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Fishing Lake Michigan trout and salmon?

Fishing Wisconsin

Select a question from the list below, or scroll down the page to browse the individual answers below.

Questions and Answers

Why isn't there a special snagging season for salmon on some rivers?

The biggest reason is that the majority of the fishing community does not consider snagging to be a fair way to catch salmon and snagging also interferes with other types of fishing. In addition, many snaggers catch the fish simply to collect the eggs from the fish, leaving the carcass to rot on the streambank. This is a waste of the resource and can lead to public health concerns.

What strain of brown trout does Wisconsin stock?

Since 2017 Wisconsin stocks only seeforellen, or "German" brown trout into Lake Michigan. This strain originated in Bavaria, a region of Germany. Wisconsin obtained seeforellen eggs from the state of New York in the late 1980s, with the goal to expand fishing opportunities later into the fall and to provide trophy opportunities, as seeforellen tend to live longer and grow larger than domestic strains of brown trout. The spawning run for seeforellens generally occurs in November and December. 

All seeforellen stocked between 2017 and 2020 from the Wisconsin shoreline of Lake Michigan received an adipose clip, with the exception of unclipped fall fingerlings that will be stocked in fall 2020. 

Where do all the trout and salmon go after spawning?

All coho and chinook salmon die after spawning as part of their life cycles. Brown trout, steelhead, lake trout, and brook trout do not automatically die following spawning, although some will die simply from old age, stress from spawning or an infection such as fungus brought on by spawning activity. Depending on their age and condition, some trout will return to Lake Michigan. 

How can you distinguish a non-spawning fish as male or female?

From the outside it is difficult, although male steelhead often exhibit greater head length than females. The most definitive way to tell is to cut the fish open.

I see a small yellow mark on Chinook salmon, what is it?

The short answer is that the yellow mark is a condensed area of pigment, much like a birth mark. There is no pathological significance of the mark. This yellow mark IS NOT a mark applied by agencies to determine stocked versus naturally reproduced trout and salmon. All marking of stocked salmonids in Lake Michigan and Lake Huron are accomplished with traditional fin clips.

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Does the absence of any fin clips on a lake trout mean that some are reproducing naturally?

Yes.  All lake trout stocked into Lake Michigan have been adipose fin clipped since 2011.  Prior to 2011, lake trout stocked were given other fin clips (e.g. left ventral, right ventral, etc.).  Although fish can be missed during the process of fin-clipping, and regeneration of fins can occur, we have seen evidence of natural reproduction of lake trout in Lake Michigan for decades but more have been detected since 2011. The number of unclipped lake trout captured in assessment surveys and documented in the creel surveys varies lake-wide.  In Wisconsin waters, approximately 30% of lake trout are found to be wild (naturally reproduced).

Are there any splake or tiger trout hybrids in Lake Michigan?

Splake, which are a cross between a brook trout and a lake trout, were stocked from 1983 to 2007 into Green Bay. This program was discontinued due to poor returns. Tiger trout, which are a cross between a brook trout and a brown trout, were stocked into the Wisconsin waters of Lake Michigan from 1974 through 1977. The program was also discontinued due to poor returns. 

Are spawning fish (in the rivers) any less safe to consume?

The Department publishes advice on how much fish people can safely consume due to contaminants. Fish consumption advice for Lake Michigan trout and salmon species is the same whether those migrating species are caught in Lake Michigan or in one of its tributaries. Fish that die after spawning, like chinook and coho salmon, may be less palatable since they do not feed during their spawning runs and their muscle tissue begins to break down. Fish that do not die after spawning, like steelhead, brown trout and brook trout, are generally in much better condition during spawning. 

How many eggs are there in a female chinook, or coho salmon? Female steelhead or brown trout?

The amount of eggs any one female produces is dependent on fish size and egg size among other factors. The following are average numbers of eggs taken from one female when they are collected for hatcheries.
Steelhead 5,000 eggs
Chinook 5,000 eggs
Coho 2,500 eggs
Seeforellen Brown Trout 7,500 eggs

How do you tell the difference between the strains of steelhead? 

Although there are slight differences in body shape and size, fin clips are used to positively identify the strains of steelhead. This is why all steelhead stocked into Root and Kewaunee Rivers (brood streams) are fin clipped. Knowing the strain of the fish prevents breeding of one strain with another. The various strains are not differentially clipped in any of the other Wisconsin rivers. 

What strains of rainbow trout or steelhead are stocked in Lake Michigan?

