Why Michigan is the Best Fly-Fishing State in America

Michigan Bass

Photo by Jon Ray

A few years ago, we ran a ranking of the best fly-fishing states in America, and Michigan, to the surprise of some, topped the list.

The problem with these lists is that you make residents of one state happy and then field “you’re nuts” mail from readers in the other 49 states. But it was really just meant to be for good fun and to spur some dialogue and debate, which is mission number one for a blog like Fly Talk in the first place.

So I was going to do an updated list. But when I got to thinking about it, I realized I’d still rank Michigan as the far-and-away number one. So rather than reshuffle the rest, I thought I’d explain why Michigan, to this day, teaches and captivates me in new ways every time I fish there.

Fly-fishing revolves around trout species, but there’s always some other wrinkle to be found in Michigan. Swinging flies for steelhead and salmon? Yeah, they do that. Plus fishing for pike; walleye; largemouth bass; panfish — it’s about diversity, and there’s always something to chase. And the more I travel and fish around the world, the more I realize the same tricks and techniques can be honed and applied on waters in the Enchanted Mitten.

T.S. Eliot wrote: “We shall not cease from exploration; And the end of all our exploring; Will be to arrive where we started; And know the place for the first time.”

I enjoyed an amazing trip on the lower Manistee River the other day, casting for smallmouth bass with Captain Jon Ray, and my friend Dr. Burke Chegar. Banging long casts against the banks, and twitching poppers, I got to thinking, "Technically speaking, this is like chasing snook in the mangroves or peacock bass in the jungle."

Simulated bonefish? Try going after carp in the clear waters of Lake Michigan. The cast is about the same with an 8-weight rod, but carp are tougher to hook than bonefish are.

Of course, the trout fishing is great. I have always thought that anyone can drag a 20-inch brown out of a run in Colorado or Montana if they put on a nymph and go dredging. But catch a 20-incher on a dry fly — or even a mouse fly at night — in Michigan, and that’s saying something.

I also like the fishing culture in Michigan. You need to be tough and multitask to be a great guide in Michigan. Steelhead in the frozen winter. Smallies in the hot sun. Two-handed rods, light tackle, rowing drift boats in the dead of night. Ray is a decathlete, like most of the guides I know from Michigan. (By the way, take a poll of the guides you fish with in the Rockies, and you’ll find that a good many come from Michigan.)

I know plenty of people from Michigan who travel to Florida, Colorado, Wyoming, Montana, Alaska and many other places to go fishing. But what warms my heart is knowing that anglers from Colorado, Wyoming, and Florida are seeking out Michigan as a fly-fishing destination. If you haven’t yet, you really should.