Photo by Mike Schoonveld.
Indiana’s Great Lakes fishermen used to despise August. Sure, you could pull a fish or two out of the depths, if you were lucky, persistent and in the right place at the right time; but great fishing action and full coolers were rare. Surprisingly, though, for the past couple of summers, Indiana salmon fishermen have experienced phenomenal success in August. Why the change?
Let’s start with the changing face of Indiana’s charter boat fleet. The number of registered charter operators has remained the same over the years — about 50, give or take a few each year — but many of the “old-timers,” the guys who helped pioneer Indiana’s Lake Michigan fishing, have dropped out of the business and have been replaced by new captains with newer boats who are fishing in new locations.
When Indiana’s Lake Michigan trout and salmon programs started in the 1970s, Michigan City, with a well-developed harbor, was the home to most of the state’s charter captains. A few captains found dock spaces along the shores of Burns Waterway in Portage. None of these captains were located in Lake County because there were only a couple of small, private marinas located there.
Though a similar number of captains are still available in Indiana, the fleet is now split among all three of Indiana’s Lake Michigan counties. There are still plenty of captains calling Michigan City home, a few still operate out of Portage, but the Lake County fleet is flourishing, based at the modern marina facilities at East Chicago and Hammond.
As the Lake County fleet increased, so did the amount of exploring offshore of Lake County. It was too far for the Lake County skippers to travel to where the Michigan City and Portage charters historically fished. The Lake County guys looked for, and found, offshore bonanzas closer to home for themselves.
FISHING THE SHOALS
The area they discovered is called the Indiana Shoals on official charts of the lake. The shoals are part of a naturally occurring sandbar, which runs from the shore between East Chicago and Whiting on out into the lake for almost 15 miles. Nearshore, the top of the shallow bar may be only 16 to 20 feet deep, dropping into 30 feet of water. At the far end, it may be 60 feet deep, dropping into 80 feet of water. It’s along this drop that summer king salmon are found.
Were these schools of salmon always there lurking along the edge of the shoals? Perhaps they were. Others suspect the recent August bounty found along the Indiana Shoals comes from the number of naturally reproduced chinook salmon now living in Lake Michigan.
For the first decades of the Lake Michigan salmon program, solely the number of hatchery fish the Lake Michigan states could produce determined the number of chinook salmon in the lake. Most of the streams feeding into the lake were too warm, too turbid, too polluted or lacked suitable substrate for salmon to successfully spawn. That has changed.
Even here in Indiana the tributary streams have been cleaned up and in many areas the bottoms have been scoured clean to the natural gravel substrate as soil erosion measures have been instituted. Areas like these are where natural reproduction of chinook salmon can occur. To a similar extent in Wisconsin, the same thing is happening, and in the state of Michigan, there are more naturally produced chinook salmon coming into the lake than baby kings originating from hatcheries.
In short, there are now more chinook salmon in Lake Michigan than ever before. It’s easy to postulate the increased catch of chinooks is directly attributable to the number of chinooks in the lake.
Most kinds of fishing undergo a steady evolution over time. Gear improves, tactics evolve, and sometimes it’s almost cyclical as old almost forgotten tactics are resurrected. It’s the new captains and private sport-fishermen that have recently taken up Great Lakes fishing who often lead the way.
Downriggers were once the standard method of getting lures down deep into the cool water layer where salmon live. Downriggers are still used and are productive, but weighted lines, trailing lures 100 yards or more behind the boat, are now a favorite way to present lures to down-deep salmon. Lead-core line is one of those “old-time” presentations that has cycled back to the forefront. The nylon-sheathed lead wire has been around for years, but it’s just been the last few seasons that it has come into common use again.
Braided copper wire is more recent. More supple and much heavier than stranded steel wire, braided copper is used much the same as lead core, but it will take a lure about 25 percent deeper than an equal length of lead core.
Years ago, lead core was set out as an afterthought, more than as a primary presentation. Once all the downriggers were set and divers deployed, out would come the lead-core rod with an oversized reel capable of holding 100 yards of the lead-core line along with another 100 yards or more of backing. It would be set as a flat line and forgotten until the occasional fish would hit the lure it was trailing.
Nowadays, expect the offshore pros to set out five or more lead and copper line outfits. Capt. Mark Johnson uses a five long-line setup on his boat Reel Crazy. Using large side planers on tether cords, he sets a 100-yard length of lead core on each tether, with the release clip close to the planer. A copper line rig is set halfway down each tether and a final long-line rod is positioned directly off the stern. The lead core takes his lures to about 50 feet deep, the copper line positions lures roughly 65 feet deep.
Captain Doug Iliff of Anglers Adventure Charters out of the East Chicago Marina in Lake County told me, “The long lines help keep the bite going all day long. Early in the morning before the sun gets high enough to penetrate down into the depths, the downriggers catch plenty of fish. Past 8 a.m., or so, most mornings, the ‘riggers go flat, but the lead lines just keep on catching.”
WHERE’S THE MEAT?
In big lake slang, it’s called “meat.” In actuality, it’s a time-tested West Coast salmon-catching method that took more than three decades to catch on here in the Great Lakes. This tactic entails trolling with strips or chunks of herring. But it’s not as simple as it sounds.
y, a whole herring was used. A herring was laid on a cutting board and its head was sliced off at an angle, which could only be duplicated by a compound miter saw. Once a double hook rig was pinned through the decapitated fish, the bait was ready to use. The miter-cut herring would swim in a tight spiral reminiscent of something a salmon would like to eat. But getting the perfect movement out of a cut-bait herring was an art form more than a science.
Leave it to science to take the art out of the process. Less-than-artfully skilled anglers, having little success with their herring beheading techniques, developed “bait-heads” which are plastic heads in which herring filets could be inserted. The plastic bait-heads took the guesswork (or the artwork) out of getting the perfect spinning action out of the headless herring.
To pull in the salmon from even greater distances, oversized flashers are usually deployed ahead of the meat-laden bait-heads. The sparkle and vibration created by these metal or plastic flashers attract salmon from a good distance, ensuring additional attention by the hungry fish.
Bait-heads and frozen pre-filleted packets of herring are available in most tackle shops near Lake Michigan. For those who are unable to get to one of those stores (or as a backup to running short), salmon will gulp pre-scented plastic biodegradable bait strips substituted for real herring.
Anglers who are relying on diving planers to get their “meat” into the strike zone choose either a strong braided line or stranded steel wire instead of mono. Both braid and steel have no stretch, but as important is their thin diameter. Both types of line cut through the water with little resistance. This allows the divers to do their work with a minimum amount of line.
Will the August bonanza continue this year? We know where to look. We know what baits will likely tempt the fish. The best part is there’s only one sure way to find out, and that’s to go fishing! Hope to see you out there on the Big Lake this summer.