Lake Michigan's Hot Summer Salmon & Trout Action
October 04, 2010
Now's the time of year when it all comes together on our Great Lake for cohos, kings, steelhead and more. Here's where you should fish right now!
By Mike Schoonveld
One of my favorite summer songs is the one with the line "fish are jumpin' and the cotton is high." There's not much cotton around Indiana, perhaps Hoosier crooners should substitute the words corn or soybeans, but at least on Lake Michigan, you can almost bet the fish are jumpin' come August.
The best bet for "jumpers" is the famed Skamania steelhead. Famous steelhead? Sure! And one of the things they are famous for is their jumping ability. Sting a Skamania with sharp treble hook swinging behind a big red spoon and just watch it jump. That's a Skamania steelhead's initial instinct once it feels the steel. Head for the top and keep on going. Sometimes it seems the deeper a steelhead starts at, the higher it goes airborne.
Once the steely splashes down, the game plan is up to the individual fish. Some will jump again immediately and perhaps repeat the performance with several more encores. Most will head directly away from the pull it's feeling and burn off several dozen yards of line.
Regardless of what the fish does, there's little the fisherman can do but hang on and enjoy the antics. Once the initial rounds are over, the work of winding the fish closer to the boat can begin, but don't be surprised if the steelhead gets a second wind before the job is done, and you can be sure it's going to pursue some last- second tactic to elude the landing net even when the fight seems nearly over.
Most steelhead that get hooked and lost are gone just a few seconds after the initial hookup. Perhaps they weren't hooked well to begin with. Perhaps the initial leap of 6 feet or more out of the water or the ensuing belly-flop it takes when it smacks down on the surface causes a barb to pop free.
Too often it's the fatal test of the fishing equipment that causes fish and fishermen to part ways. Pulled-open snap swivels, bent-straight hooks, snapped lines or poor knots are all excuses offered by those who momentarily connect with one of Indiana's summer-run fish.
Chinook salmon become more active in August, offshore early and nearshore later in the month. Photo by Dick Swan
If you are still hooked solidly by the time the work begins, don't fire up the smoker too soon. The middle part of the battle is crucial, but the final phase is as critical as the first few seconds.
Those first antics occur with plenty of line out and away from obstructions in which to tangle. When the fight winds down to the last 15 or 20 feet, the rod is invariably bent over to its maximum, the line is stretched tight as a banjo string and the angler is full of adrenaline. A mad dash, a quick final leap or my least favorite trick, a fish that suddenly decides to head for the shade under the boat, often results in as many "quick releases" as occurs at first bite.
That's all part of the fun and challenge, however, of these famed steelheads, but is it their only claim to fame? It's enough, in my book, but it's not all.
The other claim to fame for this breed of fish is how and why they are even available to provide summer fun. Mother Nature started it all when she meddled with fish biology and fish behavior to invent steelhead trout thousands of years ago.
There were salmon that swam in the sea and grew to enormous proportions with the virtually unlimited forage available. There were also rainbow trout that inhabited mountainous streams with crystal-clear water. The rainbows eked out their sustenance primarily by consuming insects, which happened along during the part of the year when bugs were out.
It's as though Mother Nature pondered, "What would happen if I caused a rainbow trout to head out to sea?" The result was the steelhead. Part salmon, growing big, strong and fast from life in the ocean; part rainbow, connected genetically to the mountain streams and required to maintain that connection when the urge to spawn manifests primal instincts.
If eons ago Mother Nature's dithering with fish biology to create steelhead wasn't enough, fisheries biologists tweaked that invention to produce a new kind of steelhead in just the last few decades. Natural steelhead start their spawning runs in October and then continue to come into the spawning streams throughout the winter. Fish scientists, through selective breeding, have produced strains of steelhead loosely called "summer-run" because their spawning urge triggers months sooner than their winter-run cohorts.
These selective breeding experiments were conducted mostly in the Pacific Northwest where steelheads are native. Normal, winter-run steelies had already proven successful in the Great Lakes, and when Indiana biologists heard of the new summer-run strains being developed, they arranged to get some eggs to continue the summer-run experiment here in the Midwest.
