How to Fish for Salmon in Michigan: The Complete Guide for 2024

Jan 11, 2024 | 8 minute read
Reading Time: 8 minutes

The Great Lake State is famous for its freshwater cornucopia and game fish that live there, and no species is more loved here than the Salmon. Every angler, no matter how skilled, wants these hard-fighting, delicious fellas on their line. That’s why Salmon fishing in Michigan is wildly popular – locals swear by it and visiting fishermen can’t get enough of the action.

Water-level view of a lake in Michigan on a clear sunny day in fall months

What makes this fishery one of the very best in the country? Well, it’s both the variety of species and the quantity of fish that make it special. But let’s not get ahead of ourselves. Read on and you’ll find all the info you need to prepare for a productive fishing trip.

Salmon Species in Michigan

When you go fishing for Salmon in Michigan, you’ll be spoiled for choice. With four out of five Great Lakes at your disposal, as well as hundreds of miles of other lakes, rivers, and streams to explore, the whole state is a veritable Salmon treasure trove. Depending on where you go, you could hook into four different Salmon species. Let’s see what they are.

Chinook Salmon – The All-Time Favorite

If you’re after the biggest Salmon you can find, then you should target Chinook. Also known as King Salmon, this species is the largest of its cousins, averaging between 10–20 pounds. Even though they’re of the Pacific variety, they’ve been thriving in Michigan’s waters for over half a century.

Father and daughter standing on a fishing boat, holding a big Chinook Salmon, Michigan

Size-wise, Chinook are dominant in the Great Lakes (especially Michigan and Huron). They’re up for grabs most of the year, but July and August are the prime time to chase them. After that, they begin their run upstream, and head to the surrounding rivers and streams to spawn.

Kings live in deeper, cooler waters and they’re most active when the light is low, i.e. in the early mornings and evenings. You can even fish for them during the night, as long as you use glow-in-the-dark spoons to get their attention. Look for them in the deeper sections of the lakes, where water is anywhere from 50–150 feet deep.

Chinook respond well to a number of artificial lures like plugs and spinners, but they also respond well to alewives, salmon eggs, and rainbow smelt.

These fish are so popular in Michigan that they’ve made it into the school classrooms. As part of the program “Salmon in the Classroom,” kids all over the state nurture Chinook from eggs to smolt, then release them where the conditions are good for the fish to keep growing.

Coho Salmon – There’s Strength in Numbers

Chinook might be bigger than Coho Salmon, but what these silvery devils lack in size, they more than compensate in numbers. It was Coho that brought fame to Salmon fishing in Michigan, simply because they were the first ones to be stocked in the lakes. They can grow to weigh up to 20 pounds, though smaller specimens are more common.

A male angler and a young angler on a fishing boat with a freshly caught Salmon, Michigan
This photo was taken by River Trek Guide Service

Coho are a beloved catch on Lake Michigan, and the bite in early spring and fall is particularly prolific. You can find them in good numbers in the state’s watersheds like Manistee, Platte Bay, St. Joseph River, and Anna River. They start their spawning season after Chinook, usually in September, and it lasts until November. This is the best time to chase them in the tributaries.

What’s interesting about Coho is their movement around the lakes. When you target them on Lake Michigan, bear in mind that they tend to travel counterclockwise. Even though there are plenty of fish both in the lakes and streams, the state takes good care of the Coho fishery by regularly stocking the waters.

Similar to Chinook, Coho Salmon can’t resist a number of artificial lures, with spoons, spinners, and plugs being most productive. They like cool waters and prefer darker parts of the lakes and depths of up to 100 feet.

Pink Salmon – The Colorful Underdog

Pink, aka Humpback Salmon, might not be as big as Chinook or numerous as Coho, but they’re very fun to track down and target, which is their main appeal. Out of all the Pacific Salmon family, Pinkies are the smallest (up to five pounds), but they’ll still fight you with everything they’ve got.

A smiling fisherman in a cap holding a Pink Salmon with water in the background

Pink Salmon have been a part of Michigan’s fisheries for 70 years, and Lake Huron is their favorite hangout. Unlike Coho and Chinook, they don’t favor the Great Lakes and prefer clear fast-running streams. They start their spawning runs in summer, earlier than everyone else, and the biggest runs usually happen on odd-numbered years.

Top spots to go after Pinks include St. Marys River, Carp River, and Lake Huron tributaries. Because they’re small but hardy, this species is a frequent target of fly fishermen. You can entice them with an array of nymphs and streamers and get excellent results. Trolling and jigging works well too, especially if you do it in the deeper sections of the river.

Pinks will surprise you both with their fighting abilities and strength of the strike, just give them a chance.

Atlantic Salmon – Unlike Any Other

We spoke plenty about the Pacific superstars, now let’s talk about Atlantic Salmon – local fighters that will impress you with their acrobatics. Just like their distant Pink family, these Salmon choose rivers and streams as their home and hunting ground. This species can grow to be anywhere from 2–6 pounds.

A fisherman in a cap and sunglasses holding an Atlantic Salmon with blue skies in the background

Atlantic Salmon like to move around in search of the perfect water temperature, so you’ll find them in different sections of the water column throughout the year. In spring, they’ll be closer to the surface and shore, until warm summer days chase them further away. They usually spawn in July, which marks the beginning of their high season that sometimes lasts until December.

As these fish make their way up the rivers, fly fishermen wait excitedly for them to show up. Lake Huron and St. Marys River boast excellent Atlantic Salmon action, as well as sections of St. Clair and Au Sable Rivers. Some bodies of water, like Thunder Bay River and Torch Lake, are also stocked with Atlantic Salmon to encourage the further improvement of the population.

