Great Lakes Fishing Guide: The 26 Best Places to Fish

Go big and never go home this year—go fish the Great Lakes

great lakes fishing
Limits of jumbo perch are available in the shadows of Chicago skyscrapers, or you can catch giant lake trout in the remotest of locations around Lake Superior. During the past couple of years, salmon fishing has been phenomenal in lakes Michigan and Ontario; walleye, smallmouth, and steelhead fishing continues to be tremendous on Lake Erie. Lake Huron is a great place for lake trout, whitefish, and walleyes, with steelhead, pink salmon, and Atlantic salmon all showing up at different ports at different times of the year. The bottom line? Whether you trailer your own boat, hire a charter, or fish from the beach or a pier, you’ll find something well worth catching in the Great Lakes. Here’s our guide to the 26 best spots to fish in the Great Lakes. – Lake Superior
– Lake Michigan
– Lake Huron
– Lake Erie
– Lake Ontario
Outdoor Life
Many anglers refer to Superior as Gitche Gumee, the Ojibwe name made famous by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow in his poem about Hiawatha. The moniker means "big water," and is an understated way to refer to this inconceivably enormous freshwater sea that could contain the total volume of the other four lakes combined. Much of this lake remains in its natural, unspoiled state. Fishery managers are highly optimistic that fishing for its well-known lake trout and oft overlooked steelhead, smallmouths, walleyes, muskies, and salmon will be excellent this season.
Target Species: Northern pike and muskies Timing: June and July Tactic: Fish weed beds and long points in Waiska and Izaak Walton bays, both up the St. Marys River toward Lake Superior. Big jerkbaits, spinnerbaits, and bucktails work for casters, while many successful pike anglers anchor or slowly drift with a dead smelt or live sucker below a bobber. Pro Tip: "As summer wears on and the water warms, you'll need to slow troll the deeper weed beds–12- to 18-foot depths," says muskie angler and lure maker Rod Jones. Launch: Charles T. Harvey City Marina; also Bay Mills Casino Shore Fishing: Bay Mills Casino shoreline in protected Waiska Bay. Depending on the time of year, but especially in winter, shorebound anglers here can catch walleyes, northerns, and whitefish.
Target Species: Smallmouth bass Timing: June until ice-up Tactic: The bass season traditionally opens here the first weekend of May and allows anglers–including a large coterie of flyfishermen–to catch and release fish that are on beds until about the first weekend of June. A decades-old regulation allowing bass fishers to keep just one fish of 22 inches or better has created a true trophy fishery. Anglers find fish around rocks and old ore dock pilings, and on large flats. Pro Tip: "Overlooked weed beds are great places to find smallmouths here," says Capt. Jim Hudson of Hudson's On the Spot Guide Service, "especially when sporadic currents make the weeds lie down, which reduces hiding places for perch and minnows and can make smallmouths start to actively feed." Launch: Second Landing and Kreher Park city ramp in Ashland Shore Fishing: The Hot Pond, a discharge from the power plant in Ashland.
Target Species: Lake trout Timing: June to August Tactic: Ferry out kayaks or canoes from Grand Portage, Minn., and cast spoons, spinners, and curlytail jigs at this national park, which is actually a part of Michigan. Paddle-craft casting is best in June, when fish are shallow. Or watch for good-weather days and run a suitable boat the 22 miles from Grand Portage–about 16 miles of it in unprotected open water. Troll spoons near structure for the potential of catching a really big lake trout–and lots of smaller ones. Pro Tip: "It's really not that big a deal to run across if you watch the weather, especially in July," says Capt. Don Szczech, a diehard angler who runs the Grand Portage-Isle Royale Transportation Lines ferry service. "If the weather comes up, you have plenty of places to dock the boat within walking distance of campgrounds. Just check in with the ranger station at Windigo." Launch: Grand Portage Shore Fishing: Anywhere on the big lake; also on any of the inland lakes on the island. There are numerous resorts and cabin rentals in the area with favorable daily and weekly rates, many of which feature their own boat docks.
