COVER STORY…There is something powerfully addictive about hooking a super salmon, a big fish with endless endurance and enough raw power to jerk the rod from your grasp…
Wham! The port rod slammed downward and line melted off the reel as the drag screamed and I was into a big king salmon. The fish sprinted for the shore, hit the brakes, did an about turn and zipped past my Stealth boat at lightning speed. This fish was different, hard fighting, I had no rod control and once again my Ugly Stix was about to explode as the monster melted line from the reel. Good God, I love it!!! There is something powerfully addictive about hooking a super salmon, a big fish with endless endurance and enough raw power to jerk the rod from your grasp. He finally rolled near the surface and came to net and in the cool early morning light I held the 26 pounder for photos.
It isn’t every day you boat a 20-pound king salmon from Michigan’s Great Lakes but last year was an exception for me and I put several 25-pound plus hawgs in the boat. I refer to any salmon over 25 pounds as a “Super Salmon” and I use several specialized fishing techniques and a specific fishing strategy to catch them.
Last year the Great Lakes salmon fishery started out on fire but quickly switched to downright boring as good fishing disappeared. The Traverse City Record Eagle newspaper quoted a Frankfort charter captain who explained “salmon fishing sucks” to describe the poor fishing.
I made several trips to Grand Haven, Ludington, Manistee and Pentwater with poor results. One thing I did notice was masses of alewife. I’m talking schools so huge you could not mark the bottom. In fact, last year the bait was so thick that many captains attributed the poor fishing to too much food and salmon were full, stomachs bulging and they refused trolled lures. In fact, there were so many alewife they littered the beaches from Traverse City to White Lake. I’m not talking the big spawning size alewife but zillions of 3-5 inch baitfish. My fishing buddy, Dean Shippey, chartered a boat out of Manistee in late August and they ran 12 miles from shore, took limit catches and massive schools of alewife persistently showed on the electronics. With so much food the salmon were big last year and exceptional 23 lb.-plus four year olds showed up at spawning Great Lakes tributaries.
Since fishing was slow I put trips on hold until late August when howling north wind, heavy rain and big lake water temperature turned over and put adult fish in skinny water. That’s my secret…wait until the conditions are ideal and make the move when fish are close to shore, along pier heads, stacked at Great Lakes tributary river mouths. To achieve this goal I use my computer to monitor data from the UofM sputnik which gives exact water temperatures from surface to 60 ft. down, wind direction and speed, wave conditions and more. Log on to Ludington Charter Fishing and press the right sidebar. NOAA is another good source and what I’m trying to determine is has water temperatures cooled enough to bring big water salmon into shallow water. Some captains maintain the ideal water temperature for salmon is 55 degrees. I agree. However, spawning fish will move into drowned river mouths like Manistee Lake, Pere Marquette Lake, Muskegon Lake and more as soon as air temperatures get into the 50’s and water temperatures are in the low 60’s.
Charter captains can be a wealth of information regarding location of salmon schools, depth of water, lures they prefer, trolling speed and more. Again I go on-line for updated reports and result photos of salmon. The trick is to research the salmon run and intercept them the minute they hit the skinny water. Every year is different and some years the best fishing is far from shore and when conditions change and salmon run the hot fishing may only last a few days. Last year the big lake had plenty of cold water and a good thermocline never set up to make trolling a breeze. Kings were scattered and the big super fish were consistently difficult to find.
I boated 111 kings last year and all but a handful came from skinny water. A hot tip from Grand Haven put me in the channel after a northwest blow and salmon were stacked from the big lake to the coastguard station. They were chromers fresh from the lake and catching your limit was child’s play. I ran two lines 20 ft. down with silver/green J-plugs and had my limit in less than an hour. Next, I moved to Muskegon and found pods of big kings from the pier into Muskegon Lake stacked like cord wood in 20-30 ft. depths. Manistee was hot, too, but the icing on the cake came from Pere Marquette Lake where schools of super salmon staged in preparation to run the Pere Marquette River.
Some trollers think that once fish go past the pier head they stop feeding. Wrong. If you can intercept them soon as they arrive they smash just about any presentation. As they acclimate to the new environment they become more difficult to catch and just prior to ascending rivers they feed less often. One trick is to schedule outings to take advantage of low light conditions when fish are active. Early morning, late evening and overcast skies can bring coolers full of hawgs. The idea is to get them to smash lures, which is relatively easy provided you follow some simple rules.
Skinny water kings go bonkers for plugs. The last few years I’ve enjoyed catching big fish on Silver Horde glow plugs in a variety of exciting new colors. Oh sure plenty are caught on spoons and attractors with flies but plugs usually out-produce the rest. Some fishermen make the big mistake of believing stained river water and short leads off downriggers will produce strikes. Actually when salmon move into skinny water they are boat shy, downrigger spooky and the hottest trick going is to place plugs 50-100 feet behind the ball; depending on boat traffic. I sweeten the pie by using smaller 1 1/2lb. balls attached to the line using Church planer board clips. With this tactic you are stealth trolling the small weight does not spook fish and the weight acts as a shock absorber to help set the hook.