Previously, Indiana's part of Lake Michigan often seemed a desert from May to September in so far as game fish trolling for salmon or trout was concerned. Salmon fishing was good in the spring when the surface water temperatures were favorable near shore and again in the fall when the stocked fish came back to the nearshore areas on their spawning runs. The hope was - and that hope has been fulfilled - the summer-run steelhead would fill the void and provide some big-lake action for Hoosier fishermen at a time of the year that seemed to have few other options.
Nowadays, Skamanias are a solid part of every Lake Michigan angler's season of fun. The fish start showing in shallows in the middle of June, and July is always a solid month for summer-run action. And in most years, August, especially the first few weeks of the month, can be just as good.
Anglers wanting to experience this fish-are-jumpin' action should target either Michigan City or Portage. The steelhead are stocked in Trail Creek in LaPorte County and the Little Calumet River in Porter County; it's to these streams the spawning-minded fish are predestined to return.
There is hardly a day when some steelhead aren't taken off the mouths of each of these streams. The best days occur during extended periods of hot weather. The fish are reluctant to enter the streams when the water temperature exceeds 74 degrees. So when they arrive from the vast reaches of the lake where they've been foraging for the previous several years, they stack up when the streams are running hot, as is often the case in August.
The worst days occur after a significant rain event; in August, usually a severe thunderstorm or several of them will roll through on any given day. An inch or
more of rain can come down in a very short time from these summer storms and all that water quickly finds its way into the streams. This flushing action can drop the stream temperature from the high 70s into the high 60s in a few hours, and as soon as the Skamanias detect the increased flow of cool water, they scoot on up the watershed.
Regardless of whether the steelhead are stacked like cordwood just offshore of these streams or if only a few of them are in the vicinity, experience has shown a few lures and colors to be preferred over most others on most days. The color scheme is simple. Think bright orange or red in the hue most often called "hunter orange." There aren't any minnows or bugs wearing these colors around Lake Michigan, but don't tell the steelhead it's not a color fit to eat. They love it and will strike a bright fluorescent spoon or plug with abandon while snubbing artificials with more natural looking finishes.
Both spoons and plugs will take Skamanias on a regular basis, but think large and larger as a rule. Magnum trolling spoons in the 4-inch length is about as small as most experts go. Local favorites are called Big Red spoons, red because of their bright, hunter-orange finish both front and back, and big because the blade on most of these lures is over 6 inches long.
Plug pullers are divided between those who prefer the J-plug-type lures and their many clones and the jointed stick bait aficionados. In both cases, the larger sizes get the nod.
Though the reason Skamanias were brought to Indiana initially was to fill the summer lull between spring and fall fishing, in recent years, it's been discovered that lull may not be as significant as it was once thought to be. While it's true the number of fish right along the shoreline dwindle to near zero in the summer months, all those fish that were present in the spring don't just turn to dust and blow away on the first hot winds of summer. Those fish move somewhere to find cooler water and to stay in the proximity of the forage fish on which they gorge all summer.
All that is needed is to find that area, be able to get to it economically and safely, and then be able to locate it again on a continuing and reliable basis. That was almost impossible in the initial decades of Lake Michigan salmon history (which basically dates only to the 1970s). Now it's distinctly possible and firmly proven.
Most boat manufacturers offer a line of trailerable "big-water" boats. These high-sided 18- to 21-foot models usually sport ultra-reliable outboard or inboard motors (compared to the motors being made just a few years ago) and are easily capable of working 10 to 20 miles out in the lake.
Modern electronics play a key as well. These days, a VHF radio, which keeps boaters in touch with the latest NOAA weather reports, the U.S. Coast Guard and other fishermen, costs less than a pair of tickets to a Colts' game. Add a GPS receiver and when you find the "numbers" - the latitude and longitude - of where the fish are located, or if you simply check a few Internet sites with fishing reports that include numbers, punch a few buttons and head for the action zone.
