Lake Michigan Salmon Fishing: Boat And Shore Tactics
Although Lake Michigan salmon fishing for huge king salmon is well known, lake Michigan is also one of the best Great Lakes for coho’s, Atlantic salmon, and even pink salmon. All of these species can be caught from a boat, or from shore and that is what we’re going to discuss.
With the help of our Michigan guides, we will provide tips and tactics to help you get into some of these huge salmon from early spring, through the summer fishing season, and into the fall.
Lake Michigan Salmon Fishing
Salmon fishing in Lake Michigan is good if you target the fish at the right time and at the right location. Guides and local anglers will tell you that dialing in on the salmon and knowing where they will be throughout the seasons is key, this means location plus depth.
When you do that you’ll experience the best of salmon fishing in all of the Great Lakes, and you’ll agree that you cannot beat Lake Michigan for Chinook salmon fishing.
The top two species of salmon species to fish for in Lake Michigan are the chinook salmon which are also known as king salmon, and coho salmon.
Pinks are also available as are a small population of Atlantic salmon.
For Coho salmon fishing they are very active in Lake Michigan where you can find them all year long.
The best location for silver salmon fishing is the Anna River, which drains into Lake Superior, according to the Department of Natural Resources.
The fishing for silver salmon (Coho salmon) in Lake Michigan is still very active with plenty of fish available.
Pink Salmon are usually not a target of anglers in the Great Lakes. These are the smallest of the Pacific Salmon and most are caught as they leave the lakes and head upriver. Lake Superior, Lake Huron, and Lake Michigan are the best places to target pink salmon.
All three species of salmon – Chinook, Coho, and Pink – found in Lake Michigan are the result of stocked salmon species from Pacific Salmon.
Atlantic Salmon – a very small population is found in Lake Michigan. The Department of Natural Resources stocks Atlantic salmon on Lake Huron.
How To Fish Lake Michigan Salmon
There are two ways to target salmon in Lake Michigan. The first is by boat where you can target the lake’s deep waters. You can troll or drift depending on the time of year and water temperature.
You can also fish from shore using a variety of techniques ranging from fly fishing to spin casting -drifting, plunking, tossing flies, and float fishing.
At certain times of the year, both boat and shore anglers will find concentrations of fish near the mouths of the rivers. I’ll get into that more below.
What Species Of Salmon Are In Lake Michigan?
Chinook/King Salmon – The king salmon is the largest of the Pacific salmon and a thrill to fish in Lake Michigan.
The record set on Lake Michigan in 2022 is 40 pounds 4 ounces and thought to be a wild fish. The population of Chinook salmon in Lake Michigan is around 1 million fish.
Their ideal water temperature ranges from 40°F-65°F giving them a lake depth ranging from the surface to about 200 feet deep.
In early May and into July, the kings are deep.
From mid-summer (July) the kings begin to stage to head upstream to spawn. Fish them in shallower water from July to September. They begin their spawning runs in late summer with peak runs in late September and October.
Coho salmon – also known as silver salmon or just silvers, is one of the top targets in Lake Michigan.
Expect a large population of coho salmon as they are available in the lake year-round.
The best water temperatures for silvers are in the 40°F-65°F range. The best fishing for silvers is in early spring near shore and river mouths, late summer as they start to stage near river mouths for spawning, and summer out in the mid-lake. Trolling is one of the best ways to target silver salmon in offshore waters in the spring and late summer.
You can also fish from shore with flies, bait, or lures.
Atlantic Salmon – The ideal water temperature for Atlantic salmon is 40°F-50°F to the 65°F mark too. Cooler water works best for most salmon species.
The cooler water has a richer supply of oxygen and it keeps their body functions slower meaning it burns less fat and fat is what a salmon uses to power its spawning runs.
The record for Atlantic salmon on Lake Michigan is 32.62 pounds. The best time to target Atlantic Salmon is from August into November when they are closer to the river mouths.
Pink Salmon – are not stocked in the lakes though they are present in small numbers. Pink salmon have grown in population.
