Fishing in Michigan: All You Need to Know
Apr 20, 2021 | 10 minute read
Reading Time: 10 minutes

If there ever was a state that could be dubbed a “freshwater wonderland,” it must be Michigan. With the longest freshwater coastline in the country, 3,000 rivers, and 11,000 inland lakes, you know that fishing in Michigan is spectacular. Oh, and did we mention that you have access to four out of the five Great Lakes?

Big Sable Point Lighthouse on Lake Michigan

When there’s such a smorgasbord of angling opportunities, enthusiasts from all over the US flock to the Great Lakes State. Whether you’re in the mood to target game fish or bring home delicious fillets, Michigan’s rich waters won’t disappoint.

Top Catches in Michigan

Just how big fishing is in Michigan shows the fact that well over a million licenses are sold every year. With one of the Great Lakes always a stone’s throw away, the sky is the limit to what you can reel in. 

If we’re talking about top catches, it’s hard to just pick one species. It’s a five-way tie, with all the A-listers accounted for. Keep on reading for more info!

Walleye – The King of the Lakes

We’ll start with a species that everybody loves to see on their line – the almighty Walleye. This feisty fish is the star of the Great Lakes, and these toothy fellas are a joy to pursue. They’re aggressive, don’t give up, and they’re active year-round, which makes them a prime target for all levels of anglers.

A bearded anglers sitting on a boat, holding a Walleye, with Lake Erie and blue skies in the background

The average Walleye usually weighs between 1–3 pounds, but you can stumble upon much bigger specimens, especially in Lake Erie. In the summer, it’s not uncommon to land a 10 lb monster, which will fight you for every inch of the line. The best time to go after these fish is during low light, at dawn and early evening.

The good thing about Walleye is that they’ll gobble down pretty much anything you throw their way. They respond well to live bait, namely nightcrawlers, minnows, and leeches. Slow trolling is the best way to get their attention, but jigging close to the bottom with an assortment of lures works well too.

You’ll find good-sized fish in the shallow waters in spring, but they’ll move closer to the bottom when it gets warmer. There’s also a lot of Walleye suspended in the middle of the water column, which is why trolling is so effective. When going after these big-eyed predators, you might also find their relatives, Sauger. 

All That Trout

If you want to experience Trout fishing in all its glory, head to just about any body of water in Michigan. These hard-to-trick species are a big deal here, and while spring and fall are the peak season, you can hook into them all year round.

Two smiling anglers holding a Steelhead

Steelhead and Rainbow Trout are the belles of the ball – fun to catch, and even better to eat. You can troll for them in the mid-section of the water column or cast a line from shore or a pier. They also gather around scumlines (points where waters of different temperatures mix) and feed quite close to the surface. The average Steelie weighs between 5–7 pounds, though there are 20-pounders out there.

Lake Trout are equally popular, especially among winter anglers. They love cold water (up to 55ºF) and live both in the Great Lakes and inland. Until summer, they’ll hunt in the shallows, before moving to greater depths, looking for optimal water conditions. Trolling close to the bottom is the most efficient way to get a Laker. Lakes like Crystal, Torch, and Higgins are regularly stocked with Lake Trout and offer an excellent bite year-round.

A smiling angler stainding on a boat, holding a massive Lake Trout with blue waters and skies in the background

We can’t talk about Trout fishing in Michigan without mentioning Brown Trout. They’re abundant in the northern parts of the state. Browns open the spring season in the Great Lakes, but the stream action in late summer is just as thrilling. Cloudy and rainy days are the best time for success. Fly anglers love going after Browns in the evenings after giant hex hatches on the streams like the Manistee and Au Sable Rivers.

Last, but certainly not least are Brook Trout, which just happen to be Michigan’s state fish. These eager biters are widespread, and most clear streams hide a Brookie population. Creatures in the inland waters are smaller (up to 10 inches), while the ones in the Great Lakes can be twice as long. Fish for Brookies around rocks, sunken logs, and deep holes. One of the top locations to get your fill of Brook Trout is the Black River.

The Salmon Domain

With so much open freshwater at Michigan’s doorstep, it’s hardly possible to imagine this prolific fishery without Salmon. Chinook, Coho, Atlantic, and even Pink varieties are in the cards.

Salmon being held just above the surface of water

Coho (Silver) Salmon are the reason the Salmon bite in Michigan is such a big deal. They thrive in Lake Michigan and make up a big part of the region’s superb fishery. Early spring and fall, as well as late summer, are the optimal times to chase Coho, especially in the lakes. If you prefer to fish rivers, then you’ll have your hands full in the fall. 

