Rolling with the punches


Captain Lance Keene who fishes out of Manistee is another young charter captain who’s employing meat rigs and other deep water fishing tactics to consistently put his clients on better king and coho fishing. Author photos


July 01, 2014

Great Lakes anglers who live and breathe salmon fishing are holding their breath a lot these days. No one knows at this point if our salmon fishery is on the verge of a boom or a bust cycle. Not even our state’s most talented biologists can predict if August will deliver record catches of trophy fish or unprecedented disappointments.

What we can take to the bank is the fact that salmon fishing methods have evolved into completely different directions no one could have predicted just a decade ago. The angler who is embracing these new and different ways of targeting kings and cohos are the ones who are being rewarded with the best and most consistent catches.

Staying on this cutting edge isn’t about abandoning classic trolling tactics that have produced for decades, but rather becoming more diversified as anglers.


Ironically, the one trolling lure that for decades symbolized “salmon fishing” in the Great Lakes is currently having difficulty living up to that hard fought reputation. Admittedly, trolling spoons have in the past done the heavy lifting in terms of producing salmon for both the charter and recreational fishermen of the Great Lakes. Sadly the spoon era and the relatively easy fishing we enjoyed during that era may be coming to a close. Professional and even hobby anglers are coming to a discouraging conclusion; spoons simply don’t produce on salmon as well and as often as they once did.

Harsh words to be true, but important food for thought. Now isn’t the time to abandon spoons as salmon trolling lures, but it is important to realize that changing conditions in the Great Lakes are impacting on the types of lures that produce best and most often.

It’s not that salmon have somehow evolved into smarter fish that are better able to detect spoons as fakes. Actually it’s the clearer and clearer water we face each season that is the real culprit here. Gin-like water doesn’t favor lures such as spoons which feature “mechanical” actions. Spoons and other wobbling lures typically produce best when fished in stained or off color water.

This phenomenon is true when fishing other species like walleye. Clear water simply presents tougher fishing conditions because fish can see better and are tougher to fool on artificial lures.

This is precisely why spoons tend to work best on salmon early and late in the day when light penetration is at a minimum and salmon have a tougher time scrutinizing baits from natural forage. During the middle of the day spoons become dramatically less productive because in clear water salmon can more easily determine these offerings as foul.

The solution to this problem isn’t as simple as changing lure colors. What’s called for is a different angling strategy all together. A growing number of salmon fishermen are using spoons in low light conditions and during the peak daylight hours embraces other more natural trolling style lures.

Going Natural

Considering all the trolling lures available to salmon anglers, nothing does a better job of imitating natural forage than meat rigs. Meat rigs are to salmon fishing what the nightcrawler harness is to walleye fishing.

When fishing in clear waters, meat rigs simply look, smell and taste more like the alewives salmon naturally target. Baited with strips of ballyhoo or fresh frozen herring, a cut bait rig rotates in the water imitating an injured and dying baitfish.

Like any fishing lure these days, meat rigs, teaser rigs and the rotators they are commonly fished with come in a bewildering array of colors, sizes and designs.

My advice is not to get bogged down in details like color selection, but rather to embrace meat rigs as being a trolling tool that can fool salmon when other options fail. Simply switching out spoons for meat rigs isn’t the answer either. Catching salmon outside of the prime hours of the day is about fishing deeper and fishing smarter.

Deeper Is Better

Every year it seems that salmon are being caught increasingly deeper and deeper. Historically it was common to catch salmon 50 or 60 feet down over 100 to 125 feet of water. These days the average depth salmon are taken in the Great Lakes range from 75 to 125 feet down over 200 or even 300 feet of water!

This pattern is especially true outside of the peak feeding times at dawn and dusk. Captains and other serious anglers are fishing deeper because the salmon themselves are spending more time in deeper and cooler water. Targeting salmon at these extreme depths requires some specialized tactics.

Downriggers, Temperature

And Speed Control

The electric downrigger is a critical tool in fishing meat rigs and other lures at extreme depths. When paired up with sub-surface trolling speed and temperature probes like the popular Fish Hawk, it’s a simple process to pinpoint bands of water that provide salmon both preferred temperatures (typically hi 40s to mid-50s) and foraging opportunities.

Unlike other probes on the market the Fish Hawk uses transducer technology to collect critical data from a probe attached to the downrigger ball. A simple to operate and interpret LCD monitor shows surface temperature, the depth the probe is fishing at, the water temperature at the probe and the trolling speed at the probe.

By comparing the surface Speed Over Ground provided by the sonar/GPS unit, with the sub-surface trolling speed savvy anglers quickly determine surface trolling speeds that yield the optimum results at depth.

