The 16 Best Small-Boat Fishing Spots on the Great Lakes
One of my first kayak forays for Great Lakes salmon put me 2 miles out in Lake Michigan’s Sleeping Bear Bay, too terrified to wet a line. Fortunately, I didn’t dump my 12-foot Hobie Pro Angler until the crashing surf mashed my bow into the sandy beach. Having learned my limitations, I’ve continued to ply Great Lakes waters and cash in on species such as northern pike, smallmouth bass, and salmon.
1. Slate Islands,
Terrace Bay, Ontario
▶ The Slate Islands, on Superior’s north shore, offer summertime kayakers and canoeists a true back-to-nature adventure—along with excellent lake trout fishing. Experienced paddlers can navigate the 7 miles of water to the archipelago from Terrace Bay, Ontario, but many anglers opt to hire Come Castonguay’s Bluebird Charters (bluebirdcharterboat.com) to transport them and their boats to the Slate Islands Provincial Park. Camping permits are available at the Ministry of Natural Resources office in Terrace Bay, and primitive campsites abound on the
islands. Catch lake trout by casting spoons or bucktail jigs into the protected waters between the many islets, and don’t be surprised if a woodland caribou stops by for a visit—the islands are home to Ontario’s largest herd.
2. Madeline Island, Wisconsin
▶ Tim Lesmeister, a Madeline Island summer resident, targets lake trout within a mile of shore by jigging the 60- to 90-foot depths with white, ½-ounce jigs tipped with double Twister Tails. He recommends using a medium-action spinning rod and thin, 8-pound-test Berkley FireLine to feel bites down deep.
“It’s just like icefishing with sonar,” says Lesmeister. “I pedal [a 13-foot Hobie] around until I see a pod of fish, punch in the waypoint, and then hover. I watch the jig down on the sonar screen until it’s just above the fish. It’s great fun to watch a fish come up to the jig and then feel the thump.”
Lesmeister releases lakers bigger than 10 pounds and almost always catches a couple of better-tasting 3- or 4-pounders for the frying pan. If the wind is too much for a small boat on the big lake, anglers head for Big Bay Lagoon on the island for abundant pike, bass, and panfish.
3. Ontonagon, Michigan
▶ Late May into June is just after ice-out on Gitche Gumee, and the southern shore from Duluth, Minnesota, to Sault Ste. Marie, Ontario, offers a wealth of near-shore fishing for trout and salmon. Ontonagon is a tourist-friendly Upper Peninsula town with ample lodging and camping options. Launch at the marina located on the Ontonagon River about a half mile from the lake and troll spoons for brown trout, cohos, lakers, chinooks, and steelhead. Small stickbaits such as Reef Runners and Little Rippers also work.
Jill Johnson at JJ’s Tackle Shack (906-884-2616) can recommend hot color patterns. If Superior shows her rough side, jig for walleyes in the Ontonagon River with nightcrawlers or minnows.
4. Door County, Wisconsin
▶ Summertime in Door County, Wisconsin, is perfect for small-boat fishing. The bays stay loaded with big smallmouths gorging on an abundance of gobies, and the deeper water within just a half mile of shore holds walleyes. Target smallies with drop-shot rigs or tubes; crawler harnesses get the nod for walleyes. Kayak enthusiast Rob Wendel notes that all the bays have kayak launches, and ‘yakkers can almost always find someplace out of the wind and get on the water. Fall fishing in the shipping channel near Strawberry Creek can be outstanding for staging king salmon, too—try trolling Silver Horde Aces High plugs.
“You can pretty much fish Door County all year and catch fish without having to venture very far offshore,” says Wendel.
5. Michigan City, Indiana
▶ Southeastern summer winds blow warm water out and draw cold water—and steelhead—in to southern Lake Michigan. Steelies will stage outside of tributaries—including Burns Ditch and Trail Creek in Indiana, and the St. Joseph River in Michigan—anytime from June through August. All three flowages offer easy access for small boats—and the offshore wind keeps water calm near shore. Troll body baits and spoons or suspend peeled, raw shrimp or nightcrawlers under floats, says Mike McKee of Michigan City. Watch for lines from shore anglers and trolling boats—news that the steelhead are in travels fast in these parts. GLAngler.com is a good website to monitor for news of their appearance—they often are here today, gone tomorrow.
6. Beaver Island, Michigan
▶ Take the ferry from Charlevoix, Michigan, to the town of St. James on Beaver Island, the most developed—yet still rustic—isle on this mid-lake archipelago. The shallow flats and drop-offs around Beaver hold smallmouths all summer, and you’ll find about a dozen places to launch a small boat, according to island resident Jeff Mestelle.
“You can always find a side of the island out of the wind,” he says. The best place for smallies, however, is a substantial paddle or run across open water to Garden and Hog Islands—but use extreme caution. Anglers can also fly over with their gear (freshairaviation.net) and rent a kayak from Happy Paddle (beaverisland.org/happy-paddle). The flats around Beaver are also prime areas for fly anglers sight-fishing for carp. If Lake Michigan is too rough, the island’s inland lakes feature superb fishing for bass, panfish, and stocked walleyes. For more info on lodging, transportation and fishing, go to beaverisland.org
8. Drummond Island, Michigan
▶ The annual mayfly hatch in June and July on the waters off this big, wilderness-covered island at the east end of Michigan’s Upper Peninsula brings herring, whitefish, and ciscoes in from the depths to where anglers can easily target them. Simply light-line a teardrop ice jig baited with a waxworm or mayfly nymph over the side. All three species are excellent fare whether smoked or fried. The glamour fish here, however, are smallmouth bass, accessible to small-boaters along the island’s rocky shoreline. Northern pike and yellow perch are common, and muskies are not unusual. Lodges and campgrounds abound on the island (drummondislandchamber.com).
