Michigan is the “Great Lake” state. And we are a state of Great Lakes—Michigan, Superior, Huron, Erie. All provide incredible fishing; each with its own unique flavor.
But if there is one quintessential angling experience on Michigan’s great lakes, that one type of pursuit that fully captures what Great Lakes angling is to so many, it is the pursuit of big-water salmon and trout. To experience another angling adventure of a similar ilk, you’d need to head for the ocean.
Trolling for coho, Chinook and Atlantic salmon, steelhead and brown trout on the seemingly endless blue of the Great Lakes, well, that’s as pure as Michigan fishing gets. It’s also as accessible as you’d like it to be. Sure, you can invest in a boat up to the task. Rig it with rod holders and downriggers and sonar and twin screws. But you don’t have to.
Michigan’s charter fishing opportunities are vast, affordable and one of the best ways to experience this grand fishery. The state is proud of its charter offerings and nonresident licenses are easily obtained and affordable – you can buy one online in just a few keystrokes.
Here’s a look at a few of the top ports.
LUDINGTON: SALMON CAPITOL
We’ll start with perhaps the most classic of Michigan experiences: A launch out of Ludington.
Ludington is the quintessential shoreline community revered for its beaches, its small town feel and its thriving charter industry. If you can’t find a boat – and some fish – here, you won’t find one anywhere. You don’t last long as a charter captain in Michigan if you can’t put folks on fish and offer a fun experience – there’s simply too much competition around for that to happen.
Ludington boasts one of Michigan’s top catch rates with around nine fish per charter outing according to the Michigan Department of Natural Resources.
Previously, salmon were the primary target species on Lake Michigan. However, over time, catch rates have varied so charter operators have turned to other species, such as lake trout, steelhead and brown trout, to provide more opportunities for anglers.
Trolling is the name of the game here and captains know where the fish are, what they’re eating and how to catch them. Your job is simple: Enjoy the scenery, the ride and reel in fish until your arms are sore.
Best Time To Fish: The prime summer months of June and July offer some of the best mixed-bag fishing in Lake Michigan with salmon, steelhead, lake trout and brown trout available. August moves big salmon a bit closer to shore and can produce banner days.
MARQUETTE: SUPERIOR EXPERIENCE
Lake Superior separates Michigan’s Upper Peninsula from Canada. It’s a vast, deep glacial lake with waters as clear as they are cold. This is the home of the some of the finest lake trout fishing in the world and charters routinely run from Marquette to the famous Stannard Rock area.
Lake Superior lake trout can be caught by trolling, casting or jigging and local charter captains each offer their own personal tactics.
Best Time To Fish: Diehards will hit the Rock early in spring (May and early June) for some of the biggest fish of the year. July and August can produce numbers of fish and still offer a great chance at a giant. Salmon fishing can be excellent as well providing for a unique mixed-bag angling experience.
ST. JOSEPH: SOUTHERN MICHIGAN’S TOP PORT
While many of Michigan’s most popular Great Lakes ports tend to be located in the more northern reaches of the state, St. Joseph is a hot spot located in the southern Lower Peninsula.
Located on Lake Michigan, St. Joseph offers plenty of charter options as well as convenient lodging and launches (if you have your own boat) and top-notch fishing for all Great Lakes species. If St. Joseph has a “calling card” it would be coho and Skamania steelhead.
Best Time To Fish: The salmon fishery turns on in June, July and August with steelhead moving shallow in midsummer, depending on water temperature. The St. Joseph spring fishery for coho is as good as it gets and is an unofficial kickoff for the open-water fishing season on Lake Michigan. In the summer months, Skamania strain steelhead move into shallow waters before heading into rivers to spawn, providing for a unique fishery.
DETOUR: END OF THE PENINSULA
DeTour offers excellent fishing for all Great Lakes salmon and trout species. But what sets DeTour apart is its location and unique experience. Nestled on the eastern tip of the Upper Peninsula and within sight of Drummond Island, DeTour provides easy access to Lake Huron and offers a robust and history-laden charter fishing industry. The port also boasts the ability to provide trips to the St. Mary’s river for Atlantic salmon. Yes, that’s right: Atlantic salmon in Michigan.
