River Mouth Rewards
Worn out after a long day coursing the final miles of one of West Michigan’s famed rivers in search of salmon, I sit resting upon the water’s windswept southern bank starring into eternity. My thoughts, clear from hours of serene solitude, begin to drift out over the rolling waves stretching beyond the horizon. In this momentary trance, a vision runs through my mind I have yet to displace; rivers are assumed to end at their mouth, but perhaps it’s at the mouth where the life of a river actually begins.
Miles upon miles of renowned river water runs through the interior of Michigan. Anglers from around the world flock to fish the highly publicized riffles and runs of historical fame. From trolling crankbaits on the St. Joe for steelhead, to laying out delicate dry flies for brook trout on the Two Hearted, river fishing in Michigan is as diverse as it is wonderful.
One aspect of fishing Michigan rivers which often seems overlooked by the masses is focusing on river mouths. It is here, at this portal between two worlds, where countless salmon begin their final journey and steelhead start their spawning run. Who better to understand the vulnerability of eager aggression, than we sportsmen who strive to seek great adventure? When a journey begins, we are full of steam and ready to tackle whatever the road may hold. Fish staging to run up a river seem to be no different.
I’m not sure if anyone, scientist or not, can positively deduce what drives salmon and steelhead to return to their home river to perform their most primal act of life. What we do know however, if only through simple observation, is anadromous migrating fish are wholly committed to their spawning journey. If you have ever watched these fish attempt to leap a waterfall or climb a manmade fish ladder, then you understand their level of determination. Harnessing the power this determination on the end on your line can result in unforgettable fishing experience.
West Michigan fishing guide Kevin Morlock has spent his life getting to know the rivers of his home state. Kevin spends endless days on the water each year, and has come to the conclusion that river mouths are often an overlooked highlight of salmon and steelhead fishing. Kevin believes, “As fish head upstream from the lake, they become less and less aggressive the closer they get to their breeding grounds. Fishing then becomes more difficult as the fish become more indifferent towards most attempts.” It makes sense to think about salmon and steelhead becoming less aggressive as their journey nears an end. Imagine yourself at the end of a work day; unless you’re totally committed to your job, I would be willing to bet you begin to fade a little as the clock ticks closer to quitting time. The same rules apply to these migrating fish once they’ve been in the river for a spell. Their focus completely changes from feeding to breeding.
Kevin has learned to take advantage of this opportunity of targeting salmon and steelhead while they are at their peak level of aggression. “I’ve seen king salmon in west Michigan enter the deltas like tigers with a thorn in their paw; smashing nearly any big, bright, flashy presentation I offer,” he explains. “A week and many miles later, these same fish are passive, even skittish, toward the most subtle offering.”
When it comes to actually fishing the river mouths, timing is everything. Kevin states, “There is usually a relatively narrow window when conditions are optimal for migration, so it’s a good thing that fish tend to arrive early and mill around at the mouth.” Multiple runs occur each year, with the peak periods falling in and around August-September and February-March. During the peak migration season there are generally fish moving up the river at all times, but from a river mouth perspective, the hottest action occurs when the conditions are just right to stall the migration. This leaves plenty of aggressive fish congregating at the mouth. If I were to design my perfect scenario for river mouth fishing during the migration; I would already be making casts as the sun creeps over the eastern horizon to calm, clear water just in front of where a small creek dumps into the river. First light is prime time. Feeder creeks or a smaller river dumping into a larger river just inside its own mouth, are generally ideal locations to target. Rip-rap, concrete piers, sandy beaches, and rock flats are also top producing locations.
Techniques for catching river mouth fish vary as far and wide as one can imagine. Fly fishermen find success in swinging flies down and across the current, as well as ripping flashy streamers. A general rule with flies, unless sight fishing to shallow cruisers, is to get your fly slightly above the depth of fish. This depth can only be determined by putting in the work necessary to figure it out. Sometimes fish will want your presentation just above the bottom, other times they’ll be aggressive in the middle. Large flies, 4s, 2s, and even larger, tied in leech or bugger patterns are always a favorite. Clouser Minnows and other flashy streamers will trigger aggressive fish. Sink tip or a full sinking fly line helps for getting your presentation down, but split-shot will drag down a floating line.
Fisherman throwing lures will suffice with a multitude of options varying from spoons to jigs to rapalas. Vary patterns, retrieve speed and depth until finding a combination that works. I like to fish from the bottom up, unless it’s obvious fish are in the top layer of warmer water. Counting down your presentations will help to establish a pattern of probing different depths. Live bait and eggs will work as well. When using live bait, be sure to check local fishing regulations to know what is and is not legal on the water your fishing.
Targeting salmon and steelhead when they’re fresh in the river makes sense for more reasons than simply tangling with the beasts at their highest level of fitness. Crowding, quality of table fare, and spawning disruption are all factors to consider when targeting fish at a river mouth.
Crowding on the upper, more popular stretches of Michigan’s famous rivers can at times be overwhelming. River mouth fishing will most often afford the opportunity of escaping the crowd. Boats have more room to operate and bank fishermen are less likely to have trouble finding suitable space. When it comes to enjoying the great outdoors, I don’t think any of us want to feel crowded. Spreading out at the river mouth is generally realistic.
If you are going to keep a couple for the freezer, it’s obviously important to take them while they’re fresh. River mouth fish are in supreme shape from their time in the big lake and should transition nicely to a plate. In regards to keeping these river fish, remember intelligent harvest is important. No one loves a meal of fresh fish, brought to the table by my own hand more than I, but while keeping a few fish from a hatchery based river is acceptable, naturally reproducing or wild fish, in my opinion, should be released. In this day and age of reduced stocking, I believe catch-and-release is more important than ever in efforts necessary to maintaining great fishing. Use good judgment when considering where to keep and where to release fish. Some rivers can handle the pressure, and some can not.
When the crowds flock up stream for salmon and steelhead, give river mouth fishing a try. If you time it right, and figure out a proper pattern, I think you’ll be pleased at what the mouth of a river has to offer.
Brandon Butler is a professional outdoor communicator and public affairs specialist from Indiana, who enjoys nothing more than doing "research" in Michigan. Visit his website www.driftwoodoutdoors.org to read more of his work.
Kevin Morlock is a full time fishing guide in west Michigan with Indigo Guide Service. Kevin is also an outdoor writer, phographer and Iditarod Sled Dog Racer. Visit Indigo’s website www.indigoguideservice.com for more information or to book a trip.