The best time to target them is in the early fall months. Their ideal water temperature ranges from 40°F-65°F. The northern section of the lake is where you may find pinks.
Hot Spots For Lake Michigan Salmon Fishing
Try these spots in the spring and fall months:
- Muskegon river mouth
- Manistee River mouth
- Grand Haven
- Milwaukee River mouth
- St Joseph River
- Platte Bay
- Sturgeon Bay
- St.Mary’s River to the east
- Upper Peninsula river Mouths
- Most Wisconsin river mouths
When Is the Best Time For Lake Michigan Salmon Fishing
May and June for chinook salmon, plus July and August are good out in the lake. The best time to target coho is anytime with an emphasis on May-June and August and September for lake fishing.
When the water warms in the summer months, which could start in early June, the salmon and trout (steelhead) will move out into the deeper waters of the lake and they will spread out.
They do this in search of cold water and schools of baitfish. At times they can be in 200 feet of water.
But in the later summer, usually around late August, the fish begin to concentrate closer to the river mouths I listed above and the bays. Mid August is when you will start seeing the charter boats getting closer to shore and more anglers on the piers.
Great fishing is just around the corner for the shore and river anglers as these salmon and trout will start their spawning run after each significant rain from early September to late October.
Some salmon will still be in the rivers in November and mixed in with steelhead and big migratory browns. Click the link to learn more.
Which technique you use also depends on the location and where the fish are in the water column.
Boat Fishing Lake Michigan
Trolling is one of the top fishing techniques for early spring and for targeting chinook salmon and coho salmon before they begin to stage for spawning.
Near shore trolling is used as the salmon move toward their spawning runs.
You can also use plunking in shallower water, as well as float fishing, drifting in shallow currents, and fly fishing too.
Lures For Lake Michigan Salmon Fishing
Spoons in silver patterns remain a good tool for salmon fishing on Lake Michigan.
As the fishing season changes and the fish move from deeper waters towards the shallows, the type of fishing techniques you use may also change. Other options include:
- Cut-baits – Cutbaits like herring strips are one of the top trolling setups used by the charter boats.
- Spoons – Shiny spoons cast off the shore can be good but trolling anglers will use flutter spoons and at times these are hard to beat.
- Crankbaits – multi-joint Rapela in bright colors for coho and minnow mimics for chinook.
- Spinners – Near-shore fishing bright greens and silver for coho and silvers, blue and mixed colors for chinook.
- Plugs – Yellows, oranges, and mixed warm tones are a good bet.
DIY Lake Michigan Salmon Fishing
The Size Of The Boat Required?
Lake Michigan can change quickly making it dangerous for smaller boats.
Many sites recommend at least 23-foot boats but the laws and regulations will vary based on which state you are in.
Gear Needed To Fish Salmon From A Boat
For boat fishing, there are some things that you will absolutely need and some things that are not 100% necessary but having them will help you catch Lake Michigan salmon, especially at certain times of the year.
You will need a sonar unit, also known as a fish finder or depth finder. You can go inexpensive at around $200 for a Humminbird Helix 5 Sonar G2 Fish Finder or get into advanced ones for over $1000. For safety and to catch more fish, I prefer a sonar and GPS unit like the Lowrance HDS LIVE 12 Fish Finder
– Fishing rods, reels should be suitable for the methods and for the size and strength of the salmon. Rods are a must-have item and I and other guides prefer longer rods in the 8 to 9’6″ range.
You could fish with a regular spinning rod and reel setup, however, you will likely risk losing more than you catch.
Instead, go with a decent trolling rod that is within your budget, We did the research for you and recommend that you consider these three rods:
- FishUSA Flagship Trolling Rod $79 – $109
- Shimano Talora A Trolling Rod $139 -$179
- Okuma Great Lakes Trolling Combo – $89 – $104
Normally trolling reels with line counters are best however it is not required.