This growing fishery has taken center stage as Lake Huron’s fishery has evolved in recent years. There are fewer Chinook and coho salmon available than in previous years, but the Atlantic has proven to be a worthy replacement.
Charters will begin operation as soon as the ice leaves the lakes in April but, keep in mind, this is northern Michigan and the weather can still be plenty cold.
Best Time To Fish: June, July and August produce solid catches and the St. Mary’s River action heats up in late June and continues through August as Atlantic salmon migrate to spawn.
SAUGATUCK: HISTORY AND CHARM
Make no mistake, the fishing off Saugatuck is as good as you’ll find in Lake Michigan. But the allure of Saugatuck doesn’t begin at the water’s edge. This trendy community is a prime example of what Michigan shoreline living is all about. The town has a distinctive feel about it and fishing is woven into the fabric of the place.
Summer salmon charters were once the hot ticket (and still are in some respects), but with the decline in salmon numbers, more captains are refining their lake trout tactics and that fishery is doing well.
The steelhead and brown trout fishing can be exceptional as well and some charters will focus on one species over another if that’s your preference.
Best Time To Fish: Like other Lake Michigan ports, the salmon action begins in May and runs right through September with lakers being taken in cold water throughout the season. But Saugatuck, perhaps more than any other port, is one best visited in the prime of the summer. The town itself comes to life as the weather warms and adds to the angling experience.
CATCH AND COOK
Catching a Great Lakes salmon is a thrill. But eating one? That’s something truly special. No outing should be complete without tasting the fruits of your labor and Michigan has an awesome program to make that an integral part of your fishing experience here.
Through the “Catch and Cook” program, dozens of restaurants in Michigan’s port cities have embraced this love for great-tasting fish.
The program allows you to bring your freshly caught fish to local restaurants to be prepared.
5 MUST-SEE SIGHTS ALONG THE LAKES
Fishing the Great Lakes is a unique adventure; not just because of the vastness of the water or the diversity of the fishery, but because of the lands that surround them. Here are five must-see sights you won’t want to miss.
Mackinac Bridge: The Mighty Mac is the 5th-longest suspension bridge in the world and connects Michigan’s Upper and Lower peninsulas. Measuring nearly five miles in length from ramp to ramp, it passes over the straits of Mackinac, which separate Lake Huron from Lake Michigan.
A drive over the bridge is a must-do and you’ll find the quaint towns of Mackinaw City (Lower Peninsula) and St. Ignace (Upper Peninsula) on either end. Each town is home to excellent restaurants and shopping along with information about the history of the bridge and its location.
If you’re anywhere near the lower half of Michigan’s Lower Peninsula and the “left coast” (Michigan’s west side along Lake Michigan), you aren’t too far from Kalamazoo. This means you aren’t too far from Bell’s Brewery.
If you find yourself there in the summer months, you’ll be there in “Oberon” season – Bell’s excellent summer-only ale.
Bell’s Oberon is a seasonal ale of mythical proportions here in Michigan. You can sample it while visiting the brewery’s Eccentric Cafe or take some home from the General Store.
Big water means big boats. The Great Lakes shipping industry is bigger than many expect, and big boats require special navigational aids.
Michigan’s shorelines are dotted with lighthouses that mark piers and channels for docking ships. Some lighthouses, such as the Ludington’s North Breakwater, are focal points of the port city.
There are too many lighthouses to list here but a shoreline visit simply isn’t complete without a walk down the pier at sunset.
Michigan’s beaches are amongst the best in the world. Visit one and you’ll agree that’s not an overstatement from a proud resident. Finding a Michigan beach isn’t hard – just head for the lakeshore.
Lake Michigan’s beaches generate the most publicity and they are outstanding. Ludington, Holland, Traverse City, St. Joseph, Grand Haven – the list is long and diverse.
The Musical Fountain
Grand Haven sits along Lake Michigan’s shore on the west side of the Lower Peninsula (Grand Haven is a top-notch fishing port as well).
From Memorial Day through Labor Day, the fountain located in the city center becomes an evening gathering place at dusk. Each evening, the fountain becomes a watery display of lights and streams choreographed to music. The free show (yep, free) lasts about 30 minutes.