Fish the Joe

Published 3:25 pm Monday, November 18, 2013

A Steelhead from the St. Joe River. Photo submitted by Capt. Russ Clark.

A Steelhead from the St. Joe River. Photo submitted by Capt. Russ Clark.


Anglers are quick to tell tales about Lake Michigan’s fantastic summer fishing, but casual enthusiasts may not know that there’s great fishing found in Southwest Michigan and Northern Indiana all through the fall and winter.

In fact, avid fishermen come from all over the country to fish here during some of the coldest months.

But make no mistake about what they are trying to hook. Although there are many opportunities for great ice fishing, a big draw is fishing for steelhead on the St. Joseph River.

Steelhead are migratory rainbow trout — ones that travel from a lake and up into a river to spawn. According to Michigan wildlife experts, the St. Joseph River provides more than 60 miles of trout and salmon spawning grounds, starting at Lake Michigan and running all the way to Twin Branch Dam in Indiana. That means that great steelhead fishing is not far away.

“Some of the best steelheading is right at your back door, and people travel all the way to Alaska to do it when they could be doing it right here,” Capt. Russ Clark, of Sea Hawk Fishing Charters[MC1] , of St. Joseph, said.

Why go out — especially in the dead of winter — to fish for steelhead?

For Capt. Gary DeRosa, of Golden Eye Fishing Charters out of Niles, the reasons are simple.

“They are fun fish to catch,” he said. “They fight really hard.”

Steelhead are known for the exciting, acrobatic fight they tend to put up once they’ve been hooked. “You’ll not find a better-fighting freshwater fish,” said Jim Marohn, President of the Southwest Michigan Steelheaders Association. This is what keeps anglers coming back for more, year after year.

They are also known for providing excellent table fare that tastes a lot like salmon, since rainbow trout are actually members of that family.

In addition, a steelheading trip can provide a great time for bonding with family or friends, providing memories for years to come.

“I have many fond memories of getting out there fishing with my dad,” Marohn said.

And, as Capt. Clark notes, “The St. Joseph River is a beautiful place in the snow. Most people never get to see it.”

In fact, Marohn prefers to fish the St Joe in the winter.

The Michigan Department of Natural Resources has been stocking steelhead in the lower 23 miles of the St. Joe River since 1969. Since then, a full-service charter fishing industry has developed and matured.

Even those with no fishing experience at all can catch on quickly with the help of the many experienced captains who boat on the river. And, since steelhead are a tricky sort of fish to catch, learning some tricks from a professional guide is a good idea.

Although spending time on a river in the middle of winter may sound like a cold proposition, it isn’t as bad as many would think. Most steelhead fishing boats, or “war wagons,” are covered and have a heater for the comfort of their passengers.

In addition, river fishing guides typically provide all of the fishing gear that anglers need, and the rates usually include the service of cleaning the catch at the end of the trip. Most companies have plans that are designed to be affordable. Licensed charters typically offer fishing trips lasting four to seven hours, ranging in price from $250 to $650.

If someone plans to try out steelhead fishing on the St. Joe, where should they start?

Capt. Todd Brill, of Gold Coast Fishing Company in St. Joseph, suggests that those interested “find a charter captain in your area. One of the best ways to go about this is through the Michigan Charter Boat Association.”

Choosing one of their members will guarantee that you’re getting a licensed and professional charter service. From there, follow the links to the different charters’ websites. Capt. Clark also suggests visiting the Southwest Michigan Tourism Council and St. Joseph Today websites.

Many people visit Southwest Michigan and Northern Indiana in the fall and winter just to go steelheading on the legendary St. Joe, as it’s a great way to beat cabin fever and see a beautiful side of Southwest Michigan that many locals take for granted.

“It beats sitting around watching TV with our kids. It gets them outside. I like it. It’s peaceful,” Mahron said.