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Atlantic Salmon, the Mystery Fish of the Great Lakes

by: Mark Romanack


If you have spent much time fishing the Great Lakes for salmon, chances are you have had come toe to fin with the chinook salmon. By far the biggest and hardest fighting salmonid in the Great Lakes, it’s no surprise that chinook salmon are truly the “kings” of the Great Lakes.

Fin clips are an important tool for determining where Atlantic salmon are stocked, what year they were stocked in and who stocked them. This kind of management strongly suggests that the fish stocked in the St. Mary’s River by the Lake Superior State University are dominating the fish caught in this fishery.


Almost as noteworthy as the chinook salmon, Great Lakes anglers have the silver or coho salmon to also do battle with. While the coho doesn’t grow as large as the chinook, they are hard fighters and many consider coho to be the best eating fish in the Great Lakes.

If you fish long and hard enough in the Great Lakes you might also encounter another salmon species known as the pink salmon or “humpy” for short. These modest sized salmon were accidentally introduced into the Great Lakes and wild populations still thrive in parts of Lake Huron and Lake Superior.

There is however, one more salmon species that very few Great Lakes anglers have ever caught. The Atlantic salmon is the mystery fish of the Great Lakes for a number or reasons. For one, these salmon are rare and only found in catchable numbers in a handful of places.

Secondly, while fisheries biologists have tried to expand the population of Atlantic salmon in the Great Lakes, these fish are difficult to raise in hatchery environments and delicate to handle and stock.

The author’s personal best Atlantic salmon, this magnificent fish weighed just under 15 pounds and was caught in the DeTour Passage while filming an episode of Fishing 411 TV. The DeTour Light is visible in the background. This tiny region of the Great Lakes is an angler’s best bet if he or she is serious about catching an Atlantic salmon worthy of putting on the wall.


Even with all the resources and salmon stocking experience of the Michigan DNR, the Atlantic salmon stocking effort put into Lake Huron has only enjoyed modest success at best. The Michigan DNR stocks roughly 100,000 Atlantic salmon annually into Lake Huron. The Center for Freshwater Research and Education based out of Lake Superior State University also stocks from 30,000 to 40,000 Atlantic salmon annually in the St. Mary’s River.

For the angler who is looking to add the Atlantic salmon to their “bucket list” of fishing accomplishments, the only logical place to focus is the St. Mary’s River fishery. While Atlantic salmon are occasionally taken at the ports of Alpena, Oscoda, Port Huron and Lexington, the chances of actually catching one of these unique fish is in my opinion best at a place known as the DeTour Passage.

It’s here in the lower St. Mary’s River that Atlantic salmon come and go regularly in the spring, summer and fall of the year. Anglers who put in their time trolling spoons on lead core, diving planers and downriggers are not guaranteed to catch an Atlantic salmon, but the odds of success are better here than anywhere else in the Great Lakes.

Like just about any other kind of fishing, timing is critical to success. Some of the most consistent fishing starts in mid May and runs through about the middle of July. Historically the month of June is prime time, but pods of Atlantic salmon show up suddenly and then disappear just as quickly making these fish especially hard to pattern.

After enjoying some amazing days targeting Atlantic salmon in the “Passage” and also some down right demoralizing days, I’ve come to the conclusion that these fish are either here or they aren’t! No amount of fishing experience or time on the water will produce Atlantic salmon when they simply aren’t around in numbers sufficient enough to offer a reasonable chance of success.

Which leads me to the question, why does the Michigan DNR spread their Atlantic salmon stocking efforts all across Lake Huron in the Johnny Apple Seed approach? It appears by looking at the fin clips on the fish we have caught and others have taken in recent years that the fish stocked by LSSU dominate the catch in the St. Mary’s River.

If more DNR fish were stocked in the St. Mary’s River, it seems logical that this could become a noteworthy “destination” fishery for those who would like to tangle with the Atlantic salmon.

Of course fisheries management is a very complex subject and I’m pretty sure the fine people of Alpena, Lexington and Oscoda would not agree with my theory. It just seems to this angler that the Atlantic salmon are spread so thin in Lake Huron, the return on the investment is minimal at best.

The Atlantic salmon is a bucket list fish for many anglers. Bryan Darland of Jay’s Sporting Goods recently caught this unique fish near DeTour Passage.


Because Atlantic salmon thrive in flowing water and the St. Mary’s River system is as close to the perfect habitat we have in the Great Lakes for this species, it just makes sense to concentrate on creating a fishery where the fish have the best chance of survival.

In the meantime, if you are one of those anglers who would really like to tangle with an Atlantic salmon, the DeTour Passage should be on your radar. I can say from personal experience, these fish are providing more bang for the buck than many other fisheries management efforts. As they say variety is the spice of life and the Atlantic salmon is variety super charged.

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