Photo by Corey Haselhuhn.
What makes fly fishing the Michigan, Wisconsin, Minnesota area special is this is the wild native range of warm water species.
When most people think about fly fishing Montana, Wyoming, Idaho, they think of trout. When you think of Michigan, Wisconsin, Minnesota, you think of warm water species.
We have some of the best smallmouth bass and muskie fishing in the world. It's all right here, as well as arguably the best carp fishing when it comes to pursuing them in the Great Lakes.
The upper Midwest is such a rad area for fly fishing and there's a very small group of outfitters that are providing guided trips at an elite level. We offer single day and multi-day trips, and if you've never done a multi-day guided fly fishing trip, I'd definitely recommend one to the Midwest. It allows you as an angler to get into a groove, especially if you're a busy person that generally doesn't have a lot of time to fish.
It doesn't matter where you're going, whether you're going Muskie fishing in the Midwest, going trout fishing in Montana, or going down to the bonefish flats in The Bahamas, at least 3 days of fishing is highly recommended.
You may get one day where you might get bad weather, one day where you're just don’t have it and you're just duffin' away, and one day that's all right then you're going to have one day that's a winner!
If you're looking to come fish the Upper Midwest on a multi-day trip, here are some pointers on how you can prepare to make your trip as epic as possible!
Choose Your Species to Target
While there are many great species to target in the Upper Midwest, our primary focus is smallmouth fly fishing.
Smallmouth can be incredibly aggressive and they can be extremely challenging. A lot of things have been said over the years, like "smallmouth fly fishing is easy" and "why would you want to do that more for more than one day on a destination trip?"
When people say that, I think, “I guess you've never actually gone out with intent and tried to catch a giant smallmouth.”
You can go out and just dredge leech flies and eventually you're going to catch a smallmouth. But there’s a big difference between doing that and going into an area, focusing on a fish that you know lives there, planning your attack, and targeting a fish that potentially could be 18, 19, 20, 22 years of age and you catch that fish on a fly that you tied with intent to do so. That's pretty sweet. And it's not easy.
As our guide service has grown it has become obvious we’re smallmouth oriented and we’ve found it’s a better experience for the client if we are fully invested in a species and stay focused on monitoring the pulse of it throughout the year.
Since the season here is year-round and we’re focused on being experts on a single species, we don’t have to jump around too much. With the way our fisheries are set up, each one of them, each river, each section of river, has a time and a place.
Practice Your Casting
No matter what type of fishing you're doing – freshwater, saltwater, whatever – everything in fly fishing comes down to casting.
To make the most of your trip and your hard-earned dollar, you really need to focus on practicing your casting before your trip. I'm not just talking about your basic overhead, you know, 10 o'clock, 2 o'clock, 1 o'clock, 11 o'clock casting stroke. If you come to fish with us, you're going to fish rivers that are going to be anything from 100 cfs up to potentially 2,500 cfs in water volume. Small to medium sized rivers with tight-quarter casting.
Photo by Brian Grossenbacher.
Your basic overhead cast that you learned in the parking lot the first time you bought a fly rod is definitely the building blocks and the base of where your casting needs to go, but you need to be able to throw casts at different angles. You’ve got to be able to cast proficiently off your backhand.
Photo by Bryan Gregson.
I always tell clients, one way to practice this is stand on a cooler. We're not going to make you stand on a cooler, but go out into your backyard, put down a Yeti cooler or whatever kind of stable cooler or platform you have. Stand on it, plant your feet, and cast. To the left, to the right, backhand cast, sidearm cast, and get comfortable with that. The double haul is a must have skill! Master it.
If you’re booking a trip during peak season and going out trying to fish for a trophy fish, you have to have some level of preparation if you want to make the most of your trip.
Think about it; if you were going on an elk hunt, you would probably shoot your bow or rifle beforehand, and you’d probably put on the gear and get comfortable with it. Some people don't take it that far, but if you're serious about it, you're going to do that.
I understand a lot of people are busy, but that preparation is just huge and it goes a long way. If you go on a week-long trip somewhere and yet you spend two, three days hacking away and then you only have a day or two to pull it all together, that’s not making the most of your trip. It'd be nice to get there and be firing on all cylinders right out the gate.
So preparation is the key to success no matter what you're doing. Casting is the foundation of what we do as fly anglers. You have to practice!
Make Sure You Read the Pre-Trip Document!
Any reputable outfitter that books trips is going to give you a pre-trip document. Read it thoroughly!
We supply a pre-trip document at time of booking and you’d be surprised how many people don't read it, no matter how much we ask them to. We don't really have any secrets – we lay out everything you need to know. We want you to understand all the ingredients that will make your trip as successful.
Even if you don’t book a trip with us and are just coming in to the shop, ask our staff questions. We want to help put you in the best possible situation to succeed.
Long story short, if you are booking a guided or destination trip and the outfitter provides you with a pre-trip document, read and understand the information thoroughly. It will help make your trip a success.
Learn What to Expect For Different Times of Year
We guide for smallmouth year round, and there’s something for everybody – different programs and conditions for all skill levels.
Grind Season: January, February, Mid-March
That first quarter of the year, January, February, March, it's going to be a grind more times than not. The fish are in winter mode and are lethargic. If you've got a population of a hundred fish, which doesn't happen, but let's just say you've got a population of a hundred fish in a pool, five to ten of those fish are going to be players. A very small percentage of the population is active in this early season.
