Lake Michigan Salmon Fishing: All You Need to Know
Feb 10, 2021 | 7 minute read
Reading Time: 7 minutes

Want to know why a Lake Michigan Salmon fishing adventure regularly makes it to the top of freshwater anglers’ bucket lists? It all begins with the lowly Alewife. If you haven’t heard of this fish before, you’re not alone. But we have a lot to thank it for – it’s the reason why Salmon were introduced to Lake Michigan in the first place!

Three men sit on a charter boat with Lake Michigan behind them holding a large Salmon each.

The Alewife is a small bait fish that bears some resemblance to Herring. It’s also incredibly invasive. It made its way to Lake Michigan in the ’60s, and its presence led to commercial overfishing, the disappearance of recreational angling, and heaps of fish washing up on the beaches. A picture-perfect fishery? We think not!

In order to control the booming population of Alewife, Salmon varieties were introduced into Lake Michigan – and not only did they survive, but they thrived. Over time, they blossomed, turning Lake Michigan into the first-class Salmon fishery anglers know and love today. 

But which varieties of Salmon, exactly, can you catch here? And how should you go about catching them? Don’t worry – we’ve covered all of this and more below…

What Salmon can I catch in Lake Michigan?

Chinook Salmon

The undisputed “Kings” of Salmon are also Lake Michigan royalty. When summer hits and these legendary fish start to show up in huge numbers, you know you’re in for some serious rod-bending action. They also taste incredible and can weigh in at a hefty 30+ pounds. It’s easy to see why Lake Michigan’s anglers count down the days until King Salmon season!

A man smiles and holds a large Chinook Salmon on board a charter boat.

Although these fish tends to enter the lake’s deep waters anywhere from May to early June, the hottest time for Chinook chasing is usually between late July–September. Why? It’s the annual Salmon run! You’ll find these fish bustling throughout the lake as they make their way towards the Muskegon River.

During this time, the fish aren’t just plentiful – they’re also huge and aggressive, so they’re the perfect angling opponent. Their annual run continues into October, with the season usually cooling off in November. Trolling in the lake’s deep waters is a popular way of chasing Chinook, but you can also battle ’em on light tackle for an unforgettable experience.

Coho Salmon

If Chinook Salmon fishing on Lake Michigan is all about size, then it’s fair to say that Coho Salmon really bring it when it comes to sheer quantity! They may not be as big as their royal brethren, but they do provide some of the most exciting angling action pound-for-pound. They’re not too shabby when it comes to taste, either!

A man and a boy sit on a charter boat holding a large Coho Salmon each.

Similar to Chinook, there are specific times of the year when Lake Michigan’s stock of Coho Salmon is a lot more plentiful. They spawn during spring and fall, with October–November being especially fish-filled months. You’ll also be able to target a huge number of Coho from May–early June. They can be found in slightly shallower waters than Chinook, too.

Although trolling is a Salmon-fishing staple technique on Lake Michigan, local anglers tend to prefer battling Coho on light tackle. Why? As they’re smaller than Chinook Salmon, light tackle will let you really feel the pull of your Coho when hooked.

Lake Michigan Salmon Fishing Techniques

You can target Lake Michigan’s Salmon species either on foot or from a boat. During certain times of the year, Salmon can be found close to shore as they follow bait fish into shallower waters, meaning shore fishing is a possibility. If you want to explore the offshore waters of the lake, where Salmon like to lurk, hop aboard a Lake Michigan Salmon fishing charter.

Trolling

This technique has stood the test of time as Lake Michigan’s most favored way to hook Salmon. It’s easy to see why, too. During the summer, when Salmon are at their most plentiful, they head straight for the deeper, cooler waters of the lake. Trolling allows you to spread multiple lines throughout this massive fishery, covering plenty of ground.

A boat trolls at sunset, with trolling lines visible.

While Coho Salmon often cruise near the top of the lake’s waters, Chinook prefer to head deeper. Because of this, you’ll want to implement downriggers when targeting ’em. Try setting them to the mid-depth range of the water column you’re fishing in. Basically, set your downriggers halfway down, e.g. set them 30 feet deep if you’re trolling in 60 feet of water.

Downriggers help you explore the depths of Lake Michigan, but how about covering more surface area at the same time? No problem – planer boards are a common boat addition here, and will help you reach spots you never dreamed of.