Fly fishing for Atlantic Salmon is fun and often successful, but if you prefer a more traditional approach, trolling and drift fishing work well. Any of the options is a good idea for anglers looking to land a feisty tasty fish like Atlantic Salmon.

Michigan Salmon Fishing Techniques

Whichever part of Michigan you visit, local anglers will have a secret or two about how they get Salmon to bite. Still, there are some techniques that work wherever you go. Here are some of them.

Trolling

A charter boat trolling the waters of Lake Michigan at sunset

If you’re going after a Chromer (another name for Salmon) in one of the Great Lakes, trolling is a foolproof way to find them. Arguably, this is also the most popular and most productive technique when you go Salmon fishing in Michigan.

The best time to hit the open waters of the lakes is in low-light conditions, usually just before dawn. During the high season, you’ll see local charter boats moving out just as the eastern skies begin to brighten. This is when Salmon are most actively feeding and the bite is on point. Another option is to cast your line after dusk and during the evening using reflective lures.

Trolling with downriggers is usually a recipe for success, and planer boards do the job as well. If you’re partial to live bait, alewives and herring are a good choice, as well as smelt and anchovies. You can even troll with flies, if that’s something you’d like to try. Your guide’s advice will be a game-changer and help you make your efforts count.

Stream Fishing

An angler in a cap and sunglasses wading and fly fishing on a river

As you know by now, there’s no shortage of tributaries and streams where you can go to pursue your Salmon. In fact, Michigan has over 3,000 rivers at your disposal. The fishing approach is different than on the lakes because these watersheds are smaller and have better water clarity. The best time to explore the streams is from August–November, depending on where you go.

Conventional fishing includes casting and sometimes backbouncing. Salmon become very aggressive and territorial close to spawning grounds and attack lures with abandon. Medium-heavy action rods (up to 8 feet) paired with caster reels will do the trick. Skein eggs will get Salmon’s attention because of their strong smell, as well as crankbaits.

Fly fishing has a strong following in Michigan and for good reason. When you feel the powerful strike of a 15-pounder on a fly rod, you’ll never be the same. You’ll need an 8–10 wt fly rod and fluorocarbon 12 lb test lines to get started, along with a variety of flies. Drift fishing the bottom (also known as “duck-and-chuck”) where Salmon usually hide is a good way to get started and be productive from the get-go.

Top Salmon Fishing Spots in Michigan

A smiling angler standing on a fishing boat in Manistee River holding a freshly caught Salmon, Michigan
This photo was taken by Manistee River Fishing Company

Michigan’s freshwater realm offers thousands of miles for fishing exploration and that means more hotspots than one can cover in a lifetime. So, you’ll have to pick and choose where you want to start, and we’re here to help.

  • Great Lakes: Whenever you’re in the mood for a smorgasbord of angling opportunities, head to one of the Great Lakes. Lake Michigan, Superior, Erie, and Huron are all at your disposal with their unique, but productive Salmon fisheries.
  • St. Marys River: This is easily one of the best spots for Salmon fishing in Michigan, with fish from Lake Michigan and Huron converging here for their fall spawn. Not only are there a lot of fish for you to chase, but there are some trophies out there too.
  • Manistee River: Another fishing gem of the state, both the Manistee River and the Salmon it offers are fantastic. Come in late summer and early fall, and you’ll get your fill of Chinook and Coho action, and then some.
  • Ludington: A lot of anglers swear by Ludington and its excellent Salmon bite, and we can’t disagree. With Lake Michigan and Pere Parquette Lake at its doorstep, Ludington boasts premier Chinook and Coho fishing.
  • Bear River: Though it’s smaller than the rivers we mentioned, the Salmon bite on the Bear River is well-known among locals, but not so much among visiting anglers. Fall fishing for Coho and Chinook is very good here, with some Trout on the side.

Michigan Salmon Fishing Regulations

An infographic with the text "Michigan Fishing Regulations" and the Michigan state flag

Before you set out to explore Michigan’s Salmon riches, you’ll need to get a valid fishing license. This is the most important thing to remember whether you’re fishing on your own or with a charter guide. There are different types of licenses you can purchase depending on how long you’d like to fish and whether you’re a Michigan resident or not.

You should also familiarize yourself with daily possession limits if you’re going out solo. If you’re fishing with a guide, they’ll keep you informed about everything. Don’t forget that some inland streams have determined closed seasons, so make sure you’re allowed to cast a line there before you head out.

Salmon Fishing in Michigan – Let the Fun Begin!

A lighthouse with a bridge leading to it at sunset, with waves crashing on the shore

Wherever you are in Michigan, there’s probably a prime Salmon fishery a short ride away. The state’s rich waters will wow you with their diversity and abundance, and then it’s up to you to make the most of it. One thing’s for sure – you’ll have a blast chasing these silvery beauties and you’ll always come back for more!

Have you ever been Salmon fishing in Michigan? Do you have a favorite spot or species? Is there a story you’d like to share with the community? Let’s talk in the comments.

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Andriana has been in love with nature since before she could walk, and she lives to explore the great outdoors whenever she has the chance. Be it traveling to far-off lands, hiking, or mountain climbing, Andriana loves discovering new places and writing about them. The first time she went fishing with her dad she insisted on returning all the catch into the water. Dad was not pleased. Her curiosity about fishing only grew from there, and she’s been writing and learning about it for years. Andriana’s favorite fish to catch is Mahi Mahi.

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