April 01, 2017

April marks the unofficial beginning of the Great Lakes trout and salmon fishery. Literally the moment that the ice melts around boat launches, enthusiasts are splashing fishing boats and the games begin! Some years the fun begins in March and in other years it’s early April, but either way spring trout and salmon fishing has something to offer for just about everyone and every fishing budget.

The Near Shore Action

The thing that makes spring trout and salmon trolling so popular isn’t just the numbers of fish an angler can catch, it’s the near shore fishery. Because the water is icy cold in the main lake, the slightly warmer waters found along shorelines, drowned river mouths, pier heads and warm water discharge sites attract the lion share of the fish.

In the spring, small boat fishermen get a crack at world class fishing action that the rest of the year is pretty much reserved for larger and more seaworthy boats.

The Super Slam

Another reason anglers flock to the Great Lakes in April is an angling accomplishment known as the “super slam”. The coveted “super slam” of Great Lakes fishing requires landing all five Great Lakes species in one day. This seemingly impossible feat is amazingly achievable in April because steelhead, lake trout, brown trout, coho salmon and king salmon routinely converge on the best available forage.

Catching all five of these fish species in one day is unique to the Great Lakes region and an accomplishment worth bragging about. The best chance to achieve the “super slam” occurs near power plants with warm water discharges that concentrate the largest numbers of fish.

Small Boat Strategies

A host of trout and salmon lures including spoons, wobbling plugs, stickbaits, rotators and flies, cut-bait rigs and spinners are used to target spring trout and salmon. The way to get the most from these lures is by trolling them using in-line planer boards like the popular OR12 Side-Planer to spread out lines and also to cover the maximum amount of water.

Monster lake trout like this one caught by the author’s son Jake are a big part of the reason so many anglers flock to the Great Lakes in April.

Because a lot of this gear doesn’t dive on its own, a number of different sinking lines, trolling weights and diving planers are employed to target fish in the top 20 feet of the water column. One of the most popular early season set ups involves using short lengths of 27# test lead core line (one, two, three, four, five colors, etc.) sandwiched between a 30-50 foot leader of 20# test fluorocarbon line and monofilament backing. The lure, leader and all the lead core line is played out and the board placed on the backing line.

To stack two, three or more lines per side of the boat, savvy anglers run shorter lengths and shallow fishing lead core set ups on the outside lines and longer/deeper fishing gear on the inside board lines. This configuration allows anglers to hook a fish on an outside board and reel in that fish without having to clear other inside board lines.

To accomplish this neat trick requires using an in-line planer board that is fitted with two line releases, one on the tow arm and a second release at the back of the board. The line release on the tow arm must have enough tension to hold steady while trolling, but also be light enough that it can be tripped when a fish strikes.

Meanwhile, the release at the back of the board must firmly hang onto the line and not release. Set up in this fashion, the board trips when a fish strikes and then spins around backwards in the water. The board remains fixed onto the line thanks to the second line release at the back of the board.

Once tripped the angler can reel in the board and fish together because the board is no longer planing to the side. The board starts to swing to the back of the boat about the same time the hooked fish is forced to the surface. This slick set up allows the tripped board to clear other board lines and also allows the angler to fight the fish right up to the back of the boat.

When the board reaches the boat it only takes a second to open the release at the back of the board and remove the board. Now it’s just the angler and the fish and even better the whole back end of the boat is wide open providing lots of room to fight and land the fish.

Another advantage of this rigging configuration is once the board releases, there is less resistance in the water for the fish to pull and fight against. The angler has the advantage of feeling every head shake and also letting the rod do the work of wearing out the fish.

When the planer board is rigged not to release, the board is much more difficult to reel in and the fish is pulling against this significant resistance. Unfortunately, in many cases the fish uses this resistance to tear free and escape.

Most in-line planer boards do not come equipped in the package with the proper releases required to rig and fish this way. One of the reasons the OR12 Side-Planer is so popular is this board comes factory supplied with a release on the tow arm (orange OR19) that can be tripped and a Snap Weight Clip (red OR16) at the back of the board that cannot be released. The Snap Weight features a small plastic pin in the middle of the rubber release pads. When the line is placed behind this pin, the board is fixed to the line.

This simple, but effective rigging method is easy to master and allows anglers to fish as many board lines as they choose. In-line boards can be used to not only fish lead core set ups, but also keel sinkers, snap weights, mini-disks, Jet and Lurk floating divers, diving crankbaits and also Tadpole Divers. All of this trolling gear adapts perfectly to fishing with in-line boards.

Avoiding Tangles

When fishing multiple board lines per side of the boat, there is always the issue of tangling lines. A few simple steps will eliminate this threat and make trolling in-line boards stress free.

When stacking board lines it’s critical to set up with the outside boards fishing higher in the water column and each progressive board fishing a little deeper. With lead core line this set up can be easily achieved by running a one color on the outside, a three color in the middle and a five color on the inside board. This set up covers the top 20 feet of the water column thoroughly and makes it easy to fight fish on outside board lines without having to clear lines.

The lures used in combination with lead core also matter. Spoons are a logical choice because the spoon doesn’t dive on its own and instead depends on the lead core line to reach depth.

Once a fish is hooked and landed on an outside lead core and spoon set up, resetting is no problem. Simply let the spoon, leader and all the lead core play off the reel until reaching the monofilament backing. Next, hitch up the planer board to the backing line and let the planer board straight out the back of the boat. When the board is far enough back that it will clear the middle board, engage the reel and allow the board to swing wide and resume its running position as the outside board!

Fishing spoons with lead core works perfectly. It’s when other lures are used in combination with lead core that problems start to become apparent. If another lure type like a diving crankbait is fished in combination with lead core line, the crankbait is diving as well as the lead core achieving depth. This makes it impossible to pull a lead core and crankbait rig, over the top of other board lines without running one line into another.

If an angler wants to fish a plug in combination with lead core, it has to be the inside or deepest line in the pattern. The same is true even if the plug is fished clean on monofilament line without lead core. Because plugs dive they must be positioned as the inside board lines.

The exception to this rule is when fishing all plugs on monofilament. In this case simply run shorter leads and more shallow running baits on the outside boards and longer leads and deeper diving baits on the inside boards.

One last trick can also help reduce line tangles when fishing in-line boards. Space tube and saddle-style rod holders as far apart as possible on the boat gunwales. Also adjust these rod holders so the rod tips are staggered. This small but important step insures that the lines are not all in the same alignment, making it less likely fishing lines will cross during turns or when fighting fish.

Rod holder trees are the ultimate rod holder for fishing with in-line boards because they stagger the rods and also position the rods up and out of the boat’s cockpit. Not only do rod holder trees clean up the inside of the fishing boat, they make it almost impossible for board lines to cross during normal trolling maneuvers.

Summing It Up

Early spring is an exciting time in Michigan. Lots of great fishing opportunities await avid anglers in April. Arguably the ultimate of these angling adventures is shooting for the Great Lakes Super Slam. Those select anglers who accomplish this trolling milestone have earned the ultimate bragging rights in the Great Lakes.