For fishermen, big fish on light tackle provide the ultimate thrill, and now is the time that many Michigan anglers can experience just that.
Sometime around mid-September, big king salmon that have spent the last four years chomping baitfish in lakes Superior, Michigan and Huron are heading up the streams where they were stocked or born with spawning their primary objective. In years gone by, the common belief was that these kings (aka Chinooks) had developed lockjaw and would only accidentally get hooked on lures. Way back when, snagging these fish was legal in Michigan and many partook in this activity. But along with the kings snagged by the large treble hooks, came collateral damage: Many a steelhead and brown trout also got snagged, and although they were illegal to keep, catching and releasing a fish with a giant hook in its side simply meant more food for raccoons.
Fortunately for all, anglers have learned that it’s not that difficult to get big kings to smash lures after they head up the river. The theory is that they’ve been chasing and grabbing baitfish their entire lives, and still have that impulse to grab at things that look and give off vibrations like prey. Another idea is that they’re charged with hormones and the fish-equivalent of angry as they single-mindedly follow their impulses to reproduce, and strike at lures because of a “get-out-of-my-face” madness.
The reason they do doesn’t really matter; what matters is that they attack spinners and body baits—sometimes with manic gusto.
“My favorite lures are Bomber Long As, especially a pattern called Fire Bass, which is basically firetiger colors (chartreuse, bright green and orange) in a largemouth bass pattern,” says David Rose, who guided clients for these fish for years before starting an outdoors communications business. “Also the Striper pattern, which looks like baby striped bass and has strong saltwater hooks. Another is the largest Rapala Flat Rap, which has a wide wobble, flat sides and produces a lot of flash. That wide wobble is important in any hardbody bait.”
When casting for kings, Rose says most strikes come from fish you can’t see.
“Whether wading or casting from a boat, you want to work through the holes from top to bottom,” he advises. “The baits don’t have to dive deep—if fish are lying in a 10-foot hole, your shallow-diving Bomber might just be a couple feet below the surface, but they’ll still come up and annihilate it.”
He said when you see fish in shallow water, they generally are on the move and not as likely to bite.
“When you see a lot of fish moving through, they’re boogying and headed up to spawn and those can be your tougher days,” Rose said.
In-line spinners from such as the Coho Bolo from Luhr-Jensen are also solid king catchers. Last year’s most exciting fish for this writer came on the St. Joseph River in southwestern Michigan, right below the Berrien Springs dam. I’d brought along an Okuma noodle rod spooled with 7-pound test from a panfish trip, and my friend Scott Crouch, a guide in the area, insisted I try casting a spinner with it. I clipped on a Coho Bolo with a red tail and cast it right into the tailwaters, eventually hooking and landing what turned out to be a 17-pound male king—a genuine challenge on light line and a 9-foot ultra-light rod.
Scott, a firefighter who also guides for walleyes, steelhead and salmon upstream of Berrien Springs, smoked that fish up for his colleagues. He can be contacted at www.matthew419fishingguideserv.com.
Along with the St. Joe, other outstanding rivers for kings this time of year include the Lake Michigan tributaries of the Grand River, the Big Manistee and Pere Marquette and the Upper Peninsula’s Manistique River. The Au Sable where it dumps into Lake Huron is a storied king stream, as is the Ocqueoc, near Rogers City.
Good king action can be found in a lot of Lake Superior streams, too, including the Chocolay and Big Two Hearted.
This king action can definitely provide an adrenaline rush. David Rose spools with 40-pound braided line and still has the occasional break-off.
“These fish were in 200 feet of water out in the lake the day before, and now they’re in 10 feet and less—they’re pissed off. Sometimes you’ll get that hit, get two violent headshakes and ‘bam!’ the line breaks sounding like a shotgun blast!”