Trolling speed is always the key to fishing success and big lake anglers need to slow down if they want more fish in the box. 1.7-2 mph is ideal in current and the slow speed gives salmon an opportunity to see the lure longer in the discolored water.
Plug selection can make a big difference, too. In early morning and late evening switch to glow plugs and you will be amazed at the way salmon gulp ’em. When they are stacked around the pier it is tough to beat silver plugs and my favorite color is silver with a green back. Fish in transition from the lake to the river will stop slamming chrome and you need to switch to white, yellow and a variety of colors that are somewhat drab colored compared to Great Lakes plugs. I’ve got a box full of custom painted lures working like dynamite on late summer salmon. Last year anything yellow was hot but I have some that are painted like gobies with brown backs and light yellow bellies. One plug in particular is nicknamed “Turd”as it is painted brown, has a black dots on the back and a light tan belly with glow green eyes. The idea is to give kings lures matching natural fish species existing in the area.
My goal is to locate and catch super salmon. I’m hunting big adult king salmon long as your leg with a maw full of sharp teeth and large black jaw. I don’t want steelies either; I prefer to catch them in rivers and streams. Searching for big whales is a tricky task and over the years I’ve discovered that the monster tunas are usually the first to arrive. In the old days big fish were available throughout the season but dwindling populations, reduced DNR stocking and smaller runs make targeting big adults a task. The Little Manistee and Big Manistee at Pine Creek have early runs of hog kings beginning in June and lasting until late July. They are naturally reproduced and both water systems are blessed with 40 degree ground water that returning salmon can smell far out to sea. When they charge the pier the great fishing only lasts a couple weeks, then you need a water temperature change to bring another run.
The St. Joseph, Kalamazoo River, Grand, Muskegon, Pere Marquette and Betsie tend to stay warm until late summer when cooler nights and rain bring salmon runs. Stiff northwest winds or howling east wind can cause the surf water to roll over and cool water from the depths of Lake Michigan are sucked against the shore. This can bring splendid skinny water trolling. The trick is to monitor water temperature, wind direction and intercept the big fish soon as they arrive. Four years ago Michigan had several days of strong east winds in July that caused surface water to be pushed out to sea and the beach water was replaced with 54 degree water. Kings were everywhere along the shore and fishermen were catching them casting spoons at Grand Haven, Muskegon, White Lake, Manistee and Frankfort. Two years ago gail force winds out of the northwest brought crashing waves and a stiff undertow that sucked kings next to the pier at Ludington in mid-August. Trolling the surf and around the pier was a hoot catching huge silvery salmon while beach goers and pier walkers witnessed the fun filled fishing excitement. Last year north winds and cold drenching rain brought flood stage conditions on the Pere Marquette River and salmon showed up at the pier and filtered into Pere Marquette Lake. Obviously the stage was set for super salmon fishing success. My point is when August arrives keep your eye on the weather and be prepared to blast off for salmon country the instant conditions are ideal. Those who hesitate catch fewer fish and scheduling vacation time to coincide with good salmon fishing can be a bust; get there too early and or late and catches can be spotty.
One cool morning there was a layer of fog on Pere Marquette Lake when Marty Kerr and 9 year old daughter, Mackenzie, from Kansas joined me for a salmon adventure. Marty is a deer hunting friend that loves chasing big bucks. Mackenzie is a hoot to fish with. Her caring parents have taught her the value of the great outdoors. She loves wildlife and hunting with her parents. She can call turkeys with her mouth, howl exactly like a coyote and sing like a contestant on American Idol.
The first king slammed a glow Silver Horde plug before I set another line. We trolled for a couple hours and took another big king tipping the scales over 23 lbs. Then action slowed, Mackenzie took a nap as Marty and I chatted about buck hunting. The lake was calm, rising sun warm as we neared the Badger Hole when the port rod doubled over and the screaming drag signaled a strike. Marty was first to fight the fish as I cleared lines but the big fish stripped line off the reel like a runaway freight train and I started the Mercury and began chasing our prize. That’s when Marty passed the rod to young Mackenzie. She was all smiles as the big king melted line off the reel then turned and charged the boat. We yelled “reel!” and she frantically turned the crank in an effort to catch up with the monster. When the line tightened the super king made
another dash and caught Mackenzie off guard. Dad grabbed her just as
her feet lifted off the floor and prevented the young angler from being pulled overboard. She yelled with
joy as the big king tried desperately
to shake the hook. The super fish finally came to net and father and daughter hugged and did a salmon dance in the back of the boat to celebrate catching the trophy. Mackenzie’s fish was a big ole male with broad shoulders that pushed the scales slightly over 28 lbs. Now, that’s what I’m talkin’ about!