Fishing the Great Lakes on Mackinac Island, Then and Now

Fishing on Mackinac Island isn’t the first thing that comes to mind for many visitors. After all, everybody knows about world-famous Mackinac Island fudge and horse-drawn carriage tours. And if you’re into history, you might know that Mackinac Island was once an important economic and military center – home of Fort Mackinac and the fur trade.

But did you know that Mackinac Island also was a big commercial fishery?

As the fur trade faded in the 1800s and the military significance of Fort Mackinac began to wane, it was fishing that kept Mackinac Island’s economy afloat until the tourism business really started booming.

Two hundred years ago, on an expedition through the Michigan Territory with then-Governor Lewis Cass, geographer Henry Schoolcraft raved about “the variety and the delicacy of the fish” around Mackinac Island including trout, white fish, lake herring, bass, sturgeon, perch and more.

Fishing off the shores of Mackinac Island for lake trout, salmon and other Great Lakes species is a popular summer activity.

Some things never change. To this day, Mackinac Island is a great spot for recreational charter fishing on the Great Lakes.

Both North Shore Fishing Charters and E.U.P. Fishing and Charters out of St. Ignace lead guided trips in the Straits of Mackinac. They’ll come pick you up on Mackinac Island, clean the fish you catch and even freeze them for you to take home at the end of your vacation.

You can enjoy the same quality fishing and beautiful scenery that impressed Schoolcraft two centuries ago. And you can do it in the comfort of modern boats equipped with state-of-the-art gear and electronics that are perfect for deep water lake fishing.

“Our go-to fish is the lake trout,” said Chris Decker, captain of North Shore Fishing Charters. “A big one is considered 20 pound and we get some of them. They average about eight, nine pounds and go up from there.

“It’s deep water trolling. You’re usually fishing a lot of line and to pull one up from 200 feet you’ve got a lot of line to reel in.”

 Infographic showing the four most common fish caught in the Great Lakes off Mackinac Island: trout, salmon, whitefish and carp


Two centuries ago, Mackinac Island was known for its fishing bounty

Back in the 1800s, as fishing became big business on Mackinac Island, people adapted the boats used to transport furs and turned them into fishing boats. Many immigrants found work on the boats, selling their catch for as little as 2 cents per pound! But because they caught so many fish, they made enough profit on volume to make a living.

Mackinac Island also developed a supporting industry with people working as coopers who built barrels where fish were salted and stored. Thanks to the development of steamships, hundreds of thousands of barrels of fish each year were shipped from Mackinac Island to markets in Chicago, Detroit, Cleveland and beyond. As Schoolcraft wrote 200 years ago, “whether fresh or salted, nothing of the fish kind can excel” the catch off Mackinac Island.

Commercial fishing no longer is such a big industry on Mackinac Island. But the Straits of Mackinac are still home to great fishing. After all, of all the great places to fish in the world, there’s only one place where you can put a line down with Fort Mackinac and the mighty Mackinac Bridge in the background.

Fishing off Mackinac Island just might be the best-kept secret in the Great Lakes!

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