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Atlantic salmon

Drawing of Atlantic salmon

Illustration by Joseph R. Tomelleri ©

Salmo salar - scientific name


Atlantic salmon can be hard to identify. Identifying Atlantic salmon, Chinook salmon, coho salmon, rainbow (steelhead) trout and brown trout.

Adults have black spots on sides, mostly above lateral line. Dark pectoral fins, caudal fin may be slightly forked, nine or 10 rays in anal fin. Two dorsal fins, including one adipose fin. Caudal peduncle is generally narrow and tapered. Narrow pointed, vomerine tongue with four to six small teeth. Jaw usually extends to rear edge of eye or slightly beyond.


The primary fishery is in the St. Mary's River, while the state maintains a fishery in Torch Lake (Antrim Co) with stocked fish, as well as Lexington Harbor, Thunder Bay River and Au Sable River each spring under an experimental stocking program. Atlantic salmon can be caught in Lake Huron, the St. Marys River and even the St. Clair River by Port Huron. Fall returns of spawning fish occur at each location, primarily in Oct.-Dec. Anglers troll for them using downriggers, though some anglers drift in current below the rapids, casting with streamers or soft-plastic jerk baits. In the spring, Atlantics prefer the upper, warmer layers of the lake near shore. In the summer they retreat to deeper, cooler water. When fall approaches they again come shoreward as they head toward their spawning stream as the cycle repeats.

Have you caught an Atlantic salmon? Contact your local DNR Fisheries biologist to provide information about your catch.

Review Fishing Guide for current rules and regulations »


Salmon in the lake eat crustaceans, but seek out smelt, alewives and other available forage. While on their spawning run they do not feed, but will often strike out of aggression.

Life history:

Spawning migrations vary by stream of origin, but the St. Mary's River run typically begins in mid-summer and runs until November when spawning commences. The female chooses a gravel-bottomed riffle above or below a pool, and digs a nest, or redd. As she lays her eggs in this depression, the male simultaneously releases sperm. Then the female pushes gravel back over the eggs. When spawning is finished the adults may rest in the river for some time and then return to the lake. Atlantic salmon can potentially spawn multiple years.

Eggs hatch the following spring, and emerge from the gravel a few weeks later. At that stage of their development, they stay in the stream's fast water, eating and growing for 2-3 months, or until they are about 6 inches long. Then they move downriver to the Great Lakes, where they grow rapidly, and weigh 3-6 pounds after one year. Some return to their spawning grounds after this first year while others wait an extra year or more, growing to a weight of around 6 pounds.

Background Information:

One of the most prized game fish in the world, Atlantic salmon are known for their leaping and fighting ability. Although they were once native to Lake Ontario, they were extirpated from the Great Lakes before 1900. They were first successfully introduced to the other Great Lakes in 1972 when Michigan stocked around 20,000 young Atlantic salmon in the Boyne and Au Sable rivers. Currently Great Lake Atlantic salmon stockings are maintained by a spawning run on the St. Mary's River, where eggs and milt are collected at the Lake Superior State University laboratory.

Did you know the DNR rears Atlantic salmon at the Harrietta State Fish Hatchery and the Platte River State Fish Hatchery?

The success and future of Atlantic salmon rearing in Michigan