Cutting Edge Techniques And Location Specific Strategies…

For over 40 years Manistee has been serving up world class king salmon fishing. Lake Michigan trolling anglers account for the lion’s share of the Chinook salmon taken there. That big water fishery peaks during August, which is when tens of thousands of giant, adult king salmon stage in that area prior to running the rivers during the fall. Read on for cutting edge techniques and location specific strategies to maximize your king salmon fishing success at Manistee.

A Little History

I grew up in Manistee County, just down the road from the birthplace of the Great Lake’s salmon fishery. The Great Lakes Chinook salmon program began over 40 years ago with the Little Manistee River being the primary stocking site for those first young king salmon smolts. Like the coho before them, those original chinook stocks also came from the Pacific Northwest and within a few years, fat, healthy kings were running up the Little Manistee River where eggs and milt were collected for a fledgling, stocking program.

I can still remember the first king salmon that I caught. I was trolling with a Silver Flatfish inside the break walls where the Manistee River dumps into Lake Michigan. That spot is locally known as the Basin. I only had one pole and was weaving my way around the massive flotilla of boats when a huge fish suddenly smashed my lure. I was actually fishing for coho salmon, which were starting to show up in huge schools around Manistee. I thought I was well equipped for the task with a big spinning rod/reel spooled with 20 pounds test line. That rig had handled big coho salmon with ease, but when my first king latched on, I was in for the ride of my life. That first year that adult kings showed up at Manistee was a real eye opener for anglers. Those kings ran especially massive in the early 1970s with 30+ pounders being frequent catches.

That big king took off with a vengeance and took line screaming from my reel so fast that I knew it was not a coho. It was just pure luck that the big fish didn’t tangle into the other boats that were trolling there, and after a long battle I finally worked the big brute up alongside the boat where I gaffed him and hauled his bulk aboard. As the huge fish flopped around the deck of my boat, I was simply awestruck by the sheer enormity of the fish. I’ve sense boated thousands of big kings and every one of them have provided thrills that no other Great Lakes fish can match.

The Michigan DNR maintains an egg taking weir on the Little Manistee River. Salmon and steelhead eggs are taken there, so stocking efforts at Manistee are kept robust to maintain a strong run. There is also a large amount of natural salmon reproduction that takes place in the Big Manistee River and her tributaries. Lake Michigan off Manistee typically pulls in hundreds of thousands of adult kings due to all the stocking and natural reproduction in the Manistee area couples ideal habitat offshore. Salmon typically return to their natal streams to spawn and they stage close by during the months just prior to running the streams. This is why Manistee and

surrounding ports usually boast the highest king salmon catch rates in Michigan during late summer. Manistee also typically leads the state in Master Angler qualifying salmon too, making it the ideal port to catch not only big numbers of kings, but also some whoppes as well.

Good News–Bad News

The good news is that Manistee provides one of the most awesome salmon fisheries in the world; the even better news is that as of this writing, there are no more commercial fishing nets to negotiate in the Manistee area, which will make that port much safer and more enjoyable for fishermen. The down side is that the lack of nets in the Manistee area coupled with heavy commercial fishing activity in other areas will certainly result in many more anglers than normal heading to Manistee this summer. Because Manistee is one of Michigan’s oldest and most productive ports, anglers are drawn there in mass, especially during August. I’ve seen weekends there in August when the fishing fleet numbered more than several thousand strong.

The best way to avoid the crowds at Manistee is to avoid weekends. Even Fridays and Mondays are somewhat crowded there too, so the best days for fishing are Tuesday through Thursday. It’s the most crowded during the mornings and most anglers will set up on “The Shelf,” a drop-off where water depths range between 60 and 150 feet. If you target waters shallower or deeper than the shelf during the first couple hours of the morning, then you’ll find much less competition and often more success.

Topography of the Area

Millennium of siltation from the outflow of the Manistee River has created a delta of sorts in the Lake Michigan waters off Manistee. Where 30 to 40′ depths fall off to beyond 100′ is called “The Shelf.” The Shelf is about one-mile from shore south and north of Manistee, but west (called out-front); The Shelf is about four miles from the break walls. The water drops to about 250′ beyond The Shelf, but about five to six miles from shore the depths increase rapidly to 500′ and deeper.

The deepest spot in Lake Michigan is located about 25 miles northwest of Manistee at 930 feet. All the irregular drop-offs in the Manistee area of Lake Michigan really attracts and holds lots of baitfish, which in turn pulls in the salmon, big time. That same structure and close by very deep water also results in a vastly different water temperatures that seem to change all the time. The best king salmon fishermen that I know really key in on the water temperatures and tailor their strategies based on that factor more than anything else.

Post Cold Front Conditions

Cold fronts packing strong north winds tend to roll the water over on occasion washing out the warm water and dropping the surface temps sometimes into the 40s by Manistee. When that happens the salmon will abandon their offshore feeding patterns and often head in close to shore; sometimes in water as shallow as 10 feet. When the water rolls over, I like to target the 10-30′ shallows much like one would when pursuing browns during the spring.

