Intro to Fishing the Great Lakes Salmon Run
As the days get shorter and the summer draws to an end, so begins one of the most exciting and challenging seasons for fisherman all around the Great Lakes; the King Salmon run! Kings are prized for their tasty fillets but are sought by most for the drag-screaming, hook-straightening fights they put up when hooked. Most times of year, these fish are only accessible by boats capable of braving the waters of Lake Michigan, sometimes fishing 4-10 miles offshore.
During “the run” salmon come in near the mouths of tributaries, harbors, and marinas; eventually swimming as far upstream as they can muster. This will usually start in September and last through October. The reason behind the sudden change in behavior: reproduction. These fish live and feed in the lake for 2-4 years before returning to the rivers in which they were hatched (or stocked) to leave their eggs in the hopes they will hatch and repeat the cycle. Unlike trout that can spawn many times over their lifespan, salmon will die within a few weeks of spawning. During the early part of the run, many fishermen concentrate their efforts around the mouth of the rivers and in the harbors. They are targeting these fish during the staging period, where the salmon congregate as they wait for the right flow and conditions in the rivers to make their upstream migration.
Basic setups you can use to get started salmon fishing this fall.
Rod: 7-10ft medium to medium-heavy
Longer is usually better here but almost any good spinning rod will do. A great cost-effective option are Ugly-Stiks by Shakespeare, for $75 or less they are stiff enough to handle the size of these fish and are mostly indestructible, which comes in handy when you’re clambering down rocks on breakwalls or bushwhacking through the woods to get to your favorite spot. In the $100-$200 range, there are a ton of purpose-built rods for salmon fishing by manufacturers such as Fenwick, St. Croix, G. Loomis, and Lamiglass. They tend to have a longer rear grip that makes casting and fighting a bit easier on the forearms.
Reel: A good quality spinning reel is a must! When hooked, salmon will run for up to 15 minutes before tiring. Having a reel with very sensitive drag will be the difference between landing a giant salmon and losing your favorite spoon. Pfleuger Trion ($39) is a great starting reel, and provides a good balance of performance and cost. Other great options from Pfleuger include the President ($50-$75) and Supreme ($80-$125). There are hundreds of appropriate options for spinning reels in this category so I recommend finding the one that fits your budget and liking.
Line: If you have a lighter rod I would recommend 10-15lb mono. Heavier rods can accommodate 15-20lb mono. 20Lb Braid or Power-Pro is a great option for those windy days, as it cuts down on wind-blown slack. Trilene XL is a great low-memory mono with just the right amount of stretch to it. At $6-$8 per spool it is a good value as well.
The most important factor is to use a flourocarbon leader at all times for the most effective presentation. Flourocarbon is nearly invisible under water and is also very abrasion resistant. This can be achieved by tying a good quality barrel swivel at the end of your main line, followed by 3-4 feet of flouro before your bait. Everybody has their favorite flouro, but I tend to prefer Seaguar Blue Label. It can survive a few nicks in the line, which can be a lifesaver when battling a toothy king salmon. Besides abrasion resistance; knot strength, diameter, and memory can also be considered when selecting your ideal leader material.
Misc equipment: Keep in mind that some other pieces of equipment may be necessary to make your salmon trip more successful. If you are fishing from a pier or breakwall, a long extendable net is a must if you plan to land your trophy. When river fishing, a pair of waders allows you to access areas that are not easily fished from bank. Bringing a 2nd or 3rd rod along can also reduce time spent tying up different lures and keep you fishing more efficiently.
Baits: For fishing the harbors and open waters of the river, your options are almost unlimited! Popular baits include spoons, crankbaits, jigs and plastics. Salmon eggs are also a staple bait for catching spawning fish at this time of year. I will get into the various preparations below.
Spoons: Gold and Silver Kastmasters are a favorite for salmon fishermen. Daredevil and Cleo type spoons are also popular and produce fish every year. As far as colors go, silver, blue, and green are always a go-to. If the water is a bit murky don’t be afraid to break out the orange, yellow, or pink. Early mornings and late evenings are great for glow-spoons when there’s limited natural light.
Crankbaits: Flicker Shad, Flicker Minnows, Husky Jerks are all proven winners. With the myriad of crankbaits out there don’t hesitate to try something new! As a general rule, if water clarity is good, stick to the more natural colors and patterns. If it’s murky, try your luck with a louder color. Use your best judgment when selecting the diving depth of your lure, typically you will want your bait somewhere in the bottom 1/3rd of the water column.
Plastics: Plastic minnows like Gulp, Powerbait, or Zoom will do great when jigged off of breakwalls and piers. Use anywhere from 3” to 5” size. While white is usually the most successful, on a slow day, try switching to a darker shade. The preferred jig head is a darter-style. Gamakatsu makes a pointed darter jig that has a very strong hook and comes in sizes from ¼ oz to ½ oz. Use the size that suits your plastics. Once rigged up, just cast it out and try some different jigging/retrieving tactics to fish your desired depth.
Eggs: Salmon eggs come in two main preparations; skein and spawn sacks. Skein consists of cured chunks of eggs that still have the connective membrane intact making them a bit more fragile on the hook. Spawn sacks are loose eggs that have been tied into a pouch via the use of a thin netting material. You can tie your own but they can also be purchased ready-made from bait shops or even online. The advantage of the sacks is that they usually hold up better on the hook and come in different colors based on the netting you decide to use. These are traditionally fished on a slip float setup that allows you to get the bait down deep in the harbors, as well as make quick adjustments when fishing on the rivers.
How to catch salmon during the run
Once the salmon are on their way up the rivers, one of the most successful methods for catching them involves using a slip-float setup. Float fishing lends itself to the rivers very well, as it creates a natural presentation of your bait floating downstream slightly slower than the current.
Typically this setup consists of a slip-float, swivel, flouro leader and lead weights all leading down to a small hook (size 6-10) that is tipped with skein or an egg sack. When fishing the rivers, it’s important to constantly adjust the depth of the bait to be as close to the bottom while making sure not to drag or snag the bait.
Great places to find fish on the rivers are where dams, rocks, and rapids slow the progress of the fish as they head upstream. Many fish tend to congregate in slow pools immediately downstream of these obstacles. Keep in mind that river levels can vary daily and that spot where you caught fish last week may now be a rock pile sticking out of the water. A good rule of thumb is to look for water that’s moving no faster than a brisk walking pace.
Spend time finding deeper holes, as well as eddies and back currents that may hold resting fish. With float fishing, mobility is key! Cover lots of water, hit every hole you can find, try a few faster spots, don’t be afraid to move around. Pay attention to your river levels and make note of conditions when the fishing is good. As with trying any new type of fishing, don’t get discouraged if you don’t slay ’em on your first outing.
Observe other people fishing, watch what they do to be successful. Don’t be afraid to ask a few questions; some people are willing to give up spots and techniques or point you in the right direction. Once that first Salmon drops your float or smashes that crankbait, you will fully understand why they are one of the most sought-after freshwater trophies in the world. In my next article I’ll cover some more advanced methods of river fishing during the salmon run.