From a fly fishing perspective, the Upper Peninsula of Michigan (aka "the UP") has been synonymous with brook trout, Ernest Hemingway, and the "Big Two-Hearted River". And rightfully so. Year after year, fly anglers visit the UP to wade the cold, dark waters to pursue small, bejeweled brook trout. For many, brook trout fishing in the UP is a right of passage. But the UP also offers some lesser-known (and as you'll see below, even more epic) fly fishing opportunities.
If you're not familiar with the Upper Peninsula here's the short take...imagine 16,542 square miles of spectacular (but incredibly dense) forests that contain more wildlife (deer, bears, wolves, eagles, etc) than humans. It's surrounded by three Great Lakes (Lake Michigan, Lake Superior, and Lake Huron) and has over 1,700 miles of shoreline, 4,300 inland lakes, and 12,000 miles of rivers and streams. And these waters are infested with brook trout, brown trout, rainbow trout, steelhead, lake run browns, smallmouth bass, pike, and musky. In short, the Upper Peninsula of Michigan more than its fair share of amazing fishing, interesting wildlife, and beautiful scenery.
However, for those trying to plan a fishing trip, the Upper Peninsula can seem more than a bit mysterious and overwhelming. Whether you're a diehard angler looking to tangle with some great fish, planning a special trip with friends, or just wanting to explore the area; you've come to the right place to get started.
In the article below, we go into depth on our Top 5 Recommendations for experiencing the amazing fly fishing that the Upper Peninsula has to offer:
Spring Steelhead and Smallmouth Slam - May is big brawler month. Giant smallmouth bass and bright chrome steelhead show up from Lake Michigan to share the same cold, clear Bay de Noc rivers resulting in fly fishing mayhem.
Big Trout and Dry Fly Nirvana - June is time for dry fly nirvana (and sometimes Dante's hell). The big bug bonanza starts with mega bug hatches, more than 18 hours of daylight, and hungry, football-sized trout that go into binge mode.
Backwoods Brook Trout Bushwhacking - July is brook trout time. Bushwhack the wilderness to find cold, dark waters and fish for small, bejeweled brook trout. The iconic fish and scenery are sure to bring out your inner Ernest Hemingway.
Autumn Colors and Big Beautiful Browns - Late October and early November is brown trout time. Just like the trees turning their colors in the fall, our resident brown trout also put on their finest colors and eat like crazy. It's also time to take on the 20-pound lake run browns that show up in our small, clear Great Lakes tributaries.
Snowy Winter Solitude and Trophy Trout - December is time to chill out. Enjoy the peace and solitude of a snowy landscape while tangling with big, hungry rainbow trout and brown trout. Shhh, don't tell anyone, this is the best time of year to go after the really big trout.
Continue reading for a full breakdown of each of these phenominal fishing opportunities...
Spring Steelhead and Smallmouth Slam
While Upper Peninsula steelhead and smallmouth bass couldn't be more different, they both have one thing in common, they will both tear a 7-weight rod out of your hands faster than you can say, "hold my beer."
The south-central Upper Peninsula gets a double helping of fly fishing craziness in May. The Bay de Noc tributaries become overrun with big, hungry Great Lakes steelhead and goliath-class smallmouth bass. The dime bright steelhead will melt your brain with ballistic acrobatics and drag screaming runs. While the giant smallmouth will wear you out with a tug-of-war that will have you thinking that you're arm wrestling Hulk Hogan.
Having these two freshwater brawlers (ballistic steelhead and giant smallmouth) occupying the same river at the same time is hard to comprehend. It's like cats and dogs living together. It's like alternate realities colliding. It's like thinking you have to choose between the blonde or the brunette, but instead, you somehow get both. It's a trophy 22-inch smallmouth competing with a 15-pound steelhead for the big streamer you just swung through a hole. It's like that...take a sec and just let all this marinade.
