If you’ve ever gone down to the shore of Michigan’s Great Lakes anywhere near the river mouths, you’ve no doubt seen lines of boats endlessly trolling back and forth. As summer wears on, those lines of boats, made up of charters and personal boats, get closer and closer to shore. The boats are moving closer to shore because salmon are doing the same thing. One thing is for sure—if you want to catch a big Great Lakes salmon, now is the time!
The fish are preparing to head up rivers and streams on the annual migration. Each fall, salmon by the thousands (having spent several years reaching maturity in the lakes) follow the urge to reach the very spot they were born. Once there, they spawn and die, adding the nutrients they borrowed from the ecosystem back into the mix. Along the way, the fish provide a lot of enjoyment to the anglers chasing them.
Chaos beneath the waves
As the summer wears on, the Great Lakes are changing. Don’t fret, it happens all the time and to every body of water out there. Currents under the surface shift and the sun’s heat warms the top layers of water, changing the different zones of water. If you’re out on the lakes in a boat and have a good fish finder, you can see the shifts in the temperatures. These temperature shifts and the zone are always rich in phytoplankton that attract baitfish like alewives, smelt, and other smaller fish.
The baitfish are what the salmon and other game fish are feeding on. As the migration season gets closer, the urge to feed increases, as does the weight of fish that are caught.
In a normal year, the month of August is a great time to catch a big chinook salmon. But as we all know, this year has been anything but normal.
“Temperature is so crucial to finding the fish this time of year,” said Jay Frolenko, charter captain and owner of Strike Zone Charters in Frankfort, Michigan. “With it being much cooler this summer than in previous years, fish are staging closer and earlier than before. Pier catches have been outstanding so far and fish are already moving into the rivers.”
In normal years, the bite is usually more predictable, too, Frolenko said. Anglers are used to catching Chinook (or king) salmon and coho salmon closer to shore. Steelhead are usually found further out and the lake trout bite is usually done, with only a few being taken. This year, however, anglers are catching mixed bags of fish much closer to shore. It has been very exciting for anglers and charter captains alike. Anglers on Lake Huron and in the St. Mary’s River are reporting good numbers of Atlantic salmon already, too.
August and September hot spots for salmon anglers are basically anywhere you have a salmon stream emptying into one the of the Great Lakes. Manistee, Ludington, and Frankfort get a lot of attention this time of year on the west side of the Lower Peninsula. Sunrise-side anglers flock toward Tawas and Alpena. Yoopers can find fish in Marquette and a lot of them head over to Sault Ste. Marie to fish the rapids of the St. Mary’s. If you want to catch an Atlantic or pink salmon in Michigan, that’s where you need to go.
If you have a boat and want to try your hand, be mindful of weather conditions. The same boat you use for your local lake may not be big enough for one of the Great Lakes. Each year, the Coast Guard is called on to rescue some hapless angler whose boat found the bottom. Glassy, calm waters can quickly change to rolling madness, so be ready and don’t go out in something too small.
Anglers using their own boat need some kind of fish/depth finder to be able to find the fish (granted it won’t be that hard to figure out with the lines of charter boats running up and down). Planer boards are a popular tactic to get more lines out and away from the boat. Spoons and flashers are popular for imitating the schooling baitfish, with Frolenko recommending Silver Streak spoons from Wolverine Tackle. As the fishing gets closer to shore and the piers, planer boards can cause too much of a traffic jam, and most charter boats will drop them. Besides, the fishing is usually so hot by then that they don’t have time to run that many lines. Speaking of lines, Frolenko also recommends using a high-quality line that can handle the rigors of Great Lakes salmon fishing.
“Sometimes the bite is really explosive,” Frolenko said. “Sometimes it’s not. You need to have a sensitive line that is still tough enough to handle anything and everything. I switched to Sufix line and leaders and haven’t had any issues since.”
Other baits are also extremely productive in late summer. J-plugs, Hoochies, Kwikfish, and Hydro-Vibe spinners from Luhr Jensen are very popular with everyone from charter captains to weekend warriors.
“You’ve got to be ready for whatever is on the bite,” Frolenko said. “It changes throughout the morning. Listen to your radio to see what guys are getting hits on.”
We don’t need a boat!
Pier and shore anglers have a different strategy: long poles with reels full of hundreds of yards of line are the norm for them. These guys are usually casting spoons like Little Clios or Wobblers. Body baits like deep-diving Rapala Husky Jerks that imitate baitfish can be effective. Some anglers float gobs of spawn, treated salmon eggs, in an effort to trigger that genetic response bite. Salmon will pick up spawn even after they have turned off their digestive systems out of a genetic need to return eggs to the bed. Of course, they are also predators, so before that bite is off, they’ll actively feed on eggs as well. Either way, pier and shore anglers can often find a lot of fun fishing opportunities within an easy walking distance.
August and September provide anglers in Michigan a great opportunity to latch on to a hard-fighting, monster salmon. Frolenko said this is the best time of year to catch a chinook in the 20 to 25 pound range, with a few 30-plus-pounders thrown in the mix. And with the temperatures staying below average for this time of year, the salmon will be running earlier than usual. The bottom line is, you need to get out there and fish!
This article was produced in partnership with Pure Michigan.
Images courtesy Derrek Sigler