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Fisheries Management

Fishing WisconsinShore fishing Lake Michigan

You don’t need a boat to enjoy great fishing on the big pond and its tributaries. Grab a fishing rod and follow this seasonal calendar to some of the state’s best and most diverse fishing.

Spring

Shore fishing on Lake Michigan
You don't need a boat to fish the great Lake Michigan – shore fishing opportunities are bountiful for anglers of all ages. Just ask this little guy.

March and April are prime times to catch steelhead in the tributary streams. Migratory steelhead are at the peak of their spawning run during this time. DNR stocks multiple strains of steelhead as well as a more domestic rainbow trout. Each variety spawns at a different time, providing extended fishing opportunities. The terms "rainbow" and "steelhead" are used interchangeably by Lake Michigan anglers. Steelhead are rainbow trout that run upstream to spawn. A wide variety of baits and flies will work, but spawn or anything that looks like spawn is best.

Shore anglers will start to catch coho salmon in May. These bright silver fish average about three pounds, fight like crazy and make for excellent eating. Small silver spoons are a top choice for coho.

Summer

After suffering reproductive failure for most of the 1990s, the yellow perch population seems to be making a comeback. Biologists are "cautiously optimistic" that this popular fish is on the road to recovery. Perch can be caught on a wide variety of baits including jigging spoons, crayfish, minnows, small jigs and hellgrammites.

June is when chinook salmon fishing starts to improve. As the water begins to warm up, shore anglers are at the mercy of the wind. Westerly winds push the warm water out and force the cooler water preferred by salmon closer to shore. This "upwelling" effect is what shore anglers will be looking for all summer long. The best fishing is usually early or late in the day. Large silver spoons or alewives are the most commonly used baits. Glow in the dark lures can be especially productive during low light conditions. Sturdy tackle is required to land chinook, which can weigh 10 to 20-plus pounds. In recent years, the chinook harvest has been better than it’s ever been since the DNR started stocking this fish in the late 1960s.

Additionally, coho salmon and brown and rainbow trout can be taken throughout the summer when conditions are right.

Fall

Chinooks will start to stage around harbors and river mouths in September in anticipation of their fall spawning runs. Even though their feeding starts to decline, they are very catchable. They will aggressively strike bright colored lures or a chunk of fish eggs fished under a bobber. Once in the rivers they provide great sport for anglers, especially on a fly rod. The chinook run will peak in early October as they reach the end of their life cycle. October is a great time for “fish watching” in the rivers as jumping salmon put on quite a show.

Coho salmon will migrate upstream a couple of weeks after the chinook. Coho don’t run as large and can be more difficult to catch in the streams than chinook. By November, most salmon will have spawned and died.

Beginning in mid-September, brown trout can be found in big numbers in the river mouths and harbor areas, where they will remain until the following spring. Browns will remain active and accessible to anglers throughout this season. Although they move upstream to spawn in the fall, they don’t migrate as far as salmon or steelhead.

Shore fishing on Lake Michigan
Shore fishing was the winning ticket for Marc Wisniewski, who hooked this 12-pound, 31-inch brown trout near Jones Island in Milwaukee.

Winter

With the salmon gone, anglers start to get serious about chasing steelhead. Winter runs of steelhead usually start in November. River run steelhead, fresh up from the lake, will provide great fishing until ice up. Just as in spring, spawn is the top producing bait. If the weather stays mild, any kind of rain or snow melt event will trigger another batch of fish to move upstream. There are almost always some open water fishing opportunities available in the lower stretches of the rivers or harbor areas where browns are the main target. The cold weather doesn’t seem to bother the fish at all.

Matt Coffaro, fisheries biologist, Milwaukee

Last revised: Friday September 07 2012