Great Lakes Salmon Fishing

Great Lakes Salmon Fishing

Great Lakes salmon fishing

This article will thoroughly cover Great Lakes salmon fishing. While walleye, smallmouth bass, and trout are very popular species, many anglers consider salmon to be the ultimate prize. The tackle, tactics, and techniques used by top professional and recreational anglers will be shared in this post.

Salmon were introduced into the Great Lakes as early as the 1800s. The fishery has certainly had its ups and downs over time. However, salmon stocks are steady and doing well currently. It is important for anglers to properly identify each salmon species as well as understanding the current regulations where he or she is fishing.

These regulations vary by region. It is also import to properly identify trout and salmon species.Β  Here is a link to help.

Chinook salmon in the Great Lakes

Great Lakes salmon fishing

The Chinook salmon, also known as king salmon, is the largest species of salmon that anglers will find in the Great Lakes fishery. They were introduced in the 1800s but failed. However, they were successfully reintroduced in the mid-60s and are currently doing well. Male Chinook salmon usually live for a couple of years and females from 3-4 years. Mature female Chinook are obviously larger.

Chinook salmon make their spawning runs up tributary rivers in late summer and into fall. By mid October, the run is pretty much over and the fish have turned quite dark. This is quite similar to the way Chinook salmon on the West Coast behave. Mature Chinook salmon in the Great Lakes average 8-10 pounds with 30 pounds being a nice fish!

Coho salmon are popular as well

salmon fishing

Coho salmon are the next largest species of salmon found in the Great Lakes fishery. They were introduced in the late 60’s as well. The Coho salmon are mostly responsible for the popularity of salmon fishing in this region. Early in the year, Coho salmon can be caught by anglers fishing from shore. In the summer, they move out deeper.

Coho salmon follow a similar spawning migration to the Chinook salmon. In most cases, anglers will encounter more Chinook in rivers than Coho salmon. An average Coho will weigh 8 pounds with 20 pounds being a nice fish.

Great Lakes pink salmon

pink salmon

Pink salmon are the smallest of the Pacific salmon, averaging 3-5 pounds. They established themselves in Lake Huron in the 1950s. Pink salmon are the are most numerous in Lake Huron tributaries, with the Carp River and the St. Mary’s River being top spots.

Pink salmon ordinarily spawn every two years. However, enough one year old and three year old salmon spawn, resulting in fish being found in the rivers every season.

Atlantic salmon

Atlantic salmon are renowned for their fighting abilities. They pull very hard and often leap high out of the water. While they can be caught in the open water, most anglers target them in fast-moving rivers from early fall into winter.

Great Lakes salmon fishing tackle

Anglers fishing for salmon in the Great Lakes will require vastly different tackle, depending on the type of water they are fishing and the size of the fish being targeted. Trolling with conventional tackle is by far the most productive technique in the open waters. Anglers fishing the Great Lakes from shore most often use spinning tackle, however light conventional tackle can be used as well.

salmon fishing in Great Lakes

Once the salmon move into tributary rivers and streams, spinning and fly tackle are predominantly used. In the larger rivers with deeper holes and pools, some anglers do use conventional tackle control and present natural bait.

Trolling tackle for salmon in the Great Lakes

trolling with downriggers

As mentioned above, the vast majority of salmon caught by anglers fishing in the Great Lakes is done so by trolling. While the active trolling is simply driving the boat along at slow speeds while pulling lures or cut baits behind, it is much more complicated than that. Speed and depth control are extremely important. Trolling multiple lines at various depths and lengths behind the boat takes practice, particularly on a breezy, choppy day.

Conventional outfits are best suited for this type of fishing. Casting is not required, as the lines are simply let out behind the boat. Conventional reels hold a lot of line and reels most often used for salmon trolling have line counters on them. The rods are often a bit longer and limber. This allows them to absorb the shock when a big fish hits.

walleye trolling rods

Fortunately, several manufacturers offer gear specifically designed for this type of fishing. Diawa in particular has an affordably priced line of gear called β€œAccudepth” in which the reels have line counters on them. This allows anglers to know exactly how far back behind the boat their presentations are. This is invaluable and both repeating a strike as well as keeping lines from tangling.

Diawa also manufactures a line of rods specifically designed for Great Lakes trolling which match up well with their reels. Anglers have other choices when it comes to manufacturers as well.

Spinning tackle has a place for salmon fishing

Spinning tackle is the best choice for anglers casting lures or baits. This is true whether fishing from the shore and casting into one of the Great Lakes as well as fishing streams and rivers. Anglers can use spinning tackle when fishing for salmon in the Great Lakes from a boat, though it is not the best choice for trolling.

top freshwater fish species

There is no one size spinning outfit that works best for all applications. Salmon vary widely in size and anglers need to match the tackle to the size of the fish being pursued and the environment in which they are doing so. Anglers chasing smaller salmon in the 5 pound range will do fine with a 7 foot medium action rod paired with a 3000 series reel Spooled with 8 pound to 10 pound test line. Obviously, anglers chasing larger fish and big, fast-moving rivers will need to bump up the tackle size significantly.

