Winter and Spring Steelhead Fishing on the St. Joseph River

The winter blues have kept you indoors, but now it’s time to catch steelhead and brown trout in a heated and enclosed riverboat on the St. Joseph River. Much of the fishing slows down in January on the river with extreme cold and the abundance of ice. And, often the Berrien Springs dam area is the only available for open water. By February, most of the river is open from the Berrien Springs dam down to Lake Michigan, and the same holds true for March. This is when I start guiding full time, as there’s more river to fish and the odds of having a good day are increased.

You will want to fish the deeper runs at 8 to 12 feet of water on average. Now is when steelhead will usually hold around the logjams and wherever there might be a current break. And the slower-current areas are usually the best. Always position your boat well above the logjam and work spawn and lures in it. The two most popular methods on the St. Joe are anchoring and working spawn and using lures through the run or slipping with all crankbaits such as flatfish, hot-n-tots or wiggle warts. Slipping is basically a “controlled drift” while working plugs through a run very slowly.

As March comes around, we start to see melt runoff from the winter snows, which is actually good due to the increase in current and warmer water temperatures. These bring in the fresh run of steelhead and brown trout from Lake Michigan. This month, you basically fish the same way as in February, with the exception of when the water becomes stained from the melted snow runoff—this is when I fish more spawn than lures. If the river becomes higher, as it usually does here now, the current will become faster in the traditional spots. Don’t be afraid to try different spots where you can find slower current. The fish will be in areas where they don’t have to work against hard current such places in along logjams, behind rocks and on the backsides of gravel bars.

This is also when steelhead will spawn in areas consisting of fast-moving current areas with a rocky bottom, and usually in shallower water in 3 to 6 feet. This time frame usually starts around mid-March. The combination of spawn and lures are good now, and preferred lure colors are gold, orange and gold and chrome and red.

As far as tackle, I use 8- to 9-foot, light-action spinning and baitcasting rods. I use 10-pound-test line when fishing spawn and 20-pound-test on my plug rods. When fishing spawn, I’ll use a three-way with a slipping dropper sinker with about 1 ounce for sinkers for set lines, and about a 1/2-ounce sinker for my back-drifting rods. I use a size 2 egg hook for the spawn with an egg loop. My lure preference is flatfish in the slower current areas, and hot-n-tots for the faster-current areas with straight gold or some combination of this color.

There are several boat ramps on the St. Joseph River between Berrien Springs and Lake Michigan. In Berrien, there’s Shamrock Park near the Berrien Springs dam, at mid-river there’s a DNR boat ramp off Jasper Dairy Road just off U.S. 31 and at the lower river there’s a boat ramp near where U.S. 31 and I-94 cross at Exit 28.

I’ve been guiding on the St. Joseph for 32 years now and have met an array of great people. I hope you will come experience our beautiful river, whether you choose to come with me, Capt. Russ Clark, of Sea Hawk Charters, or on your own. Just remember, you can be very comfortable during the colder days in a heated, enclosed boat too like ours. I hope to see you all on the magnificent St. Joseph River.