said the past six of seven years the DNR has cut back on stocking the fish, which has reduced the number of fish in Lake Michigan. The point of that was to help conserve the baitfish the salmon eat.

Since the late 1980s, the amount of alewives in the Great Lakes has been shrinking. In Lake Michigan, alewives hit record lows between 2013-15. As a result, there was real concern about chinook's forage base — i.e. alewives — crashing. The DNR didn't want to repeat what happened in Lake Huron.

The DNR opted to cut back stocking chinooks in Lake Michigan to try and boost the alewives population.

"We have fewer but larger salmon. We are hoping to see a recovery of baitfish that will allow for us to start stocking salmon again," he said.

With the salmon in Lake Michigan, especially the chinook, Tonello said three-quarters of them are wild fish that reproduced naturally. He also said the biggest producers of the fish are the Betsie, Manistee, and Pere Marquette rivers, which means anglers who live in the area in the best spot to river fish for salmon.


For the next couple weeks, Tonello said there will be decent fishing off piers, such as those in Frankfort or Manistee. He also said small boat anglers will be able to troll in the harbors near the piers.

While chinook or king salmon are what many fish for, anglers also can have good luck catching coho salmon especially in Platte Bay. Trollers can catch them on Ace Hi plugs and flasher/fly combos, but those casting from small boats or wading near the river mouth can catch them on spoons and spinners. The cohos typically run from 4-10 lbs and provide excellent eating, Tonello said.

By the third week of September, fish will be in the rivers for sure, according to Tonello. He said the weather can change that by a week, but fish are usually past the pier heads by the end of September. The three main rivers in the region are the Big Manistee, Betsie, and Pere Marquette rivers.

The influx of water this spring and early summer led to the higher lake and river levels, but it was dry in July and August, according to Tonello. The early part of September, however, has been wetter and Tonello said that coupled with cooler temperatures has helped to bring the fish into the rivers.


Toward the end of October anglers looking to hook a steelhead or rainbow trout should head out on the Pere Marquette, Little Manistee, Betsie, Manistee rivers, and Bear Creek, Tonello said. The fall steelhead runs usually occur when there is a lot of rain in October and November.

Tonello said the run last fall was not good and the spring was a mixed bag. Due to the COVID-19 pandemic, a lot of people weren't fishing so he wasn't sure how many fish were caught.

If the weather leads to a dry, cold fall, the fall steelhead run won’t be a good one, he said. The steelhead will hang out in Lake Michigan all winter and wait for spring before they run, Tonello said.

"Fall steelhead are dependant on rain and the run will come the middle of October to the end of November," he said. "You want to see a lot of rain, but not too much so the rivers are fishable."

Like the salmon run earlier in the fall, Tonello said there are opportunities to hook a fish off the piers on Lake Michigan in Ludington, Manistee, and Frankfort. There also is a chance to hook steelhead off the surf in those areas north or south of the piers.

While the opportunity will last until January, a person would have to be tough to deal with the cold, icy, and potentially dangerous conditions. He said the best opportunity, however, to land a big fish is during the winter when the fish are not as feisty.

"When the water is cool they fight, run and it is difficult to land them. Once the water temperatures get into the 30s, they don't fight the same way as when is warmer," he said.


While the river banks will be crowded for the next month or so, inland lakes will likely be open.

Tonello said fishing for walleye this summer on lakes Cadillac and Mitchell were good. With that in mind, Tonello said walleye fishing should be good in October and November.

When it comes to panfish, bass, and pike, fall offers some of the best fishing of the year. He attributed that to the water temperatures dropping and species like northern pike like the cooler temperatures.

Panfish fishing also can be good this time of year, especially for perch or crappie.

Good fishing remains until the lakes freeze, he said. The lakes he recommended were Cadillac, Mitchell, Missaukee, Houghton Lake, Tippy Pond, and Hodenpyl Pond. 

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