Michigan Is Blessed With Some Of The Best Great Lakes Salmon Tributaries…
There is something special about fishing stream salmon in the fall. Perhaps it is the cool nights and smell of goldenrod along the river bank. Or is it the powerful line stripping runs of runaway monster fish that is so appealing? If you are not there to experience the fun-filled action, you could be missing some of the hottest fishing of the year. Here’s why.
When thousands of firm-fleshed, mint silver salmon first assault area rivers, the fishing action is top notch. Big kings, fresh from the lake, are a challenge to locate and once they take the hook they are difficult to land. A bright fish is very muscular, hard bodied and almost impossible to control in a small Michigan tributary.
For years I’ve monitored the salmon runs on Michigan’s major tributaries and it is my opinion that the first fish to enter tributaries are the big dogs. This year you can count on some monsters entering Area Rivers because 20-pound plus fish are coming at a fast rate from trollers. I’ve seen photographs of several over 25 lbs., one 28-pounder and one 31.6 lbs. Kings this size are mules to land in Michigan’s tiny tributaries but it is the thrill of the battle and heart breaking defeat when the huge fish snaps your line that draws thousands of anglers to the banks of Michigan’s top salmon streams.
I have a friend that is a stream salmon nut. He spends cool nights on the banks of the Little Manistee at the “Tubes” where early run giant kings congregate before charging upriver. Northwest blows, strong easterly winds and cool rain showers bring chrome kings up the river from June through early September.
Theses are the result of naturally reproduced salmon. The Little River is rich with oxygen and 40 degree ground water which is the perfect combination to attract early salmon. It also has good flow, an abundance of spawning gravel and ample natural cover to support salmon which tend to move into the system under the cover of darkness and take up positions in the deepest holes by dawn. My friend is a pro at predicting when massive schools of silver bullets enter the system. Some nights he hooks only a couple fish, other nights he will go through 100 hooks.
This year the Grand will have a run of adult coho averaging 6-10 lbs. and the hot spot for limit catches is the white water at the 6th Street Dam in downtown Grand Rapids. You can expect the silvers to show around September 17th, a date that has historically been perfect timing to intercept massive runs of fish. Some kings will be mixed in with the coho but better king fishing is expected throughout the month. Coho are crazy salmon; once they enter a river system they outrun kings, turn on the afterburners and charge upstream to the dam at lightning speed. They stay at the dam for a couple weeks, other times they blast further upstream and the hot fishing will only last a few days. The trick to outstanding fall stream salmon success hinges on timing. Arrive at the river when the chromers first come in and they are snapping at every presentation and the fishing excitement is second to none. I have friends that fish almost every day and call me on my cell when the run is peak. God bless modern cell phones which can help you arrive at the stream within minutes or a few hours after the major run chokes the waterway with piscatorial pleasures.
With fond memories I recall just such a sweet cell phone call from fishing friend Dave Payne from Eagle, saying that silvers were assaulting the 6th St. Dam. Less than two hours later I arrived with camera in hand to capture images of fishing friends doing battle with coho salmon by the dozen and a few kings mixed in. The hot set up was a piece of pink yard on a size #4 hook attached to a 6 foot leader and bounced through the white water using a round ball sinker. Anglers would cast far out into the swirling water, set the hook and hang on as feisty salmon smoked line off the drag and used the heavy current to pull anglers downstream.
At one point a young angler complained about fish not striking his hook. I checked the rig, removed the bent dull hook and snelled a piece of light pink yard with yellow eye onto the shank. The young fisherman made three drifts and was into a nice salmon. The wide smile on his happy face made my day, but the icing on the cake was when he coaxed the big fish to shore and it ended up a monster brown trout; complete with huge spawning kype, dark brown dots and a beautiful tan brown underbelly.
Stream salmon can be caught using a variety of fishing methods. Folks on the lower Pere Marquette River cast lure quartering downstream and crank offerings upstream through salmon holding holes. Top producers include Thunderstick, Ping-a Tee and spinners with orange or chartreuse tape on the back of a silver blade. Fresh spawn tied into bags is perhaps the most popular bait, but savvy stream fishermen have learned that floating a piece of cut skein below a bobber is deadly on stream kings. The trick is to get eggs that are still in the skein or membrane cluster, cut them into quarter-size bites, roll them in 20 Mule Team Boraxo hand soap and harden the eggs for handling. Single hooks are placed about 4 feet below a bobber and the offering is threaded on the hook by piercing the skein membrane, not hooking the eggs that will immediately break. The bobber is cast at the head of a hole and the offering drifts downstream to waiting salmon. Most strikes are highlighted by the bobber simply stopping and slowly going under the stream surface. Rookie skein anglers confuse the gentle take with a snag, but seasoned bobber anglers set the hook when the bobber begins to tilt. Where do you get fresh skein? Visit the cleaning station at most Great Lakes ports or on most major rivers.
If you have never chased salmon on Michigan’s Great Lakes tributaries you should make a trip to Tippy Dam on the world famous Big Manistee River. Runs begin in August and build throughout September. But if you go in October you can count on seeing hundreds of spawning salmon long as your leg. Most are not prime eating but the fishing fun makes the trip worth while, and this is a perfect time to gather loose eggs from ripe hens for future salmon or steelhead outings.
One of my fall steelheading tricks is to stop at Tippy and land a loose hen, get fresh spawn, tie bags with floaters and hit the surf at dawn off Alberta near Frankfort.
Fall salmon runs are all temperature related. Fish enter tributaries when stream water temperatures drop. This can be caused by rain, unseasonable cold weather fronts and strong northern breezes. Perhaps the most important element is rain. Rain causes the oxygen levels in streams to rise and salmon detect they can survive river conditions and vacate the Great Lakes for rivers and streams. Some runs occur under the cover of darkness but if a heavy thunderstorm rolls in with pouring cold rain and cold air temperatures salmon will run during broad daylight. I’ve seen coho charge up the Platte River in Benzie County during a brisk nor’wester. Observed schools in the pounding surf as they position to charge upstream and watched as masses of silver coho ride the pounding waves all the way to the boat launch 200 yards upstream from the pounding surf. Once a few fish enter the river, smell the oxygen/nitrogen rich rain enriched flow and keep going upstream; more will follow. Sometimes Michigan’s tributaries go from slow moving warm waterways with few fish to fast flowing rivers choked with fresh run silvery salmon and the change can take place overnight.
Once salmon move into a river system few back down. The vast majority will charge upstream, position in deep holes and runs, waiting the ripening of eggs and sperm in preparation for spawning. Some will remain in a relatively small area for several days or weeks; others put on their running shoes and sprint upriver many miles before they rest. Your task is to intercept them. If Michigan’s late summer/early fall weather remains on the cool trend of summer; you can expect excellent fishing much earlier this fall. I do not have a crystal ball to see the fishing future but I’d guess rivers will be full of salmon by the second week in September and excellent fishing will be available through early October. But if Michigan has a warm fall with little rain the major runs will be postponed until stream temperatures drop. My suggestion would be to call bait and tackle stores and get the latest fishing information.
I hope you have the opportunity to chase stream salmon this fall, the action is expected to be top notch. Pick your favorite fishing method: chuckin’ spoons or spinners, working flies, floating bobbers, crankin’ lures or bottom bouncing; they all produce fish. One thing is certain; Michigan is blessed with some of the best Great Lakes salmon tributaries teeming with fish.