Target Species: Lake trout Timing: July and August Tactic: Take one of several charter boats out of Marquette, Mich., or buddy up with other suitable craft and make the 40-mile run to this big reef system out in Lake Superior from Big Bay Harbor. Cast spoons and jigs for shallow fish around the Stannard Rock Lighthouse early in the day; hit deeper reefs when the sun gets high. Pro Tip: "You can release those deep fish because it takes so long to bring them up, they're belching bubbles and have had a chance to decompress," says Capt. Mark Martin, a walleye pro and guide who fishes the Rock for fun out of his 21-foot Lund. "I like a 3-ounce Northland bucktail jig tipped with a 4-inch Power Bait twister tail and a sucker fillet." Launch: Big Bay Harbor, northwest of Marquette
copper harbor
Target Species: Splake (brookie/laker hybrid, pictured bottom) Timing: September through November Tactic: Anglers troll stickbaits in depths of 8 to 15 feet around the edges of this remote harbor, nearly the most northerly point in Michigan’s U.P. Pro Tip: “Cast Junior ThunderSticks, X-Raps, and Husky Jerks and retrieve them fast, jerkbait-style, like you’re bass fishing,” says Capt. Larry Smith of Fish On II Charters (906-289-4481). “My favorite color is firetiger. Splake are aggressive and will come a long way for an erratic-acting lure.” Launch: MDNR Launch at Copper Harbor Shore Fishing: Fort Wilkins State Park at Fanny Hoe Creek. Michigan
Fish managers are cautiously optimistic that 2012 will be a second straight year of bigger salmon and trout production, as 2010 saw an outstanding year-class of alewives, the preferred forage. While coldwater species often get top billing, smallmouth bass populations keep increasing and spreading throughout Lake Michigan, fueled by firmly established gobies, a favorite food. Some unheralded species, such as yellow perch, northerns, and carp, are also available at various ports, as are lake trout, a popular target on both the Michigan and Wisconsin sides of the lake.
Target Species: Yellow perch Timing: June and August (season closed in July) Tactic: Control drift with an electric trolling motor or small gas outboard, using locally made Mik Lurch spinners tipped with pieces of crayfish or shrimp, above weed beds in protected waters around Navy Pier and Chicago Harbor–¼-ounce sinkers are usually just right to keep baits about a foot above the weeds. Anchor and cast when you find a concentration of fish. Pro Tip: "Don't get stuck in a pack of boats playing monkey see, monkey do," says Capt. Ralph Steiger of Ralph Steiger Charters. "Move around and try different areas. You're either a hero or a zero when you're perch fishing." Launch: Burnham Harbor or Diversey Harbor; Steiger says you can be ticketed for towing a boat on Lake Shore Drive Shore Fishing: Off Navy Pier, on breakwalls and in harbors, can be especially good in August.
Target Species: Summer-run steelhead Timing: From June to mid-August, when sustained east winds draw cold water near shore. The St. Joseph River is usually too warm for their liking, and the fish stage at its mouth. Tactic: Troll large orange spoons and rattling, shallow-diving crankbaits near pier heads. Fewer is better; once word spreads of the steelies' appearance, lots of boats pack into a small area. Pro Tip: "A Dipsy Diver on either side of the boat, fished on 30-pound-test mono with a 20-pound-test leader to a spoon works great. Let out just 30 feet or so," says Capt. Tim Shaffer of Headhunter Charters. "You need mono because it stretches. Fish hit so hard they'll bust a braided line, sometimes even a wire line." Launch: Michigan DNR Ramp upstream on the river's north side; St. Joseph Municipal Ramp on the south bank Shore Fishing: Fishing with freshly caught live alewives is excellent off piers.
Target Species: King salmon Timing: August Tactic: When fish are in 60 feet or less of water, find cold water, bait, and fish along the shelf out front. Fish cut-face lures such as a Luhr Jensen J-Plug and a Silver Horde Ace Hi, or the locally made Scarpace Plug (which accepts a fillet of herring or alewife). Use large flashers and herring when fish are deeper. Pro Tip: "Follow the fish, which means follow cold water," says Capt. Mark Chmura of Pier Pressure Charters. "Wind and current can move the fish pretty far from day to day. You might catch them in 8 feet of water along the beach, or way deep outside of the shelf, if that's where the colder water is." Launch: Manistee Municipal Marina; South Breakwater Ramp; Seng's Marina Shore Fishing: Piers and break walls offer ample access. Cast glow spoons and deep-diving stickbaits at night.