In the Great Lakes stratifications of different temperature bands or layers of water routinely create these sub surface currents that are moving in directions impossible to predict without the help of a sub-surface probe like the Fish Hawk. With this kind of sophisticated electronic help, it’s easy to keep baits working at optimum speeds and water temperature layers, in turn maximizing fish catching efforts.

Often the bands of water that are at preferred temperatures are narrow. Without a sub-surface speed and temperature probe it would be impossible to find and consistently fish within these sweet zones.

When fishing with a downrigger equipped with a Fish Hawk, that line is raised and lowered in the water column until an optimum temperature layer is discovered and a productive trolling speed established. At that point it’s easy to duplicate this set up with other downriggers on the boat and even to dial in other trolling hardware like diving planers.

High/Low Divers

Next in importance to the downrigger for deep water depth control are the diving planers. Directional divers like the famous Dipsy from Luhr Jensen, Slide-Diver and the new comer Lurk Disco Diver are critical tools for fishing both down and out to the side of the boat.

Personally I favor the Lurk Disco Diver because they come in different sizes instead of having to fuss with dive rings that must be snapped on and off. For salmon fishing I run two different Disco Divers. On the low diver, I fish 30# test stainless steel wire line on a 124mm or magnum diver set on a No. 1 or 1.5 setting so it dives down and slightly out to the side of the boat.

Stainless wire is thin in diameter and it also sinks allowing this diver set up to achieve maximum depth. Wire divers must be fished in combination with line counter reels and a rod equipped with roller guides.

On the high diver, I fish 40# test spectra braided line and a 107mm Disco Diver set on a No. 2 setting so it tracks out to the side a little further. Because this diver is smaller in diameter and spectra braid has some natural buoyancy, this set up doesn’t fish as deep as the wire diver.

The “feet back” numbers on these two divers are also staggered so both high and low divers can target a similar depth range. This set up separates the two divers so a hooked fish doesn’t get tangled in the other line, but allows me to target productive depth ranges.

Board Lines

The next fishing lines of importance are sinking lines like lead core and copper line fished in combination with in-line boards like the famous Off Shore Tackle Side-Planer. The amounts of these sinking lines used is what primarily dictates the trolling depth. For example, five colors of 27# test lead core line fishes down about 20 feet, 10 colors will fish down about 40 feet and 300 feet of 45# test copper line will fish down about 60 feet.

Anglers of course push the limits of common sense in an effort to get these sinking lines to greater depth. In terms of copper line it’s common to see anglers fishing 400, 450, 500, 550 and even 600 feet of copper line on huge reels that roughly weigh in about as much as a Volkswagen.

While these excessive lengths of copper line indeed fish deeper, no one seems to excited about reeling in fish hooked on them. In fact, these super long copper set ups are the “joke of the Great Lakes” because no one who has caught a salmon hooked on 600 feet of copper wire wants to do it a second time!

Tadpole Divers

Tadpole Divers produced by Off Shore Tackle are an alternative to fishing sinking lines and the excessively long leads they require to achieve significant depth. Currently Tadpole Divers are available in sizes 1, 2, 3 and Magnum. When fished 150 feet back, the No. 1 fishes down about 22 feet, the No. 2 fishes down about 25 feet, the No. 3 fishes down approximately 32 feet and the Magnum fishes down about 40 feet. Those are impressive depth numbers to say the least and Tadpoles are just beginning to catch on with salmon trollers who are using them in place of lead core and copper line set ups.

Sinking Lines And Tadpoles

Because Tadpole Divers are so new, the way these trolling aids are fished is evolving rapidly. Another sensible alternative to fishing “crazy long” lengths of copper or lead core line is to fish reasonable lengths of these sinking lines in combination with the Tadpole.

The Tadpole Diver is attached to the end of the leader on a standard copper or lead core line set up. Because the Tadpole sinks and also dives, a No. 1 Tadpole fished on 5 colors of lead core fishes a depth more typically associated with 10 colors of lead core line! A 10 color set up with a No. 1 Tadpole fishes down to depths associated with 300 feet of copper line! Using a Tadpole in combination with sinking lines significantly increasing the depths that can be achieved without having to fish a country mile behind the boat!

Summing It Up

The applications for Tadpoles fished in combination with copper line are equally exciting and only time will tell where the practical limits lie. In the big picture it’s becoming abundantly obvious that to consistently catch salmon anglers are being forced to fish deeper and to use lure options that are as natural as possible.

Salmon didn’t suddenly get smarter, but consistently catching them is becoming more technical as Great Lakes waters become clearer and clearer. In this constantly changing world of Great Lakes trolling, anglers can either adapt to new trolling methods or simply become content to catch less fish. Take your choice.