June 01, 2017

It’s fair to say that Michigan’s Great Lakes trout and salmon fishery is currently experiencing a bit of a funk. A diminishing forage base and subsequent reductions in salmon and steelhead stocking efforts adds up to tougher fishing. That doesn’t mean however that the fishery has collapsed, and it certainly doesn’t prevent determined anglers from finding and catching king and coho salmon, lake trout, browns and steelhead.

What the changing face of the Great Lakes does spell out is that anglers must be willing to change their tactics to keep pace. Clearer water and a shrinking forage base forces trout and salmon to be constantly on the move seeking out food resources. It is also forcing anglers to be more mobile in their Great Lakes trolling approach.

The Small Boat Angler

Historically, the majority of Michigan’s trout and salmon have been taken by anglers using larger “charter boat” style fishing craft. Because of their size, these boats are forced to remain at dock in just one or two ports a year.

By simply downsizing to trailerable fishing boats, anglers can do a much better job of traveling to the ports that are hot, while at the same time avoiding those that are not! The ability to be as mobile as the fish enables astute fishermen to capitalize on critical bites that occur during peak times of year.

Boats in the 18 to 24 foot class are ideal for trailering to productive ports at key times of year. In many cases the “multi-species” boats often marketed to walleye anglers are ideal for targeting Great Lakes trout and salmon on the go.

Salmon numbers are fewer in the Great Lakes these days, but creative anglers are still catching their share by changing tactics and targeting key ports at key times of year. Mark Romanack photos

Hot Ports

For example, the Fishing 411 Television crew has enjoyed, filmed and documented world class spring salmon fishing in recent years by simply trailering their Starcraft to the Niagara Falls region and targeting Lake Ontario’s abundant population of king and coho salmon. This fishery has largely avoided the forage base issues impacting on Lakes Michigan and Huron. The Lake Ontario fishery is thriving and continues to produce the caliber of salmon fishing the Great Lakes has become known for.

Because Lake Erie’s nutrient rich waters ultimately flow into Lake Ontario via the Welland Canal and the Niagara River, a dependable forage base thrives in these waters allowing fisheries managers the luxury of an aggressive trout and salmon stocking program.

Ironically, in terms of miles traveled, Niagara Falls is approximately the same distance east as an angler in the Detroit metro area would travel to fish traditional west Michigan ports like Manistee, Frankfort or Onekama. The Milwaukee, Wisconsin spring brown trout fishery is another example of a highly productive Great Lakes port located an easy drive from Michigan residents. Brown trout thrive in this region of Lake Michigan near Milwaukee for a number of reasons.

Aggressive stocking efforts by the Wisconsin DNR have created simply amazing fisheries smack in the middle of Wisconsin’s largest metropolitan area. Both Seeforellen and Wild Rose strains of brown trout are stocked in these waters. The Seeforellen strain grows larger, and fish upwards of 20 pounds are common. The smaller Wild Rose strain is a home body and tends to stay close to the waters where they are stocked.

Another fishing advantage the Milwaukee area has comes in the form of several warm water discharge sites at Oak Creek and Racine. Spring brown trout tend to concentrate in warmer waters making these sites key fishing areas year in and year out.

A third and equally important reason southwestern Lake Michigan coughs up consistent fishing for brown trout and other salmonids is this region of Lake Michigan features many reefs and other bottom structure that tends to concentrate baitfish and game fish in predictable areas.

Further north in the Wisconsin waters of Lake Michigan lie the ports of Sheboygan, Manitowoc and Sturgeon Bay. It’s here that the majority of Lake Michigan’s king salmon population spends the summer months. From June into August, charters fishing out of these ports report double digit catches of kings, coho, steelhead and lake trout on a daily basis.

Salmon head up the Wisconsin side of Lake Michigan because non-point run off and prevailing winds tend to hold the most nutrient rich waters of Lake Michigan on the Wisconsin side of the lake. Baitfish are going to be found in the most nutrient rich waters and salmon and other predatory species are rarely far away.

Some other noteworthy trout and salmon destinations include the Michigan City area of southern Lake Michigan. This area represents the southernmost waters of Lake Michigan. The majority of the lake’s coho salmon population spends the winter and early spring in these waters.

Southern Lake Michigan remains a little warmer on average than the other parts of the lake. This in turn attracts baitfish and explains why year after year the Michigan City area produces consistent limit catches of coho in April and early May.

The same phenomenon takes place on southern Lake Huron near the port of Lexington. It’s here in the early spring that anglers enjoy a mixed bag of king, coho and Atlantic salmon mixed with some pink salmon, steelhead and brown trout. Because southern Lake Huron is a few degrees warmer on average than the northern portions of the lake, most of the salmonids follow the alewives and gizzard shad that winter in these temperate waters.

Changing Tactics

In addition to targeting key ports at peak times of year, Great Lakes trout and salmon fishermen must change their angling tactics to be consistently successful. Traditional gear — downriggers, diving planers and trolling spoons — are producing fewer and fewer fish these days when used in traditional ways.

Anglers in the know are using cutting edge tactics to target salmonids that over time have become tougher to catch as the Great Lakes have become increasingly clearer and clearer. Clean water is a good thing from an environmental standpoint, but gin clear water is also lacking in key nutrients and plankton that make up the building blocks of the food chain.