9. Bruce Peninsula, Ontario
▶ Kevin Carter and his friends frequently pedal their Hobie foot-powered kayaks the 15 minutes from the launch in Inverhuron Provincial Park to the outflows of the Bruce Power nuclear plant. From April until June, salmon are the main drawing card, while rainbow and brown trout garner the attention the rest of the time. Smallmouth bass and walleyes are also available.
“Most of us troll with LiveTarget body baits or Little Cleo spoons in orange and silver or blue and silver,” Carter says. “You can go right into the outflow. The security guys may check you, but there is no boundary in the water.”
10. Harbor Beach, Michigan
▶ When south winds keep nearshore Lake Huron waters calm, Harbor Beach can be the late-spring and early-summer hotspot for cohos, kings, steelhead, and lake trout. It’s mostly a trolling game to cover water and contact fish; ¼-ounce Storm Hot-N-Tots, smaller Rapala Shad Raps, and Berkley Flicker Shads all produce.
If a north wind blows, the inner harbor provides an 800-acre protected fishery that is notable for consistent catches of browns right along the south-facing seawall. Kayakers can slow-troll the wall with stickbaits in natural hues—the floating jointed Rapala J-9 in black and silver is a local favorite for the burly harbor trout. Tackle store Let’s Go Fishing (989-479-0777) provides fishing reports.
11. South Bass Island, Ohio
▶ Take your vehicle and boat across on the ferry from Port Clinton and use South Bass Island and its state park or the village of Put-in-Bay, Ohio, to access Lake Erie’s storied Western Basin walleye fishery. Target species include smallmouth bass, white bass, sheepshead, and yellow perch. Capt. Tom Strauss of Erie Drifter Charters (eriedrifter.com) recommends hitting Rattlesnake Island beginning the last week of May, when thousands of voracious white bass move shallow to spawn.
“Watch for feeding seabirds,” Strauss says, “and cast white jigs with Twister Tails.” Pick up walleyes and more by trolling nearshore drop-offs with spinner harnesses and nightcrawlers or deep-diving stickbaits; or cast and drag jigs tipped with crawlers. Hotspots for smallies are the reefs marked by buoys at the entrance to Put-in-Bay.
12. Long Point Bay, Ontario
▶ The last Saturday in June marks the bass opener on Lake Erie’s Long Point Bay near Port Rowan, Ontario, and offers kayakers and small-boaters protected fishing for bass and pike. Guide Barna Robinson of BAER Kayak Fishing Adventures (baerkayakfishing.com) notes that the area is one of the busiest recreational boating destinations on the Canadian side of the lake. Yet the fishing for largemouth bass in the cattails and reeds that rim the bay can be outstanding. Much of the Inner Bay is a bass sanctuary that’s off-limits to any kind of fishing before the opener; it offers world-class smallmouth fishing, too.
13. Presque Isle Bay, Pennsylvania
▶ Presque Isle Bay and its usually calm-water fall steelhead and brown trout fishery is tucked into Pennsylvania’s relatively tiny tract of the Lake Erie shoreline. Launch in the city of Erie and troll the open water between weed beds. Capt. Pete Alex runs Vision Quest Charters (visionquestfishing.com) and the Great Lakes Tackle Shop (greatlakestackleshop.com) in Erie and recommends smaller Rapalas, Junior Thundersticks, and Dreamweaver Super Slim spoons. Bright pinks and oranges work great for steelies; browns prefer more natural gold and silver patterns.
14. Niagara Bar
▶ Launch at Fort Niagara and ride the Niagara River current out to the fan-shaped Niagara Bar, where gamefish flock to intercept the concentrated food coming downriver from Lake Erie. Guide Capt. Frank Campbell (niagaracharter.com) notes that although the current can be tough to navigate, once paddlers and small-boaters find the eddy effect along the shoreline, it gets easier. Niagara Bar in spring and fall is known for lake trout, with salmon, smallmouths, and walleyes a possibility. Campbell is a fan of dragging three-way rigs with live shiners. For more info, go to niagara-usa.com
15. East Bay, New York
▶ East Bay, near Wolcott, New York, is nearly shut off from Lake Ontario by a barrier beach off North Huron Road, which is right where you can put in with your small craft. May, June, and fall are prime times to target large pike and decent numbers of largemouth bass in the 100-acre bay. Large golden shiners fished a couple of feet below a float and drifted past windfalls and along weed edges can be deadly. For more info, check out tourism
16. Chaumont Bay, New York
▶ Pronounced sha-MO, this bay is often suitably calm for small-boat anglers seeking chunky smallmouth and largemouth bass. Fall is go-time here. Successful anglers target rocky-bottom gaps in weedbeds in 6 to 9 feet of water with jigs and wacky-style worms. Use the state boat ramp east of the town of Chaumont.
Small Boat Safety Measures
In the course of researching this article, all sources stressed safety considerations. Here are some essentials: Along with wearing the requisite life jacket, you should have a waterproof marine radio that floats, a waterproof cell phone box, and a good weather app that shows approaching storms, plus aerial flares, a noisemaker whistle or canned horn, a mirror for signaling, and a smoke-signal flare. A GPS unit will help you find port. And a dry-suit provides some insurance against hypothermia.