The Betsie River is located in Benzie County, 30 miles south of Traverse City, and is most known for its Steelhead and Salmon fishing. The river itself has a mix of sand, gravel and clay bottoms, and the depths vary from long shallow flats to short, deep, cool holes for fish to hold in. The river is anywhere between 30 and 60 feet wide and is relatively easy to wade when using common sense.
Because of the watershed’s composition, the Betsie River can be easily affected by rain and run-off, and this impacts the fishing. While these surges of water “muck-up” the fishing for a while, it is the catalyst that brings more migratory fish into the river — take the good with the bad.
The banks are mostly covered with trees, tags and other vegetation so those with a good roll cast will be the most rewarded. When fishing below Homestead dam you will find the highest concentration of anglers which is why I prefer to take clients to more secluded sections of the river. Regardless of where you fish the steelhead and salmon in this size river, you will find that landing them is challenging adding to the experience.
Early runs of King (Chinook) Salmon helps extend the angler’s fishing season as there are typically fishable numbers by the last weeks of August and continues through the month of September and sometimes into October. Believe it or not, there are salmon caught in the Betsie sometimes into January, but few. Pools loaded with fish holding and waiting to move up even closer to their spawning habitat provides lots of fun and challenges for the angler with the fly rod. Imagine 20 pounds of fresh salmon in a small river with lots of logs in it – more fish are lost than landed adding to the enjoyment of this fishery I refer to as the “Betty-Lou”.
Eggs and nymphs (particularly small black stone flies, caddis, hex nymphs, buggers and b.h. hare’s ears) are typical flies used for the spring steelhead with either floating lines with and without indicators or bottom-bouncing with split shot on a “duck-and-chuck” set up.
Fall steelhead are much like the spring steelhead; water conditions are absolutely key to a good run. If the fish are close to shore at the pier heads in Frankfort and a good rain increases water levels, the fish come in eating salmon eggs their entire way up the river. Hint: Use lots of egg patterns for the fall fish.
While there are trout that live in the Betsie, they are the minority species. Although I am not a biologist, it is my understanding that the Betsie’s water temperatures increase a little too much for healthy populations of trout, but I could be wrong — it’s yours to discover. When catching rainbows 6 to 10 inches long, treat them with care — these are the steelhead of the future. Each fall, anglers catch lake-run brown trout. These fish usually enter the Betsie in November and are caught by anglers fishing for fall steelhead.
The Betsie River has a number of state access points including River Road, Grace Road, US-31 and Homestead Dam. The latter is the most popular as fish tend to stack up below the dam; however some fish do breach the dam. There is fishing above the dam, but it’s limited by the amount of state property.
Eventually as you travel upstream you will find the river is closed to fishing during the fall, winter and early spring and follows the traditional trout season dates. This upper water works as a sanctuary for the fish to spawn to ensure future populations of fish.
The Betsie River flows west and before emptying into Lake Michigan it flows into Betsie Lake, which is connected to Lake Michigan. A popular “port” for charter boats, Betsie Lake and its neighboring villages of Frankfort and Elberta offer surf fishing both on the piers and in the lake itself, all within a short distance of good restaurants when the fishing is done.
The State of the Betsie River
The Steelhead run on the Betsie was one of legend. After a dam washed out in the upper watershed years ago, the river has had to deal with a significant increase of sand and silt. This “erosion” filled up holes that once held good populations of steelhead which now temporarily stay in those “holes” before continuing to move upstream. Efforts by various conservation groups (Conservation Resource Alliance / CRA, Betsie River Watershed Restoration committee, Trout Unlimited and others) have stabilized banks to eliminate further degrading, and I am happy to report improvements based off of observing deeper water, better spawning gravel and cooler water temperatures.
In addition, there seems to be better returns of Steelhead through the stocking program done in conjunction with the state’s Department of Natural Resources and a local conservation group. Other projects include rehabilitating access for fish to Dair Creek which should also increase successful natural reproduction of both Steelhead and Salmon.
The Betsie river is located in Benzie County 30 miles South of Traverse City, 10 miles East of Frankfort / Elberta and runs through Benzonia. The Homestead dam is located just outside of Benzonia and is a popular place to fish because of parking and access.