Atlantic salmon are clearly one of the most unique species found in the Great Lakes State. Unlike the various species of Pacific salmon commonly stocked in large numbers, Atlantic salmon only receive modest space in the state’s fish hatcheries. The Michigan DNR has made it public that their goal is to raise 180,000 Atlantic salmon annually using the Platte River and Harrietta State Fish Hatchery facilities. Approximately 30,000 to 40,000 additional Atlantic salmon are raised at Lake Superior State University as part of the Freshwater Research and Education Fish Hatchery.
The Michigan DNR stocks Atlantic salmon at several locations in Lake Huron and Torch Lake in northern lower Michigan. The Freshwater Research and Education Fish Hatchery stocks the fish they raise into the St. Marys River system.
Most fisheries’ biologists are reluctant to dip too deeply into the Atlantic salmon pool when it comes to creating stocked fisheries. Atlantic salmon are susceptible to disease and are more difficult to raise than other salmonids like steelhead, chinook salmon and coho salmon.
St. Marys River
Across the Great Lakes region, Michigan is the only state or providence that has enjoyed any noteworthy success in creating Atlantic salmon fisheries. It could be argued that the St. Marys River currently provides the best chance an angler has at catching an Atlantic salmon. The credit for this fishery belongs to Roger Greil, who recently retired from his position as manager of the Freshwater Research and Education Fish Hatchery
The St. Marys River provides the nearly perfect habitat for Atlantic salmon. In fact, the Atlantic salmon brood stock used in Michigan stocking efforts is from wild fish captured in the St. Marys River. This is critically important because capturing wild fish ensures the best possible genetics are maintained with stocked fish.
Anglers targeting Atlantic salmon on the St. Marys River typically troll the lower river using spoons, lead core line, in-line planer boards, downriggers and diving planers during May, June and July. Later in the summer, Atlantic salmon begin staging upriver near the St. Marys Falls Hydropower Plant. In this stretch of the river anglers often find success drifting with the current and jigging using soft plastic minnow imitations. In the fall and winter months, when Atlantic salmon move into the St. Marys River rapids, fly fishermen get their opportunity to catch these unique fish.
Torch Lake, one of Michigan’s largest in-land lakes, has been stocked on and off again with Atlantic salmon for many years. It’s interesting to note that the International Game Fish Association world record Atlantic salmon was caught in Torch Lake in 2010 by Indiana resident Tom Aufiero. An avid fly fisherman, Aufiero hooked the fish casting a nymph pattern in October. According to Aufiero, he tried 16 different fly patterns before eventually hooking and landing the fish.
It’s also interesting to note that the Michigan DNR has reported they are disappointed with the return on investment achieved with the Torch Lake fishery. Stocking efforts were stopped in 2006, and only recently has the Michigan DNR revisited the idea of stocking Torch Lake.
Since 2020 nearly 100,000 Atlantic salmon ranging in size from five to eight inches in length have been stocked in Torch Lake. For reasons that are unclear, recent stocking efforts have produced a noteworthy fishery. The Michigan DNR is not planning on stocking Atlantic salmon in Torch Lake in 2023.
In the spring of the year, trolling small spoons using lead core line, in-line planer boards, downriggers and diving planers routinely produce limit catches for anglers who know where to find these elusive fish. Recently the staff of Fishing 411 TV shot a television episode on Torch Lake that will broadcast in the winter and spring of 2024.
“While the fish are mostly modest in size, the number of fish we were able to catch in a few hours of trolling was staggering,” states Jake Romanack of Fishing 411 TV. “Torch Lake has a 15-inch minimum size limit on Atlantic salmon, and most of the fish we caught were 18-20 inches long. Some larger fish are also taken on occasion and anglers can also expect to catch bonus lake trout when trolling on Torch Lake.”
During filming, the Fishing 411 crew used two different Wolverine Tackle spoons, including the Jr. Streak and the Mini Streak. While the Jr. Streak is widely considered to be a “walleye” spoon, it’s small size is ideal for targeting Torch Lake Atlantic salmon.
“We quickly learned that Atlantic salmon like brightly colored spoons,” added Romanack. “Spoons that contained a lot of pink, red or orange seemed to produce the most bites. Silver and copper back spoon models worked well on Torch Lake.”
Having also fished Atlantic salmon on the St. Marys River, Romanack is convinced that these fish are commonly found near the surface over deep water. “Even though while fishing Torch Lake we trolled the shoreline breaks, a lot of the fish we caught were on one and two color lead core rigs presented over 60-100 feet of water,” explains Romanack. “We caught fish on the board lines set to run on the shallow side of the boat, but we caught just as many on the boards and lures fishing deeper water.”
Later in the spring and summer when the waters of Torch Lake warm up, anglers can still catch Atlantic salmon, but doing so requires moving off shore and fishing the deeper thermocline where warm surface water meets cooler sub-surface waters.
During the summer months on Torch Lake the catch is more equally divided between Atlantic salmon and lake trout.
The majority of the Atlantic salmon raised at the Platte River and Harrietta Fish Hatcheries are stocked into several ports on Lake Huron including Alpine, Oscoda and Lexington. Fishing success in these ports is sporadic at best. It seems that Atlantic salmon are very skillful at getting lost in all that water provided by Lake Huron.
“Over the years, I’ve caught a lot of Atlantic salmon while chartering out of Alpena,” says Captain Ed Retherford of Trout Scout V Charters. “Most of the time, Atlantic salmon are a welcome bonus to catching a steady diet of lake trout, coho salmon and steelhead. “When Atlantics are moving through our area we catch a few, but the odds of catching one on any given day are tough to predict.”
In the spring of the year Lexington, south to the St. Clair River is perhaps the best opportunity an angler has at catching a Lake Huron Atlantic salmon. Like coho salmon in Lake Michigan that commonly winter in the southern part of the lake, Atlantic salmon also seem to prefer the southernmost part of Lake Huron in the early spring.
Once the waters of Lake Huron begin to warm in late spring, the Atlantic salmon scatter and turn up sporadically up and down the Lake Huron coast. Similar to what Captain Ed Retherford has reported at Alpena, charters fishing in other Lake Huron ports catch the occasional Atlantic salmon while targeting other salmonids.
Summing It Up
If catching an Atlantic salmon is on your “bucket list” of fishing adventures, Michigan offers several places an angler can hang his hat. Clearly one of the best destinations for targeting Atlantic salmon includes the lower St. Marys River in May, June and July. It’s here that anglers are likely to catch a few Atlantic salmon and potentially trophy sized fish.
Torch Lake is another excellent Atlantic salmon destination. While Torch Lake is currently coughing up small to medium sized salmon, the potential to enjoy limit catches has never been better.
Because stocking efforts and or success are never guaranteed, there is no time like the present to make time for the Atlantic salmon.