Lake Michigan Fishing: All You Need to Know
Apr 28, 2021 | 9 minute read
Reading Time: 9 minutes

Lake Michigan’s name is said to come from the Ojibwe word michi-gami, meaning “great water.” We think this undersells the amazing opportunities it has to offer, though. Brimming with islands, shorelines, bays, and world-famous fish, it’s not just great – it’s utterly fantastic! And what better way to discover all its offerings than on a Lake Michigan fishing adventure?

A view of Lake Michigan's shoreline with dunes and forestry in the foreground

Lake Michigan is one of North America’s majestic Great Lakes. There are a few things that set it apart from the others, though. Did you know that it’s the only Great Lake entirely contained within the USA? And, on top of that, it’s the largest body of water in any single country. Not bad!

It’s home to some impressive topography, too, housing the world’s largest collection of freshwater sand dunes. And if you like an urban legend or two along with your angling action? Lake Michigan has its very own “Bermuda Triangle,” where strange disappearances have occurred.

Not to worry, though. Something that definitely hasn’t disappeared into that mysterious “Michigan Triangle” is the incredible amount of fishing opportunities on offer. Let’s delve in and see what you could find biting, as well as how and where to cast your line…

What can I catch in Lake Michigan?

An infographic showing top catches in Lake Michigan: Coho and Chinook Salmon, Brown and Lake Trout, Steelhead, Whitefish, Perch, Walleye, and Largemouth and Smallmouth Bass

A whole host of freshwater favorites, that’s what. Considering this lake’s vast size, that probably doesn’t come as much of a surprise! Its waters are the perfect natural habitat for a variety of fish. Some of our favorite species were also introduced in the ’50s as a way to control an invasive fish known as the Alewife. So what, exactly, might you encounter on your Lake Michigan fishing adventure?

Rainbow Trout

Also known as Steelhead, these fish are a firm freshwater favorite across North America, despite their potentially confusing double identities. This is especially true in Lake Michigan! Why? Well, thanks to the lake’s many streams and tributaries, it’s a Steelhead-spawning haven. They also attack bait and lures with wild abandon, making them incredibly fun to fight.

A man holds a large Rainbow Trout and smiles on Lake Michigan

Local anglers recommend facing off against Steelhead with light tackle for the most rod-bending action. Fly fishing is also becoming increasingly popular. If you’re looking to battle these fish without having to travel to the depths of the lake, visit during late spring and summer, when they can often be hooked from shore.

…More Trout!

Rainbows aren’t the only Trout species inhabiting this fantastic fishery, though. Firstly, there’s huge Brown Trout to contend with. These feisty fish are more than a worthy-enough opponent to stick on your Great Lakes species bucket list. Male Brown Trout like to attack other male Brown Trout. Grab yourself some lures in the same color and you’ll be in for a treat!

A man holds a Brown Trout on Lake Michigan

There’s also the “forgotten king” of Lake Michigan – trophy Lake Trout, a species that’s native to Lake Michigan. For the chance of hooking huge 40+ lb species, visit from late June through September, and explore waters up to 120 feet deep. In spring and late fall, Lake Trout can be found in waters as shallow as 10 feet. Get ready to bow down to another kind of king!

Salmon

Lake Michigan’s Salmon species are proof that freshwater fish can be just as exciting to hook as their saltwater brethren. You’ll encounter two Salmon varieties here, Chinook and Coho, which generally make their first appearance in the lake during spring. Early summer, however, is when the Salmon-chasing angling action really kicks off.

A man holds a large Salmon on board a charter boat on Lake Michigan

The Coho is commonly thought of as the fish that really kick-started the Great Lakes’ incredible Salmon fishery. It’s a beloved opponent thanks to its immense fighting skill and leaps. The Chinook, on the other hand, is also known as “King Salmon.” With the incredible hard-fighting action it puts up, and the sizes it can grow to, it’s definitely Great Lake royalty.

You can target these species in a variety of ways. Many anglers prefer to battle ’em in late summer, when they can be found in shallower parts of the lake. Another popular local technique? Use light gear, so you can really feel the hits at the end of your line!

