Lake Michigan Fishing

1965….A Year Which Will Live in Infamy!

It all started back in 1965 when they stocked Lake Michigan with salmon and trout!

There is no doubt, salmon claim the title as the Great Lakes most popular game fish. They are highly respected for their powerful long, line-stripping runs and hook bending strikes, as well as their tasty fillets. Pound for pound, I feel that the King Salmon gives the best fight of any fresh water fish. That includes the over rated Musky. If you are looking for fishing action that is so exciting it’s addictive, then give salmon trolling a try. One glimpse of a thirty -pound Chinook slicing a calm lake surface, or a wild Coho frantically leaping to shake the hook, you will be sold and keep going back for more, again and again. Of all the game fish caught on the Great lakes, the one I like the best is the incredible Skamania Trout! (below)

What’s faster than a speeding bullet,  more powerful than a locomotive and  able to leap tall buildings  in a single bound? Is it a “Super fish”? No, it’s a skamania steelhead Trout, at least if you believe the press it has gotten over the years. Much of what has been published about this “Super Fish”, has been penned by writers who pulled into town, fished a day or two, and pronounced themselves experts…..In no way do I consider myself an expert either, but over the years I’ve learned  a few lessons, a few tricks, and have come to some conclusions of what makes these fish tick and what it takes to put them in the boat. Pound for pound I believe that the skamania  gives the best fight, and  is the most exciting fish to catch on the Great Lakes. I  don’t know of any freshwater fish that fights harder! They make incredible jumps, take more runs and indeed often  fight so hard that by netting time they have exhausted themselves….. Read another article about the great fish!

A Skamania is actually a strain of Rainbow Trout, also known as steelhead Trout. THEY ARE NOT A HYBIRD!

The Great Lakes has two strains of Steelhead – the Michigan winter one’s and the skamania.
Skamania are native to the skamania River in Washington State.
The skamania run the rivers in July, August and September.  They stay in the rivers until spawning takes place in February. The Michigan winter strain runs the rivers during the winter months and spawn in March or April.

These are the other game fish that are caught on the Great Lakes!


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Coho salmon, also know as the silver salmon can be distinguished by the fine dark spots on the back and upper lobe of the tail fin, the long anal fin and gray gums. Coho feed primarily on alewives, smelt, and other small fish. Adult Coho spawn during the fall in riffle areas of streams in reds (nests of gravel) which the females construct. After spawning is completed they die. Normally, Coho have a three year life cycle; however, a few males will return to spawn at two years of age and are known as “jacks”. Occasionally some Coho may live to the age of four; these fish are the 20 pound Coho that are caught infrequently in Lake Michigan. The average mature fall Coho salmon will weight 5 to 6 pounds before spawning. Up to 75% of the salmonoids caught annually in the Illinois portion of Lake Michigan are Coho salmon. Because this species dies after spawning and the recruitment from stream spawning is very limited, an annual stocking program is necessary. In Illinois Coho are reared in an accelerated fashion and in 6 months are stocked as 5-6 inch long fish in the spring. Due to the lack of clean, cool streams salmon do not reproduce in Illinois. Shoreline fishermen are generally successful fishing for this species in the spring, using power lines and pole and line baited with night crawlers, small alewives or strips of large alewives and small spoons. Snagging for mature Coho is permitted in selected locations during the fall months (snagging is illegal in Wisconsin and many other areas, check your local regulations). Trolling offshore in April, May and June is most productive when using spoons, plugs, spinners and flies and squids preceded by dodgers. Even whole alewife and smelt can be successful when trolled. Coho prefer temperatures in the mid-50s F. and generally are found nearer the surface than Chinook. After 60 degrees F. Coho tend to go deeper or lake ware in finding their preferred temperature. Coho may be found in water temperatures from 45 to 60 degrees F., with a peak feeding temperature at 54 degrees F.
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Chinook salmon is also known as the king salmon. It is distinguished by dark spotting on the back and usually on both lobes of the tail, a long anal fin and teeth set in black gums. Chinook feed primarily on fish such as alewives and smelt. Most Chinook have a four-year life span. Mature Chinook spawn similarly to Coho salmon, then die. A portion of a year class of Chinooks may return before the normal four years to spawn. A summary of this behavior and their size at sexual maturity follows.

