As the second-largest of the Great Lakes by volume, Lake Michigan has plenty of water for fish to live in.
Whether you’re a keen angler or just interested in aquatic life, we’re here to take an in-depth look at what kinds of fish are in Lake Michigan. There are up to 173 fish species in the Great Lakes – an impressive total!
Not all these fish are native species. Humans have introduced some through the years, which, as we’ll see, has caused some problems to the lake’s ecosystem.
The fish in Lake Michigan are one of the biggest attractions for visitors, so whether you’re on the shores of Wisconsin, Illinois, Indiana, or Michigan State, let’s dive in.
20 Common Fish in Lake Michigan
Lake Michigan is home to many different species of fish. We’ll look at some of the most common, including a selection of those popular with sport anglers. We’ve grouped them into similar families, starting with trout and salmon.
1. Rainbow Trout and Steelhead (Oncorhynchus mykiss) – Non-Native
Rainbow trout were introduced to the Great Lakes when eggs from California were stocked into the Au Sable River in 1876. Four years later, the fish reached Lake Michigan.
Rainbow trout and steelhead are genetically identical, but they’ve developed different lifestyles.
Regular rainbow trout stay inland, but the bigger specimens, known as steelheads, are migratory. Steelheads will move into tributaries to breed but live in the great inland lakes for the rest of their lives, as their native ancestors would have in the ocean.
Anglers prize steelheads as great fighters. However, catch limits have been proposed to help improve a reducing population.
Although not native to Lake Michigan, rainbow trout and steelheads have a positive impact as they will eat the destructive round goby in addition to being a valuable species for sports fishing and food.
2. Brook Trout (Salvelinus fontinalis)
The brook trout is native to the lake and is, in fact, the Michigan state fish.
The attractive fish, often called brookies, get up to twice as large in the lake as specimens in tributaries.
Fish weighing nearly 10 pounds and measuring 25 inches long have been caught in the lake, compared to the more usual 7 to 9 inches found in streams.
Brook trout hungrily devour aquatic insects like mayflies and stoneflies, as well as worms, crustaceans, and smaller fish.
3. Lake Trout (Salvelinus namaycush)
Lake trout are known to like cold water, so the depths of Lake Michigan are an ideal habitat.
Boat anglers get the most success with this species by trolling near the lake bottom, particularly in the summer.
They can even be caught in winter by ice fishing in deep water via holes cut through the frozen surface.
Lake trout can have a long life of over 25 years. Hence, they can reach impressive sizes compared to other trout species, with the record catch weighing over 60 pounds.
4. Brown Trout (Salmo trutta) – Non-Native
Brown trout were introduced in 1883, having been traditionally native to Europe and Asia.
The brown trout has excellent tolerance to higher water temperatures and is typically found feeding in shallower waters, making it an ideal target for shore anglers.
Like most trout, adult brown trout have a varied diet and will eat insects, mollusks, crustaceans, amphibians, smaller fish, and even small rodents if given a chance.
5. Chinook Salmon (Oncorhynchus tshawytscha) – Non-Native
Anglers call the chinook salmon the “King Salmon,” thanks to its strength and fight when on the line, and this mighty fish contributes as the dominant salmon species in a multi-billion dollar sport fishing industry on the lake.
The chinook was first introduced in the 1870s and took hold when stocked in large numbers in 1967.
It is typically a deeper water species, preferring cooler temperatures. However, they are caught near the surface in the early morning.
Chinook salmon love eating invasive alewife fish, and in 2022, chinook stocking was increased due to a resurgence in alewife populations.
The fish is bred commercially at state hatcheries and is raised from eggs to smolt in local school projects for students to release into nearby streams.
6. Coho Salmon (Oncorhynchus kisutch) – Non-Native
Coho salmon were introduced into the Great Lakes in 1966 at the beginning of the salmon fishery.
Although coho salmon will migrate to the lake’s tributaries to spawn, the population is sustained yearly by artificial stocking of year-old fish in early November.
Adult coho salmon enjoy eating smelt and alewives, and other smaller fish.
Cobo can be caught through the year, including in winter, by those who enjoy ice fishing.
7. Atlantic Salmon (Salmo salar) – Non-Native
The Atlantic salmon, known by anglers for its incredible strength and impressive leaping ability, isn’t as common as the other salmon species in Lake Michigan.
Most fish are stocked into Lake Huron, where the environment appears more suitable.
Accordingly, if you catch an Atlantic salmon, the department of natural resources asks you to report the details.
8. Pink Salmon (Oncorhynchus gorbuscha) – Non-Native
Anglers often catch pink salmon in the summer as they swim up the streams feeding into the northern areas of the lake to spawn.
