The Ultimate Beginner’s Guide to Catching Monster Salmon on Lake Michigan

Are you an aspiring angler dreaming of reeling in a massive, chrome-bright salmon from the depths of Lake Michigan? Look no further! This comprehensive guide is your ticket to turning that dream into a reality, even if you’re a complete beginner. With insider tips on prime fishing spots, essential gear, and proven techniques, you’ll be well-equipped to tackle the challenge of landing a trophy salmon in the great lakes.

Understanding Lake Michigan Salmon

Before we get into the nitty-gritty of fishing techniques and gear, it’s essential to understand the types of salmon found in Lake Michigan and their behavior.

Chinook (King) Salmon

Chinook Salmon male spawning colours
Chinook Salmon male spawning colours

Chinook salmon, also known as king salmon, are the largest species of salmon in the Great Lakes. These powerful fish can grow up to 30 pounds or more, providing an exhilarating fight for anglers. Chinook salmon are known for their distinctive black mouth and gums, as well as their silvery color with black spots on the back and tail.

Coho (Silver) Salmon

Coho (Silver) Salmon
Coho (Silver) Salmon

Coho salmon, or silver salmon, are smaller than chinooks but are still highly sought-after by anglers. They typically weigh between 3 to 12 pounds and are known for their acrobatic fights and delicious, orange-pink flesh. Coho salmon have white gums and mouths, with small black spots on their back and upper lobe of the tail.

Salmon Migration Patterns

Salmon Migration Patterns
Salmon Migration Patterns

Lake Michigan salmon are anadromous, meaning they spend most of their adult lives in the lake but return to rivers to spawn. Understanding their migration patterns is key to locating and catching these fish.

In the spring, usually from March to May, mature salmon move close to shore and harbor areas as they prepare to spawn in nearby rivers. This is an excellent time to target them within a few miles of piers and river mouths.

The fall season, starting in late August and peaking in September through October, sees salmon returning to their natal rivers to spawn. During this time, fish congregate near river mouths, harbors, and piers, providing shore and boat anglers with prime fishing opportunities.

When and Where to Fish

Best Seasons for Salmon Fishing

  • Spring (March-May): Target salmon within a couple of miles from shore, focusing on harbors and piers as fish stage before their spawning run. According to the Michigan DNR, spring salmon fishing peaks in April and May.
  • Fall (Late August-October): Fish near river mouths, harbors, and piers as salmon return to their spawning grounds. Peak action typically occurs from September to mid-October. The Wisconsin DNR confirms that fall is the best time to catch salmon in Lake Michigan.

Top Fishing Locations

  1. Milwaukee Harbor, Wisconsin: Known as a salmon hotspot, the harbor and nearby Oak Creek offer excellent shore fishing opportunities. The Wisconsin DNR provides detailed information on fishing spots and access points in the Milwaukee Harbor area.
  2. Sheboygan, Wisconsin: The Sheboygan harbor and river see massive salmon runs from September through October. Check the Sheboygan River Fishing Report for up-to-date information on salmon fishing conditions.
  3. Sturgeon Bay, Wisconsin: The Sturgeon Bay ship canal is a prime location for staging salmon in spring and fall. The Door County Visitor Bureau offers helpful tips and resources for fishing in the Sturgeon Bay area.
  4. Manistee, Michigan: Famous for its fantastic fall salmon fishing, the Manistee Pierhead provides easy access for anglers. The Manistee County Visitors Bureau has a comprehensive guide to salmon fishing in the area.
  5. Ludington, Michigan: The Ludington area, including the Pere Marquette River, is a top destination for salmon in the fall. The Ludington Area Charter Boat Association provides expert advice and charter services for salmon fishing in the region.

Essential Gear for Salmon Fishing

Investing in quality gear is crucial for a successful and enjoyable salmon fishing experience. Here are some additional details and product recommendations:

  1. Medium-heavy power spinning rod and reel combo: Look for a 8-10 foot rod with a sturdy reel spooled with 10-20 pound test line. The Ugly Stik GX2 Spinning Rod and Penn Battle III Spinning Reel are popular choices among salmon anglers.
  2. Monofilament or braided fishing line: Use 10-20 pound test monofilament or 20-30 pound test braided line for your main line. Berkley Trilene XL Monofilament and PowerPro Spectra Fiber Braided Fishing Line are trusted options.
  3. Fluorocarbon leader line: Attach a 15-20 pound test fluorocarbon leader to your main line for added stealth and abrasion resistance. Seaguar Blue Label Fluorocarbon is a top choice among pros.
  4. Assorted fishing lures: Stock up on popular salmon lures such as spoons, plugs, and flashers/fly combos. Refer to the “Selecting the Best Lures and Baits” section for specific product recommendations.
  5. Trolling gear: Invest in downriggers, planer boards, and dive planers to help get your lures down to the desired depth. Cannon Downriggers and Church Tackle Walleye Planer Boards are widely used by Great Lakes salmon anglers.
  6. Landing net: A large, long-handled net is essential for safely landing big salmon. The Frabill Power Stow Net is a durable and reliable option.
  7. Fishing pliers and line cutters: These tools are necessary for removing hooks and cutting line. The Rapala 6.5″ Stainless Steel Pliers and Boomerang Snip are popular choices.
  8. Cooler: Bring a large cooler filled with ice to keep your catch fresh. The Yeti Tundra 65 is a rugged, high-performance option.

