Lake Superior is Michigan’s sleeping giant. The largest of all five Great Lakes, Lake Superior encompasses almost 32,000 square miles of water. To put that in perspective, Lake Erie has about 1/3 the water mass of Lake Superior.
With all that water, it would seem logical that Lake Superior would lead the show in terms of sport fishing catches. Actually, Lake Superior yields the smallest annual harvest of important sport species including salmon, steelhead, lake trout, brown trout, walleye, northern pike and coaster brook trout combined.
Lake Superior is huge, but compared to the other Great Lakes it is also sterile. Our largest Great Lake simply is not capable of sustaining the amounts of zooplankton and phytoplankton needed to fuel a large forage base or an ambitious stocking program. The Michigan DNR has largely abandoned stocking efforts on Lake Superior for salmon, but does conduct some modest stocking efforts with lake trout and coaster brook trout in Superior.
All of this information points to the logical conclusion that Lake Superior is world class in size, but not so much in terms of sport fishing resources. The facts suggest this theory, but Lake Superior does support a number of fishing opportunities that simply can’t be duplicated anywhere else in the Great Lakes or North America for that matter.
Isle Royale is a National Park located approximately 55 miles northwest of Eagle Harbor in Lake Superior. When you look at a map, Isle Royale is much closer to Ontario than Michigan, posing the question how did this chunk of rock end up becoming part of the United States instead of Canada?
The answer can be found in one word, copper. This region is rich in copper ore and as a result when the early maps were drawn, Isle Royale was strategically placed in the hands of the United States. Isle Royale National Park was established in 1940 and has been firmly in the protective controls of the National Park Service for more than seven decades.
Isle Royale can be reached by three different ferry boats, float plane or anglers can make the Lake Superior crossing in their own fishing boats. On the island primitive camp sights are available, but must be reserved in advance. There is also a full service lodge on Isle Royale that caters to those who are less into roughing it. Small aluminum open bow fishing boats can be rented at Rock Harbor.
Fishing on Isle Royale is surprisingly good, due mostly to the remoteness of this rocky island and the exceptionally low fishing pressure this part of Lake Superior sees in an average year. The offshore lake trout fishing at Isle Royale rivals that found on the famed Stannard Rock, a reef located approximately 40 miles northeast off the tip of the Keweenaw Peninsula.
The siskiwit lake trout found in the depths of Lake Superior are perhaps the least studied sport fish in the Great Lakes. Because these fish are found almost exclusively in deep water, little research has been conducted on this species. While lake trout are members of the char family, there is reason to believe the siskiwit strain of lake trout in Lake Superior may actually be a spring spawning species!
In case you are wondering, the word “siskiwit” is Native American and means cooks in its own skin! These denizens of the deep are exceptionally oily and not the best table fare. On the flip side, these deep water lake trout grow huge and it’s not uncommon to find 20, 30 and even 40 pound fish willing to do battle on sport fishing tackle. The current Michigan State record lake trout was a siskiwit that weighed in at an amazing 61 pounds, eight ounces.
Many anglers feel this state record will be topped in the near future.
A multitude of deep water reefs located within 10 miles of Isle Royale provides world class lake trout jigging opportunities from May through September. Big jigs in the two and three ounce range, tipped with oversized soft plastic twister tails and paddle tails are the best way to target these monster sized lake trout.
On a recent trip to Isle Royale with friend and Upper Peninsula based outfitter Travis White, our group used the eight inch Mag SwimZ soft plastics produced by Z-Man. We doused these soft plastics with Pro Cure Herring Super Gel and added a No. 4 Eagle Claw Trokar treble hook as a stinger. Despite the size of Lake Superior’s lake trout, these fish are notorious for following a bait and nipping at the tail.
The oversized siskiwit lakers of Isle Royale are impressive, but this region of Lake Superior also harbors a second strain of lake trout, known as mackinaws. The mackinaw strain of lake trout does not grow as large as the siskiwit and they typically live in much shallower waters. The near shore waters of Isle Royale are alive with mackinaw that can be caught by casting or trolling spoons, plugs and swim baits.
Mackinaw strain of lake trout feature bright red flesh and they are excellent table fare. Cooked over an open fire while camping in the wilderness regions of Isle Royale, these trout more than make up for what they lack in size.