Age / Composition of ‘Run’ / Average size at Maturity

II / Males mostly / 4 lbs.

III / Males and females / 8 lbs.

IV / Males and females / 15 lbs.

Some Chinook may live longer than 4 years and reach 40 pounds or more. The elusive Chinook is typically found in deep water except when it starts its fall spawning run into rivers and/or harbors. For this reason the bank fishermen’s catch of the Chinook is restricted to early fall, casting with lures and snagging during the latter fall period (check local and state snagging regulations) . The Chinook run usually peaks before the Coho run. The Chinook fishery is maintained by annual stocking because it does not reproduce in adequate numbers in Lake Michigan tributaries. Chinook spend about 6 months in the hatchery until they are stocked as 2-3 inch long fingerlings each spring.  Chinook tend to prefer warm temperatures in the mid-50s and seem to be more light sensitive and harder to catch than coho. Chinook are active in water temperatures from 45 to 60 degrees F. with a peak feeding temperature at 54 degrees F.
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The rainbow trout is distinguished by its white mouth, black spots and entire tail and its 12 or fewer anal fin rays. The rainbow and the steelhead are the same species, differing only in spawning behavior. The rainbow spends its entire life in streams, whereas the steelhead is anadromous in that it migrates to a stream to spawn after living in the ocean or a large lake. Rainbow trout feed on insects and fish. Many spawn in early spring with eggs laid in gravel at the head of a riffle area, but some are fall spawners. Rainbow trout as well as other trout do not normally die after spawning, like Pacific salmon (coho, chinook and pink). Rainbow prefer water temperatures of 55-60 degrees F. They are known as great migrators or wanderers. Some rainbow reach a hefty 16 pounds at age six, although the average rainbow caught averages five pounds. The largest caught to date in Illinois weighed 24 pounds and 13 ounces. May, June, July and August are the best months for boat fishing for rainbow. Bank fishermen catch rainbows in the spring, casting small lures or using bait such as small alewives, nitecrawlers and spawn sacs. Winter fishing for rainbow is good in the power plant warm water discharges and they are occasionally taken while ice fishing in harbor.
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The most distinguishing characteristics of the brown trout include large black and sometimes reddish-orange spots with a pale border on the sides of the fish. These spots are modified when the fish is large.  The food of the adult brown includes terrestrial and aquatic insects, worms, crayfish and fish. Brown trout spawn in late autumn at the gravelly headwaters of streams. They grow rapidly and may live to an age of six years and reach weights of eight to ten pounds. Some may reach 30 pounds in Lake Michigan. Brown trout prefer water temperatures between 55 degrees and 65 degrees F. and are typically found in near shore waters. This wary fish can be taken more readily in early morning and twilight hours. Light line is in order using conventional lures or natural baits. Shore fishing methods are similar to the rainbow trout.

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The lake trout also known as laker, can be distinguished by its white mouth, irregular whitish spots on the back and sides, deeply forked tail and a white leading edge on the lower fins.  The good of adult lake trout consists of fish, insects and small invertebrates. Sexually mature adults weight 6 to 7 pounds at about 6 years of age. Lake trout may live 20 years or longer and attain weights of 30 pounds or more. They are usually found on the bottom between depths of 90 to 250 feet, but may be found at lesser depths when the water temperature is near 48 degrees F. Generally, lake trout are caught only from boats in Illinois. The lake trout in Lake Michigan have been maintained by an annual stocking program since 1965 by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, with hopes of reestablishing a naturally reproducing population. Lake trout disappeared in Lake Michigan in the early 1950s due to the ravages of the sea lamprey and an intensive commercial fishery.  During the spring months, lake trout can be taken in the upper layers of warmer water, but as the season progresses and water temperatures go above 48 degrees F., lake trout are normally taken near the bottom. During the summer months (July-September) they tend to occur near the bottom where temperatures are between 45 and 50 degrees F. During the fall months mature lake trout move into shallow waters and reef areas in search of spawning areas.  Shiny metal spoons are successful lake trout lures when fished properly. Certain salmon lures and flies in combination with a dodger also are effective. Lake trout feed on alewives, smelt, chubs and sculpins.