To me, September represents the end of summer, more so than the beginning of autumn. But, as it brings cooler nights and shorter daylight hours, it sets the stage for some great “fall” fishing on our main river bodies.
Firstly, the Chinook, or “king” salmon, have been residents of our great lakes state since their first planting in 1967. They dwell deep in the depths of Lake Michigan until their instinctual urge is triggered. The annual spawning run for these well-sought-after beasts starts at the end of August. These migratory fish will begin to stage at river mouths, waiting for the right river temperature and flow, and then make their run upstream to procreate and die. Once these highly temperamental and spirited gamefish enter the river system, they are not concerned with eating, only spawning. This does not mean they cannot be caught by legal means. Since these salmon are used to the low light conditions of the deep waters, they will tend to school up in the deeper, structure-filled areas of the rivers until their bodies are ready to spawn in the shallower gravel flats and runs. This is the best time to convince fish to bite.
Floating a golf ball-sized chunk of skein (salmon roe still held together by a membrane) can be an effective way to get a bite. I believe the salmon are triggered to bite this presentation because, as juveniles in the river system, fish eggs are the main staple of their diet before they return to the big lake to mature. Float fishing skein is not complex and can be rigged easily. One of the simplest ways to gear up for this method is to use cured chunks of skein, an 8 to 10-foot medium/heavy action pole, and a spinning reel with great drag and large enough to hold 100 or more yards of 20-pound test line. I like to use a 15-20 gram bobber, 3/8 oz. barrel weight, and a swivel to attach my 15-pound leader.
For the hooks, there are many choices. Make sure it’s strong and sharp. Bait holder style hooks in sizes 4, 6, and 8 can be used. I match the size hook with the size of skein I am using. I set the bobber, so my offering is halfway or closer to the bottom; it’s not crucial to be bouncing along bottom. These fish will dart and move to munch on this succulent offering. Also, you get fewer snags when your bait is clear of the bottom debris.
Another great way to trick these fish into an anger-induced bite is crankbaits. I like to cast brightly colored, medium-diving stick baits into these deeper pools and river bends. Casting these baits upstream or across near downed timber or large rocks near current seams can result in bone-jarring strikes and freight train-style runs. I believe they hit these lures out of frustration and anger. One of my favorite methods is to start at the top of the run or hole and work my way downstream, fanning my casts to cover each section.
Most of the time, I get strikes at the end of the hole. I think the fish that don’t want to strike get pressured farther back towards the end of the section after I cover each area. By the time I have worked to the end of the run/hole, the fish are frustrated, feel pinned down, and do not want to retreat from the safety of the deeper water. They will then hit the lure because they are angered. I like to use an 8-foot medium heavy casting rod. Outfitted with a quality bait-caster reel. I use a 20-pound main line attached to a two-foot, 15-pound leader. I use a heavy-duty swivel to join the two and a strong cross-lock snap to attach the lure.
Secondly, river fishermen are not the only ones that get “turned on” by the annual fall salmon run. Resident brown and rainbow trout also become aware of what will happen, and these fish become extremely active in the cooling waters. These trout are gluttons and love to feed on the protein-rich spawn that will soon be abundant throughout the system. Bottom-bouncing hand-tied spawn bags or float fishing bead rigs can be very effective once the first salmon begin to spawn in their freshly polished beds.
Fly gear representing egg patterns and light to medium spinning gear can be very effective methods to present your chosen bait.
Lastly, and perhaps the most highly anticipated autumn fishing event, is the return of Michigan’s crown jewel, the fall-run steelhead! These silver bullets enter the river systems after the salmon; they require a cooler water temp to trigger their run. Not all the steelhead from Lake Michigan enter our rivers in the fall. My best guess, just from years of experience, is that about 30 percent enter in the fall, 10 percent in the winter and the rest enter March and April. The most important number, though, is that 100% of these fall-run fish are here to eat! They are active feeders until the water temperature drops below 40 degrees.
October and November are great times to chase these fall chromers. It seems the more inclement the weather, the better the bite. Cool, overcast, rainy/snowy weather can make for incredible fishing days on the river as long as the water temp and flow (higher, slightly stained water, is best) cooperate. Steelies can be caught when the water dips below 40, but I consider that wintertime, different tactics.
Salmon eggs are still abundant and perhaps a driving force why these shiny steelies are in the river, so any natural way to present spawn bags, beads and yarn balls can be your best bet. But don’t overlook running wobble style and stick crankbaits through the deeper runs behind salmon beds. Steelies will hit these baits out of hunger and anger. These baits represent other fish that are scarfing up the roe, and they are competing for the top tier feasters, steelhead.
In conclusion, many of us do not want summer to leave, but for the hardcore river angler, fall is the season of new beginnings and opportunity on our Michigan rivers. As the salmons’ journey ends, their sacrifice benefits the entire river ecosystem. Their eggs and decaying carcasses feed a flurry of activity under the calm facade of the river’s surface. The best way for us to experience these “legends of the fall” is to get out on our local river and enjoy autumn. Don’t worry; summer will be back.
Special thanks to this month’s “Guest Author,” Eric Richards, who has been river fishing for over 40 years and loves to inspire and educate people about fishing. He can be reached on FB at Richards River Guide if you have any questions or comments.