Isle Royale also supports a healthy population of coaster brook trout. These are brook trout that choose to live in the open waters of Lake Superior instead of tributary streams. The many bays and inlets of Isle Royale are perfect habitat for these brook trout that average 15 to 18 inches in length and often grow to 20 inches long or longer.
Casting in-line spinners, spoons and also shallow diving jerkbaits to shoreline cover is the preferred way to target coaster brook trout. These trout are often found in very shallow water, making casting the most logical way to target them. The best brook trout fishing on Isle Royale takes place from May to July.
The super cold waters of Lake Superior proper tend to keep the near shore waters of Isle Royale in the low to mid 50 degree range even into mid-summer.
The famed Lake Superior reef known as Stannard Rock was named after the Great Lakes shipping captain who discovered this reef. Approximately one mile wide and five miles long, this iconic piece of structure may well produce the best lake trout fishing in the Great Lakes.
Anglers who make the trek to Stannard Rock are generally not interested in trolling. The allure of catching a monster lake trout on light action spinning tackle is why so many anglers have Stannard Rock on their bucket list of fishing destinations.
The best fishing at Stannard Rock gets started in late June or early July when the lake surface temperature approaches 50 degrees. When water temperatures are ideal, lake trout at Stannard Rock can be found in shallow water and jigging or casting presentations are especially productive.
Most anglers who visit Stannard Rock are jigging the trout they find on the bottom. A few savvy anglers have discovered that casting and targeting suspended trout often produces a larger class of fish.
“You can catch lake trout until your arms are sore jigging,” says Travis White of Keweenaw Charters. “The bigger fish however are more often caught by casting a jig/swimbait combination, allowing it to sink to bottom and then slowly retrieving it back to the boat.”
Travis White is primarily interested in catching big lake trout and as a result he only throws oversized swimbaits in the eight to 12 inch class. “These Lake Superior lakers are feeding on ciscoes that are often 12 to 15 inches long,” explains White. “Throwing larger baits seems to produce a much larger class of fish.”
Most fishermen who jig or cast at Stannard Rock are using medium to medium heavy action spinning tackle equipped with 10 to 15 pound test super braid. Travis White is hunting for a state record so he personally fishes swimbait rods equipped with 50 pound test super braid. “If I’m lucky enough to hook a lake trout north of 50 pounds in size, I want a fighting chance of landing that fish,” says White.
The Keweenaw Peninsula is perhaps the most overlooked near shore multi-species trolling fishery in Michigan. Coho salmon, lake trout, brown trout, coaster brook trout, steelhead and the occasional king salmon round out the species anglers are likely to catch trolling the near shore structure.
The bite begins about a week after ice out with brown trout and coho salmon in the near shore waters. Trolling body baits and spoons on in-line planer boards is the best approach for covering water and contacting these fish. The best places tend to be tributary streams that dump in warmer and nutrient rich waters into Lake Superior.
Because Lake Superior is so large and cold, this near shore fishery lasts much longer than other Great Lakes waters. While the bite starts in skinny water with browns and coho, lake trout and steelhead are soon added to the list. It’s common to find a mixed bag by simply moving out into slightly deeper waters throughout the months of June and July.
As the fish move a little deeper, spoons trolled using lead core line and in-line planer boards dominate the catch. Downriggers and diving planers are also commonly used to target fish found in 50 to 100 feet of water.
It’s interesting to note that many of the trout and salmon caught along the Keweenaw Peninsula are wild fish that find nearly perfect spawning conditions in the countless tributary streams feeding Superior. The brown trout fishery in the Keweenaw are largely from stocking efforts conducted by the Wisconsin DNR from plants made near Ashland, Wisconsin. These fish simply follow the Lake Superior shoreline until they turn up in the Keweenaw.
Coaster brook trout and splake hybrids are largely fish stocked by the Michigan DNR from the Marquette, Michigan hatchery.
Wrapping It Up
The things that keep me coming back to the Keweenaw are many. The fishing is exceptional and the number of anglers participating is modest by any measure. The scenic beauty of the Upper Peninsula is tough to beat and the history of this region makes a trip here extra special.
Catching wild reared trout and salmon is also something special and a treat that is difficult to duplicate in the other Great Lakes. While Lake Superior might not be the most fruitful of the Great Lakes, it most certainly has something to offer anyone who enjoys targeting all the popular species of salmonids.