Top Fishing Techniques for Beginners

As a beginner, mastering these three fishing techniques will greatly increase your chances of catching salmon on Lake Michigan.


Trolling is the most popular and effective method for catching salmon on the Great Lakes. It involves dragging baited lines or lures behind a moving boat at varying depths and speeds. Here’s how to get started:

  1. Set up your trolling gear, including downriggers, planer boards, or dive planers, to reach the desired depth (typically 30-100 feet).
  2. Attach your chosen lures or baits to the fishing line, ensuring they are securely tied and properly rigged.
  3. Slowly motor your boat forward at a speed between 1.5-2.5 mph, adjusting your speed and direction based on fish activity and weather conditions.
  4. Monitor your rod tips and planer boards for any signs of a strike, such as a sudden bend in the rod or a planer board dropping back.
  5. When a fish strikes, reel in the line steadily and keep tension on the fish until it tires and can be safely netted.


Casting lures from shore or a boat can be highly effective when salmon are staging near river mouths, harbors, and piers. Follow these steps:

  1. Choose a suitable lure, such as a spoon, crankbait, or spinner.
  2. Cast your lure towards the structure or areas where salmon are likely to congregate.
  3. Retrieve your lure at a steady pace, occasionally varying your speed or adding twitches to trigger strikes.
  4. When a fish hits, set the hook with a firm, upward motion and keep steady pressure on the fish while reeling.


Jigging is a technique that involves vertically fishing a weighted lure or bait near the bottom, often in deeper water or around structure. Here’s how to jig for salmon:

  1. Drop your jig or bait straight down to the bottom, letting it sink on a tight line.
  2. Once the jig reaches the bottom, lift your rod tip up about 1-2 feet, then lower it back down, allowing the jig to fall on a semi-slack line.
  3. Repeat this jigging motion, varying the speed and height of your lifts to entice strikes.
  4. When you feel a bite, set the hook with a quick, upward motion and reel in the fish steadily.

Selecting the Best Lures and Baits

Choosing the right lures and baits is essential for salmon fishing success. Here are some additional details and product links for the proven options mentioned earlier:


  • Moonshine Lures J-Plugs: These elongated, minnow-shaped plugs are excellent for trolling and casting, especially in sizes 4-6 inches.
  • Dreamweaver Spoons: Known for their unique “Spin-Glo” action, these spoons come in a variety of colors and sizes to match different fishing conditions.
  • Michigan Stinger Spoons: These classic trolling spoons feature a distinctive wobbling action that drives salmon wild.


  • Rapala Scatter Rap Minnow: This diving crankbait excels at triggering bites from aggressive salmon, thanks to its erratic, darting action.
  • Yakima Bait Mag Lip: With its wide, pronounced lip and loud rattles, the Mag Lip is a go-to choice for trolling in rough water or low-light conditions.

Flashers and Flies

  • Luhr-Jensen Dodgers: These thin, metal attractors create a flashing and vibrating action when trolled, drawing salmon in from a distance.
  • Mack’s Lure Smile Blade Hootchies: Paired with a dodger, these soft plastic squid imitations in various colors are deadly for salmon when trolled at the right speed.

Cut Bait Rigs

  • Herring: Brined and cut into plugs or strips, herring is a classic salmon bait that can be fished on a cut plug rig or behind a flasher. Learn how to rig herring for salmon fishing with this helpful guide from Salmon University.
  • Alewives: Similar to herring, alewives are another popular cut bait option for salmon, especially when fished near the bottom. Check out this alewife brining recipe from Michigan Sportsman for optimal results.

Remember, the key to success is experimenting with different lures and baits until you find what works best for the specific conditions and location you’re fishing.

Helpful Resources and Fishing Reports

To stay informed about current salmon fishing conditions, regulations, and tips, be sure to check out these valuable resources:

Additionally, joining local fishing forums and social media groups can provide you with real-time updates from fellow anglers and help you connect with the Lake Michigan salmon fishing community.


Catching monster salmon on Lake Michigan is an achievable goal, even for beginners, with the right knowledge, gear, and techniques. By understanding salmon behavior, selecting prime fishing locations, and employing proven strategies like trolling, casting, and jigging, you’ll be well on your way to landing the fish of a lifetime.

Remember to always prioritize safety, follow local fishing regulations, and practice responsible catch and release when necessary. With dedication and persistence, you’ll soon find yourself hooked on the thrill of salmon fishing on one of the world’s greatest freshwater fisheries.

So what are you waiting for? Grab your gear, hit the water, and start your journey to becoming a successful Lake Michigan salmon angler today!

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