Great Lakes salmon fishing techniques

There are a variety of productive techniques that anglers Great Lakes salmon fishing can use to be successful. Often times that decision is made based on the time of the season being fished. Early in the year, anglers can catch salmon from the shores of several of the Great Lakes. By summer, just about all of the fish have moved out into open waters, seeking cooler temperatures. By early fall, many fish have moved into the tributary rivers and streams to spawn.

Great Lakes salmon fishing

Trolling is the most effective technique for catching salmon in the Great Lakes

Trolling is an extremely productive technique when salmon fishing in the Great Lakes. It is an efficient way to fish as anglers can present multiple baits at multiple depths while covering a lot of water in search of fish. However, it is a technical method that requires anglers to constantly adjust lines and pay attention to factors such as speed, wind, and current.

There are several different ways in which an angler can get his or her lures and baits down into the water column. These include flatlining, sinkers, downriggers, planers, and lead core lines. All have advantages and disadvantages in situations where one is a better choice than the other.


The easiest trolling method when fishing for salmon and other species is flatlining. This is simply tying on the lure or bait and letting it out behind the boat while it is slowly moved forward. Diving plugs are most often used with this technique. Plugs come in a wide assortment of sizes, shapes, and colors. The bill on the front of the plug will determine the depth that which it will dive, along with the diameter of the fishing line.

Great Lakes salmon fishing

Trolling with diving plugs is fairly easy and works best early and late in the season when salmon are shallow. The maximum depth that most trolling plugs will reach is around 30 feet deep. Therefore, when salmon are staged in deeper water off shore, the plugs will not reach the required depth. Successful anglers use different plugs at different depths to determine where salmon are feeding that day.

Using trolling sinkers to get down in the water column

Sinkers are another fairly easy method that anglers can use to get there offerings down into the water column. Weights can be added right to the line using clips. This method is advantageous in that anglers can quickly and easily changed the way to adjust to the current conditions. In-line sinkers are also used, they are not as easily changed. Trolling sinkers work very well when fishing for salmon with spoons.

Trolling with planers

Planers are clever devices that will dig down into the water and present a lure or bait at a determined depth. This depth is determined by the shape of the planer and the position where it is clipped on. The most often used planer in the Great Lakes region is the venerable Dipsey Diver. When a fish strikes, the clip is pulled loose and the fish can be fought without the resistance of the planer.

Trolling with downriggers

Downriggers were basically invented by anglers fishing the Great Lakes for salmon, steelhead, and lake trout. They consist of a real and a small arm with a cable that has a heavy lead ball at the end. The downrigger ball is lowered to the desired depth. It has a clip on it which will release the line when a fish strikes. Downriggers are the mainstay of serious Great Lakes anglers. They come in both manual and electric versions.

lead core lines are another trolling option

Lead core lines are the final method used by Great Lakes anglers when trolling. As the name implies, these are plastic fishing line with a lead core center. The depth is determined by the number of sections of lead core line used. This can be a bit cumbersome, especially for the novice angler and requires care to keep the line from twisting. However it is an excellent method that should be in every Great Lakes anglers repertoire.

Trolling for salmon in the Great Lakes

As mentioned above, one of the great advantages of trolling is the ability for anglers to cover a lot of water in a short period of time in search of fish. However, that does not mean that anglers should simply fish anywhere and hope for the best. There are several factors which will help increase the odds of success.

Reliable, current fishing reports are invaluable! These can come from online forms, reports from charter boat captains, bait shops, radio chatter, and more. When the bite is on, it is usually hard to keep it a secret.

Locating forage fish is another extremely important element when trolling for salmon in the Great Lakes. In fact, it may be the most important component of all. Fish that large are usually not very far from their food source. A quality sonar unit and the ability to read it are invaluable tools for any angler trolling in open water.

Locating structure can be the key to trolling success

Structure is another component that anglers need to take into account. In the Great Lakes, this mostly consists of rocky bottom and ledges. These areas of structure and an otherwise featureless bottom will attract both bait fish and game fish. Most of these areas are already known and the GPS numbers can be found in a variety of locations.

In the summer time, large bodies of water stratify. This means that they separate themselves into layers based on water temperature. The spot where transitions is called the thermocline. Locating this can be crucial when trolling for salmon in the summer time. Experienced anglers will easily see this on a quality bottom machine.

Setting up the trolling spread is important

Properly putting out the lines, also known as setting up the spread, is an extremely important aspect when trolling for salmon and other species. Much of what it takes to be successful will only be learned from experience. However, the following information will help novice anglers get started.

River salmon fishing in the Great Lakes

Every fall, Chinook and coho salmon leave the large open lakes and head to the tributary rivers to spawn. This is true for both stocks fish and naturally reproducing salmon. All five of the Great Lakes see some type of salmon spawning run. However, the majority of fish come from Lake Michigan. The Muskegon River sees the bulk of these salmon. While there are some coho salmon, Chinook salmon are the majority of fish that will run up into the river.