Target Species: Pike Timing: Late August to November Tactic: Small-boat anglers can troll big stickbaits such as No. 18 Floating Rapalas, or cast spinnerbaits or crankbaits along the protected shipping channel connecting Lake Michigan with the bay of Green Bay. Pro Tip: "For bigger fish–but usually fewer fish–try bottom-rigging big sucker minnows," says Capt. Dale Stroschein of Wacky Walleye Guide Service. "Or trailer up and launch at Rowley's Bay and fish around Washington Island." Launch: Sawyer Park Boat Landing Shore Fishing: Old railroad bridge landfill at the Michigan Street Bridge; Sunset Park.
great lakes fishing
Target Species: Carp Timing: June and July Tactic: Flyfish the massive flats around the 12 islands in the Beaver Island Archipelago for carp patrolling shallow, ultra-clear water. Pro Tip: “Crayfish and goby imitators are the deal,” says Capt. Kevin Morlock of Indigo Guide Service. Launch: Ferry shallow-draft boats and tow vehicles across from Charlevoix
Shore Fishing: The smaller islands are best in July and are only accessible by boat. OL
The crash of alewife populations in Lake Huron less than a decade ago certainly put a hurt on the once terrific chinook salmon fishery, but it's been a boon to populations of walleyes and yellow perch that no longer have to compete with the silver baitfish for food. Shiner numbers have also rebounded, which means bigger perch and walleyes have food to eat. Huron is a top lake trout water and still offers catchable numbers of silver fish–including an outstanding Atlantic salmon fishery–as well as world-class muskie fishing in the North Channel and Georgian Bay.
Target Species: Smallmouth bass Timing: From the season opener in late June through August Tactic: Jerkbaits, spinnerbaits, and tubes up close to shore work as soon as the season opens, but drop-shotting soft-plastic goby imitators in depths of up to 50 feet takes over as the top tactic later in the summer. Pro Tip: "Probably the biggest mistake a lot of bass anglers make is to get too comfortable fishing the shoreline and shallows," says tournament angler Josh Choronzey. "When west winds push warm water in, you've got to move out deep." Launch: Stokes Bay Shore Fishing: Bass fish right at the government dock in Stokes Bay.
Target Species: Mixed-bag salmon, trout, and walleyes Timing: June Tactic: Out of Rogers City, head south toward Swan Bay and Adams Point, targeting water from 45 to 70 feet deep. A spread of standard-size trolling spoons with a metal dodger trailing a Gitzit-style tube lure with silver flake catches lakers and kings; walleyes will hit spoons. On calm days, head offshore into 200 feet of water for steelhead, and concentrate on the top 30 feet of the water column. Pro Tip: "Use planer boards and keep everything away from the boat–our water is gin-clear, which tends to make for wary fish," says Capt. Rick Colonna of TLC Sport Fishing Charter Service. "Don't be afraid to go into shallow water, because the fish often chase shiners up shallow." Launch: Rogers City Shore Fishing: Catch the occasional salmon from shore; cast at night for walleyes at the municipal marina.
Target Species: Atlantic salmon and more Timing: June Tactic: The area has the highest density of Atlantics in the Great Lakes, thanks to an ongoing stocking program by Lake Superior State University. Anglers can head from the marina at DeTour out to 80-foot depths and troll south toward the lighthouse, keeping lures stretched well back behind the boat in the upper 40 feet of water. Pro Tip: "Go fast–even the lakers hit at 4 miles per hour," says Capt. Tony Wolte of Frostbite Charters (616-836-8452), who trailers a 22-foot Crestliner up from southern Michigan each June just to fish for the acrobatic Atlantics. "Use SlideDivers to get your lures well behind the boat. Smaller spoons, such as regular-size Stingers, have worked in the past because the bait has been pretty small that time of year." Launch: DeTour Village Shore Fishing: Smallmouths, pike, and perch can be caught from area docks.
Target Species: Whitefish Timing: June and July Tactic: These deep-water denizens come into 20- to 40-foot depths between these two ports during the lake-fly hatch in early summer. Trollers rely on very small spoons, such as Wolverine Micro Streaks, off downriggers and leadcore line. Pro Tip: "You've got to use light line–anything heavier than a 12-pound fluorocarbon leader and you won't get bit," says Capt. Dan Cruchon of Stormy Chinook Charter. Launch: Either Port Austin or Grindstone City public ramps
Target Species: Walleyes Timing: Last half of May through first half of July Tactic: Troll 20-, 30-, and 40-yard sections of leadcore behind planer boards trailing small spoons around a large piece of structure called The Cigar, about 3 ½ miles east of Linwood, looking for the high and willing walleyes actively feeding higher in the water column. Pro Tip: "The nice thing about a leadcore presentation with spoons is that you can run 2.2 to 2.4 miles per hour looking for active fish," says Capt. Jeff Godi of Michigan-X Charters. "The small Stinger Scorpion spoon in the Plum Crazy pattern is my top choice. Troll with the wind–you get better action on the spoons and it's easier to handle boards out to the side when you're going with the wind." Launch: Linwood Beach Marina Shore Fishing: There are lots of panfish around the marina.
