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The Quest for Great Fish

By: Mark Romanack

The quest to catch great fish has taken the author all over North America. Luckily some of the best fisheries in North America are found right here in the Great Lakes region.

​One of the things I like most about fishing are the memories of time spent on the water. Sometimes it’s an exceptional fish that creates that memory and other times it’s just the people the experience was shared with. Either way, when I’m not fishing and making memories, I’m thinking about fishing and my next big adventure.

​ Species by species, certain fisheries are simply an angler’s best bet for tying into something special. Identifying these destination fisheries and learning how fish are consistently caught has been one of the highlights of my career.


​Only a few years ago Michigan broke it’s long standing state record for the chinook salmon with a fish caught in Lake Michigan. At 47.86 pounds, this record is likely to stand for many years if not generations. While a big fish could potentially pop up at any time, in reality the stage was perfectly set for that record chinook caught back in August of 2021. At the time chinook salmon numbers in Lake Michigan were at an all time low, providing the perfect environment for salmon to grow to larger than normal sizes.

​At the time the Michigan DNR was concerned that the alewife population of Lake Michigan was potentially on the verge of collapse. As a result, Michigan cut their stocking efforts on chinook and other salmonids significantly in a conscious effort to reduce predation on the alewife population so that this important forage species could recover in numbers.

​Some might argue that you can’t have your cake and eat it too. In terms of stocking efforts, the more salmonids that are stocked, the smaller the average size of these fish becomes. If this theory is true, chances are the Lake Michigan chinook salmon record is not likely to be broken anytime soon.

​Ironically, the New York State record for chinook salmon is a 47 pound 13 pound fish caught in 1991. Both the Michigan and New York record chinook salmon are only a few ounces apart in size, but they were caught at completely different times in the evolution of the Great Lakes salmon stocking efforts.

​Back when the New York chinook record was caught, Lake Ontario was producing far more trophy class fish than Lake Michigan. Lake Ontario has always benefited from a more stable forage base, created because Lake Ontario is the furtherest downstream of all the five Great Lakes. All the nutrients that flow through the Great Lakes including Lake Erie eventually end up in Lake Ontario.

​Besides a very stable population of alewives, Lake Ontario also benefits from excellent populations of rainbow smelt, gizzard shad, emerald shiners and golden shiners. Not surprisingly, Lake Ontario puts out far more trophy class salmon than any other body of water in the Great Lakes region.


​If you want to catch a truly big lake trout, Lake Superior should be high on your radar. Both Stannard Rock and Isle Royale consistently produce some of the biggest lake trout caught in any given year. The Michigan state record lake trout is a staggering 61.5 pounds and came from Stannard Rock some 50 miles off shore from Marquette, Michigan.

​The Michigan state lake trout record could easily be broken again considering how many lake trout in the 30 to 40 pound class are caught every year in Lake Superior.

​The fact that Isle Royale and Stannard Rock are so remote and difficult to access, just about guarantees that fishing success will continue to be excellent in the future.


​Truly big brook trout are a rare fish indeed. Only two destinations consistently produce brook trout worth bragging about including Lake Nipigon in Northwest Ontario and Nipigon Bay an appendage of Lake Superior. Both of these fisheries produce what are best described as “coaster” brook trout. Because Lake Nipigon was stocked with smelt back in the 1970’s, trout here have a super protein and fat rich forage base. The same is true of Lake Superior’s Nipigon Bay.

​The combination of an excellent forage base and relatively low fishing pressure create the ideal environment for growing brook trout that approach the double digit range!


​Big brown trout are getting to be as rare as trophy brook trout in the Great Lakes region. In recent years the Michigan DNR has dramatically reduced their brown trout stocking efforts into Great Lakes waters. The Michigan state brown trout was caught near Manistee, Michigan back in 2009. That fish weighed an impressive 41 pounds 7 ounces. The strain of brown trout Michigan was stocking in those days “seeforellen” had the potential to grow to extreme sizes. Michigan no longer stocking the seeforellen strain of brown trout and as a result, huge fish are no longer being caught.

