The only thing better than catching a fat coho salmon is doing it in March when most anglers are still enjoying their winter hibernation! Even better, early spring coho fishing is often a game played in shallow water and close to shore.

The spring coho fishery on both southern Lake Michigan and southern Lake Huron is tailor-made for small boat anglers. The months of March and April represent prime time for cashing in on all that “silver” made possible thanks to substantial stocking efforts on both of these Great Lakes.

Most of the coho stocked in both Lake Michigan and Lake Huron spend the winter months in the southernmost regions of the lakes. In the case of Lake Michigan, stocking efforts are undertaken by Michigan, Indiana, Illinois and Wisconsin. Lake Huron is stocked with coho by the Michigan DNR. A suitable boat and a modest investment in trolling gear are all it takes to get started enjoying this dependable seasonal fishery.

Trolling With In-Line Boards

Because coho are often found in shallow water in the spring, trolling using in-line boards such as the iconic Off Shore Tackle Side-Planer is going to be paramount. In-line boards can be used to present a wide variety of common coho lures and rigs out away from the boat. Not only do in-line boards help in catching spooky fish, they work to cover massive amounts of water in the process.

For most situations, I recommend fishing with monofilament line and using three boards/lines off each side of the boat. Spread the boards out about 50 feet from one another, with the outside board positioned approximately 150 feet out to the side. Keeping the boards spread out covers more water and reduces issues of tangling lines while fighting fish and making turns.

When trolling for coho, I always rig my boards so when a fish is hooked, I can release the board. Off Shore boards come factory-equipped with the right line releases and clips to make releasing boards super easy.

The orange OR19 release is mounted to the tow arm of the board and the red OR16 Snap Weight Clip is mounted to the back of the board. When setting lines, I set the lure the desired trolling lead behind the boat and then grab the fishing line near the rod tip. I wrap the line over my index finger and twist the line to create a small loop of line about one or two inches long. The twists of line are placed into the OR19 release, leaving the loop protruding about an inch. The line is then placed in the OR16 being sure to get the line behind the plastic peg that’s in the middle of the rubber release pads.

Spring coho, on average, are just 18-22 inches long, but they make up for what they lack in size in numbers and they are absolutely the best-eating salmonid in the Great Lakes. Mark Romanack photos

Once the board is attached to the line, drop it in the water and play out line as the boat trolls forward. When the board is out the desired distance, engage the reel and put the rod in the most forward rod holder. Repeat this process for the other two lines and also on the other side of the boat.

I also recommend setting up board trolling lines so the lure that fishes highest in the water column is the outside board and progressively deeper lures are fished in the middle and inside board lines. This strategy stacks lines both horizontally on the surface and vertically throughout the water column.

Known as the “loop trick,” the beauty of this setup is when a fish strikes, the line can be easily tripped from the release on the tow arm by giving the rod tip a sharp snap. When the line pops free from the release on the front of the board, the board spins around and stops planing to the side but remains pegged in place on the line thanks to the peg in the middle of the OR16 that’s mounted to the back of the board.

Because the board is no longer planing, it quickly drops back from the other boards. As the board sags back, it is also separating from other lines making it possible to reel in the fish without having to clear any of the other planer board lines.

Another advantage of the “loop trick” is that when the board releases, the fish is pulling directly against the bend of the rod and the give of the reel drag. This helps to cushion the fight and prevents fish from tearing free and escaping. If the board is not released, the fish has something solid to pull against and can often use the board as leverage to pull free and escape.

When fishing with in-line boards I prefer to use rod holder trees. Trees have the advantage of being mounted further forward in the boat, which opens up space for rigging other lines like downriggers or diving planers at the back of the boat. Also, rod holder trees position the rod butts up and out of the cockpit, giving more room inside the boat and helping to separate each board line better than can be achieved using traditional tube or cradle-style rod holders.

Lead Core and spoons

Short lengths of segmented lead core line, married up with small to standard-sized trolling spoons, is a winning combination for spring coho. My typical setup consists of a pair of one-color, a pair of three-color and a pair of five-color lead core setups, each featuring a 30-foot leader of 20-pound test fluorocarbon line sandwiched between a 20-pound test monofilament backing line.

The one-color setup is fished on the outside board line, the three-color is fished on the middle board, and the five-color is fished on the inside board line. This setup covers the water column from just below the surface to about 25 feet deep.

If I find myself marking deeper fish, I can pull out a seven-color lead core and fish down to about 35 feet effectively. At the business end, I’m typically fishing Wolverine Tackle Mini Streak or Standard Streak spoons that feature a lot of very bright colors. Some of my all-time favorite Streak colors for coho include Jerry Lee, Mixed Vegetables, Bloody Nose, Orange Chilly Willy, Metallic Yellowtail and Blue Dolphin.

Plugs and Planer Boards

Some days, coho go crazy for spoons and other days, it’s body baits that produce the best action. Several plugs have emerged as consistent coho killers, including the Mag Lip 3.0 and 3.5, the Storm ThinFin, Storm Hot ‘N Tot and Brad’s ThinFish. All of these plugs can be fished unassisted or used in combination with the Off Shore Tackle Snap Weight to achieve greater depths and shorter overall lead lengths. The Precision Trolling Data phone app provides depth diving information for each of these lures. Also, it offers anglers the option of using the 50 Plus 2 data that involves combining a two-ounce Snap Weight with popular diving crankbaits.

