It’s a well-known fact that the environment of a river is ever-changing. Trees tumble. Rains fall and load the riverbed. Holes slowly fill-in while others take shape.
This time of year, though, Great Lakes tributaries can be altered so abruptly that you can actually smell the difference in the air. At least that’s what happens when some of the Great Lake’s largest and most vicious predators invade them overnight. Yes, there is such a thing as a migration of fish so massive you can literally smell their unique scent wafting from the surface.
The species? Chinook salmon, or king salmon as they’re known on the west coast and Alaska. These fish are brutes in size as well as brawny in battle. It’s all you can do to land one in a fast-flowing river any time of year, let alone when they are ticked.
Why the all rage? Because just the night before they were suspended over deep water near the mouth of the inlet, contented and atop the food chain. Suddenly, they’re in less than 10 feet of water, quickly using stored energy in the current, and getting more aggressive by the moment, preparing to defend their right to spawn.
Techniques for hooking up with the king of Great Lakes salmon are seemingly endless. The two most popular tactics, however, are drifting with fish roe under a float, and casting hardware like bodybaits, spoons, and spinners.
Enter guide Kyle McClelland, a high-school student from Fife Lake, Michigan. He spends countless hours chasing trout and salmon of the rivers. This young gun’s a guru of drifting big chunks of skein (fish eggs still bunched tight in their membrane) under a float, which Chinook have a hard time passing up.
“Even though golf-ball-size globs of eggs are not naturally found drifting in the current this time of year, salmon will eat it. But you still have to make the skein flow downstream perfectly with the current,” McClelland insists.
His go-to? With a nine-foot medium-action St. Croix Wild River in hand, McClelland drifts chunks of skein—wrapped onto a razor-sharp size-2 treble tied to a two-foot leader of 10-pound-test fluorocarbon—with just enough weight pinched onto 12-pound-test monofilament mainline so his float rides 50 percent submerged.
Unlike when bobber fishing for panfish—when you want your float to be neutrally buoyant for detecting light biters—fishing large bait in current requires extra buoyancy so that the swirling eddies don’t falsely pull the entire rig under.
Lob the bait upstream of a hole, letting it drift along with the current, all the while reeling in any slack. The smack is quick and poorly managed line will be cause for bites missed. Slack line also has a tendency to get caught up in the surface current and will pull your offering down river faster than what nature intended.
Set the hook hard and be prepared to chase that fish downstream. Chances are you’ll lose it in a log jam, but that’s okay, you’ll hook another. These fish are aggressive, and if one thug’s ready to strike, a new one will more than likely be right behind him.
Rummaging through my own Plano tackle totes, I’ll first grab a Bomber Long A, which has the side-to-side wide wobble that attracts vicious strikes. Banana-shaped lures like Yakima Bait’s Flatfish and Reef Runner Ripsticks fit this bill as well.
You might also consider in-line spinners sized for muskies, such as a size-5 Mepps Aglia and size-6 Blue Fox Classic Vibrax. Wide-bodied spoons that ride higher in the water column, like Acme’s 3/4-ounce Little Cleo and Lindy’s four-inch Original Viking spoon, for instance, also waggle through the water just right.
Over all, a lure requires a cast slightly up and far across stream, with a retrieve just fast enough to allow the bait to run with its built-in action. The above-mentioned lures don’t run very deep; but not to worry, Chinook are known for rising to the occasion.
When casting lures, light- and medium-action rods are not going to be enough. This is time to break out the medium-heavy to heavy-action sticks or chance a shattered blank and a broken heart. Beefed-up line and a heavy-duty reel are in order, too.
St. Croix’s series of Premier rods have the strength to land powerhouse salmon. The seven-foot models are just the right length for precision casting (shorter rods better for accuracy, longer better for distance) and have the backbone to land big fish.
In general, 30-pound-test superline has the valor to withstand the shock of the strike, yet with a diameter thin enough that the current won’t affect the drift. Heavy monofilament is thick, making it hard to cast and easily seized by the current.
Missing in action
So what do you do if you get to the river and find you’re in-between runs? Hit the mouth of the river; it’s where salmon congregate and stage before making their mad dash.
The same artificial lures work wonders here too. When it comes to rods, however, this is where the longer St. Croix Premiers will achieve the casting distance needed. The real key to success is making sure every cast lands where the fish are schooled up. This is where today’s electronics come into play.
Humminbird’s Side Imaging was a real game changer when it came to seeing and catching Great Lakes salmon, and now even more so with the new 360 Imaging. With either technology you can see fish suspended high in the water column, and then follow by plugging a waypoint over the school without ever having to motor over them.
A word of warning: catching a limit of Chinook salmon, or even one for that matter, goes well beyond line, lures, rods and reels. Once hooked and the fight is close to over, you need to get that fish in the net. These fish are big, so a wimpy net will cause nothing but chaos.
A net with a heavy-duty handle, yoke, and mesh is needed to scoop and lift these bullies from the drink. My overall choice is a Frabill 26-inch by 30-inch Conservation Series landing net. The frame can withstand a twisting, turning, 20-plus-pounder, and the makeup of the meshing and shape of the net promote a live release, if that’s your choice.
If the fight of your life is on your to-do list, consider fishing tributaries of the Great Lakes this fall. Drift a chunk of skein or cast a lure through a hole and hang on. (And I mean hang on!)