Battling the City's Steelhead

If you take a moment to study the Red Cedar River flowing beneath the bridges on Michigan State University’s campus this time of year, you may notice silvery fish as long as your arm cutting V-shapes in the water.

There, among the dormitories and buses and students, swims one of the most highly prized sport fish in North America: Oncorhynchus mykiss— the steelhead trout.

The fact may come as a surprise to many, but not to the knowing among the Capital region’s urban anglers: thousands of steelhead—a kind of rainbow trout—migrate up the Grand River and its tributaries each year to spawn.

“You look at Lake Michigan and then at Lansing, and you just don’t think they can travel that far,” says Brian Bielecki, owner of Nomad Anglers, a fly-fishing store in Okemos. “But I’ve never seen more steelhead in one spot than in the Red Cedar a few years ago—more than even the Pere Marquette or the Manistee” rivers in Northern Michigan.

Lansing also is visited each fall by a solid migration of coho and chinook, or king salmon, the biggest of all salmon species.

The happy result for Lansing residents is that anyone with a fishing pole and a few hours to kill can, within a few minutes of walking out their door, have their rod bent double by powerful fish that people travel to remotest Alaska to catch.

King of the Fish

Salmon and steelhead were brought to the Great Lakes from the Pacific coast—steelhead in the late 1800s, salmon in the 1960s. They’re born in Great Lakes tributaries and eventually head out to the big lakes, where they spend a few years scarfing down baitfish.

By the time instinct pushes Michigan steelhead back up their home rivers to spawn, most weigh between five and 10 pounds, with an occasional monster pushing the 20-pound mark. Coho salmon are about the same size as steelhead, and chinook salmon are much larger, with 30-pound fish not uncommon.

Steelhead have turned many sane fishing enthusiasts into the kind of wild-eyed lunatics who wade icy rivers on below-freezing days, enduring numb extremities for a rare chance to do battle.

“The steelhead is the king of the fish--the king of the fighters,” says Doug Herbruck, president of the Mid-Michigan Steelheaders, the local chapter of a statewide organization that works to promote angling and improve fish habitat.

In an act of grim natural poetry, all Pacific salmon die after spawning. By the time they get to Lansing, most are exhausted and— though no pushovers—aren’t big fighters.
Not so with steelhead.

“I always liken catching a steelhead to standing alongside the freeway and hooking a truck,” Herbruck says. “They have long, fierce runs, and they’re very acrobatic.”
Bielecki puts it another way: “When you hook a steelhead, it will try to drag you back to Lake Michigan.”

Study Escape

By early November, MSU packaging senior Keng Vue had already caught three steelhead  at the North Lansing dam in Old Town. None towed him to Lake Michigan, but all were more than two feet long and fought like linebackers.

Vue, who lives on Lansing’s Southside, says he and his friends try to hit the Grand two or three times a week, usually in Old Town or at Moore’s Park, where a ladder-less dam ends the migration.

“This is our escape from studying,” he says. “Exams have been super rough this week, so we’ve really been itching to fish. It’s just nice to relax and enjoy the outdoors.”

And if “the outdoors” in this case isn’t exactly the wilderness, it comes with certain perks.

Anglers at the North Lansing dam, for instance, can prepare for a morning of fishing by filling up on gourmet pancakes at the Golden Harvest or huevos rancheros at Pablo’s Panaderia, both a short walk from productive fishing holes.

They can cap the day with a cold one at the Unicorn Tavern. And if they lose their favorite lure, Grand River Bait and Tackle is just up the road.

Local anglers say ease of access is one of the best things about the city’s fishing scene.

You can get onto the water all along the Lansing River Trail, except for on MSU’s campus—and you can work that water from a canoe.

Absolutely a Good Thing

The Grand River is considered one of the state’s best for catching smallmouth bass, and is full of large northern pike and other game species. But if Mother Nature had her way, salmon and steelhead wouldn’t make it to Lansing.

To make the migrations happen, the Michigan Department of Natural Resources and Environment plants juvenile fish in the river each year.

Some locals say the state should skip the stocking and leave the Grand to native fish that reproduce there naturally. But Jim Bedford, the unofficial dean of the Grand River fishery, disagrees.

“The stocking is absolutely a good thing,” says Bedford, a retired environmental toxicologist who wrote a book about fishing the Grand and says the steelhead is his favorite fish.

“It’s a way to bring the fish to the fishermen,” he says, as lots of folks want to fish for salmon and steelhead but “can’t always go up north to fish—especially when gas is three dollars a gallon.”

Better and Better and Better

While the fish aren’t native, experts say their presence here signals that the Grand and the Red Cedar are in fact much healthier than many perceive.

Area streams “have been getting better and better and better since the Clean Water Act in the ‘70s,” says Mark Stephens, project coordinator with MSU Extension’s Project FISH, which aims to get people to go fishing and, as a result, care for and protect local resources.

“The rivers have gotten incredibly clean. There are areas with macroinvertebrates that can only live in top-quality water,” he says, referring to tiny creatures like mayflies that can serve as indicators of stream health.

Stephens says he hopes clean rivers can attract more than just fish.

“We’ve got a great river in Lansing. If people knew the great recreational resource we have, more of them might want to live here.”

To receive Capital Gains free every week, click here.

Andy McGlashen, who lives in East Lansing, recently caught his first salmon—a coho at the North Lansing dam—and is now obsessed. He works for the Michigan Environmental Council and is a graduate of MSU’s Knight Center for Environmental Journalism

Dave Trumpie is the managing photographer for Capital Gains. He is a freelance photographer and owner of Trumpie Photography.


The author Andy McGlashen gets in some fly fishing

Keng Vue in Old Town

Keng's tackle

Brian Bielecki at Nomad Anglers

A selections of Nomad Angler's flys

A fisherman near Downtown Lansing

All Photographs © Dave Trumpie

Enjoy this story? Sign up for free solutions-based reporting in your inbox each week.
Signup for Email Alerts