July 27, 2021
The Great Lakes in some ways represent the Holy Grail for many freshwater anglers. They are the biggest waters most will fish aside from forays into the salt.
The four Great Lakes falling within the Midwest Region—Superior, Michigan, Huron and Erie—cover a combined surface area of more than 87,000 square miles. In other words, these four bodies of water put together are larger than most states (80 percent, in fact).
That's a ton of water for anglers to explore and, by extension, almost countless fishing opportunities to pursue. Even more impressive than their sheer size, however, is the multitude of species that call these four vast lakes home.
Whether your passion is big, football-shaped smallies, streaking salmonids, enormous lakers, monster muskies, jumbo perch or trophy-sized walleyes, the Midwest's Great Lakes have something to offer.
Truthfully, there are more opportunities available than can be discussed here. However, if you want hot summer action during on a variety of key species in several states, consider the following five prospects to make the most of your summer fishing.
1. Sturgeon Bay, Wisconsin
If you're looking for really big salmon, head to Sturgeon Bay in northeastern Wisconsin. This port is a traditional hot spot for trophy-sized chinooks (aka kings) in June and July. In fact, the Wisconsin state record chinook salmon—a behemoth weighing just shy of 45 pounds—was caught out of Sturgeon Bay on July 19, 1994.
Salmon fishing out of Sturgeon Bay requires a boat capable of handling wind, waves and poor weather, as the most productive fishing grounds are located 5 miles offshore. Lake Michigan can be treacherous, so if you don’t have a suitable boat, consider hiring one of the area’s many charter captains.
Most offshore anglers head for "The Bank." This famous underwater reef is actually a sharp drop-off where the depth plunges from 60 feet down to 150 feet in places. This steep, submerged cliff creates underwater currents that attract schools of baitfish and the larger salmon that prey on them.
Trollers searching for big chinooks work the edge of this reef in a long procession of boats, utilizing downriggers and Dipsy Divers to get lures down into the strike zone. Set the downriggers at 60 feet for a starting point, then experiment to get dialed into the bite. Top baits are large dodgers and flashers paired with large tinsel flies or meat rigs.
Chinook salmon caught along The Bank in early summer usually tip the scales at 15 to 20 pounds, but plenty of fish brought to the marinas weigh more than 25 pounds. The Sturgeon Bay area is also one of the best spots on the Great Lakes for producing chinook salmon weighing 30-plus pounds. The largest king Tamble brought in last year weighed 33 pounds.
Travel Tips: If you're looking for a chinook salmon charter captain, consider Capt. Alex Tamble of Sturgeon Bay Outdoors (sturgeonbayoutdoors.com) and Captain Dean Gordon of Hooked Up Sportfishing Charters (hookedupsportfishingcharters.com). After a long day on the water, a visit to Door County Fire Company bar and grill is always a good idea when fishing out of this popular salmon port.
2. Saginaw Bay, Michigan
Lake Huron hosts a fantastic walleye fishery, and one of the best places to pursue old marble eyes is Saginaw Bay. From the mouth of the Saginaw River at Bay City up to Tawas on the western side, and select spots as far north as Port Austin on the east side, fishing for walleyes on Saginaw Bay should be excellent this summer.
Captain Lance Valentine from Flint, Mich., runs one of Saginaw Bay's most successful walleye fishing charter operations (lancevalentine.com), and he's on the water all season long.
"Some of my favorite summertime fishing spots are in the shallow weeds of the inner bay, targeting eater walleyes around 2 to 3 pounds," Valentine says. "However, when I look for trophy-sized fish, I head north."
After the big walleyes spawn in the Saginaw River in early spring, they usually go north into the deeper waters, or what’s considered the "outer bay." Valentine suggests this starts north of an imaginary line connecting Au Gres on the west side of the bay and Caseville on the east side. He says fish often hang out near Au Gres, Oscoda and Tawas, although some also head way east around the "Thumb."
"In the past 10 years or so," Valentine says, "trophy walleye fishing on Saginaw Bay has seemed to move from an open-water trolling bite to a structure bite focusing mostly on deeper, hard-bottomed areas."
Specifically, Valentine likes areas of hard bottom connected to the shoreline, but with deep water accessible nearby. He believes these larger sections of structure attached to shore are much more productive than humps off by themselves. This bite extends up the west side of the lake from Au Gres to Harrisville. He suspects the large amount of gobies, which prefer living on rocky bottoms, has driven this change to some extent.
Whatever the reason for their positioning, this is a different kind of fishing that requires patience and some electronics know-how. Valentine typically uses side-scan sonar to find small groups of fish on defined spots. He has his clients cast until they get one or two bites, then repeat until they find another fish or two.
Casting tends to work better than trolling here.
"Casting swim jigs with large plastics is my preferred presentation," Valentine says. "You can fish swim jigs shallow like crankbaits or jig them on the bottom. Most of the fishing is in water 5 to 25 feet deep with 18 to 22 feet probably being the best."
Anglers fishing the outer bay for trophy walleyes shouldn’t expect to limit out on 10-pounders. But the fishing is still quite good. Valentine says that on a typical day when targeting big ’eyes, two clients can catch 12 to 15 fish averaging 23 to 25 inches, or roughly 4 to 5 pounds, with a few over 28 inches, or 7 to 9 pounds. This is serious fishing, though. If your goal is simply a limit of eaters, stick with the shallow bite.
Travel Tips: Anglers planning to fish the outer bay can launch their boats at the Au Gres DNR ramp, the Tawas Bay DNR ramp or the Alpena DNR ramp. Stop at M65 Baitshop (989-646-2444) on S. Main Street in Au Gres for tackle and current fishing reports. A popular little eatery in Au Gres is B’s Family Restaurant (989-876-8311) on E. Huron Road.