During those conditions most of our fish will be caught trolling plugs off Church Tackle Walleye Boards. When I’m trolling real shallow I’ll just run the plugs bare. If I’m fishing 20-40 foot depths, I’ll add a 1.5 ounce rubber core sinker one rod length ahead of the lure to take the down to the fish. I normally run my plugs 50 to 100 feet behind the boards. I also troll the shallows with Dipsy Divers or Slide Divers pulling plugs or Spin Doctors with flies behind those diving planers. I only run two down riggers and in those shallow water conditions the setback from the ball to the lure needs to be rather long, with 100 foot setbacks taking plenty of fish. I normally run spoons off my riggers in shallow, but if plugs or Spin Doctors are working especially well, than I’ll switch to more of what’s hot.

My favorite plugs during low light conditions are Moonshine Plugs with Ratchet Jaw, Flounder Pounder and Happee Meal being good choices. Silver Horde Ace Hi Plugs have also been awesome on kings in tight with Blue Splatter Back and Green Splatter Back being hot on some days.

Suspended Fish

When water temps form underwater thermoclines midway down in the water column, then I target The Shelf big time starting out on the shallow side of The Shelf early on and then working my way deeper as the sun comes up. I use my fish finder to determine what depth the fish are holding at and then focus my trolling spread at that level. If the fish are suspended at mid-depths, then we run a lot of spoons and Spin Doctors with trailing flies. My favorite spoons in those conditions will vary as the sun rises. Early in the morning magnum sized Moonshine Spoons really work well. My recent favorites have been Happee Meal, Smitty and Yellow Tail. As the sun comes up, then I tend to favor standard sized spoons more. Spoons with lots of silver in them like Green and Blue Dolphin patterns are perennial favorites.

White and green Spin Doctors with trailing homemade flies have been exceptionally productive for me over the past decade. Those Spin Doctors and flies are about all I run off my Divers and if the fish are hitting those hot and heavy, then I load up with them on my riggers as well.

If boat traffic is not too crowded, and the fish are in the top 100 feet of the water column, then I’ll also deploy some lures off Church Tackle Walleye Boards on The Shelf too. I run mostly spoons or plugs off the boards and take the lures to depth using Church Tackle’s Flex Weight Clips (Clip Weights). I run four, five, six or eight ounce weights off the Clip Weights behind the boards. The heavier the weights, the deeper the lures will run and I tailor the weights to put the lures where I’m marking the most fish.

Deep Water Kings

There will be some days when the salmon are holding very deep indeed. When the water is warm from top to bottom at the Shelf and within, salmon will head for deeper water (over 150 ft. down) until they find favorable temperatures and abundant baitfish. To fish those depths effectively you’ll need some specialized equipment. I run just two downriggers and two Clip Weight rigs at those depths.

I prefer 13 pound pancake weights for deep water trolling applications, which will run with much less blow-back and hit deeper depths with less cable out than standard cannon balls. I employ homemade downrigger releases that are set to release with 10 pounds of pressure. You want heavy releases when fishing deep for salmon. I fish lures fairly close to the balls with 20-30 foot setbacks being typical. My favorite lures are Spin Doctors with either flies or squids. Everything I put down deep glows in the dark. Moonshine Flies are my favorite behind the Spin Doctors down deep.

My deep water Clip Weight rigs take lots of fish. I use a stout Dipsy Diver rod spooled with 50 pound test Ripcord for that application. I let out 50 feet of line, attach a 30 ounce Clip Weight and then let out lots more line. The more line let out, the deeper the lure goes. I troll fairly slowly when fishing extremely deep with speeds of 2.0 to 2.3 being normal. At those speeds I can hit 200 feet deep with about 400 feet of line out. The slower you go, the deeper the lure will run and vice versa.

When fishing for deep salmon, I’ll also run some lures up higher off the boards as oftentimes there will be some salmon cruising out-of-temperature. I’ll typically run bright colored baits in reds and oranges which will take salmon, but steelhead also love those colors too and those high lines will often produce some chromers as a bonus.

Manistee Details

The city of Manistee has created an ideal fishing port for traveling fishermen. The Manistee City boat launch is located on the south side of the Big Manistee River canal (freighter traffic there) close to the breakwalls. It is one of the largest launches in the state featuring 12 launching lanes, a huge parking lot and a fish cleaning station. The city also runs a first-class public marina. Private marinas are also numerous. The Manistee area is home to Orchard Beach State Park and a host of other private parks and public rustic camp grounds. Restaurants and lodging facilities abound. For more information contact the Manistee Chamber of commerce at: 800-288-2286. Marine channel 7 is the local fishing banter channel at Manistee.

The author offers fishing charters for Lake Erie and Saginaw Bay walleyes along with trips for salmon and trout at Manistee, Michigan and Rogers City on Lake Huron. If you have any questions contact him at or 734-475-9146.