This smaller salmon species was introduced accidentally into Lake Superior during the mid-1950s and, unlike its cousins, has a self-sustaining population that has spread around the Great Lakes without artificial stocking.
During spawning runs, male fish develop a distinctive humpback, which is why they’re known as humpback salmon in their native Pacific Northwest.
9. Smallmouth Bass (Micropterus dolomieu)
Smallmouth bass are a justifiably popular game fish and can be found in good numbers, particularly in northern Lake Michigan.
Informed anglers target the river mouths and weedy areas on the lake where the feisty fish likes to feed on crustaceans, insects, and small fish.
10. Largemouth Bass (Micropterus salmoides)
Largemouth bass like warmer water and are at their most active when it’s between 70 and 85°F. Accordingly, they’re almost always found in water shallower than 20 feet.
The largemouth bass is a fish that likes to be lazy, so don’t look where there’s current or turbidity.
Thanks to a plentiful supply of small fish, crayfish, insects, and amphibians to eat, largemouth bass grow larger than average in Lake Michigan, making them attractive for anglers across the surrounding states and further afield.
11. White Bass (Morone chrysops)
White bass are often seen in large schools in the early morning or late evening as they drive small fish like minnows up to the surface to feed on them.
Most white bass are caught as they swim up tributary streams during the spring to spawn. However, it’s also possible to catch them in deeper water during the summer while night fishing.
12. Lake Whitefish (Coregonus clupeaformis )
Lake whitefish has been one of the most commonly caught fish commercially from Lake Michigan.
However, it’s also one of the trickiest to catch as an individual angler.
The fish swims in small schools at least 200 feet or even deeper in the summer.
Climate change, overfishing, and invasive species caused the whitefish population to plummet in the mid-20th century. However, the authorities are actively researching and encouraging the resurgence of this native fish species.
13. Walleye (Sander vitreus)
To many Lake Michigan anglers, the walleye is the most exciting fish to catch.
The walleye are predators that will eat whatever small fish they can find year-round, so you can catch them in the winter.
It’s also known for being a particularly tasty fish to eat.
The curious name comes from the glassy-eyed look that their eyes have. In fact, this film improves the walleye’s sight and helps them hunt in low light conditions.
14. Sunfish (Lepomis macrochirus)
The sunfish family, including bluegill, pumpkinseed, red ear, and rock bass, are all found in Lake Michigan.
These fish like shallow waters, so they’re perfect for shore fishing.
Look near weedy patches on the Lake Michigan shoreline or where there’s sunken debris. Sunfish are also frequently found taking shelter underneath docks.
15. Yellow Perch (Perca flavescens)
There’s such a substantial population of yellow perch in Lake Michigan that this fish is the most frequently caught.
Yellow perch are typically caught in shallow waters near the shore while feeding in the morning or evening.
This tasty fish is active throughout the year, so they’re a popular target for ice anglers.
16. Rainbow Smelt (Osmerus mordax) – Non-Native
Rainbow smelt were stocked into Crystal Lake in 1912, from where they traveled to Lake Michigan.
The fish likes water around 45 °F and is sensitive to bright light, so they tend to stay in the lakes mid-waters.
The smelt population is not as large as it was at its height in the 1970s when “smelting” was big business.
Another invasive species, the zebra mussel, is believed to have disrupted the smelt’s food chain.
17. Common Carp (Cyprinus carpio) – Non-Native
Common carp were stocked into the rivers feeding Lake Michigan in the 1880s to provide food for the local farming population.
The fish enjoys shallow muddy waters where it can dig for plants, insects, and crustaceans.
18. Northern Pike (Esox Lucius)
Northern pike are predators known to eat pretty much anything they can fit in their mouths.
The fearsome fish tends to hide amongst the shallows in weed or around underwater debris where it can stalk its next meal.
Pike are popular with anglers who will use live bait to catch them.
The flesh is a little slimy for some people to eat, but it’s said to have an excellent flavor.
19. Black and White Crappie (Pomoxis nigromaculatus/annularis)
Both black and white crappie are found in Lake Michigan, and they’re best told apart by counting their dorsal spines. White always has six, while black has seven or eight.
These common fish are often found sheltering in schools amongst vegetation, including bulrushes or weeds, or in marinas where it’s protected.
20. Catfish and Bullheads
There are both channel catfish and flathead catfish in the lake, along with bullhead species, including the black bullhead and brown bullhead.
All are bottom dwellers generally known for scavenging anything they can find using their barbels and keen sense of smell.
The exception is the flathead catfish which will only eat live prey, making it more challenging to catch.
