The River Grand

By Henry F. Zeman

The Grand River that flows through the heart of Grand Rapids, Mich., has often been described as one of the best urban fisheries in the country. This river gets its biggest play starting in late summer when a mighty wave of migrant fish surge into the river at Grand Haven, stopping at the downtown dam for a time before heading upstream.
One of the first fish to arrive will be the spunky chinook salmon, commonly called king salmon. Flowing closely in the king’s wake are coho salmon – silvers to Alaskans – and intermixed with the migrants will be steelhead, migratory rainbows that will be making their home in the downtown river until late spring. There are also some large brown trout, also migrants from Lake Michigan, a few lake trout and, last but not least, walleye.
There are some warmwater species that are resident year-round such as large- and smallmouth bass, crappies and other lesser species such as catfish. There is always something to catch in the flowing river.
During the summer months, the river is very wadeable except for a few deep and dangerous holes just below the downtown dam. During those summer months local youths will be fishing the Grand hoping to catch a walleye or perhaps a bass for an evening meal. “River rats,” as the kids are commonly called, claim they often hook into summer steelheads that are stragglers from other stream plants. But these fish are often here today and gone tomorrow. The Grand River is one of the largest and longest in the state, rising near Jackson in Eastern Michigan. It flows through Jackson, then Lansing, the state capital, through Ionia and Lowell, before it makes a slow turn around Grand Rapids, coming in from the north where it runs through the heart of downtown. Below the rapids the river flows slowly in a leisurely fashion toward the big lake, passing by many bayous where bass anglers are always looking for that big “hog” to win the weekly bass tournament. Those slick bass boats are seemingly everywhere starting in late May and until the snow flies in late October/early November.
Where the river pours into Lake Michigan is where most of the action takes place during the summer as large charter boats armed with the latest gear wrestle salmon, brown trout and steelhead. In late summer the action begins as the water cools and migrants feel that urge to head upstream. Fishing boats will darken the pierheads searching for the migrant schools. But not all of the action takes place from the boats, as pier anglers, some fishing through the night, add their lines to the mix, with just about everyone tangling with the robust fish.
Sometime around Labor Day, seemingly on signal, perhaps due to the cooling water upstream, the schools of fish charge upstream. Some boats troll in Grand Haven’s channel for a time, and then the boats disappear as do the schools. In the days that follow, salmon appear in the downtown river. As the word spreads, anglers crowd shoulder to shoulder, some wading in chest-high waders while others line the flood walls and the bridges looking for this lush bounty.
There are several fish ladders – one in downtown Grand Rapids and several others upstream – allowing migrants to swim up to Lansing where their journey ends. According to anglers who fish the river, some of the best fishing takes place in and around Grand Rapids. In fact, according to Field & Stream magazine, Grand Rapids is America’s sixth best fishing city. When the river rises (mostly in the spring) the river blossoms with boating traffic. There is a boat ramp on the east shore just downstream from the Sixth Street Dam.
From late summer until the following spring, dozens, at times hundreds, of anglers fish the downtown Grand searching for the silvery migrants. It’s not only anglers who head for the river to view this annual spectacle but schoolchildren and residents also come to watch the action.  While the anglers are interesting to watch, it’s the salmon, putting on a show as they jump up the fish ladder, that are the real attraction. As many would say, “It’s a Grand affair.” ◊
Henry F. Zeman, of Grand Rapids, Mich., is a freelance writer and photographer, and a 20-year member of OWAA.

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