- Shimano Tekota A Levelwind Line Counter Reel
- Okuma Magda Pro DXT Line Counter Reel
- Okuma Magda Pro DXT Line Counter Prespooled Lead Core Reel
Heavy lines of 25 to 30 pounds are what most guys are using.
- Stealthcore® Lead Core
- Maxima Ultragreen 25 to 40 pound
Downriggers and Divers
When trolling, especially when the salmon are deep, Dispy Divers or trolling divers are one way to get your lure to medium depths.
If the salmon are very deep and you want to be exact with your depths I use downriggers.
One or both of these methods are often required to adjust the depth of your lure or bait.
When the salmon are in shallower, lead-core lines, deep diving lures, and Dipsy divers are all you need.
If you are in the market for a downrigger consider these:
- Scotty 1050 Depthmaster Manual Downrigger – Around $200.00
- Cannon Uni-Troll 10 Manual Downrigger – $340.00
- Scotty 2116 High-Performance ProPack Electric Downrigger – Around $830.00
- Cannon Optimum 10 BT Electric Downrigger – $1650.00
Planer boards are a great way to spread out your lines. Check out FishUSA Premium Self-Righting Mini Planer Boards
Guys aslo use flashers to attract the salmon, check out Dreamer and Michigan Stinger 360 Flashers
A large landing net with a long handle is best. I use my Frabil musky net for landing salmon.
Salmon Trolling Lures
It is a good idea to have a variety of lures available so that you can adjust to the fishing situation – deep water, near-shore, trolling, floating, etc.
Most guys troll with trolling spoons, or cut bait rigs, or trolling flies.
- Michigan Stinger Magnum Spoon
- Dreamweaver DW Spoon
- A-TOM-MIK Live Tournament Series Trolling Fly
- GRC Trolling Flies Tournament Series Fly
- GRC Trolling Flies Tournament Series Meat Rigs
- Rapture Trolling Flies Coho Trolling Fly
Trolling snubbers attach between your downrigger cable and your downrigger weight. A trolling snubber will absorb shock, provide electrical insulation, and help prevent snags.
Depth Temperature Gauge
Unfortunately, your fish finder only tells you the water temperature on the surface. That’s why an item like the Fish Hawk X2 Trolling System is a really good tool to help you catch a lot more salmon, especially when they are deep.
Waves and High Water Issues
The lake can be dangerous to boats during a wind event or storm and the wind can pick up quickly and cause 3-foot waves in a short time.
You can expect large waves and choppy water that will toss little boats around and potentially cause them to capsize. Pay attention to wind direction and wind speed. Pay close attention to the weather report and any reports issued by the harbors.
How To Find The Salmon, Locations, and Depths
The fishing reports are one of your best resorts. They are generally a week behind but put out weekly.
You can ask around at the bait shops, harbors, etc.
You can also follow the charter boats discreetly but please keep your distance and DO NOT cut them off, and they should offer you the same respect.
The salmon are spread out in the area so there is no need to be side by side, behind, or in front of a charter boat.
A fish finder or depth finder with temperatures is going to be handy. The fish swim in a range from 40-65°F and that is where you will target chinook salmon and slightly higher for coho – depending on the time of year.
Shallow water fishing is much easier but you are more prone to waves so you will have to watch the fishing but also the water too.
Chinook ranges from shallow water to 200 feet deep so downriggers are often required in the summer months.
Coho salmon are less light-sensitive than chinook and will swim in shallower water.
Watch The Charter Boats To Help Locate Salmon
To successfully catch salmon on Lake Michigan you need to know where the salmon are and what depth they are swimming.
Each species of salmon will most likely be in a different position on the lake – North, East, South, and West.
Because the water temperature is not static throughout the lake, the fish will move based on temperatures and baitfish locations.
Salmon will also concentrate in different locations when it nears their time for their annual salmon run.
Charter boats are one of the best bets for finding salmon without doing all the hard work. They likely already know where the fish are and at what depth.
If you see the charter boats in close you know the salmon are there. But, if the charter boats are 20 miles out, the salmon are out there.