By modifying traditional tactics like downrigger trolling, it’s possible to catch spooky salmon even in clear water. The first step is using fewer downriggers to keep gear to a minimum. Another important step is to extend trolling leads so tackle is presented further away from the boat. This step is especially important when fishing spoons and plugs in clear water.

Another creative way that downriggers are used to target harder to catch salmon is by combining presentations. Using a one or two color lead core rig in combination with a downrigger helps present tackle below the downrigger weight and further behind the boat than normal.

Considered a super-secret tournament tactic, combining downriggers and lead core is rapidly becoming a mainstream way of targeting trout and salmon in the Great Lakes.

More on Lead Core

Anglers who troll with lead core line when faced with clear water are enjoying astonishing success. Lead core is one of those “old school” trolling tactics that has been resurrected as an ultra-modern trolling tactic. The latest generation of lead core lines are made from super thin and strong Spectra fibers that allow these lines to sink faster and fish deeper than traditional Dacron/Nylon lead core products.

The way to get the most from these modern lead core lines is to first spool onto a reel a backing line of 20 pound test monofilament or 50 pound test super braid. Next add a pre-determined amount of lead core line and finish the rig by adding a 20 to 50 foot leader of 20 pound test fluorocarbon line.

Lead core line is color metered to make it easy to determine how much line is being deployed. Every 10 yards the color of the lead core changes. When Great Lakes trollers who are using lead core communicate with other fishermen they typically refer to how much lead core they are fishing as the number of “colors” being used.

For example, a “two color” set up represents 60 feet of lead core, a “five color” rig is 150 feet of line, etc. Because using lead core requires designating rods and reels to this presentation, most trollers set up their boat with lead core rods in pairs. The most common set ups include 3, 5, 7 and 10 color pairings.

Lead core is effective because it reaches target depths and also presents baits well away from the boat. The final piece of the puzzle when fishing lead core rigs is to combine them with in-line planer boards like the popular OR12 produced by Off Shore Tackle to spread out lines and cover the maximum amount of water.

The key here is to set shorter lengths of lead core that are fishing higher in the water column as the outside board lines and increasingly deeper lead core set ups as middle and inside board lines. Most Great Lakes trollers limit themselves to a pair or perhaps three lead core rigs per side of the boat.

Lead core is a highly effective way of presenting spoons, plugs and other popular baits at depths up to about 50 feet. For fishing deeper a different type of line and fishing approach is required.

Copper or Weighted Steel?

Historically, anglers have turned to copper line when it becomes necessary to fish deeper than practical with lead core line. The problem with copper line is it easily kinks, backlashes constantly and is anything but user friendly. Thankfully, a new product eliminates the need for fishing with problematic copper line.

Weighted stainless steel wire produced by Torpedo Divers fishes as deep as copper wire, but it doesn’t suffer from the common problems of backlashing and kinking. This unique trolling wire is rigged and fished in a similar manner to lead core line by sandwiching a pre-determined segment of stainless wire between a backing line and leader.

Most anglers are using Weighted Stainless Steel wire for targeting deep fish by spooling on 200, 300 or more feet of wire. It’s possible to use shorter lengths of Weighted Steel to target fish closer to the surface, but this stainless wire is more expensive than lead core line. The most practical way to get the most from these weighted lines is to fish Spectra style lead core for lines to be fished higher in the water column and Weighted Steel for targeting deeper fish.

Weighted Steel line can also be fished in combination with in-line planer boards. Because this line is much heavier and has more drag in the water, larger in-line boards like the Off Shore Tackle SST Pro Mag are required.

Diver Tricks

Diving planers are another traditional salmon trolling tactic that falls short when used in conventional ways. Typical divers like the legendary “Dipsy Diver” force the angler to limit the trolling leader used behind the diver to the length of the fishing rod. Fishing a spoon or other trolling lure just six to 10 feet behind the diver simply doesn’t produce effectively when targeting salmon in clear water.

Some adaptive charter captains have gone to fishing a 20, 30 or 40 foot leader behind their diver. This creates a problem however because when the diver hits the rod tip, the fish must be pulled in hand over hand the last 20, 30 or 40 feet to the net!

A better way to fish longer leaders in combination with a diving planer is to simply invest in Slide Divers. These unique divers have been on the market for some time and now that the Great Lakes are becoming clearer and clearer, this product has finally found an important niche.

The main line slides through the Slide D iver, allowing the angler to effectively fish any leader length desired. When a fish is hooked, the diver trips and slides down the line to a swivel tied in-line a few feet ahead of the lure.

Separating the lure from the diver helps tremendously when targeting salmon and trout in clear water. The Slide Diver can be easily rigged with super braid line, monofilament or fluorocarbon line. Another advantage of the Slide Diver is they offer six outboard settings instead of three provided on the Dipsy. This feature allows anglers to gain more outward coverage from divers than has historically been possible with mainstream diving planer designs.

Summing It Up

It’s true that the Great Lakes trout and salmon fishery is experiencing some challenging struggles. Fishing traditional ports and using traditional tactics simply isn’t a winning strategy in the face of these environmental changes and reductions in stocking efforts.

While some anglers are claiming “gloom and doom” for our big water salmon and trout fishery, others are adapting their tactics to become more mobile and consistently successful. By targeting key ports at key times of year and using modern trolling tactics, great catches of salmon, trout and steelhead are still possible day in and day out.

Staying on the best bites requires the lean and mean approach, but the thrill of catching salmon, steelhead, brown trout and lake trout is still alive and well in the Great Lakes.