You’re going to be fishing a lot of what we call dredge flies. The type of presentation isn't one where you're going to be making pretty casts and tucking them underneath trees and whatnot. You're going to be casting heavy flies – rabbit strips, rubber legs, feathers, materials that provide motion when the fly is moving through the water. Natural colors: tans, browns, olives, blacks, very little flash or no flash at all.
Pre-Spawn Trophy Season: Late March, April, May
More times than not you're going to get a really sick bite this time of year. That's the point up here that I know that we’re going to catch top quality fish, and the fish are as fat as they're going to get.
This time of year we get our first big rains. The rivers are going to come way up. That's the trigger for our season. Climbing temps and water levels.
Partway through as the water continues warming we'll start catching fish on top with frog flies and poppers in addition to streamer fishing.
The frog fishing can be ridiculous. The weeks leading up to the spawn is really good as the frogs come out of hibernation. But that first two weeks is like the Superbowl of frog fishing, the way that a smallmouth will come from a distance and eat a frog and how ferociously they take it. It's something to be seen and something that once you get a taste of it you can't get enough of it. We get guys that come back year after year, like "give me three days of frog fishing."
When it comes to poppers we're fishing the Double Barrel Bass Bug, the green chartreuse, yellow chartreuse, the blue, the black. They are so durable and you can land the fly softly on the water if you want, so they are great for sniping.
Numbers Season: June, July, and August
Usually around the middle of May, you're going to start seeing fish start to spawn.
We're blessed with a great shop location. We have rivers to north, to the south, and some rivers on the same parallel as the shop. The fish start spawning on those southern rivers, and then as it warms, they'll start spawning up to the north. So we never stop fishing and are able to stay on the bite.
As the spawn wraps our techniques vary depending on water levels. Some years it’s low, others high. If water levels are up streamer techniques as well as larger top water flies will continue to dominate. If we have a low water scenario finesse streamer and smaller top water presentations will be utilized. The Finesse Changer in Tan and White are tough to beat in the low and clear!
Low water summers yield some very unique programs including terrestrial and various mayfly hatches, as well as sight fishing off feeding turtles. If you’re a skilled caster who likes the challenge of sight fishing we have a spot for you! It’s called the bow… I hope you don’t get buck fever!
Approaching Autumn: September and October
Late Summer going into early Fall is once again water and weather oriented.
Warm years the frog and terrestrial fishing could go into mid-October, other years it’s finished late September.
During the late fall you'll get kind of a funky period where the fish begin to transition. The days are getting shorter and they're in flux. Depending on the watershed it could be boom or bust. Tip… Baitfish are a key factor… We like to BOOM!
Late Season: November, December
As water temps drop and days become shorter fish activity slows. During periods of increased flow smallmouth will take advantage and move into winter lies and holding pools.
At this time 99% of the population will be in 1% of the water. Adjustments are made in everything from fly lines, to flies, to leader builds. Slow and low plays an important role. Leeches, Crays, and heavily weighted baitfish patterns take the lions share.
The late fall window is a really good time to get a trophy river when all your buddies are out hunting!
Understand the Gear Setup
These Game Changers get the job done!
If you've booked a trip with a noted outfitter, they're going to have proper gear, proper rods, proper lines, everything will be dialed for your trip.
If you really want to fish your own gear, that's totally cool as well. If this is what you want to do, I recommend checking with your guide ahead of time to make sure you have the proper setup. Make the investment in getting the proper tapered lines. Lines have changed so much over the last 10 years. Most guides are running such specific programs right now that coming on a trip with a line that’s a different taper often a mistake.
We're fishing smaller rivers. 6 feet or more of depth is what we would consider deep, whereas your average angler is not going to think of that as deep. We view deep water as “needle in a haystack” scenario, so we eliminate that water from our programs most of the season. I'm going to focus on water where fish are going to be keyed up and feeding, and this usually is shallow water sub 4ft.
Because of this, we're fishing the majority of our streamers on intermediate lines. Very, very rarely are we going to use a sink tip line. Using the intermediate line, especially with articulated flies, you’re going to get much better action out of your fly and be able to feel it. Think of it as fishing the fly versus fishing the line. With a sink tip you’re fishing the line, with an intermediate you’re fishing the fly!
If you need to get deep, weight your fly accordingly. Run a longer leader. Wait a little bit longer for the fly to sink and the line to work.
Our trophy caliber fish are old, smart, and live in crystal clear water. They’re not going to waste any energy. They're going to come up and grab that Game Changer and just inhale it, and you need to be able to feel or see when the moment is right through your line and with your eyes at times.
If you're not on it right away and you don't see it happen or you don't feel it, you’re going to miss the fish.
Come visit us!
The good old days of Smallmouth fishing are now here in Michigan! If you want a piece of the action, solitude and shot at a river donk there is no better time than now.
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About Mike Schultz:
Mike Schultz (known as “Schultzy” to most) is the Owner of Schultz Outfitters Fly Shop & Guide Service specializing in Southeastern Michigan angling, instruction, and destination travel. Born and raised in the Great State of Michigan, Schultzy has been immersed in the outdoors. After graduating from Eastern Michigan University with a Bachelor of Business Administration, he started guiding and working in the fly fishing industry full-time. Logging countless hours on the water each year, Schultzy has developed a vast knowledge of Midwestern waters and beyond. The bulk of his guiding and angling takes place on his home waters of Southeastern Michigan; These Rivers offer world class warm-water fishing. His angling travels have taken him from Patagonia to Russia and many places in between.