Michigan Fishing: The best fish and tips for success

By: 
NW Michigan Outdoors | Overboard Contributor

Michigan is home to some of the world's largest freshwater lakes which also hold some of the world’s most popular game fish to target. With the different freshwater resources from rivers to the great lakes, many different fishing opportunities are available for anybody to take advantage of.

Let's jump into a few:

Trout

Our great state gives anglers many different options to try to target trout. From the cold, clear northern Michigan streams to the big water of the Great Lakes, these fish can be caught nearly year round. (please check the Michigan DNR website for more information on seasons and other regulations) It is only fitting that Michigan’s state fish is a trout, the Brook Trout. So, let’s start off with Michigan’s beautiful state fish.

 

Brook Trout

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In my opinion, Brook Trout or “Brookies” are the most beautiful fish you can target in the Great Lake state. These fish have a canvas-like pattern that consists of blues, greens, oranges, and reds that create a piece of art hand-painted by mother nature herself. These fish are mainly targeted during the summer and found in streams with cold water. Spending a hot, summer day wading in a cold, clear creek is second to none. These fish are small and fragile, but ferocious and will jump out of the water to engulf a fly.

Brookies can be fished for in different ways. The most popular are using dry-flies or streamers for those who chose to fly fish, various spinners for conventional spinning rod gear, and even using a simple worm and hook can be the most effective at some times. Please practice catch and release to conserve this awesome fishery and to allow other anglers a chance to catch the same fish you do!

Click HERE for more information on Michigan Brook Trout!

 

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Brown Trout

Brown Trout are similar to Brook Trout. They found throughout Michigan’s cold rivers and also can travel out to the Great Lakes to live. Brown trout are more reluctant to warmer water so there is a wider range of rivers throughout Michigan that hold these fish. Aside from fish that live in the streams, some Brown Trout travel out to the Great Lakes. These Fish are called “Lake Run” Browns and they grow larger in size and then come back to the rivers during their annual spawning run to reproduce.

 

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Various methods are used to target these magnificent fish. Fly fishing is the most popular, where anglers can take advantage of Michigan’s different mayfly hatches in the spring and trick these fish into eating a fly that looks similar. Anglers can also use spinners, worms and small rapalas with spinning gear. Lake run fish are caught by trolling lures like spoons and body baits behind boats in shallow water.

Click HERE for more information on Michigan Brown Trout!

 

Steelhead Trout

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Steelhead are rainbow trout that travel to the Great Lakes from Michigan rivers to eat baitfish and grow larger in size. Native rainbow trout that stay in the rivers can be targeted using the same techniques as the other stream trout listed above. Steelhead are one of the most sought-after game fish in Michigan, if not the most. Michigan’s steelhead fishery is year round with different strains of these fish available for options. Steelhead are much like salmon in the way that they travel back to the rivers for their annual spawning run.

They do not die after they reproduce so they grow bigger and bigger every year. There are three main runs for steelhead. A large amount of fish follow the salmon up the rivers during the fall to feast on their eggs. These fish then proceed to stay the whole winter in the river until their main spawning run during the spring. The spring is when the largest steelhead run takes place. This is when the majority of the fish return to their native rivers to reproduce.

 

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There is also a summer run strain of steelhead called “skamania” in select rivers throughout the state. Completing a whole year of steelhead fishing options. Other deep, cold inland lakes throughout the state have large rainbow trout that return to the connecting tributaries. Many people consider these fish steelhead as well. During the summer, while fishing in the Great Lakes, boat anglers target them using similar methods for salmon. In the lake, steelhead will crush a spoon in the upper half of the water column and are very acrobatic during the fight. In the river, Steelhead are caught using many different lures and baits. Fly fishermen target these fish using many different techniques including small, natural nymph flies, egg flies, and large streamers. Other fishermen using conventional spinning gear can use worms, spawn, spinners, beads or jigs with wax worms.

Click HERE for more information on Michigan Steelhead Trout!

 

Lake Trout

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Lake Trout are a cold-water species that can be found in all five Great Lakes and cold-water inland lakes. They can be found in shallow water from fall through spring but will travel to deep, cold water in the summer. This species has had its problems in the past due to overharvesting from commercial fishing, invasive sea lamprey, and pollution. Through conservation efforts, lake trout populations are back up. Federal, state and tribal agencies have worked together to conserve this species.

These fish are often found in depths over 100 feet of water and tend to stay close to the bottom. Lake trout will readily take almost any bait, and are typically caught while trolling or jigging. Spoons, plugs and cut bait are commonly used by lake trout anglers. Lake trout are some of the hardest fighting fish in Michigan but require gentle handling. When catch-and-release fishing for lake trout, we encourage anglers to use rubber-coated landing nets, avoid holding the gills of the fish and release a fish as quickly as possible. Lake trout can hybridize with brook trout, creating a hybrid known as a “splake”.

