Grand River, Michigan


The Grand River in southern Michigan has been my home river for more than 50 years. I still have vivid memories of pedaling my bicycle as a young boy to the Red Cedar River, a major tributary to the Grand that was less than a mile from my parents house. When I was 11 a smallmouth bass of very large proportions for a river bass grabbed by night crawler rigged on a harness. After what seemed to be an eternity, I wrestled the bronze fish onto the bank. That smallmouth measured 20 and inches and remains the largest smallmouth bass of my fishing live.

While the river was my childhood playground and a special place, all was not always well. I witnessed in agony several fish kills due to toxic discharges and dissolved oxygen depletions from rain following dry wether periods that washed waste with a very high oxygen demand from catch basins into the river. Toilet paper clinging to your line was a constant nuisance and in some years weed growth from the heavy nutrient load choked the river and made it virtually unfishable.

Fast forward to a few years ago finds me standing in the same reach of the Red Cedar in March battling my first steelhead on a fly.

Grand Steelhead

. . .A steelhead in the Red Cedar represents the fact that the good ole days of fishing in the Grand River watershed are occurring as you read this. Pollution control since the enactment of the Clean Water Act has greatly improved the water quality of the river and the fish have responded. The smallmouth bass is the primary resident game fish of the mainstream and many of the tributaries. Walleye, northern pike, channel and flathead catfish, and carp also provide great fly rod sport in the mainstream. These fish, along with brown and brook trout, are also found in the Grand's tributaries. When the water temperature of the Grand cools in the fall coho and chinook salmon, steelhead, lake and brown trout join the resident fish.

The Mainstream

All of Michigan's rivers drain into one of the Great Lakes. For that reason the majority of its rivers are rather short. The Grand River is Michigan's longest. It begins south of the city of Jackson and flows north and then west for about 250 miles to Lake Michigan. The river actually begins closer to Lake Erie but meanders to the west instead.

The Grand begins as a very slow-moving stream and continues this way for about 30 miles. The low gradient results in a soft bottom making the river difficult to wade. The river is floatable but the fishing is only fair with northern pike, walleye, and largemouth and smallmouth bass the principal game fish. As the Grand nears the small town of Eaton Rapids it begins changing to a classic smallmouth bass stream. It widens, the flow quickens, the bottom firms up, and boulders poke their round tops above the surface of the water. Eaton Rapids was named for the character of the river here and proclaims itself as the "only Eaton Rapids on Earth."

Except for where it is impounded, the Grand continues to alternate riffles with pools and contains boulder-strewn runs all the way to the city of Grand Rapids. This is the prime fly fishing reach of the river. Most of the dams on the river are relatively low head, but three hydroelectric dams (Smithville, Moores Park, and Webber) do create substantial backwaters. The areas below each dam offer prime fly fishing opportunities. Access is good at each dam and there is usually a good concentration of fish below each barrier. The two main reasons for the increased numbers are the blockage of fish movement and the presence of disoriented or injured baitfish that have just passed over the dam or through its turbines. Of course anglers can also be concentrated at these locations and you may do better by trying stretches that receive less pressure.

Many road bridges provide additional access as do the developed public access sites with launch ramps which are shown on maps of the river. The Portland State Game Area, just upstream from the town of Portland, provides a number of additional access locations. Canoes and kickboats can be launched at many points where launch ramps are not present. You can exercise lots of smallmouth, with a few walleyes and channel catfish thrown into the mix. At normal summer flows you can also safely navigate the river in a float tube or personal watercraft. If you like to cover lots of water, try launching at Charlotte Highway and then float through the entire state game area. The riverside park in Portland provides a good place to take out. Other prime floats in this section of the Grand include Fitzgerald Park in Grand Ledge to State Road or Jones Road to Turner Road.

Prime months for the Grand River's Resident fish are May through September although most species remain active into October until the water temperature falls below 50 degrees. Walleyes can be caught throughout the year but they will hit better when the water is above 45 degrees. The Grand's second season - the first in the minds of many anglers - begins as soon as the river water temperature cools into the 60s in late August or September.

There are five species of anadromous salmon and trout that run the Grand River System each year and we will discuss those fisheries after we describe the dam areas in greater detail and the Grand's major tributaries.

Sixth Street Dam

Before we describe the rapids below Sixth Street Dam in detail it is important to talk about water levels. During low flows all of the rapids are accessible to wading anglers but as the river rises, one must limit his or her wading to certain locations. There is a staff gauge on the ladder structure above the ladder and there is a United States Geological Survey gauge in the lower rapids. . .The USGS reading is available on the Internet http://wwwdmilns.er.usgs.gov/ but you must read the staff gauge at the ladder.