Wisconsin currently stocks Chambers Creek and Ganaraska strains of steelhead into Lake Michigan. 

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How old are the fish when they spawn?

Coho salmon generally spawn at 2+ years (two summers in the lake); however, both female and male (jack) cohos may mature at age 1+ and have been encountered at our spawning facilities.  The majority of steelhead spawn at 3 and 4 years, with some spawning at 5 to 6 years. The oldest steelhead spawned at the Root River Steelhead Facility was an 8-year-old male. The majority of chinook salmon spawn after spending 2 to 4 summers in the lake. A chinook spawning after 4 summers in the lake would be 3+ years old, since they are stocked as spring fingerlings that are less than a year old. Brown trout typically spawn between ages 2 and 4. 

Are pink salmon stocked in Lake Michigan?

No, pink salmon are not stocked in Lake Michigan. Pink salmon were accidentally introduced into Lake Superior in 1956 in Canadian waters and that single stocking event led to continued natural reproduction in the Great Lakes. They have been found in Lake Superior since, and the first record of pink salmon in Wisconsin waters of Lake Michigan came in 1977 below the Peshtigo Dam. It is believed that adults are pelagic (near the surface) out in the main lakes, but not much is known about their habits or movements in the Great Lakes. Pink salmon previously spawned in odd years at age 2 and then died, but their spawning regime has changed. We now see adult pink salmon in tributaries in both even and odd years. Their runs are a bit earlier than other salmon species in Wisconsin, and they tend to prefer riffle areas for spawning. 

The humpback that spawning males develop, along with oval spots on the entire tail on both sexes are two distinguishing characteristics. Mature adults are much smaller than Chinook or coho salmon, measuring in the low 20-inch range. 

Some anglers report pink salmon to be excellent when eaten promptly after being caught or else they are sometimes smoked. The meat is soft, especially after freezing. Almost all commercially caught Alaskan pink salmon is canned.

Why don't trout and salmon reproduce naturally in Wisconsin?

The spawning streams on the Wisconsin shoreline of Lake Michigan are not conducive to natural reproduction of trout and salmon because the summer water temperatures are too high for survival of fingerlings and heavy loads of sediment smother eggs incubating in the stream bed. Some research has been done to search for natural reproduction in Wisconsin streams and only a few small tributaries were found to have  fingerlings in them. Even if these select small streams were to produce natural recruits every year, they would not have the capacity to produce enough fish to be detectable in the lake fishery. 

What is the current Chinook salmon natural reproduction level in Lake Michigan?

The USFWS has been estimating wild produced chinook salmon smolts in Lake Michigan since 2006 by utilizing the mass marking program to mark stocked fish. On average, 50-66% of the age-1 chinook salmon in Lake Michigan are wild produced. A copy of a recent update can be found here

How much do wild produced Chinook salmon contribute to the fishery in Wisconsin?

The USFWS has been estimating contributions of wild produced chinook salmon to the sport fishery in Lake Michigan using coded wire tags and adipose fin clips. The 2018 mass marking results showed that 68% of chinook salmon recovered in Lake Michigan did not have a fin clip and were presumed to be wild. This estimate is consistent with estimates from 2014-2017. A copy of this report can be found here. In Wisconsin, the wild chinook contribution to the fishery is greater in the spring and summer months than the fall. Fishing quality in spring and summer is not dependent on local stocking numbers, but may be affected in the fall as salmon return to their natal rivers or where they were stocked.

Can round gobies be intentionally targeted while fishing? 

Round gobies are an aquatic invasive species. There is no open season for round gobies and therefore they cannot be targeted or kept if caught. Since they cannot be kept if caught, round gobies can not be used as bait. Specific regulations can be found on page 73 of the fishing regulations.

Do salmon and trout feed on round gobies?

Lake trout and brown trout feed on gobies more frequently than salmon and steelhead do, however, gobies are occasionally consumed by chinook, coho and steelhead as well. There are some studies being conducted throughout the lake looking at diets of trout and salmon.  

Dreissenid mussels – what species are in the lake now?

Both zebra (Dreissena polymorpha) and quagga mussels (Dreissena rostriformis bugensis) are found in Lake Michigan. Zebra mussel was the dominant mussel through the mid-2000s but now the quagga mussel is the dominant dreissenid mussel in the lake. 

Frequently asked questions

For additional information on Wisconsin fishing, (e.g., maps, fish consumption advisories), please see our list of frequently asked questions.