In the offshore areas where salmon spend the summer, you'll need equipment designed to get your lures deep under the surface. Downriggers are the "go-to" presentation and many anglers stop right there. They hang two or more downriggers on the transom of their boat and only set that many rods. Most anglers will add a couple more offerings by employing at least a pair of diving planers, which pull down and away from the boat using water pressure on the diver disk. Add a lead-core line and perhaps a weighted wire line and you'll be covering all the bases needed for success.
The exact areas that attract and hold fish vary each year. Locations stored in GPS units from last year don't mean much the next year. It also seems each season is a bit different in so far as the species makeup of schooling fish within reach of Indiana's ports, though cohos are often the predominant fish in the cooler. But don't think of the cohos like those that are caught in the spring. By August, those little fish that might have averaged 2 pounds have grown up. Figure 6 pounds for the little fellows now, and 10-pounders are likely, too.
Some of the best years for offshore action for cohos do have one thing in common. Indiana used to stock in the neighborhood of 150,000 cohos each year. Occasionally, due to hatchery surpluses, special experiments or other reasons, the southern end of Lake Michigan would get a bonus stocking of cohos. In hindsight, it always seemed the years when those extra fish matured coincided with the summers the offshore action was the hottest.
Indiana fish biologists switched their years-old stocking plan a couple of years ago and bumped the target number of cohos from Indiana hatcheries up 50 percent to 225,000 annually. This will be the summer the cohos from that increased stocking are full grown, so if history holds true, this summer could be spectacular.
It's not just cohos that are found in those offshore areas. Any of the other five major species are likely to be caught as well; and in truth, it's a rare day when a mixed catch isn't a part of the game.
Brown trout, once thought to be only a nearshore staple, seem to be adapting more to offshore haunts, each year. Perhaps it's the influx of the Seeforellen strain stocked in Michigan and Wisconsin. This strain seems to forage offshore regularly and is the fastest growing strain of browns in the lake.
Lake trout aren't the "bread and butter" of the offshore fishery they once were. Probably because of zebra mussel colonies now adapting to deep, soft-bottom areas, lakers don't belly down in the mud in what used to be called the Pig Pen. This is an area where huge lakers used to be as abundant as yellow bass at Lake Monroe. Lakers now come suspended and don't seem to be concentrated in any one area.
Steelhead are almost always a part of any deep-water outing. If a few steelhead appear nearer shore almost every day of the summer, where are they just before they come ashore? Sure, they are offshore and chowing down on the same schools of alewives the salmon and lakers are shadowing.
Saving the best for last, how about the "kings" of the lake, the chinook salmon? Use the names king salmon and chinook salmon interchangeably. August is a busy time for chinook - busy meaning they are finishing their chore of eating and growing big and just beginning their chore of reproducing. When a king is busy, that means it's active. When you show an active chinook an enticing lure, it's likely to strike it.
When that happens, hang on! Chinook are the largest species in the lake, and pound for pound, the strongest as well. Drag-shearing runs, mad dashes and tug of wars where neither side gains or loses much ground are normal when a king is hooked.
For the first three weeks of August, the kings will be found offshore and feeding actively. By August, most kings will be bright silver with a cast of purple and pink iridescence on their flanks. By Aug. 10, you'll notice a smoky haze to the silver as though it's a bit tarnishe
d. This is a sign the hormonal changes are shutting down the three-year feeding binge and getting the fish ready for its return to where it was stocked. By the end of the month, the fish darken and the silver turns to an olive color. You won't find many of these dark kings offshore, however. This is the color to expect when the kings home in on their natal stream and spend a week or two preparing to spawn.
In Indiana, kings are stocked in nearly equal numbers in Lake, Porter and LaPorte county waters. By the end of August, the king run is started and it's no longer necessary to plan long boat rides to the offshore areas; or since spawning kings are most active in the low-light periods, anglers will load their boats as the stars are disappearing, fish the dawn's early light until shortly after sunrise, then switch tactics and head offshore to finish up on fish that aren't so light sensitive.
It's August and the living is easy. Fish are jumpin' and it's high time to head for Lake Michigan to get in on the action waiting for you there.
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