What Methods Are Best For DIY
Fishing from shore is the safest and easiest for most anglers. You don’t have to incur the cost of a boat, insurance, and all the gear.
You are more likely to have greater access to fishing locations by fishing from shore, but a boat can also be a boon for times when trolling is the best method of fishing.
Plunking, float fishing, and drifting are three methods you can use from a boat or from shore.
Charter Boat Salmon Fishing
A charter boat salmon fishing trip IS one of the best ways to target salmon on Lake Michigan.
The charter captains will already know the lake and the seasonal patterns of the salmon.
They will be dialed into the local news and fish reports so that they can successfully deliver you to the best fishing waters on the given week when you charter.
A big plus of charter boat fishing trips is that they supply the gear. All you need to do is show up with your license.
They are going to help you rig and manage the fishing gear, provide the bait, etc.
A charter boat might seem expensive, but in the wider view of what you are doing, they save you a lot of time and often put you right where the fish are.
- Fire Plug Charters is our preferred and recommend Charter service but book your charter early as they are award-winning and they get booked up fast.
Other Charter Services:
- Windy City Salmon Fishing Charters – Waukegan, IL – Chinook Salmon and trout fishing trips.
- Coldwater Charters – Joseph, MI -Salmon, Trout, and Perch
- Silver King Charter – Milwaukee, WI – Chinook, Coho, and Trout
- Action Charters – Muskegon, MI – Salmon, Steelhead, and Trout
- Deep V Sportfishing Charter – Holland, MI – Salmon, Lake Trout, Steelhead.
Fishing Lake Michigan Salmon From Shore: Baits and Methods
Mid-summer and into the fall are the prime shore fishing months for salmon. Late July and August and September are best for Chinook and late August, September, and October for Coho.
During these times the fish are staged near their native creeks and rivers. From the lake, you want to fish near where the rivers empty into the lake.
That may include the entire bay or shallow waters. Look for holes near the shore where the fish will rest.
The best methods will vary depending on what the fish are doing.
Plunking: Plunking is a still fishing method used on the west coast and on the great lakes. It can be used in the rivers or in the lake. Live bait like a minnow and organic baits like spawn bags and skein are go-to baits. See Plunking Method For Salmon.
Float Fishing: Float Fishing is also good when you want to keep the bait or lure off the bottom. In deeper water use a slip float and just enough weight to get the bait close to the bottom. Normally you want to be 3 to 10 feet off the bottom. Baits like spawn bags, minnows, beads, flies, and skein are go-to baits. See Float Fishing For Salmon.
Drift Fishing: Drifting Fishing is good at the river mouths, especially ones with significant current is a good option when you want to move your bait through the current and cover a lot of water. Salmon are aggressive feeders and drifting your bait along a current is a good way to antagonize them to strike. Live baits like roe bags, minnows, beads, flies, and skein are go-to baits. See: Drift Fishing For Salmon and Steelhead
Fly Fishing: Fly fishing is good also in these current areas. Wet flies, spey flies, and streamer flies are options and a way to target fish throughout the water column. Egg pattern flies and leeches are good for flies as are bright and flashy streamers. See Fly Fishing For Salmon.
Salmon will rise out of a hole to strike a fly or bait near the surface especially early and late in the day. It’s not uncommon to see big kings rolling on the surface at dusk.
Lure Fishing – Leave the light tackle at home and break out the heavier and longer rods. A long casting rod will improve distance and be able to handle these massive salmon. spend time fishing spoons, spinners, and plugs. Aim for brighter colors and silver tones. See Lure Fishing For Salmon
Guide Tip: In some areas, multiple lines are permitted but check the fishing regulations for each state first.
Is There A Salmon Fishing Season?
You can catch salmon legally all year long on Lake Michigan in the state of Michigan. The surrounding rivers may have an open and close date based on the river and fish.
Lake Michigan is part of the state of Michigan, Wisconsin, and Illinois.
Depending on where you fish, there may or may not be an official salmon season. It is best to always check the regulations issued by the state in which you are fishing.