Yellow Perch

If you’re all about hooking into tasty table fare, then you’ll be happy to hear that Lake Michigan has a healthy Yellow Perch population. These fish often are slightly overlooked due to the sheer number of other species on offer, but they become the real stars of the show in winter. Why? Because when the weather drops and the lake starts to freeze, they’re the perfect target.

A man holds two large Yellow Perch after ice fishing on Lake Michigan

You don’t have to travel far to target them, either. Head to one of the many ports or harbors that surround the lake. These spots are especially lucrative during the colder fall and winter months, when Perch flock to them in search of warmer waters. Bring along the kids and introduce them to some Great Lakes fishing – with a tasty reward at the end of the day!

Bass

The state of Michigan is known for its healthy number of Bass. It only makes sense that a lake that shares its name has its very own brag-worthy Bass population! Largemouth and Smallmouth varieties are the stars here, but the sheer amount of Smallmouth species on offer is particularly mind-blowing. And so is the incredible angling action they provide!

A man smiles and holds a Bass on Lake Michigan

Both Bass species can be found in the lake year round, with Indiana’s shoreline being an especially popular place to cast a line. The smaller lakes and tributaries of Lake Michigan are the perfect place to hook Bass, too – look for rocky areas for the best results. Bring along your favorite light tackle, too, so you can really feel the action at the end of your line!

And More

Although these are our favorite Lake Michigan catches, they’re by no means the only species you’ll find here. Walleye and Sauger are a popular target come winter, and you’ll even find Carp and Pike lurking in these waters.

How can I fish Lake Michigan?

From a Boat

A common piece of advice that local fishing enthusiasts like to share with novice Lake Michigan anglers: “Treat the lake as if it’s an ocean.” This is due to its sheer size, and we think it’s advice well worth taking. It also goes a long way towards explaining why hopping aboard a charter boat is one of the most effective ways to get your fish on.

A family charter fishing on Lake Michigan

Another plus to fishing alongside a local Lake Michigan fishing guide? The invaluable amount of experience and knowledge they’ll provide you with. As we mentioned, this lake is huge. Having someone who knows exactly how to follow the fish and target your chosen species means you’ll experience an unforgettable day on the water.

From Shore

With more than 1,600 miles of shoreline to explore, Lake Michigan is perfectly suited to anglers who prefer to fish on foot. There’s plenty of lucrative shore fishing locations in each state, with harbors, ports, and piers being the most common spots. Many of these places offer guests the option to rent rods and reels, too, so all you need to do is simply show up.

A person fishes from one of the piers leading out to Lake Michigan

During the fall, anglers head out on foot to target the Salmon run. Spring is the perfect time to cast your line for Brown Trout, Steelhead, and Coho Salmon. Want to take advantage of the weather during summer? Perch and Smallmouth Bass are the top catches. You can also head out under the cover of darkness to battle Salmon and Trout.

From a Kayak

Kayak fishing is the perfect way to take in some stunning views and hook your dream catch, too. And on Lake Michigan, kayak fishing is surprisingly diverse. It can involve trolling for Salmon and Trout, heading to the bays and tributaries in search of Bass, and even anchoring in the lake’s shallow waters for some wading action.

Kayaks along the shoreline of Lake Michigan

Before you get ready to hop into your kayak, be aware that this form of fishing requires a certain level of skill and strength. You’ll need to navigate your vessel and wield a fishing rod at the same time. The waters of Lake Michigan can be unpredictable and choppy, too, so make sure you check weather and water forecasts before heading out.

How about ice fishing?

Something that any angler who’s fished the Great Lakes knows is this – it can get pretty cold around these parts, especially in winter! Despite this, records from the 1800s show that Lake Michigan has never completely frozen. That doesn’t mean that ice fishing on this beautiful body of water is a no-go, though. You just have to pick your spot carefully.

An aerial view of ice fishing on Lake Michigan

The most popular places to experience ice fishing are actually around the lake’s many ports and harbors. The water is shallower and develops a thicker layer of ice, meaning that your safety isn’t at risk. You’ll also find a selection of ice fishing guides. Because of the lake’s unpredictable nature, we recommend trying out this unique technique alongside a professional.