Chinook is the King of the Great Lakes and most numerous of all Salmon. The action is at its best in Lakes Huron and Michigan, but there are plenty of streams (Pere Marquette, St. Joseph, and Manistee Rivers) where you can land a good-sized King. They stay in the lakes until late summer, then make their way upstream to tributaries where they spawn. Chinook fight hard and can get big (upwards of 20 pounds). Oh, and they’re delicious.

An elderly angler standing on a fishing boat, holding a big Chinook Salmon

You can also stumble upon Pink (Humpback) Salmon in this region, though they’re rarer than Coho and Chinook. You won’t find many Humpies in the Great Lakes, but worry not! St. Marys River boasts excellent action, especially around the rapids. Whether you’re fly fishing or casting from a boat, you’re going to have a blast in summer and fall.

And while you’re on St. Marys River, why not try your luck with Atlantic Salmon? You can also target Atlantics in Lake Huron. St. Clair River, Torch Lake, and Thunder Bay River are also regularly stocked. During spring and fall, these silvery bad boys come closer to shore, but trolling deeper waters in summer can be productive. 

You Can’t Skip Bass Fishing

There’s no talking about fishing in Michigan without mentioning the first-class Bass bite. You can find Smallmouth and Largemouth Bass in the Great Lakes, as well as many inland lakes and rivers. Another ace up your sleeve is White Bass, especially around the Detroit area. 

A man in sunglasses and a cap holding a Smallmouth Bass with a river and forest in the background

Smallmouth Bass are one of the all-time favorite catches in Michigan, both on the Great Lakes and all over the Lower Peninsula. They live and feed close to rocky sections of the bottom, and come to shallow waters before spawning. Smallies stay in the 1–3 lb ballpark, but 5 lb specimens can be found too.

Largemouth Bass act similarly to their relatives, except they prefer the shelter of weeds and sunken timber as their hunting ground. This is where you’ll find them all year, and water depths of up to 20 feet are their sweet spot. Largies love clear warm water and can grow to weigh 5–7 pounds. Both species respond well to an array of lures and live bait, even flies.

There’s a good number of White Bass on the Great Lakes, especially Lake Erie. They’re usually the smallest in the Bass family, with their weight averaging at one pound. Detroit River is another famous hotspot, especially in late spring, during their spawn run. If you’re up for an angling adventure under the cover of darkness, you’ll enjoy night fishing for White Bass.

Pike & Musky – The Predator Hunt

Northern Pike and Muskellunge are some of the biggest and hardest-fighting freshwater species, and they abound in Michigan. Their long, muscular bodies and sharp teeth make them a formidable opponent for even the most skilled anglers. Both species like shallow warm waters, where they hide out in the weeds and logs, waiting for their prey to unknowingly swim by. 

Two smiling fishermen in caps standing on a boat, holding two Northern Pike

Pike are loved for their delicious meat and because they aren’t picky eaters, which is the perfect combo for anyone looking to catch their dinner. There’s a good number of them in the Great Lakes, as well as in the Manistee, Muskegon, and Houghton Rivers. Ice fishing for Northern Pike is also fun and productive in some parts of the state.

Muskellunge pose a great angling challenge, especially if you fish for them in Lake St. Clair. They’ll attack just about anything that moves in front of them, so getting them to bite shouldn’t take a lot of time. The Detroit River is the home of large Muskies, so if you’re up for battling a trophy, this where you should go.

Whether you’re targeting Pike, Musky, or both, a wire leader is a must, otherwise, they’ll bite right through your line. It’s recommended to use large lures to entice them, and live bait such as minnows work like a charm.

Types of Fishing in Michigan

There’s a wide variety of species for you to chase when fishing in Michigan, now you only need to choose how you’re going to catch them. Let’s see look at your options.

Fishing with a Charter

Three fishermen on a charter boat, with turbid waters and blue skies

Hitting the water with a local guide is the equivalent of taking a test to which you already know all the answers. In Michigan, thousands of people live and breathe fishing – whichever body of water you choose, there will be someone to show you the ropes.

The Great Lakes, not to much surprise, are the home to the biggest number of charter operators. Lakes Erie, Michigan, Huron, and Superior are veritable treasure troves and the best way to explore them is with a pro. The same goes for the Manistee, Au Sable, and Detroit Rivers, famous for their sublime action.

The best part is that you can tailor the trips to your needs. What you’d like to catch, where, and for how long is up to you – your captain is there to take you to the best spots, as well as provide advice and the know-how. Anything from half day excursions for Walleye and family outings for Perch and Sunfish, to all-day Trout expeditions is in the cards. The only question is, what do you feel like doing?