It's best to fly fish for Upper Peninsula steelhead and smallmouth from drift boats, floating and working prime spring holding water with 7-weights and two-handers. We'll focus on the deeper buckets, runs and pools, targeting transitory fish and avoiding actively spawning fish and their reds on the flats. Nymph with eggs, stoneflies, caddis works well for steelhead while a black woolly bugger will target both species. It's also prime time for swinging and stripping big intruders, leeches, and bugger patterns. Both of these fish are on a binge and will hammer just about anything they see -- it's fighting and landing them that's the real challenge.
Can't make it for the May steelhead smallmouth slam? No problem. There's an almost limitless number of UP rivers that offer fantastic topwater action for resident smallmouth bass in the 16-20 inch range. Just pick a beautiful summer evening and lazily float a glassy stretch of river, chugging a popper near the bank; one of these emerald monsters is sure to crush it.
Big Bug Bonanza and Dry Fly Nirvana
Upper Peninsula dry fly fishing gets downright silly in June. The Upper Peninsula trout streams literally explode with hatches, and big, hungry trout show up like a high school football team to an all-you-can-eat pizza buffet.
With such a short summer in the Upper Peninsula, everything seems to hatch at once. June trout fly fishing can feel like being at the grand finale of a fireworks display with everything going off at once. Sulphurs, Brown Drakes, Slate Drakes, BWOs, Caddis, Damsels and Stones. Boom, boom, boom. And the fish slurp, slurp, slurp. Fair warning, there will be times you won't know what the hell to tie on as there will be so many different bugs on the water.
Most of the mayfly activity happens later in the evening, usually 7pm or later. You could literally go have an early prime rib dinner, a nice glass of red, and still show up in time for the hatch at 8:00 pm. Or enjoy a second glass and show up at 9:00 for the spinner fall.
We spend the evenings walking and wading prime stretches of river, headhunting for large fish. On long, glassy stretches of water, you'll see hundreds of nosing trout selectively slurping at the evening's hatch.
Don't let the delicately small rises fool you into thinking there's just a tiny trout underneath. Usually, it's quite the opposite. The big Upper Peninsula trout (20+ inch rainbow trout and brown trout) barely expend any energy at all to slurp a bug. It's not until you hook 'em or see the roll of their broad backs that you know something large is lurking underneath the surface.
During the hot, midday hours, it's time to ditch the delicate flies and appeal to the trout's greedier instincts. It's best to throw streamers and large patterns like hoppers, beetles, or crayfish. With the trout interested in so many menu options in June, we'll often bring two fly rods, a smaller dry fly rod, and a larger nymph or streamer rod.
If you really want an adventure, just stay out past dark; that's when the monsters show up. Bravely work your way to some juicy water, flip on a headlamp, tie on a size 4 mouse pattern or chubby, and just aim the critter for the bank. Make a splashy landing and start twitching and stripping until you hear something like a toilet flush and set the hook. Make sure you scope out the terrain before your battle, nothing like falling in a deep hole to ruin a night of mousing for giant Upper Peninsula brown trout.
Backwoods Brook Trout Bushwhacking
Discover your inner Ernest Hemingway as you chase feisty brook trout in the cold, dark waters of the Upper Peninsula. In July, as the summer temperatures start to soar, it's the perfect time to head into the magical backwoods of the UP in pursuit of these iconic fish.
Upper Peninsula brook trout fishing usually involves bushwhacking through the wilderness to reach the cold, beautiful spring creeks that these native fish call home. This is all part of the adventure and intrigue. Be sure to pack plenty of bug dope and perhaps a celebratory beer. It definitely helps to pack light and carry a small rod like a 7' 6" 2-weight; anything more will just give the incessant tag alders something to eat.
After a gnarly slog, rig up, and transition to the cool, dark waters like a stealthy Navy seal behind enemy lines. Move slow and focus on careful, accurate casts. This is where a short 2-weight rod rigged up with a small white streamer is an ideal choice. Tie on a size 14 Adams, Humpy, or Elk Hair Caddis if you want to work the surface. But if you really want some fun, tie on a small, size 12 White Zonker -- these backcountry brook trout will absolutely destroy it. It's also an easier to fish than a dry, just work the streamer down current, edging it into the minuscule pockets, overhangs, and dark pools that the jungly brush protects...and then hang on.