Diving plugs are a deadly effective option for trolling in 40 feet of water or less. I recommend using plugs unassisted as high lines on the outside board lines and Snap Weight assisted plugs as the deeper inside board lines.

Diving Planers

Diving planers are another important tool for presenting spoons, plugs and rotator/fly or rotator/plug rigs. The beauty of diving planers is they can be set quickly and effectively cover a wide range of water depths. Historically, diving planers have been used by attaching a short leader directly to the back of the diver, then adding a spoon, stickbait or other lures.

Using a little trick from Off Shore Tackle, it’s easy to rig a diving planer so it can be placed anywhere on the line, similar to a Snap Weight. Using a split ring, mount an OR16 Snap Weight Clip to the tow arm of a Dipsy Diver. Load the reel on the diver rod with 40 40-pound test super braid and using a double uni knot, add in 20 to 50 feet of 20-pound test fluorocarbon leader material.

Select the lure or rig of choice, let it out 20 to 50 feet and then attach the diver to the line by opening up the OR16 Snap Weight Clip and placing the line behind the pin in the middle of the rubber release pads. Close the trip arm on the diver, lower it into the water and slowly play out line to achieve the desired diving depth.

When a fish strikes, a short snap of the rod tip will pop open the trip arm, release the diver yet leave the diver attached to the line. When fighting the fish, remove the diver as it nears the boat, similar to how a Snap Weight is fished, then resume fighting the fish to the net.

This rigging tip is easy to master and makes it practical to fish longer leads between the lure and diver. After experimenting with this rigging method all last year, I’ll never fish a diver any other way.

Downriggers

Many anglers don’t think they need downriggers when fishing shallow water. On the contrary, a downrigger is a very useful tool for fishing spoons and other popular lures in deep or shallow water.

The beauty of a downrigger is once a fish is hooked and released from the downrigger ball, the fish can be fought without any weight or diving device on the line. Downrigger fish are a riot to fight because they are hooked so close to the boat!

Downriggers are also useful because they can be fished using any of the popular lures or rigs commonly employed in salmon trolling. One of my favorite setups for fishing downriggers on spring coho is to run a diving plug, such as a Mag Lip, on the main line and a medium-sized spoon, such as a Mini Streak, on a fixed slider rig positioned about 10 feet above the plug. This setup gives the fish two different presentations on each downrigger, both lures are nicely separated and I benefit from having double the gear in the water.

By experimenting with lure colors, I can quickly figure out what baits and colors the fish prefer on any given day.

Scent Products

It’s no secret that all the species of salmonids have a refined sense of smell. Using natural scent products on lures helps to trigger more strikes and also more aggressive strikes.

Smelt are an important forage species in Lake Huron. The Pro Cure Super Gel Smelt formula is made from ground-up smelt and is an excellent choice. On Lake Michigan, the primary forage for salmon are alewife, so on Lake Michigan, using the Pro Cure Super Gel Alewife Formula makes the most sense.

On both fisheries, Super Gel Bloody Tuna is also a great option. While salmon don’t encounter tuna in the Great Lakes, they are instinctively programmed to be aggressive around the odor of tuna. At Fishing 411 TV, we have found that no matter where we travel to fish salmonids, Super Gel Bloody Tuna is a productive scent product.

New Trolling Rods

Eagle Claw recently released a new lineup of presentation-specific trolling rods that are reasonably priced and the actions are spot on. The 8’-6” telescopic in-line board rod is ideal for fishing plugs and also lead core rigs.

The 9’-0” telescopic diver rod is an industry first. This rod extends to easily fish all the common sizes of diving planers including magnum models, then telescoped down to fit nicely in the rod locker of even modest boats.

The 8’-0” two-piece downrigger rod is an all-purpose downrigger rod that’s ideal for coho, chinook, lake trout, steelhead, brown trout and walleye trolling applications. One rod does it all, saving money and space in the boat.

Lake Michigan ports

Some of the top ports for spring coho action on Lake Michigan include Benton Harbor, New Buffalo, Michigan City, Gary and East Chicago. Anglers who fish this region need to understand several states are included in this region, including Michigan, Indiana and Illinois, so purchasing fishing licenses from multiple states is necessary.

For example, Michigan City is near the Michigan and Indiana border lines. If you fish east of Michigan City, you’ll soon be in Michigan waters. If you fish west out of Michigan City, an Indiana fishing license is required.

The fishery in southern Lake Michigan is mostly coho, with a few lake trout and chinook salmon in the mix.

Lake Huron Ports

The top ports for Lake Huron coho in the spring include Lexington, Port Sanilac and Port Huron on the Michigan side and Sarnia, Highland Glen and Kettle Point on the Ontario side.

The Lake Huron fishery is a little bit more diverse than the Lake Michigan fishery. In addition to solid coho numbers, anglers can also expect to catch lake trout, browns, pink salmon, king salmon and the occasional Atlantic salmon are in the mix.

Summing It Up

Southern Lake Michigan and Lake Huron both provide anglers dependable early spring trolling action. While the tasty coho is the species most anglers covet, the tactics that catch coho also catch the other salmonid species found in these waters.

Both fisheries get started literally the minute boat launches are free enough of ice to launch a boat.