Fly Fishing in Michigan

A fly fisherman casting a line in Michigan River

For passionate fly fishers, Michigan is paradise, with its thousands upon thousands of miles of prolific Trout waters. The state is recognized nationwide for its fantastic fly fishing opportunities and both locals and traveling anglers know it.

What makes these rivers and streams so productive is the abundance of Trout species, namely Browns, Brookies, and Rainbows. These gorgeous fish thrive because of the fly hatches that happen to be their favorite food. 

The hex hatch is particularly important (late June to early July) because it marks peak fly fishing season. During this time, Trout are most active and they attack flies with wild abandon, which translates into amazing battles and trophy catches. The Manistee, Au Sable, and Pere Marquette Rivers all boast premier fly fishing. It’s a good idea to check with locals about angling conditions before you come, that way you know what to expect.

Ice Fishing in Michigan

An ice fisherman in a winter cap and sunglasses squatting next his hole in the ice, holding a small Northern Pike

Thanks to its position, Michigan is one of the best ice fishing locations in the US. You’ll see a lot of Michiganders on the ice when the temperatures drop below freezing – fishing and landing fish!

The ice fishing season can last up to five months (December-April). That’s more than enough time to experience the excitement of getting a fish and reeling it in through the ice. What you’ll find at the end of your line depends on where you go. 

Are you in the mood for Crappie on Lake St. Clair or Northern Pike on Cadillac Lake? For more options, Higgins Lake is a good for Lake Trout, Whitefish, Crappie, and Pike. These are a few destinations to keep in mind, but there are hundreds more to explore. Time to find out why Michigan is known as the “Water Winter Wonderland.”

Top Fishing Spots in Michigan

Wherever you go in the state of Michigan, chances are you won’t be further than several miles from a fishing hotspot. Still, there are some places that can’t be missed, and here are just some of them to consider.

A wooden walkway in Port Austin, Michigan
  • Great Lakes (any/all of them): It’s no secret that these huge bodies of water are some of the best fisheries in the country. Lake Erie for Walleye, Lake Michigan and Lake Superior for Salmon, or Lake Huron for Lake Trout – what will it be?
  • St. Marys River: You come here when you’re up for some first-class Trout and Salmon action. In summer, Walleye, Smallmouth Bass, and Muskellunge bite hard below the rapids.
  • Saginaw Bay: If you’ve got Walleye on your mind, then fishing the bay is something you need to experience. These game fish are biting here year-round, and chasing them here is a blast!
  • Lake St. Clair: Just two miles east of Detroit, this is easily one of the finest urban fisheries in the US, where anglers come to land giant Muskellunge and Smallmouth Bass. 
An aerial view of the town of St. Joseph and St. Joseph River
  • St. Joseph River: The fishing St. Joseph has to offer will wow you. Here, you can fish from shore, from a pier, or from a boat and be enviously successful. Think Bass, Catfish, Carp, Crappie, and Walleye all in one place.
  • Au Sable River: As we mentioned earlier, Au Sable is a treasure trove, and here you can get face-to-gills with all Trout species. Steelhead, Rainbows, monster Browns, and Brookies are all up for grabs.
  • Manistee River System: This body of water needs no introduction, its abundant population of Trout and Salmon speaks for itself. Come in fall and witness the outstanding action caused by the runs of Rainbow Trout, Chinook, and Coho Salmon.

Fishing Rules & Regulations

An image displaying the text "Michigan Fishing Regulations" and "What You Need to Know" on a blue background, an image of the Michigan state flag, and of a fishing boat underneath

One of the most important things to remember when preparing for your trip is your Michigan fishing license. All anglers who are 17 and older need to have a valid license, both when they’re fishing solo or with a charter. You can get them online, and there are several options to choose from, depending on how long you plan on fishing.

In case you book a trip that partly takes place in Canadian waters, you’ll need a valid Ontario fishing license and your passport. Your guide will keep you in the loop about fishing regulations, catch limits, and everything else you need to know.

Fishing in Michigan – The Ultimate Freshwater Bliss

A sunrise over the Lake of the Clouds in Michigan

Fishing escapades take on a whole new scale in the Great Lakes State. If you’ve never cast a line here, it’s high time to start making plans. With countless inland streams, productive rivers, and the Great Lakes all within reach, fishing in Michigan will forever widen your angling horizons!

Have you ever been fishing in Michigan? Do you have a favorite spot or a species to target? An amazing story to tell? Share your experiences and advice with the community in the comments.

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