Fast-Paced River Salmon Fun…
Michigan has had crazy weather this year. Heavy summer rain brought flood stage water to most rivers and kings amazing showed in the Little Manistee and Pere Marquette in July! You can expect more fish to assault Great Lakes tributaries in August and the major king runs will come in September.
What is puzzling about river salmon is they can be difficult to catch. Most anglers think they will hit anything, but centuries of stream fishing has taught us that only a few specific tactics produce results. Sport fishermen found that deep-diving plugs wiggling in the current would provoke strikes and casting spinners across the current works too. Salmon really do not feed on their spawning run. But if you want maximum hook-ups and some fast-paced river salmon fun, the ultimate bait for catching river salmonids is spawn. Sure you can take a few fish on spawn bags, which are thumb size balls made by placing loose eggs in colored netting. However, if you want salmon to gulp your presentation and if you want consistent river salmon action, you need to use cut spawn. Here’s why.
Michigan fishermen have discovered that salmon will inhale a chunk of tight skein. This seems strange since their stomach actually atrophies and they are incapable of digesting food. Yet they gobble skein like it is candy. This is also true for salmon in Alaska and the Pacific Northwest where anglers use skein on spoons, Wobble glo and single hooks.
Fresh spawn works great right out of salmon, but you are best off treating the skein to make it tougher and stay on the hook better. You can treat eggs streamside if you are anxious to use fresh spawn but in most cases you should let it cure a few hours or overnight to get the full benefit of skein fishing.
Kings go nuts for a chunk of skein drifting in the current. They strike the offering more often than coho, browns or steelies and I’m not certain exactly why. Is it the waving action of the membrane that holds the eggs together that draws their attention? Maybe the odor of fresh eggs, held tight in the natural membrane smells irresistible. Heck, I’ve seen kings in clear water streams like the Platte, Betsie, Pere Marquette, Boardman in Traverse City and more swim several feet across current to get in a downstream feeding position of the drifting candy. Sometimes they gulp the bait and you can see them smashing the eggs in their mouth, between their sharp teeth, and a cloud of milky substance is expelled through their gills. More often they slowly open their huge maw, take the bait very gently, in a non-violent feeding fashion, and the strike is less abrupt than a small trout or perch pecking at your hook.
So, which skein works best and where can you get it? It has been this old river rat’s experience that the number one skein comes from Chinook salmon. Coho will work, steelhead is OK, brown eggs are almost impossible to find, but king eggs are the ticket. My recommendation would be to visit a salmon trolling port like Ludington, Frankfort, Manistee, and Grand Haven, anyplace that has a fish cleaning station. Go in August when king eggs are still tight in the skein. Most Great Lakes trollers catch enough kings that they simply toss the valuable bait down the grinder with the carcass. Wash the eggs to remove blood, let drip dray, place in ZipLoc freezer bag with a couple hands full of Boraxo 20 Mule team soap. Roll skein until cover with Boraxo and freeze. A skein will keep for a couple years in the freezer. I collect skein for fall and spring fishing during August when catching Great Lakes kings that have tight membrane. By September 1st I’ve got several king skeins in the freezer and when the fish are slamming spawn in Sep.-Nov., I’ve got plenty of bait for river outings.
When you get ready to go fishing, thaw the skein, cut it with scissors into bite size bits and cover the eggs with Boraxo 20 Mule Team soap. Place the eggs on newspaper and roll until the bits are covered with soap and the moisture of the cut eggs has disappeared. Toss any newspaper that is wet or covered with egg gunk. Allow the eggs to dry for a few hours, place in clean Ziploc bag, jar or plastic container and refrigerate. Roll skein in Ziploc to completely cover all moist areas, ad more Boraxo if the powder gets mushy. Skein in the frig can last several months, provided you keep rolling it and adding new Boraxo. Take out the day you want to fish. You can reach into the bag and grab individual chunks and not cover your hands, clothing, and boat with egg juice.
The biggest advantage of rolling cut chunks in Boraxo is it dries the membrane, makes it easier to place on the hook and the eggs toughen up. This process happens relatively quickly and you can go fishing with the cut skein almost immediately after it has been rolled in Boraxo.
If you catch a female river king and her eggs are still tight, you can make dynamite bait pronto by cutting and treating with Boraxo powder. Some stream fishermen prefer to use skein that has not been frozen.
One deadly trick is to use a bit of color with the Boraxo. This gives the eggs a more vivid look and salmon love eggs died red, orange, pink or yellow. One of my secret tricks is to use a pinch of Siberian Salmon Egg cure radiant orange color. Mix it 50/50 with Boraxo, stir it with eggs and it will quickly turn them a beautiful bright orange color that river kings can not resist. Some anglers prefer to mix eggs with cherry Jell-O mix and others use regular food coloring. Some coloring will dye your hands, so when using colored cut spawn make certain to carry a rag to wipe hands.