Click HERE for more information on Michigan Lake Trout!

 

Splake

Splake are a hybrid that results from a male brook trout reproducing with a female lake trout. This is rare in the wild but has been successful in state hatcheries. This hybrid cross is stocked throughout the state in both inland lakes as well as Lake Huron and Lake Superior. Splake stocking has been a success because they inhabit shallow water and can be easily caught by anglers. Trolling, casting and jigging are all methods that can catch these fish. In Lake Huron and Lake Superior, splake congregate in gravelly, nearshore areas in the fall and attempt to spawn. Since splake are a hybrid, the offspring is not viable. Splake are silver with white spots most of the year, but will take on other colors in the fall when they get ready to spawn. Mature males will begin to take on the green and red-orange color of a brook trout, and females will remain mostly silvery with a light yellow belly. Due to minimal natural reproduction, stocking these fish is critical in maintaining the fishery.

 

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Salmon

Salmon are native to the Pacific and Atlantic Oceans and were introduced to the Great Lakes in the 1960s when lake trout numbers were decimated due to overfishing and sea lampreys. The Great Lakes are home to three species of Pacific salmon: chinook (king), coho and pink salmon as well as one species of Atlantic salmon. Adult salmon live in the open waters of the Great Lakes most of the year and move into rivers in the fall to spawn. Young salmon will live in the rivers until they reach adolescence and will migrate downstream into the Great Lakes. Once they reach maturity, they will move back into the river to spawn. The Pacific salmon die after they spawn, while Atlantic salmon do not. The state stocks chinook and Atlantic salmon to maintain their populations.

 

Pink Salmon

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Pink Salmon are the smallest of Michigan’s salmon, and probably the least-sought-after salmon species. This is due in part to their small size, but most likely because they are poor table fare. This species can be caught in northern lakes Michigan and Huron as well as Lake Superior. These fish spawn the earliest of the Michigan salmon, beginning in late summer into early fall. The characteristic markings of these fish during the spawning period is pink, green and white splotching and a humped back on males. Most pink salmon are caught as bycatch by salmon anglers targeting the other salmon of Michigan.

Click HERE for more information on Michigan Pink Salmon!

 

Atlantic Salmon

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Atlantic Salmon are a highly sought-after species in Michigan. They are hard fighters and are excellent table fare. Unlike the Pacific salmon, the Atlantic salmon does not usually die after spawning. These fish are stocked at multiple locations across the state, including: St. Mary’s River, Au Sable River, Torch Lake and more. The Lake Superior State University Center for Freshwater Research and Education continues to be instrumental in collecting eggs and milt to produce these fish in hatcheries which supplements natural reproduction. Atlantic salmon are at the top of the bucket list for many anglers!

Click HERE for more information on Michigan Atlantic Salmon!

 

Chinook (King) Salmon

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Chinook or “King” Salmon are the largest of Michigan salmon. These fish grow to as big as 40 pounds in Michigan waters. The name “King” salmon fits this fish well. People from all over the country come to our great state for the annual King salmon run where these magnificent fish travel from the Great Lakes to the connecting tributaries on their annual spawning cycle in the fall. Throughout the summer these fish are the target species in the Great Lakes and are targeted by boat anglers using downriggers while trolling. Kings will take spoons, plugs, flasher/ flies and cut bait. When they do take these lures, hold on because the fight is one of the hardest in the state.

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In late summer and early fall, Kings travel into Michigan rivers to reproduce. This is another way to target these fish. In the rivers, common baits used to catch these fish are plugs, spinners, flies, or spawn (salmon eggs). We remind anglers that it is illegal to snag or foul hook these fish and keep them. Many people claim that these fish do not eat while they are in the rivers, but that is incorrect as they will eat a bait that is presented well to them.  

Click HERE for more information on Michigan King Salmon!

 

Coho Salmon

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Coho Salmon are a great option to target in the Great Lakes. Much like the other salmon, these fish live out in the Lakes for most of their lives until they mature and make their annual run in the surrounding tributaries. Most of the Coho Salmon found in Michigan are stocked by the Platte River Hatchery which specializes in these salmon. This salmon was the one that really started Michigan’s salmon fishery. They were introduced into the Great Lakes in 1966 and since then they have become a popular fish to target.

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During their spawning run, males can turn a magnificent red color that can be spotted for banks of the river. These fish are fun to target because they are so aggressive when they enter the river. While in the river, anglers target Coho’s using big streamer flies, salmon egg imitations, and spinners. Out in the Great Lakes, These fish are caught by trolling lures such as spoons, flasher flies, and plugs. They can also be jigged for when they school up and stage to prepare for their spawning run.

