The Boardman River is a gem when one considers its proximity to Traverse City. Starting as two rivers, the North and South Branches near the villages of Kalkaska and South Boardman, they merge and become one, flow north and eventually drain into West Grand Traverse Bay. The river generally runs clear and cooler, resulting in insect hatches that can be delayed behind its neighboring rivers.
There are a number of sections of this river, but the consistent drawback is lack of access. There are places to fish this river — if you’re willing to do some research and a little extra hiking, you may find some great water. There are a number of dams and impoundments on the Boardman that make up the different sections of the river and also impact the fishery below them.
For the nostalgic history buff or interested angler, one of the most popular dry fly pattern used – The Adams, was originally developed for angler Charles Adams who fished the Boardman River.
The upper section includes both the North and South Branches of the Boardman and where they come together, the “Forks” and downstream to Brown Bridge Pond. This is the smaller water of the Boardman which experiences fair to good hatches. Ranch Rudolph is located in this section of river and there are a number of places to access the river including some State of Michigan campgrounds: The Forks, Sheck’s Place, Trail Camp and Brown Bridge Road. The river averages 25 feet in width and flows quickly over a gravel bottom. Not good with a roll cast? You will be soon as there are bank-side and overhanging trees in much of the upper section of river. Don’t look for real large fish in this section, but fun fish nonetheless. Fish slow and thoroughly and you might be rewarded with something a little bigger than and handful of brook trout – larger fish do exist in this water.
Below Brown Bridge Pond to Sabin dam is quick, swift water that offers some deeper holes along its gravely bottom. Hatches of Hendricksons, Sulphurs, Brown Drakes and Grey Drakes can offer the fly angler some great fishing for brookies and brown trout close to town. Public access is relatively limited to a few bridge crossings and Schumsky’s access.
The “valley” is one of the most scenic in the state and it is hard to believe that a place this nice can exist so close to a city as large as Traverse. This is some great water and I like to guide it via wading through some private access.
The water bellow Sabin Dam is the upstream limit for Steelhead and Salmon and their migration. In Traverse City downstream of the Front Street bridge, a fish weir is lowered in late August to collect salmon; some fish make it upstream prior to and after they remove the weir in mid-fall (typically the first part of November), offering some fishing for the migrating and spawning fish.
The water below the dam is slower and has a lot of silt in. While it doesn’t appear to be very “trouty,” some fish do make it their home despite water temperatures that climb into the 70s in the summer months.
Below Boardman Lake there is a short dam and fish ladder which creates another section of river before it enters Grand Traverse Bay. While considered “Urban Fishing,” steelhead anglers catch fish throughout the fall, winter and spring — often on their lunch break or just after work. In the warmer months, anglers can find Smallmouth, Brown Trout, Rainbow Trout, Pike, Carp, Walleye and who knows what else swimming in it. Not a bad place to cast a line when in town with a limited schedule.
In late August as Salmon begin to move upstream, a weir is placed just below Front St. and is used for egg collection and processing. The fish congregate below the dam as do anglers making it a bit of a spectacle. Watching the fish jump up the fish ladder can be entertaining as is watching the fish processing – if in town this time of year, stop by and have a look.
Anglers can be found in the surf — where the mouth of the Boardman meets the bay — swinging flies or casting baitfish patterns which can bring a Steelhead, Salmon, Lake Trout, Cisco, or Smallmouth Bass to hand.
If you haven’t heard much about the Boardman River before, you certainly will in the future. There has been significant consideration of removing the dams on the river, and as of October 2013 Brown Bridge Dam no longer exists. The water above the former dam, Brown Bridge Pond, has been returned to a river following the historic river bed. The area is in the process of restoring and with time more vegetation, more structure will mean more productive water to fish in this swift moving section of water.
The removal of Brown Bridge Dam experienced an unfortunate event near the end of the process. While de-watering the pond — a process planned to last close to a month — a failure occurred and the pond was drained in less than a day. The volume off high water washed sediment downstream creating some property damage while the ecological damage is disputed and not completely determined. Fish remain in the miles of river below the former dam site, but their density and that of aquatic insects remains to be completely understood. One thing happened for sure – the downstream water temperature runs much cooler in the warmer months which is beneficial to trout populations.
As a result of the Brown Bridge removal the fate of the other dams is still somewhat undetermined. It has been decided to leave the Union St. Dam in place while removing Sabin and Boardman Dams in the near future. Much has been done to make sure that all aspects — environmental and social — were considered in this process, but not without controversy. A number of factors are playing significant roles in the final determination and scheduling of the dams removal and it will probably be a number of years before removal takes place. Having the river return to its natural state should be worth the wait.
Boardman River Hatches
There are a number of insects that can be found on the various sections of the Boardman River, and the times of the hatch can depend on which section as the dams and the waters above and below them are affected. The most noteworthy of insects include Hendricksons, Tan Caddis, Sulphurs, Brown Drakes, Grey Drakes and The Hex.
The summer months can offer some good terrestrial fishing due to the overhanging vegetation along the river. When nothing seems to be working on top, try swinging soft-hackles, smaller streamers that imitate small fish or, when all else fails, go with a big streamer on a sink-tip.
Check out the Hatch Chart for specific bug emergence information.
Map & Directions
The Boardman is located in Traverse City and starts 20 miles east near the villages of Kalkaska and South Boardman. Most of the river is Grand Traverse County.