When it comes to bait, the aforementioned Alewife is a popular choice, but most local anglers recommend getting your hands on shiny spoons. These lures are bright and flashy, meaning they’re perfect for attracting your target fish, especially in deeper and murkier waters.

Spinning or Casting

Looking to try your hand at hooking Salmon from shore? It’s time to go back to basics! Yes, it’s true that “spinning” and “casting” have become catchall names for a variety of fishing techniques. However, if you’re heading to one of Lake Michigan’s piers or shorelines to target your catch, all you really need is your basic spinning or casting rod.

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

Fishing Lake Michigan from a boat offers up opportunities that you simply won’t get from shore. If the timing of your on-foot fishing visit is just right, though, you’ll have every chance of experiencing a Salmon-filled day. And luckily, there are a variety of times when both Chinook and Coho leave the deep waters of the lake to hole up around the piers and harbors.

Visit during spring and you’ll find Lake Michigan’s harbors, piers, and jetties teeming with Coho Salmon. During the fall, you’ll experience the annual Salmon run and spawning season. This means a huge number of both Coho and Chinook species travel throughout the lake, congregating around shoreline structure.

When it comes to bait, local anglers recommend a slightly unique – but highly effective – type of lure. Grab a spoon, preferably colored blue and silver, attach a small streamer fly about a foot ahead of it…and then dip the whole thing in Alewife. The notorious bait fish has a unique scent that is irresistible to Salmon.

Lake Michigan Salmon Fishing Spots

While the lake itself is obviously home to a thriving fishery, it’s also surrounded by a whole host of Salmon-filled tributaries, creeks, and hotspots. Here are some of our favorites, covering Lake Michigan itself and beyond…

An aerial view of Big Sable Point Lighthouse, located on Lake Michigan's shoreline.
  • Milwaukee River: Head to the mouth of the river, where it feeds into Lake Michigan, during late fall. You’ll be in for a Chinook Salmon bonanza! Hop on a charter boat, or bring along your rod for some shore-fishing action.
  • Sheboygan: This Wisconsin city lies directly on the banks of Lake Michigan. It’s home to a marina filled with charter boats, an impressive fishing pier, and a steady Salmon population from late May through November.
  • Port of Manistee: Located in Michigan, this port is famous for the incredible Salmon fishing it offers. Between July–September, you’ll be able to target huge, hard-fighting Kings, with Coho making an appearance in late August.
  • Sturgeon Bay: Head to this “arm” of Lake Michigan from July–September. Despite its name, it’s not just home to Sturgeon – it’s a prime Salmon fishery, too. Around 4–5 miles from shore, you’ll encounter the “Bank,” where the floor drops suddenly. It’s a King Salmon magnet!
  • St. Joseph River: This Lake Michigan tributary has become a red-hot Coho Salmon fishing location in recent years. Visit during late fall, when these fish start their spawning run along the river.

Rules and Regulations

A vintage red and yellow bait and tackle sign against a brick wall.

Lake Michigan is surrounded by four US states. There is no existing specific Lake Michigan fishing license, which means that knowing what you need to bring in order to legally hook Salmon can be confusing!

Generally, every angler needs to purchase a valid freshwater fishing license issued by the state they’re fishing from. You can do this by heading to the website for your state’s Department of Wildlife and Fisheries or Department of Natural Resources. If you’re fishing from Illinois, Michigan, or Wisconsin, check out our handy guides to getting a license.

How many Salmon you can catch or keep differs depending on where you’re fishing from. In Indiana, you can keep a maximum of 5 Salmon per day. This is the same in Michigan, but each fish must measure at least 10 inches. These rules are subject to change, so we’d recommend keeping an eye on your state’s local regulations.

Lake Michigan Salmon Fishing: Great Lake, Even Better Fish!

A view of Lake Michigan's shoreline at sunset.

So there you have it: the tale of two Salmon species, and how they became the most beloved angling opponents on this Great Lake. All that’s left is to grab your rods and reels and head out on an unforgettable Lake Michigan Salmon fishing adventure!

Have you ever been fishing for Salmon on Lake Michigan? Any tips, tricks, or techniques you want to tell us about? Leave us a comment below. We love hearing from you!

Rather be fishing?

Get great fishing tips, travel inspiration, and fun facts straight to your inbox, once a week, every week.
Invalid email address This email address is already subscribed

Something went wrong!

Unfortunately we can't subscribe you at this moment due to a system error. Please try again later.
Leave a reply
NameRequired *
Your comment Required *