Where are the best places to fish Lake Michigan?

Bordered by Wisconsin, Illinois, Indiana, and Michigan, there are a fair few places to cast your line from when fishing Lake Michigan. We’ve identified some of our favorites below…

A view of Chicago's Lake Michigan shoreline
Chicago
  • Milwaukee, WI: Although there are many cities bordering Lake Michigan, not all of them can brag about holding the majority of state records for fishing here. Milwaukee can! You’ll find all of the lake’s favorite species here. Charter vessels can be found docked at Milwaukee Harbor.
  • Green Bay, WI: This bay functions as an “arm” of Lake Michigan, and is just as packed with excellent angling opportunities as the Great Lake. A particularly popular catch here? Walleye – especially if you’re looking to try out ice fishing.
  • Chicago, IL: Although you might not immediately think of the Windy City as a top angling spot, one cast of a line here will prove you wrong! For shore anglers, the mighty Navy Pier is a must-visit. There are plenty of charters to choose from, too.
  • Gary, Indiana: Located right along the shore of Lake Michigan, this city is a short distance from the Indiana Dunes National Park. This beautiful spot is home to stunning scenery, kayak and boat launches, and some awesome on-foot angling action, too.
  • Grand Traverse Bay, MI: Another arm of the lake, this bay is the place to visit if you’re looking for a Bass bonanza. Looking for a charter to take you out to the bay and beyond? Head to Traverse City.
  • Mackinaw City: Located at the meeting point of Lakes Huron and Michigan, this city is great for a spot of on-foot angling. Head to Wilderness State Park, which has access to over 26 miles of Lake Michigan shoreline – and huge Salmon and Lake Trout. Mackinac Island is close by, too.

Anything else I need to know?

Seasonality

The chances of hooking your target catch differ depending on when you visit Lake Michigan. Although you can fish here year-round, the lake’s season generally ramps up around spring, and lasts into the winter. Here’s a quick breakdown for you…

A man and child hold a large Salmon up to the camera and smile on Lake Michigan
Summer Salmon fishing on Lake Michigan

Spring: It’s all about Coho Salmon during this time! The earlier in spring you visit, the better your chances are of hooking these fish. Lake Trout, a year-round staple, can be hooked too, and you have a good chance of reeling in Rainbow and Brown Trout.

Summer: Lake Michigan’s fishing definitely heats up with the weather. Early summer sees more Coho, and Rainbow Trout make a big splash around June. Head to the lake in late summer, and your chances of hooking a trophy Chinook increase.

Fall: Often called “trophy time” by local anglers, fall sees all the favorites inhabiting the lake. Huge Brown Trout, tasty Perch, feisty Smallmouth Bass, and both Salmon varieties are particularly hot targets.

Winter: Yellow Perch are the superstars of Lake Michigan’s winter season, and can also be caught when ice fishing. You might encounter some Walleye with this technique, too. Steelhead can be found in the lake’s tributaries. Lake Trout are a popular catch around the ports, piers, and harbors.

Rules and Regulations

Signage signalling the sale of bait, tackle, and fishing licenses.

The rules differ slightly depending on which state you’ll be fishing from. Because of this, it’s best to consult the regulations for the specific state you’ll be starting your adventure from. Generally, though, you’ll need to purchase a freshwater fishing license from your state’s wildlife and fisheries department, as well as a Great Lakes fishing stamp.

If you’re fishing from Michigan or Wisconsin, check out our guides to get you started.

Lake Michigan: Great Water, Even Greater Angling Opportunities!

By now, we hope you understand why we think that simply calling this lake “great” is a bit of an understatement! With a whole host of departure points, a plethora of ways to cast your line, and some of the world’s most famous freshwater fish on offer, fishing this Great Lake is much more than “great” – it’s seriously unforgettable.

Lake Michigan on a serene summer's day

Have you ever fished Lake Michigan? What did you catch? Any tips or tricks to share with us? Let us know in the comments below – we love hearing from you!

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