The problem with cut spawn is it’s difficult to keep on the hook. It requires a gentle lob cast in order to prevent jerking the offering off the hook. Some Michigan anglers use a skein egg loop knot or snell on the hook. You can snell single or treble hooks. I prefer using a large single hook No.4 Mustad 92141, which has a turned up eye. The snell knot wraps around the shank of the hook out through the eye and the skein is placed in the loop of the line near the eye. The loop holds the egg cluster and because the skein is cured it will stay on the hook for quite a while. Eggs will break off the cluster and drift in the current, which is a fine way to chum salmon. When the eggs are gone and only the white membrane remains, replace with a fresh skein chunk.
Another method to keep the bait on the hook is to place the hook through the cluster membrane and slide the skein up the shank while you hook the offering three or four times. The idea is to place the barb through the tough membrane and avoid breaking eggs. Salmon and trout prefer cut spawn that is in a ball larger than a quarter and smaller than a golf ball. If the bait comes unhooked and it is dangling in the water, they will ignore the presentation. If you notice eggs that are about to fall off the hook, place the point of the hook through loose membrane in order to get eggs back into a ball shape.
There are two outstanding ways to present skein: 1. Float or bobber fishing 2. Drop-back style bottom bouncing. Drop-back fishing is very popular on large rivers like: St. Joseph, Kalamazoo, grand, Muskegon, and Big Manistee where deep holes and long runs hold fish. A boat is anchored above the run and the skein is allowed to free-spool downstream from the craft. Many Michigan fishermen use baitcasting reels with reliable drag systems, medium action 7 ft rods rigged with 10-15 lb clear mono. The main line is attached to a 3-way swivel with a 6-10″ dropper line and 1/4-1 oz. weight and lighter test 8-10 lb. fluorocarbon leader 18-30″ to the hook. A snap swivel is used on the dropper so you can change bell sinkers, lead balls or other weights to match current conditions.
Lower the bait behind the boat until it touches bottom. Lift your rod tip slowly and allow line to free-spool until you feel the weight touch bottom again. The idea is to walk or bounce the bait through the hole while keeping enough tension on the line to feel the strike. When you detect the tap-tap, slightly lower the tip, engage the reel and jerk the rod upward to set the hook.
Float or bobber fishing has taken over Michigan Rivers by storm. Gone are the days of endless knot tying from hooking snags on bottom because smart bobber fishermen suspend the offering off bottom. Modern salmon fishermen use long rods, relatively light line and bobbers that indicate the strike. Float fishing is perhaps the deadliest river fishing technique used in Michigan. Years ago anglers used stand-up style Carlyle wooden bobbers or even red/white pike bobbers. The last few years Michigan has undergone a bobber fishing revolution and today savvy anglers are combining custom floats, a string of small split shot, ant-sized swivels, small hooks, fluorocarbon leaders and centerpin float fishing reels. Bulky bobbers and large split shot will also catch fish, especially on Michigan’s large rivers, but when water conditions are clear and slow-moving you will up your catch 50 percent by using more specialized float fishing methods. Hey, if you have not made the switch, I recommend you take a peek at the unique trout/salmon floats, hooks, spawn netting, fluorocarbon line, tubing, and round split shot available from Red Wing Tackle on line at: www.redwingtackle.com.
Savvy float fishermen position above holes or deep runs and allow the cut spawn to float freely downstream in the current. Some anglers place slight pressure on the bobber giving it a slower action to kick the skein slightly upward in the current before releasing more line. When a king inhales cut spawn he slowly swims directly downstream from the floating food, allows the bait to drift into striking distance and swims upward to gulp the offering. Strikes can be like a violent shark attack which jerks the bobber under, but more often than not the float wiggles to initiate the take and slowly drifts below the surface as the bobber floats downstream from the salmon. Hook-ups are much higher with bobbers than bottom-bouncing simply because the float drifts downstream from fish and the hook is set directly into the salmon’s jaw rather than pulling the hook out of the fish’s mouth by jerking upstream.
No salmon article would be complete without telling you where to go for limit catches of monster fish. Well, my recommendation would be to try pier fishing with cut spawn suspended off bottom using marshmallows in early season, then graduate to the deep holes in major rivers when runs peak during September. Follow schools upstream to area dam sites like: Allegan Dam on Kazoo, 6th Street on Grand, Croton on Muskegon, and Tippy on the Big Manistee. The Betsie in Beulah or Boardman River in Traverse City can be sleepers and surf casting along sandy beaches in Platte Bay is fun. But when kings take to spawning gravel head to the upper Muskegon, Pere Marquette fly waters and don’t miss the great fishing at Tippy Dam. Walk downstream to the Sawdust Hole and you might see me catching kings from shore using a deadly technique: bobber and skein.