Click HERE for more information on Michigan Coho Salmon!

 

Walleye

Walleyes are a part of the perch family, which makes them excellent table fare. They can be found across the state in both inland waters and Great Lakes. On inland lakes, they tend to be gold in color but instead will be pale grey to white in the Great Lakes. They can easily be identified by a dark spot on the dorsal fin along their back and white tips on the pectoral fins and bottom of the tail.

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Walleyes are a structure-oriented fish that favors rock piles, weed beds and drop-offs. The most popular area to fish walleyes is from Lake Huron south to Lake Erie. This area offers many places to fish for walleye including Saginaw Bay, Saginaw River, St. Clair River, Lake St. Clair, Detroit River and more. Walleyes in these areas live in “big water” most of the year and move into the large rivers in the spring to spawn. The springtime offers the chance to jig walleyes in rivers such as the Saginaw River and Detroit River. The rest of the year, anglers will troll crankbaits, spoons or crawler harnesses in open water. Inland lakes are hit or miss for walleye fishing and generally take time to learn the fishery on each particular lake.

Click HERE for more information on Michigan Walleye!

 

Bass

Michigan has a very healthy population of Smallmouth and Largemouth Bass. Although the quality in size of the species is rather small compared to the southern states, Michigan still brings tourists from all over the nation to fish its waters. Whether you are a recreational angler who views fishing as a source of relaxation, or a tournament angler who views fishing as a source of competition, this State has it all.

 

Smallmouth Bass

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 Some may consider the Smallmouth bass one of the hardest fighting fish per pound. A nickname for these fish are “football’s,” derived from the Smallmouth’s color and shape, brown and round. Smallmouth bass can be found in many lakes throughout all of Michigan. The state of Michigan prides itself on having one of the best Smallmouth bass fisheries in the world. Lake St. Clair is home to one of the healthiest populations of smallmouth bass in the world.

Throughout the warmer months, countless numbers of anglers fish for the species with great success not only in quantity, but in quality as well. Lake St. Clair is not the only place in Michigan that has a healthy population of Smallmouth. Other lakes such as Burt Lake, or Mullet Lake in northern Michigan are also popular destinations for anglers. With fish above the average size, it's hard to beat fishing for this species in Northern Michigan as well.

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Depending on the season, these bass can be found in a variety of different habitats. During the winter months, Smallmouth will hold in deeper areas that have cover. The fish suspend 1-2 feet off the bottom waiting to ambush bait. Moving into the Spring season, the Smallmouth will move up into the flats of lakes in search of easy meals and to prepare for the spawn. Early in the spring, smallmouth are generally not aggressive, but anglers can find the fish slowly rolling a grub style swim bait around mixed gravel and vegetation. As spring starts to set into summer, the Smallmouth bass seem to come alive.

This time of year, anglers can find the fish located on beds which are the areas they make on the bottom to spawn. Being a very territorial fish, any type of bottom-dwelling bait you may use will work to catch the fish. For the remainder of the year, the smallmouth will remain on an active eating pattern mainly being caught on baits such as tube rigs or creature/worm type baits.

Click HERE for more information on Michigan Smallmouth Bass!

 

Largemouth Bass

Largemouth Bass are arguably the most targeted species in the nation. The Largemouth is easily recognizable due to the black lateral line that runs along each side of its body from its gills to the tail. Largemouth come in all different sizes. Juvenile fish tend to weigh in the 0-2 pound range, while adult fish weighs 3+ pounds. When targeting these fish, the main focus should be finding the prey that the bass will be focused during that time of year.

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The main food sources for these fish are crayfish, baitfish, worms, and frogs. Any sort of bait that imitates these will surely provide you with fish. During the months, casting baits around docks, downed trees, submerged vegetation in shallow water, and other structural objects can be key to finding these fish. During the winter months, Largemouth can be found in deeper water on the edges of drop-offs. Largemouth bass do not need a lot of room to roam, even a lot of small ponds will hold quality fish. With all of the public waters the great state of Michigan has to offer, everyone and anyone has the opportunity to go out and try their luck at the Largemouth Bass.

Click HERE for more information on Michigan Largemouth Bass!

Check out these other Michigan fishing resources!

Where to fish? Click HERE

Fishing reports? Click HERE

Best fishing towns? Click HERE

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[ About the Authors ]

Northwest Michigan Outdoors is an outdoor sport and recreation group that celebrates the hunting, fishing and adventuristic lifestyle that the NW corner of Michigan has to offer. It's operated by founders PJ Rapin, Jake Harrison and Nick Littlefield. Follow their adventures on Instagram, @nwmichoutdoors

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