King salmon on Michigan’s Great Lakes often go wild and attack lots of different lures during peak, low light periods at dawn and dusk, but present a much more difficult target once the sun is up.
To catch them all day, deliver spoons, plugs, and flasher/cut bait rigs fished just off the bottom.
My friend Captain Dan Keating, a charter captain out of Winthrop Harbor, Illinois, has been preaching this for years. He recommends starting the day aggressively to cash in on the feeding kings. Once the sun gets up over the horizon, he says, kings go belly to the bottom, often in the same area where they were chomping bait and sometimes moving to deeper water.
The best tactic, Keating says, is to put your lures close to the bottom and away from the boat and downrigger balls.
That jives with several trips we’ve made, when we scraped those mid-day salmon right off the sand. Once time a late morning king got us into the money at a Lake Michigan tournament out of South Haven. Our friend Captain Jimmy Bard, who now runs It Il Do Charters, told us where to go and what to use. With a Michigan-made Pro King Spoon on 10 colors of lead core, we had nine fish in the box within the first few hours of competition and need just one more for a tournament limit. Then we hit the Dead Sea. Fishless for three long hours and with one hour left, my buddy Ron Barger and I got an idea simultaneously: “Let’s try a wire rod!”
So we did, clipping on a Silver Streak Blueberry Muffin Magnum spoon and dropping it to the bottom behind a one-pound lead ball. Within five minutes it had a nice king, which put us in sixth place out of the fifty-some boats in the amateur division.
It pays to make this change to scraping bottom with purpose. Keating explains that in low light, when kings feed furiously, you want a lot of flasher flies in the water, one on each of the downriggers and two more on divers set to run close to the downriggers. Once the action slows, Keating says, turn to stealth. Two set ups key to stealthy success are a “light line rig” and a “secret weapon rig,” both for downrigger fishing.
The light line rig is a short, bass-style rod, six to seven feet long, with a quality lightweight baitcast reel with a clicker and substantial line capacity. Keating spools up almost a full 330-yard spool of 12-pound test Clear Blue Stren on a Penn 965 International reel. That particular line is stretchy and forgiving when fighting a big fish. The lightness allows the spoon to achieve its full action, and he’s even particular about the swivel, using a small, 35-pound test Sampo , which he feels doesn’t impair the spoon’s action.
He runs the spoon at least 50 feet behind downrigger ball and often as much as 200 feet behind it. This lets the spoon operate on its own, far away from the turbulence of the downrigger ball, well behind the boat.
Even stealthier is the secret weapon rig (aka SWR) for another downrigger. This has three colors of 27-pound lead core, a 15- to 25-foot leader, and backing of 20-pound test monofilament. You put a spoon or plug on the end of the leader, let out all the lead core and another 50 feet of backing before clipping it into the downrigger release. The lead core takes the lure 12 to 15 feet below the downrigger ball, bringing it through clean, undisturbed water. Set the downrigger ball 12 feet above the bottom and the lure runs right into the face of bottom-hugging kings.
The SWR was developed by Michigan trollers Skip Berry and Craig McPhee about 12 years ago. McPhee wondered if downriggers could be more productive during their mid-day slump when the lead cores behind planer boards still caught fish. He and Berry tried a three-color core rod, and the SWR was born. The lead core and lure behind it get pushed upwards by water resistance when the boat speeds up and sink when the boat slows down, and this rise and fall of the lure seems to stimulate strikes.
The SWR is often the hottest rod in the spread.
While many salmon trollers scoff at the idea of 12-pound test light line rigs, add it to your arsenal this year and you’ll likely hook up with a bunch more downrigger fish than in seasons gone by. Add a secret weapon rig and you could enjoy catching kings on your downriggers all day long.
Images by Dave Mull