3. Lake Michigan, Indiana/Illinois
Anglers plying the southern Lake Michigan waters of Indiana and Illinois should experience excellent action for coho salmon this summer. Salmon fishing near the southern end of this great lake always starts out red-hot in the springtime and often continues right into the warm-weather months.
Depending on prevailing weather patterns, loose schools of silver fish can be found anywhere from a few to several miles offshore. Anglers targeting multiple depths throughout the water column are the most successful. Full-limit catches of coho salmon (5 fish per person) are common, especially earlier in the summer.
One veteran charter boat captain who keeps a close eye on salmon movements throughout the season is Captain Mike Schoonveld, who operates Brother Nature Fishing Adventures (brother-nature.com). He’s been chasing salmon in the Indiana and Illinois waters of Lake Michigan for more than 50 years, and is an expert when it comes to coho salmon fishing.
"At this time of year, the cohos are actively feeding, and they are hungry," Schoonveld says. "Many lures will catch fish, but no lure consistently catches more cohos on southern Lake Michigan in June and July than a fluorescent red dodger with a trailing mylar fly. Fly patterns with a mix of greens, blues and shimmering silver are always hot."
Cohos roam the cooler offshore waters in search of baitfish, and they usually hunt near the thermocline. A distinct temperature break at this point marks the transition, and tiny zooplankton, freshwater shrimp and other organisms live in and around this transitional area. They attract schools of larger baitfish, and the baitfish attract the cohos.
Travel Tips: Stop at the famous Freddy’s Steak House in Hammond, Ind., for a great meal (freddyssteakhouse.net). Visiting anglers can also check out the South Shore tourism website (alongthesouthshore.com) for more local info.
4. Bass Islands, Ohio
Lake Erie may be known as a walleye-fishing destination, but 'eyes aren't the only fish prowling its depths. Smallmouth bass are also hugely popular here. In fact, the smallie population may be among the best in the nation. Besides being home to huge numbers of smallmouths, Erie holds plenty of trophy-sized fish, too.
A popular spot is around the Bass Islands in Lake Erie’s western basin, located just north of Port Clinton, Ohio. This is especially true toward the early part of the season in June. South Bass Island is probably the most popular, partly because there is lodging right on the island, but mainly because the bass fishing all around it is so exceptional.
Put-in-Bay on South Bass Island’s north side is where many anglers staying on the island launch their boats at dawn. They don’t have far to go to find productive water, either. The northeast tip of the island, including tiny Buckeye Island, are well-known smallmouth hot spots.
A short run across the channel to Middle Bass Island offers anglers more space to search for bass. Smallmouths love the shallow shoreline areas, and as fish move deeper in July, several reefs nearby also become quite productive. To the east of Middle Bass is Ballast Island, and adjacent to it are Ballast and Buckeye reefs. Other nearby islands include North Bass, Sugar and Rattlesnake islands.
In June, bass are often still spawning, so concentrate on shallow areas with plenty of sand, rocks and gravel. Many lures work in the shallows, but minnow-imitating stickbaits and crankbaits are hard to beat. Reef Runner Little Rippers and Rapala Shad Raps are good, as are soft plastics worked along the bottom.
By July move into deeper water. Captain Bruce Ruthsatz of Put-In-Bay Charter Fishing Service (putinbaycharterfishingservice.com) looks for bass in 24 to 27 feet of water. He says this makes fish a little harder to target, but they are certainly catchable.
Travel Tips: Looking for grub? A popular spot for anglers seeking a good sports bar to end a productive day on the water is Mr. Ed’s Bar and Grille at Put-in-Bay (mredsputinbay.com).
5. Chequamegon Bay, Wisconsin
Chequamegon Bay on Lake Superior is the northernmost spot on our list of Great Lakes bites, and the smallmouth fishing here is excellent in the summer. Special catch-and-release regulations have had a big impact on the size of resident bass, and trophy-sized fish are now relatively common.
In June, smallmouths are still spawning, so finding fish in shallow water is fairly easy. Local guide Nate Baron, of Up North Guide Service (upnorthguideservice.net), has been fishing Chequamegon Bay for decades, and he targets shallow, sandy areas.
"The east end of the bay offers the shallow water and weed cover that make prime spawning grounds for the smallmouths," Baron says.
He searches these areas all along the northeastern shoreline, and also probes the depths along the thin sandy spit of land called Long Island that helps protect the bay from northeasterly winds and the cold, deep waters of greater Lake Superior. Kakagon Slough and the sand flats in the northeastern corner of the bay are also good places to try.
Baron says that once the fish move out of the shallows in July, they shift into deeper water and sparse weed beds. These weed beds are generally pretty small and often in 14 to 18 feet of water. He adds that bass are typically spread out at this time, so continually moving is key. In July, he’s using his electric bow-mount trolling motor most of the day.
Wisconsin’s catch-and-release fishing regulations in Chequamegon Bay require smallmouth bass under 22 inches to be released, and although the daily bag limit allows one bass, almost everyone practices catch-and-release. That helps build the numbers of trophy-sized bass and keeps the average-sized bass at an amazing 18 to 19 inches.
Travel Tips: Smallmouth anglers exploring Chequamegon Bay can visit River Rock Inn Bait and Tackle in Ashland (riverrockinn.net). Besides a good selection of tackle and local fishing reports, they also have excellent lodging available. The Deep Water Grille brewpub (deepwatergrille.com) in Ashland is the perfect place to stop for dinner and a beer after an exciting day of fishing on the bay.