While channel catfish, in particular, grow pretty large, bullheads are smaller. They’re also known for the extremely sharp fin spines that make them very tricky to handle.
How Many Different Species of Fish Are in Lake Michigan?
A 2002 report by the Michigan Department for Natural Resources notes that there are “154 kinds of fishes (153 species) that represent 28 families.”
The Great Lakes Fishery Commission says that” The Great Lakes support 139 native species,” and “at least 34 non-native fish species are present,” with “61 fish species considered to be threatened or endangered.”
What is the Most Common Fish in Lake Michigan?
The most common fish in Lake Michigan by numbers will be one of the small prey species like the bloater, rainbow smelt, or deepwater or slimy sculpin. These small fish can be found in large quantities that are impossible to count depending on the season.
For anglers, the yellow perch is the most frequently caught game fish in the lake.
2 Biggest Fish in Lake Michigan
1. Lake Sturgeon (Acipenser fulvescens)
Lake sturgeon are the largest fish found in Lake Michigan.
These rare giants feed on the bottom using their sensory barbels to detect food.
2. Muskellunge/Musky (Esox masquinongy)
The musky is the second biggest fish found in Lake Michigan.
This native member of the pike family is an ambush predator typically found in the shallows, where it can withstand high water temperatures year-round.
Anglers rate the musky as one of the hardest freshwater fish to catch anywhere in the world, and they are a popular target for visitors to the Great Lakes.
What Is the Biggest Fish Ever Caught in Lake Michigan?
The largest fish ever caught in Lake Michigan is the lake sturgeon.
The official record stands at 193 pounds for a legally caught fish, although there are reports of fish weighing nearly 300 pounds having been landed.
The largest musky ever caught weighed an impressive 58 pounds.
3 Most Dangerous Fish in Lake Michigan
Although not dangerous to humans, the fish species in Lake Michigan that are most dangerous are three invasive species that threaten the population of both native fish and valuable introduced species.
1. Sea Lamprey (Petromyzon marinus)
Sea lampreys are a parasitic eel-like marine species that adapted to freshwater in the Great Lakes, having been allowed to enter when the Welland Canal was built, bypassing the natural barrier of Niagara Falls.
Lampreys have round mouths surrounded by sharp teeth, which they use to cut into their prey.
Once locked on, the lamprey will suck the host’s blood and kill it.
Lampreys have hugely damaged many fish populations in the Great Lakes. Large-scale efforts are ongoing to kill them off, including using species-specific lampricides that kill larvae.
2. Alewife (Alosa pseudoharengus)
Alewives are an anadromous species of herring that has adapted to all freshwater life, having arrived carried in the ballast tanks of ships that traveled through the Welland Canal.
The destructive fish consumes zooplankton and fish eggs which causes the decline in the population of many different native fish.
Salmon and trout have been stocked explicitly into Lake Michigan to feed on this invader.
3. Round Goby (Neogobius melanostomus)
The round goby is another invader that negatively affects native species by eating their fish eggs.
The goby can breed multiple times each year and lay hundreds of eggs meaning that until recently, their population appeared unmanageable.
Fortunately, recent research suggests that natural predators may finally be bringing the pest under control.
Are There Sharks in Lake Michigan?
However, the water temperature in the lake (the shark would freeze to death most of the year!), along with the vast distance the shark would need to swim, as well as the natural and artificial obstacles it would need to overcome, mean that a bull shark reaching Lake Michigan would be an impossibility.
Are There Piranhas in the Great Lakes?
No, there aren’t Piranhas in the Great Lakes.
Occasionally aquarium fish, including the Piranha’s fruit-eating cousin, the Pacu, get dumped by their owners into waterways.
But they can’t survive in the cold water temperatures and quickly die.
Can You Eat the Fish From Lake Michigan?
Yes, you can eat the fish in Michigan lakes.
The Great Lakes Fishery is worth billions of dollars every year, and much of this is from fish that are eaten.
However, due to pollution in the lake, the authorities recommend that the frequency of eating some fish species is limited for people’s health.
Each year an Eat Safe Fish guide is published to help people decide what they should eat and how often.
The fish in Lake Michigan are as varied as the lake is enormous.
Almost all freshwater fish families are represented, and the lake offers every level of sport fishing imaginable for anglers.
British-born Dan has been a scuba instructor and guide in Egypt's Red Sea since 2010.
Dan loves inspiring safe, fun, and environmentally responsible diving and particularly enjoys the opportunity to dive with sharks or investigate local shipwrecks.
When not spending time underwater, Dan can usually be found biking and hiking in Sharm's desert surroundings.