The prime fly fishing areas near the dam are Center Run and the Flats. The Flats are found on the eastern side of the river and are a shallow, fast sweep of water over bedrock just below the dam. The remnants of icebreakers on the dam delineate the center of the river. On the western side, the water is much deeper and the area near the dam is called the boils. You can fish the tail out of these boils if you can find space to fish. The Center run is named for its location and it is where the main flow of the river occurs. There are three slightly deeper areas or dips in the Center Run where the fish tend to lie and you will learn their locations as you fish it...

Just above the x-way there is a traverse trough that extends almost the whole width of the river. You can't wade through it but you can fish above and below it.

There is a large bridge (Bridge Street) between the first and second coffers and its abutments provide cover for both resident and anadromous fish. Wading can be tough here because of strong currents and an uneven bottom. Use your wading staff but don't try it if the water level is at 5.7 or above.

Lyons Dam

Access is available on each side of the river below the Lyons Dam. (Fish hold and feed near the dam and below the apron.) To fish the apron area below the dam it is best to enter the river from the eastern or ladder side. The bridge just below the dam also deserves lots of attention, especially the first two areas between pillars on the western side. Below the bridge, the main flow and deeper water is on the western side of the river. You can roll cast from shore, or wade out from the eastern side, when the water is not too high. This run angles to the center of the river and tails out below the power lines. Swinging streamers in the tail out is a good plan for both resident and anadromous fish.

Webber Dam

There is a public access site on the eastern side of the river that can be reached from Maple Road and then Park Boulevard. A prime area to fish is below the cofferdam. When the water is relatively low, with only one turbine running on the dam, you can wade all the way across the river here and swing streamers or drift nymphs downstream, but you will need to return to shore to wade further downstream. An excellent run is found between the end of the wall that separates the turbines from the overflow gates down to a large island. Fish continue to hold all along both sides of the island as well.

Portland Dam

The ladder at the Portland Dam is on the south side of the river and there is a public access site there. The power channel can hold fish but the better fly fishing is found in the main river. At modest water levels you can walk downstream to where the channel tails out and cross it to the rocky main flow. From here, you can wade almost up to the dam. With a wading staff and great care you can cover most of the water below the dam.

Fitzgerald Dam.

Located inside of Fitzgerald Park in Grand Ledge, this dam is the most ideal site for the fly fisher. Under normal flows, water depths range from two to five feet. The deeper slots are located along the apron of the spillway. . .Below the pool is a major run that is 50-yards long which sweeps along the park's edge. Migratory resident and non-resident fish stage and feed in this area prior to upstream movement. The entire layout of this dam site looks intimidating, but with the assistance of a wading staff, felt bottom waders and polarized glasses, the area below Fitzgerald Dam is excellent fly water.

Red Cedar River

The Red Cedar River joins the Grand in the city of Lansing and is the first major tributary to add its flow to the mainstream. The prime water for both resident and anadromous fish is between the town of Williamston and the river's mouth. A dam in Williamston has been modified to provide a short run of white water rapids for paddle sport enthusiasts and the entire stretch of the river is floatable by canoe or small boat. The Red Cedar can be easily waded at normal levels, except for a mile or two above a low head dam on the Michigan State University campus, and the last three miles above the confluence with the Grand, where the North Lansing Dam impounds the tributary.

Looking Glass River

. . .Once the Looking Glass passes under U.S. 27 it has a firm gravel and cobble bottom with numerous large boulders. This is classic smallmouth water and the river maintains this character all the way to its confluence with the mainstream in Portland.

Carp You can expect multiple hook-ups in the good holes in the Looking Glass and fishing them in an upstream direction will increase your action. Try to steer your hooked smallies and pike downstream and out of the pool, if possible, so as to not spook the other fish. Sight fishing for carp is also more successful in an upstream direction as these fish are very wary.

Maple River

The Maple River is the next major tributary to the Grand, and again, it too joins the mainstream from the north. Even during dry weather, the Maple suffers from high turbidity due to the soil types in its drainage basin. This is really unfortunate for the fly anglers because there is a good population of channel catfish along with some flatheads and walleyes. Pike and smallmouth bass are also present.

Flat River

The Flat River joins the Grand in the town of Lowell and is a fine smallmouth bass stream. A special attribute of the Flat is that it is the slowest to muddy, and the quickest to clear, after a heavy rain on any of the Grand River tributaries. In addition, moderate rains don't seem to affect its fishability. This makes the Flat River your insurance policy when it rains hard and the other rivers are too muddy.

Even though the Flat is basically a warm water river, there is a chance to catch brook trout in it during the springtime. There are several small brook trout creeks north of Greenville that feed the Flat, and brookies up to 16 inches move down into the main river to feed. Usually the water temperature stays cool enough for them until late May.

