We evaluated a pilot aquatic invasive species (AIS) early detection monitoring program in Lake Superior that was designed to detect newly introduced fishes. We established survey protocols for three major ports (Duluth-Superior, Sault Ste. Marie, Thunder Bay) and designed an adaptive cycle for routine evaluation of survey performance. Among the three ports, we found both similarities (species richness) and differences (introduced species detectability, species detection efficiency) with respect to AIS survey performance. Despite those differences, our analysis indicated potential for increasing detection efficiency at all three ports by exploiting differences in fish assemblages and sampling gears to increase rare species encounters. Using this information in the adaptive cycle, we demonstrate the ability to improve AIS detection efficiency. Our pilot monitoring program with its adaptive cycle of assessment, refinement, and implementation provides a performance-based approach to increase AIS detection efficiency over the course of a survey and within practical resource constraints.