Licenses and/or Salmon Stamps?
Michigan does not require a salmon stamp, but the States of Wisconsin and Illinois have salmon stamps.
Incidental Catches: Steelhead, Brown Trout, Lake Trout.
Lake Michigan is full of fish and other species can be caught while salmon fishing.
In addition, salmon anglers hook up with steelhead and migratory brown trout, lake trout, rainbow trout, drum, carp, and other species like pike or bass.
Trout and salmon are related and there is a natural cycle that revolves around the salmon lifecycle. Trout will follow salmon to feed on roe and it’s not uncommon to find them close together in early September and early spring.
But in Lake Michigan, salmon, and trout compete for resources and in the summer months the steelhead will often be higher in the water column than the salmon. If you want to catch a steelhead or two run one line higher.
The southern section of the lake is home to pristine brown trout fisheries making targeting big browns an option while salmon fishing.
Lake trout and rainbow trout like water that is cold – 40-55°F. You may find them in the same spot as you would chinook salmon in the spring and near-shore in the late summer and fall as they prepare to spawn.
Seek out reefs and underwater structures near shore to target these big trout from shore or a boat.
Special thanks to Alex from FirePlug Charters and John from Get Bent Guide Service.
Lake Michigan Salmon Fishing Seasons
This is a breakdown of what you can expect in each season on Lake Michigan
Lake Michigan Salmon Fishing In Spring
Early spring is generally a slower time for salmon fishing in the lake. You can still be successful if you can locate the fish and their depth in the water. In some areas, the king salmon will be concentrated
May is generally the time the king salmon are in deep water on the lake. May and June are prime coho salmon months on the lake. While the Kings are deep, the cohos are shallow and they begin to stage in last summer for their annual spawning.
For big kings, May and June are a perfect time for charter boats and deep water fishing – 100-200 feet of water. The season lasts through June.
For Coho fishing head to the eastern side of the lake near the ports of St. Joseph and New Buffalo and other lake access to coho rivers. Near-shore trolling is a good tactic for coho.
Crankbaits and artificial minnows are good as are spoons with a target higher in the water. Shore fishing for Coho is good in May and June and early summer in bays and near the river entrances. in-shore charters are a good indication of cohos in the bays.
- Early summer Lake Michigan fishing is all about trolling in deep water for Chinook. Spoons are a good bet with a setup to get you into the 100-200 foot depths (downriggers and planer boards.) Towards July the king salmon begin to segregate and move towards their spawning rivers. This can be an excellent opportunity to target salmon staging and feeding near the mouth or rivers and in the lake’s bays. In August the coho salmon also begin to move into the bays and waters around their home rivers to prepare to spawn. July and August are two of the most active months to target salmon on Lake Michigan and for coho salmon, that season can extend into September and October.
- Fall – Most of the action is in the rivers but the lake is still well stocked with second and third-year fish. Fall spawning season for Coho begins around August, though it can stretch later into the fall also. That means surface fishing in the shallower parts of the lake is a good bet. Target areas near the coho rivers as these aggressive fish stage to head upstream to spawn. Fishing techniques include fly fishing, plunking, sight fishing, drifting, and floats. Trolling is also active for both coho and chinook salmon. By fall the chinook salmon runs are in the river and the yearly pressure for river fishing is high. That’s an excellent opportunity to target second-year and older fish in the lake. Charters are the best bet for fall fishing coho salmon, though you can fish from shore in the fall for coho.
- Winter – There are salmon in Lake Michigan all year long. The deal with targeting them in winter is to know the depth of water where they swim. That is a moving target and the water temperature changes seasonally. In winter, the lake is all about ice fishing. You can catch anything in winter that you can in summer even salmon. Where they are? That will change based on the water temperature.
Lake Michigan Salmon Fishing Summary
In spring fish them close to shore, in the summer months consider charter fishing or boat fishing, in the late summer focus on the bigger river mouths like the Muskegon River, St Joseph, and the Manistee River.