Thornapple River

This tributary to the Grand is nationally known as a fine smallmouth bass stream. It is the only larger feeder stream that joins the Grand from the south. . .in the free-flowing sections between Nashville and the junction with Coldwater Creek you will find outstanding numbers of smallmouth bass. Your chances for larger than average size bass are also good here. . . There are a number of small trout streams that add their flow to the Thornapple and during the spring and fall you may be surprised by a brown trout in the main river near their mouths.

Nice Smallie!

Most of the free-flowing Thornapple can be wader or floated during normal summer flows, and there is good access at numerous county road crossings. A couple of good floats are from the Middleville Dam to Parmalee Road and from Parmalee Road to 100th Street. Streamers that imitate crayfish and creek chubs are again prime offerings for large smallmouth.

Rogue River

The Rogue River is the Grand's only large cold water tributary. Even though it is relatively marginal for trout, both browns and rainbows survive year-round in the lower river. . .The stream's real draw for fly anglers is the trout fishing from Algoma Avenue down to the confluence with the Grand. In this reach the river rapidly changes from a relatively narrow soft-bottomed stream to one that is broad with a firm gravel and sand substrate.

Brown Trout

Prime trout water is found between the two Twelve Mile Road bridges. Here the river is easy to wade and offers the fly anglers a fine chance to fool some sizeable browns and rainbows. The nutrient rich Rogue has a large population of mayflies, with an especially prolific brown drake hatch usually occurring in late May. Other hatches include Hendrickson, blue-winged olives, white mayflies, sulphurs and a modest Hexagenia emergence in June.

Hatches and Non-Hatches

A very diverse aquatic insect community has developed in the Grand River system over the past several decades due to the nature of the watershed and its improving water quality. Even though the Grand is considered a warm water stream, many of the major aquatic insect hatches usually present in trout streams can also be found is this watershed. . .

. . .Major non-hatch food sources present in this watershed year-round are the various species of resident baitfish. The fly fisher should not overlook shiners, creek chubs, dace and other minnows, as well as, the darters and sculpin present in the river. . .

One of the non-hatch aquatics of the Grand that plays a major role win the food chain is the crayfish. There are several species in the Grand and newly molted, soft-shelled crayfish are highly sought by smallmouth bass and walleye. [For the FLIES for The Grand River River, click here.]

Grand Visitors

During some years, there are modest runs of summer steelhead straying from other rivers during the summer when we have a spate of cool weather. When this occurs, the inevitable warm up sends these steelhead looking for colder water. . . Usually a few brown trout from Lake Michigan will also find their way to Grand Rapids during cool spells and will surprise the small mouth and catfish anglers.

Grand Steelhead

As the days shorten and the water cools in late August, the Grand River's anadromous season begins in earnest. Chinook salmon are the first species to migrate up the river. Having the river water temperature fall into the upper 60s seems to be the key that triggers the run.

Coho salmon begin their migration in mid-September, about two weeks after the kings first appear. While there is some natural reproduction of these fish the vast majority of the run is of hatchery origin. In recent years almost 400,000 cohos have been planted in Lansing along with a small additional plant of 20,000 below Lyons Dam.

The main run of steelhead in the Grand River occurs in the spring. When there has been enough warm weather to melt the ice in the river, things get rolling. Once water warmer than 32 degrees hits the lake, the spring run begins in earnest. This usually occurs sometime in March and the peak of the run usually occurs between the middle of March and the middle of April depending upon the severity of the winter and the timing of the spring warm up.

Catch and Release

Most of the resident fish in the Grand River system, in addition to its anadromous visitors, make fine table fare and one should not feel guilty about harvesting fish for the table. However, releasing the majority of our catch will help maintain and improve the fine fisheries we currently have in the Grand River. Large predator fish like smallmouth bass, northern pike, walleye, channel catfish and flathead catfish should be released. Keeping the two-pound walleye or channel cat for dinner and letting the trophy-sized fish go will result in a better tasting meal and better fishing in the future. We strong encourage releasing all wild steelhead and wild resident trout. And when keeping a salmon or hatchery steelhead for the table, try to choose a male for better eating and a minimal effect on natural reproduction.

Watching that big fish swim back into the currents of the Grand River or one of its tributaries is one of the most satisfying things you can do. It may or may not be caught again but at least we will keep its genes in the trophy fish pool. ~ Jim Bedford and Tony Pagliei

For the FLIES for The Grand River, click here. To ORDER Grand River direct from the publisher, click HERE.

Credits: From Grand River part of the River Journal series, by Jim Bedford and Tony Pagliei, published by Frank Amato Publications. We greatly appreciate use permission.

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