Larval fish are frequently sampled in coastal tributaries to determine factors affecting recruitment, evaluate spawning success, and estimate production from spawning habitats. Imperfect detection of larvae is common, because larval fish are small and unevenly distributed in space and time, and coastal tributaries are often large and heterogeneous. We estimated detection probabilities of larval fish from several taxa in the Maumee and Detroit rivers, the two largest tributaries of Lake Erie. We then demonstrated how accounting for imperfect detection influenced (1) the probability of observing taxa as present relative to sampling effort and (2) abundance indices for larval fish of two Detroit River species. We found that detection probabilities ranged from 0.09 to 0.91 but were always less than 1.0, indicating that imperfect detection is common among taxa and between systems. In general, taxa with high fecundities, small larval length at hatching, and no nesting behaviors had the highest detection probabilities. Also, detection probabilities were higher in the Maumee River than in the Detroit River. Accounting for imperfect detection produced up to fourfold increases in abundance indices for Lake Whitefish Coregonus clupeaformis and Gizzard Shad Dorosoma cepedianum. The effect of accounting for imperfect detection in abundance indices was greatest during periods of low abundance for both species. Detection information can be used to determine the appropriate level of sampling effort for larval fishes and may improve management and conservation decisions based on larval fish data.