May 01, 2013

The Great Lakes call out to trout and salmon fishermen year around. In the spring kings, coho, lake trout, browns and steelhead are all found close to shore and within easy reach of anglers fishing from piers or small boats. The big question becomes which side of the state provides better fishing?

As recent as a few years ago, the decision to fish east or west for Great Lakes trout and salmon would have been a no-brainer. The alewife crash on Lake Huron a few years ago turned the Lake Huron fishery upside down. Literally, without an abundance of alewives to feed the trout and salmon, these fish turned to other forage types like the goby. The absence of baitfish forced a lot of these fish to migrate to more productive waters.

Today the forage balance is much better and the spring trout and salmon fishery on Lake Huron is red hot from Port Huron to Port Austin. Great ports along the way include Lexington, Harbor Beach and Port Hope. The catch along the Lake Huron coast is a good mix of king and coho salmon, brown trout, lake trout, steelhead and even pink salmon.

On the west side of the state, Lake Michigan continues to pump out awesome trout and salmon fishing despite gloom and doom threats that Lake Michigan’s forage base may soon collapse similar to what happened on Lake Huron a few years ago.

In response to this fear the Michigan Department of Natural Resources is cutting trout and salmon stocking in Lake Michigan by 66% in 2013 and for the foreseeable future. The DNR believes that cutting stocking is the best way to avoid a forage base crash.

While the jury may still be out on how such dramatic stocking reductions will influence the Lake Michigan trout and salmon fishery, for 2013 anglers should see similar numbers of king, coho, lake trout, brown trout and steelhead as in 2012.

The reduction in stocking will start to be felt in two or three years when only the wild reared fish will start to mature and return to spawning streams. If natural reproduction is less than biologists estimate, the generous spawning runs we have become accustomed to could be history on both the east and west sides of the state.

The Spring Of 2013

The spring of 2013 may go down in history as the last “good year” for trout and salmon fishing in the Great Lakes. It’s impossible to predict what will happen with natural reproduction on species like king salmon or steelhead.

What is fairly certain is coho numbers are almost completely dependent upon stocking. The Michigan spawning streams that drain into Lakes Michigan and Huron simply aren’t cold enough to support coho which require 18 months in the rivers before smolting to the Great Lakes. When coho stocking numbers are reduced, anglers will soon start noticing fewer coho in the catch.

King salmon on the other hand hatch in the fall and smolt to the Great Lakes in the late spring. The rather short period of time king salmon fingerlings spend in the rivers gives them a decided advantage in survival over many other trout and salmon species.

The author knows why cut bait continues to grow in popularity on both Lake Huron and Lake Michigan. Author photos

Trends In Fishing

Anglers targeting both the Lake Michigan and Lake Huron fisheries incorporate a similar fishing strategy. Because lake trout numbers on the Lake Huron side are stronger than on the Lake Michigan side, a little more emphasis is placed on traditional downrigger fishing methods on Huron where some captains still fish four riggers. A dodger and Spin-n-Glo combination fished 10-25 feet behind the downrigger ball is the “go-to” tactic among lake trout fishermen on Lake Huron. Most of these fish are taken close to bottom in water from 40 to 100 feet most of the spring.

On the Lake Michigan side most recreational anglers are fishing just two riggers with captains often using two out-down riggers and one chute rigger on their boats.

Higher in the water column anglers on both coasts depend heavily on diving planers often stacking two divers per side of the boat. A “high diver” set up featuring 30-40 pound test super braid line and a “low diver” set up featuring 30# test steel wire on a roller style rod covers the mid-depths nicely.

Lead core line and copper line fished on in-line boards rounds out the typical Great Lakes trout and salmon spread. Most anglers are fishing two or perhaps three sinking lines per side of the boat.

In the spring five colors of lead core which fishes down approximately 20 feet is a good standard for the outside board. Next up is 10 colors of lead core which fishes down about 40 feet and on the inside a 300′ copper wire set up which fishes down about 60 feet makes for a near perfect lead core and copper line rigging for early season when the fish are typically in less than 100 feet of water.

Later in the summer when fish are deeper on average, try fishing a 10 color lead core on the outside (40 down), a 300 copper in the middle (60 down) and a 300 copper with a one ounce Off Shore Tadpole sinker added (80 down) on the board line closest to the boat.

Rigged in this manner, a fish hooked on the outside board fishing down just 20 or 40 feet down respectively can actually be pulled across the two other (deeper) board lines without fear of getting tangled.

New On The Horizon

At the terminal end spoons continue to dominate Great Lakes trout and salmon fishing on both the Lakes Michigan and Huron fisheries. Cut bait rigs are gaining in popularity on both sides of the state as is a new form of attractor fishing known as Fish Flash.

Produced by Yakima Bait on the west coast, Fish Flash are triangular shaped attractors that spin in the water rather than wobbling or rotating like other attractors. Because the Fish Flash spins it puts out more flash and doesn’t impact on the diving depth of presentations like diving planer or copper and lead core line.

Fish Flash can be fished in combination with downriggers, attached directly to the back of diving planers and also in-line on copper and lead core rigs. The rule of thumb when fishing Fish Flash is to make sure the flasher is at least six or seven feet in front of the terminal tackle being used. The whole purpose of the Fish Flash is to create an abundance of flash in the spread that looks like fleeing baitfish. If the Fish Flash is located too close to the lures on the terminal end, trout and salmon lured into the set up can get fixated on the flasher instead of the lures.

Because Fish Flash imparts no particular action to the rig, they work best with spoons, Spin-n-Glows, body baits and cut bait rigs which have their own natural action. Trolling flies and squids are still best fished in combination with a dodger or rotator.

Those anglers who enjoy fishing lead core will get a kick out of the new Suffix Performance Lead Core which is made using fused line technology. Thinner in diameter than ordinary Dacron lead core lines, this new lead core comes in both 12 and 18 pound test ratings that fish about 20% deeper than comparable Dacron lead core lines.

Early tests using this new lead core suggest the line is much tougher than the break strength rating indicate. Fished the same as ordinary lead core line, most anglers will find that sandwiching a pre-determined length of lead core between a 25-50 foot leader of fluorocarbon line and 200 yards of either monofilament or super braid backing is the best way to fish this stuff.

Because this new lead core is thinner in diameter, smaller reels can be used compared to traditional lead core fishing.

The spring coho fishery on both lakes has been exceptional in the past few years. Because early in the season coho tend to turn up in shallow water and or near the surface, lots of anglers have discovered that trolling crankbaits on in-line boards is one of the best ways to target these fish which often travel in huge schools.

Good crankbaits for spring coho include the Yakima FatFish, Storm Hot n Tot, Rapala Taildancer series, Brad’s Wiggler and the Storm Wiggle Wart.

Summing It Up

It’s impossible to predict what will happen to the long term trout and salmon fishery we have enjoyed on Lakes Michigan and Huron. With cuts in stocking it’s almost a given that fish numbers are going to decline over the next few years.

For now it appears that anglers in 2013 will experience trout and salmon fishing similar to 2012. The cold winter is working to push both bait and game fish to the southern end of both Lake Michigan and Lake Huron. Come ice out, there should be some red hot trolling action on both sides of the state.

So which side of the state is going to produce the best fishing? Flip a quarter, because you can’t lose either way.