Salmon start showing up in the Great Lakes tributary rivers as early as late August. However, the bigger pushes of fish will be seen and late September through mid November. October is the prime time to fish for salmon in the Great Lakes rivers.

Fish will stage in the deeper poles while waiting to move up river. This is the best time to catch them. The further along in the spawning process that the fish are, the more difficult they are to catch. In reality, salmon are not interested in feeding at all once they move into the rivers.

River salmon fishing tackle

These freshwater trophies are caught by anglers using conventional tackle, spinning tackle, and fly tackle. Many anglers consider Chinook, or king, salmon caught on a fly rod to be the ultimate sport. 8wt to 10wt rods are used as these are large fish that are often hooked in swift currents. Leader tippets of 10 pound to 12 pound test are most often used. Spey rods are an excellent choice as well.

Anglers using both spinning and conventional tackle will do best with a medium heavy rods around 8 feet long with a matching reel. This will allow for long casts and the ability to fight a heavy fish in a swift current. Eggs and Rose Sachs are often used. Anglers casting artificial lures do best with large spinners and medium-sized plugs.

Salmon fishing in the Great Lakes

All five of the Great Lakes offer salmon fishing. Each lake is a bit different as far as species and options. The five lakes will be covered individually with species, best times, and ports.

Lake Michigan salmon fishing

Anglers start catching Chinooks (king salmon) by the first of July and the bite remains steady through August when they move to the river mouths. Coho salmon then become fairly numerous.

Lake Michigan is the second largest of the Great Lakes. It is entirely in the United States, unlike the other four. Lake Michigan borders Michigan, Indiana, Wisconsin, and Illinois. Changes in forage have resulted in a decline in salmon fishing, but hopefully it will rebound.

Top Lake Michigan ports

St. Ignace

This town is located on the southern tip of the upper peninsula. It is the primary point to access both the upper and lower peninsula. Many consider this area, which is close to Mackinac Island, to have the best salmon fishing in Michigan.


This town lies on Little Bay de Noc. The Escanaba River enters Lake Michigan at this location.


This is another town on the upper peninsula with a river (the Manistique River) entering Lake Michigan. Many anglers consider it the best spot to catch a trophy Chinook salmon.

Traverse City

This is a popular town on the lower peninsula that offers anglers easy access to Lake Michigan. It is an excellent family destination with good fishing for salmon and other species.


Ludington is on the western section of the lower peninsula. It has a variety of fishing opportunities that attract a lot of tourists. Salmon and steelhead fishing is very popular and productive in the fall and winter. This is a great area for anglers without a boat to catch salmon from piers and the shore.

Lake Superior salmon fishing

Lake Superior is the largest lake in North America. It is on the borders on Ontario, Michigan, Wisconsin, and Minnesota. Over 22 rivers empty into Lake Superior. It is very deep, often quite close to shore. Lake Superior offers excellent fishing for salmon. King, Coho, and Atlantic salmon were stocked in Lake Superior over the last few decades.

Salmon fishing is good in May through mid June. At that point, the water warms up and salmon and other species scatter out. They will relate to the forage, especially herring. Fish may move closer to shore late in summer if the bait fish migrate there. In fall, salmon will gang up at the mouths of feeder streams and rivers.

Sault Ste. Marie

Sault Ste. Marie is a port town is on the northeastern end of Michigan’s upper peninsula. It is right along the border of the United states and Canada. It is the second most populous city on the upper peninsula.

Lake Ontario salmon fishing

As with the other Great Lakes, salmon fishing in Lake Ontario really gets going mod summer. As fall approaches, the fish migrate towards the streams and rivers to spawn.

Lake Huron salmon fishing

Lake Huron has seen a decline in salmon fishing of late, mostly due to the invasive zebra mussels. Still, recovers efforts are underway with stocking and other strategies.

Lake Erie salmon fishing

Lake Erie is not noted as a great salmon fishery, walleye are the primary target of anglers. Most of the salmon caught in Lake Erie are done so in the Eastern Basin area as the fish stage before moving into the rivers. Chinook, Coho, and pink salmon are available, though they are not prolific and can be challenging. Pink salmon can be fairly numerous in the tributaries. The Mountain is the top spot in late summer before the fish move up to the rivers.

In conclusion, this article on Great Lakes salmon fishing will help anglers catch more of these terrific game fish!

Jim Klopfer

Capt Jim Klopfer has been a fishing guide in Sarasota, Florida since 1991. He grew up in Maryland, fishing the Chesapeake Bay waters. Capt Jim has been creating an writing articles about fishing for decades, contributing to many regional and national publications. He also lives part time in the North Carolina mountains where he fishes for trout and other species. Capt Jim Klopfer is a wel rounded angler with 50 years fishing experience, and he loves to share what he has learned with other anglers!

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