Target the deeper, darker water, and you'll be rewarded with a bejeweled Upper Peninsula brook trout adorned with a kaleidoscope of oranges, reds, greens, and purples. After you've snapped a few pics and carefully released it, crack a beer, squirt on some more bug dope, and keep venturing around the next bend; who knows what you'll find. Some of the holes and bends are also home to big browns in the two-foot class.
Autumn Colors and Big Beautiful Browns
Fall is a magical season in the Upper Peninsula. The trees are in all their autumn glory, as are our big Upper Peninsula brown trout. Few places are more dramatic than the Upper Peninsula in the fall, and few fish are as spectacular.
Just as impressive as the leaves, our Upper Peninsula brown trout put on their finest fall hues as well. And just as trillions of trees put on a stunning display of reds, oranges, and golds it's also the time of year that huge, lake-run brown trout emerge out of the Great Lakes to spawn in the small, clear tributaries all over the UP.
Inland, resident brown trout offer the most plentiful opportunity for visiting fly fishermen, while lake-run brown trout are trickier to target due to the unknown timing of their arrival. The lake-run migration begins in late October or early November; probably about the same time of year that many bosses see a spike in sick calls from their angling employees seeking a 10-20 pound trophy.
Lake-run browns are brutes, so be sure to break out the 7-weights and two-handers. We'll typically walk and wade. If it's been colder we'll focus on the slower holding water and areas with structure as well as deeper buckets and pockets. We're cautious to avoiding actively spawning fish.
If you're a streamer junkie, this is prime time to chuck the meat; swing and strip big intruders, sculpins, leeches, and bugger patterns. Nymphing also works really well, using eggs, stoneflies, caddis, and buggers. These fish are on a binge and will hammer just about anything they see.
Snowy Winter Solitude and Trophy Trout
Most anglers opt out of some of the finest fly fishing of the year (which is fine by us!). Those that brave the cold will find that winter fly fishing is the most beautiful, peaceful, and often the most productive of the year.
We use the Upper Peninsula winters to chase the big trout that broke us off and drove us nuts with refusals the past summer. That SOB that owned you over the summer becomes infinitely more catchable and fightable when things get chilly. There's less food in the water, which means he's hungrier. There's less fishing pressure, which is better for you and him. And, because he's cold, he'll be more docile and easier to fight. So winter puts the odds in our favor.
Honestly, when we head to the trout stream in winter with everything wrapped in a blanket of beautiful, white snow, we're more obsessed with mother nature than the fish. The soft tromp of boots in fresh powder. The sparkle and glisten of the open water. The total silence interrupted by a bird song. It's truly magical.
We fish tailwaters to get the warmest, most ice-free water and get out during the warmest part of the day. We focus on slower, deeper pockets, buckets, and structure. Nymphing is super productive, and our trout aren't too picky in the winter. Unlike most tailwaters, ours doesn't get midges, scuds, or sow bugs. So we tend to stick to the more "meat and potatoes" patterns like double-bead stoneflies, bead-head pheasant tails, and bead-head prince nymphs. We concentrate on getting the flies down and working them slowly.
The icing on the cake is when that indicator dips a bit, and you set the hook into that big unit that taunted you all summer. He tries to outrun you but doesn't have his summer legs. After a short fight, you quickly net him, admire his stunning colors (our brown trout get icy-blue-colored cheeks that are like no other), snap a few pics, and send him back to get bigger. Warm your hands up, swig some coffee, take a deep breath, and look around at the beautiful surroundings. That's what winter UP fly fishing is all about.
Planning Your Trip
If you're interested in planning an amazing Upper Peninsula fly fishing adventure like the ones we've covered here, give us a shout. We'd love to help you explore the Upper Peninsula and discover it's amazing fly fishing. And thanks for giving us a read. As always, feel free to drop us a comment or question below.