Fishing in the Great Lakes means different things to different people. For some, recreational or sport fishing is a time-honored tradition or way to connect to the natural world. For others, it represents an income stream for their coastal business or community. Some anglers invest in large boats and expensive tackle to target salmon in Lake Michigan or walleye in Lake Erie. Other anglers participate by casting a lure from a rowboat or local pier.
The Michigan Department of Natural Resources (MDNR) provides a wealth of resources for anglers, including weekly fishing reports, online license sales, information on popular fish species, and fishing events around the state. Visit the MDNR fishing hub for more information.
Popular fish to catch
The Great Lakes are home to many sport fish species. The diversity of fish species spans the spectrum: from warmer water species of the shallower bays and nearshore areas to cold-water species like lake trout or salmon found in deeper, open waters. Some popular fish species include:
- Yellow perch
- Largemouth and smallmouth bass
- Pan fish (sunfish, crappie, rock bass)
- Lake trout
- Pacific salmon (Chinook, coho, steelhead)
Recreational fishing is most popular on Lake Erie and Lake Michigan. The most popular species sought by U.S. and Canadian anglers in the Great Lakes are yellow perch and walleye. Both can be easily caught from the shore, piers, and small boats along the coastline — and they are good table fare.
Women who fish
Research shows that women are an underrepresented minority among recreational anglers; in Michigan, only about 1 in 5 recreational anglers is a woman. However, as overall participation in recreational fishing gradually drops, interest and involvement from women is actually beginning to rise.
In 2018-2019, Michigan Sea Grant Graduate Research Fellow Erin Burkett collected stories from some of the Michigan ladies who pick up poles and lures to see what they can catch. Erin and her project partners captured the women’s experiences and photos in an interactive story map called “Connection: Stories from Women who Fish.”
For many anglers, a frigid winter represents new opportunities. While data on ice fishing participation and its economic contribution is not comprehensive, the numerous shantytowns, season-specific tournaments, and communities of anglers that crop up during the winter months seem to indicate a vibrant industry.
Fishing through holes drilled into the ice offers unique experiences, such as:
- Access to areas that are usually weedy or off-limits to anglers without boats during the summer.
- A chance to catch different species, with some deepwater species — including lake trout, whitefish, and burbot — moving into shallower waters to spawn during the colder winter months.
- Different equipment and techniques, such as tip-ups (set lines that pop up a flag when fish bite), hook and line, spears, and different bait and lures.
- An opportunity to get outside during the cold months of the year.
Dollars and sense
Sport-fishing contributes to the economy and regional identity of many communities in the Great Lakes region in many ways. Many coastal communities have embraced an identity as sport-fishing hot spots. Some organize popular fishing festivals and sport fishing tournaments to attract visitors and to celebrate their Great Lakes fisheries resource heritage.
Accounting for every dollar spent on fishing-related activities is an impossible task, making it extremely difficult to determine the total economic contribution of sport fishing to the Great Lakes region. Economists have generated estimates of absolute value ranging from $1.5 billion to greater than $7 billion. Both U.S. and Canadian surveys suggest that Great Lakes anglers, on average, spend more than $1,100 each year on fishing trips and equipment.
How many anglers are there?
Surveys conducted every five years by the U.S. and Canadian governments are good indicators of participation by anglers in Great Lakes fisheries. A U.S. Fish and Wildlife survey shows that approximately 1.7 million anglers spent nearly 20 million days fishing U.S. waters of the Great Lakes in 2011. In Canadian waters of the Great Lakes, nearly 440,000 anglers fished more than 4.5 million days in 2010. According to combined license sale records for Great Lakes states, nearly 8 million people in total purchased fishing licenses.
Numbers of sport anglers in U.S. and Canadian waters have significantly declined since surveys were first administered in the early 1990s. The number of Great Lakes anglers has dropped by around 35 percent in U.S. waters (down from 2.6 million anglers in 1991) and 56 percent in Canadian waters (down from 1 million anglers in 1990). However, more recent surveys from both countries have reported stabilizing trends in fishing participation during the past decade — angler numbers have remained stable in Canada since 2005 and even slightly increased in the U.S. since 2006.
Inspiring the next generation of anglers
One fear is that fewer people participating in outdoor activities will result in less interest in natural resource conservation. However, many anglers and angling groups have recognized the importance of introducing the next generation to fishing and have made concerted efforts to get young people interested in fishing and natural resources.
Michigan Sea Grant Extension educators offer regional camps for students interested in fishing or learning to fish. Check our events calendar for upcoming camps in your area. Michigan State University Extension also coordinates Project F.I.S.H. (Friends Involved in Sportfishing Heritage) to support fishing education and fishing skills in Michigan adults and youth.