Big brown trout are becoming harder and harder to find. This one was caught near Rochester, New York on Lake Ontario.

​Anglers who are interested in catching monster brown trout are better off fishing in the Wisconsin waters of Lake Michigan where brown trout are still stocked heavily and the seeforellen strain of brown trout is still being used. Several ports in Wisconsin including Milwaukee, Racine and Sheboygan routinely produce trophy sized brown trout.

​Lake Ontario also stocks brown trout heavily. The odds of catching a fish over 20 pounds is very good at Rochester, Oswego and Pulaski.


​Anglers who are interested in catching lots of walleye will have no issues in places like Saginaw Bay or Lake Erie. Both of these fisheries are currently experiencing record numbers thanks to several years of productive natural reproduction.

​Big walleye is another story. While truly big walleye are caught in both Lake Erie and Saginaw Bay, the odds are poorer compared to a handful of other walleye destinations.

​Green Bay is an appendage of Lake Michigan located in Wisconsin waters. This fishery offers walleye something they need to grow to super size and that something comes in the form of alewives. The alewife is rich in both fat and protein, helping to fuel big walleye unlike any other forage base.

​Green Bay also just happens to be the place that alewives prefer to spawn, creating the near perfect storm of food resources for the walleye of Green Bay.

​Green Bay is not the only place in the Great Lakes region where alewives play a pivotal role in generating a trophy walleye fishery. The Bay of Quinte located on the Canadian side of Lake Ontario is another good example of a trophy walleye fishery where alewife are the primary forage species.

​Across the lake from the Bay of Quinte is the port of Sodus Bay, located in New York waters. Sodus Bay is quietly becoming a destination for anglers targeting trophy walleye.


​Smallmouth bass are thriving all across the upper Great Lakes region. Smallmouth do very well in a lot of different bodies of water in part because smallmouth are opportunistic feeders. In short, smallmouth will eat a wide variety of forage species including benthic dwellers such as crayfish, round goby and spot-tail shiners. Smallies are just as comfortable suspending in the water column to eat pelagic forage species like alewives, gizzard shad, smelt and emerald shiners.

​When anglers think of smallmouth bass it’s hard not to think of Lake St. Clair. This fishery has for decades been the place to be for those who want to catch both numbers of fish and trophy class smallmouth bass.

Big smallmouth bass can be caught in a host of places these days. This monster came from the Buffalo, New York region of Lake Erie.

​A number of other destinations are also noteworthy smallmouth bass destinations. The eastern end of Lake Erie near Buffalo, New York has in recent years become well known for producing monster sized smallmouth bass. The perfect combination of spawning habitat and abundant natural forage makes this place a dream come true for smallmouth bass fishermen.

​Also in Lake Erie, the Canadian side of the lake near the Bass Islands has everything a smallmouth could want. The Canadian side of the lake sees much less fishing pressure than the Ohio side, not surprisingly setting up a situation where the best fishing is found in Ontario waters.

​Sturgeon Bay in Wisconsin is a smaller bay adjacent to Green Bay. This tiny slice of heaven has for many years been the perfect place to visit if truly big smallmouth bass trip your trigger. Not only is the fishing in Sturgeon Bay exceptional, the natural beauty of this region is second to none.

​Not unlike Sturgeon Bay, the Drummond Island region of Lake Huron is a stunningly beautiful region that offers anglers world class smallmouth bass fishing opportunities. Because of the northern latitude smallmouth in the Drummond Island region grow a little slower, but fishing pressure is light and big smallmouth bass are caught commonly.


​This article is just the tip of the iceberg when it comes to identifying great places to fish. Don’t forget, there are a lot of species not identified in this article worthy of catching including musky, coho salmon, Atlantic salmon, steelhead, crappie, largemouth bass and the list goes on and on. The point is, there are a lot of places to fish and even the most avid angler will struggle to visit all these noteworthy destinations. My suggestion, fish as many as you can. I virtually guarantee that will be a decision you won’t regret later in life!  


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