Target Species: Muskies Timing: Fall Tactic: Launch your boat just south of Trans-Canada Highway 17. A recent Ontario Ministry of Natural Resources survey showed a strong muskie population here. Pro Tip: "Where the Serpent River drains into the North Channel, there's good habitat and we found some great muskies," says Arunas Liskauskas, management biologist for the MNR's Northern Great Lakes Management Unit. "I think it's a viable population." Launch: Serpent Harbour
Lake Erie's fish managers are feeling nothing but positive about fishing prospects. An unusually warm, calm, early spring has already produced big walleyes and perch, as well as another remarkable run of steelhead up tributaries–Ontario and the four states that abut Lake Erie stock 2 million steelies a year. "Walleye populations are a bit below historic averages, but we're looking for anglers to have some great fishing this year," says Roger Knight, Lake Erie Fisheries administrator. Knight says he expects perch and smallmouth anglers to do well in 2012, too.
great lakes fishing
Target Species: Walleyes Timing: June Tactic: Troll shallow stickbaits at night 15 to 60 feet behind lighted planer boards along the shoreline in 6 to 18 feet of water. Pro Tip: “On most nights, if you’re not pulling fish, don’t hesitate to move shallower–we’ve caught them in as little as 5 feet of water,” says Capt. Marc Bottone of My Bonnie Charters. “Keep your navigation lights on for safety, but avoid shining too much light in the clear water. Wear a headlamp when netting fish.” Launch: Lorain Municipal Pier Launch Ramp Shore Fishing: Lorain Harbor sea wall at night. OL
Target Species: Steelhead Timing: July through mid-August Tactic: Troll fast in 45- to 65-foot depths within 4 miles of shore with spoons running 20 to 50 feet down. Small Stinger Scorpions and Wolverine Tackle's Streak Juniors and regular-size Warriors all work well. Anglers catch walleyes now, too, especially if they slow down. Pro Tip: "Look for debris on the water and especially for birds–where there are birds feeding, there are almost always steelhead," says Capt. Matt Sell, a Lake Erie and Detroit River walleye guide who takes a busman's holiday to target the silver leapers here. "I go from 3 to 3.5 mph with two downriggers and two Dipsy Divers. My best spoon is the Super Chicken from Warrior, which has a yellow edge and flame pink and black stripes on a copper blank." Launch: Erieau, a couple of hours from the border crossing at Detroit Shore Fishing: Perch and smallmouths are accessible to shore anglers around the harbor.
Target Species: Smallmouth bass Timing: July, August, and October Tactic: Look for isolated main-lake humps and long points in water ranging from 20 to 50 feet deep, many within a mile or two of the launch site in Buffalo. A mapping chip from Navionics or LakeMaster is a good tool. Seneca Shoals and Meyers Reef are popular spots within a few miles of Buffalo. Fall provides better opportunity for bigger fish, but the weather is more iffy. Pro Tip: "Drop-shot soft-plastic goby imitations or drag tubes," says Capt. Terry Jones of First Class Bass Charters. "A key in summertime is current–move close to the Niagara River and you can find a great shallow-water bite on jerkbaits and spinnerbaits." Launch: Buffalo Small Boat Harbor Shore Fishing: Seawalls around the Small Boat Harbor.
Target Species: Smallmouths and perch Timing: July and August Tactic: In July, casting and dragging Gitzit-style tubes in just 6 to nearly 30 feet of water works. Live softshell crayfish are a sure thing; however, they cost $5 a dozen and sheepshead and gobies love them too. It's not unusual to go through $100 worth of soft crays in a day here. Pro Tip: "I like to drift until we contact some fish, then anchor," says Capt. Pete Scheid of Captain Hook Fishing Charters, who takes anglers into Canadian waters from Marblehead, Ohio. "July offers the most stable weather; you can double on smallmouths and perch in August, and if you want to get serious and go after big smallies, come in September and October." Launch: Anglers with boats who want to stay on rustic Pelee Island can ferry across from Leamington, Ontario, or Sandusky, Ohio. Pelee is less than 8 miles from Catawba Point in Ohio.
Target Species: Steelhead Timing: October and November Tactic: Troll small stickbaits and downsized spoons in the upper 10 feet of Presque Isle Bay, which offers protected fishing for small boats. Although steelhead dominate the catch, it's common to hook bass, northerns, and the occasional muskie. Pro Tip: "Look for colored or stained water and bait–you'll see birds dive-bombing on emerald shiners to show you where steelhead are," says Capt. Pete Alex of Vision Quest Sport Fishing. Launch: Chesnut Street Ramp or Presque Isle Park Shore Fishing: There's lots of seawall, pier, and shore access for spoon and spinner flingers.
The smallest Great Lake produces the largest king salmon every year, a fact the New York Department of Environmental Conservation believes can be attributed to planting lower numbers of the voracious chinook and continued spawning success of alewives and other prey fish. The abundance of bait was so high in 2011 that many three-year-old kings weighing 25 pounds or better were caught late in the season, leading to a lot of conjecture among anglers that the lake record of 47 pounds would fall this year. Lots of bait helps other predators grow big, too.
great lakes fishing
Target Species: King salmon Timing: Late June to mid-July Tactic: Target kings over 150 to 400 feet of water (less than 4 miles from shore) with a mixture of flasher/flies and spoons. Keep lures in a 30-foot vertical band, some as much as 20 feet above the thermocline. Pro Tip: “Find the cold-water break down below, where it drops to 39 degrees. Drop one line below it and keep the rest above,” says Capt. Bob Cinelli of Bob Cinelli Sportfishing Charters (716-860-9774). “Parallel shore on your troll–the kings are often in a half-mile-wide band of current.” Midsummer fishing is productive; however, fishing for stud kings continues into the fall, when 40s are common. Launch: Town of Newfane Marina in Olcott Shore Fishing: Pier anglers can catch largemouth bass, panfish, eels, and pike at Eighteen Mile Creek. OL
Target Species: Brown trout Timing: July and August Tactic: Brown trout stack up where the thermocline intersects structure, not far from shore. Troll with downriggers and Dipsy Divers with trailing spoons. Pro Tip: "An array of Stingers and other lightweight trolling spoons fished right at the thermocline and as close to the structure as possible is how we catch 'em," says Capt. Ernie Lantiegne of Fish Doctor Charters. "Be ready to make tight turns along the structure." Launch: Wright's Landing Marina Shore Fishing: The Oswego River holds channel catfish, smallmouths, and walleyes. A cement walkway with railings runs along the west side of the river, offering easy access.
Target Species: Giant walleyes Timing: Late October to December Tactic: Walleyes start migrating into the Bay of Quinte from Lake Ontario in late October, with big ones showing by mid-November. Troll the top 30 feet of water. Walleyes here won't raise a local angler's eyebrows until they are 14 pounds. Top lures include Reef Runners. Pro Tip: "My best lure last season was a Jointed Storm ThunderStick 250 feet behind a planer board, probably running at a 12-foot depth," says Scott Wolcott of Bay of Quinte Charters. "I think a lot of people run lures too deep." Launch: Picton Harbor Shore Fishing: Anglers casting stickbaits at night in Picton Harbor sometimes catch more than daytime trollers do.
Target Species: Browns, steelhead, lakers, salmon, walleyes, and smallmouths Timing: October to December Tactic: Try three-way rigging minnows or banana baits such as Kwikfish and Lindy River Rockers. Pro Tip: "When you're marking bait and seeing a lot of birds feeding, you know you've reached the right spot." says Capt. Frank Campbell of Niagara Region Charter Service. Launch: Fort Niagara State Park; public ramp in Lewiston Shore Fishing: Several access points on the Niagara River allow anglers to target steelhead, lakers, and browns.
Target Species: Muskies Timing: November and December Tactic: Troll large muskie lures to target 50-pound trophies up high in the water column. Pro Tip: "Set downriggers–one at 13 feet, one at 20 feet–with a spread of shallower-running lures on planer boards," says Capt. Bob Walters of Water Wolf Charters. "You'll find fish suspended over 30 to 40 feet of water, and they'll come up to take lures. Don't set them deep." Launch: Clayton Marina