Simply Grand Salmon

Simply Grand Salmon

When summer turns to fall, kings abandon their preferred temperature range and head for their natal streams. (August 2008)

Schools of chinooks can be found from the skinny water near the pierhead all the way to the waterfront stadium.
Photo by Kenny Darwin.

When targeting king salmon in Lake Michigan, few ports draw attention like Grand Haven near metro Muskegon, Grand Rapids and Kalamazoo. Even trollers from South Haven and Holland concentrate on Grand kings when late summer arrives and thousands of mature chinooks school offshore in preparation for spawning.

When king salmon swarm Grand Haven, catching them can be as basic as Great Lakes trolling gets.

Last August, I made a trip with Debbie Gilmore from East Lansing to troll close to the pierhead, after strong easterly winds blew warm water offshore and brought cold Lake Michigan water in close.

The four-rod spread was simple: Michigan law allows only two rods per angler, so we used two Dipsy Divers set on No. 3 with the O-ring placed 50 feet from the boat. Fish Catcher flashers were placed 10 feet behind the divers, trailed by a seaweed green Horse Fly on a 50-pound, 22-inch fluorocarbon leader. Two No. 4 chrome J-plugs were placed 20 to 25 feet down using line counter reels spooled with 20-pound line and heavy 1 1/2-pound snap weights attached to the line with church clips. Since we were fishing shallow water, the J-plugs were placed 50 to 100 feet behind the boat, away from the boat shadow and engine noise.

There were boats all around us, and the red, white and green lights danced on the calm sea near the mouth of the river. For a short time, we trolled the mud line where discolored river water mixes with emerald-green Lake Michigan water. The instant lures moved into the gin-clear big lake, and all hell broke loose as a huge salmon slammed a J-plug, felt the sting of the hook and went airborne like a runaway Polaris missile. The big king ripped line from the drag and Debbie struggled to get the bent-double rod from the holder. A second impressive leap, highlighted by the fish crashing down on the calm surface, sent white water flying and made a loud resounding ker-splash. When he turned and charged the boat, Debbie cranked like a mad woman and soon we could see the beautiful 20-pound king as it came to net.

NET PEN KINGS
Why is Grand Haven such a hotspot for chinook salmon? The answer is simple -- the local Grand Haven Steelheaders have a co-op program with the DNR to raise fish. The DNR gives them king fry and they raise them, feed them in net pens until they are smolt size and release from 175,000 to 200,000 salmon annually. The project is ideal for sportsmen because it guarantees salmon are planted and they return to the stream where released -- an excellent example of mainstreaming a resource into society because people are involved with caring for the tiny fish. In addition, it guarantees fantastic future fishing in the surrounding region.

The pens are located near the world-famous Coast Guard station, and when salmon return to spawn, they pause in the river they were raised as if they want to join other fish in a large school before charging upstream to unfamiliar waters. This provides anglers a unique opportunity to troll in the lower Grand River channel and catch salmon that are making final preparations for the spawning run.

WHEN-TO
When the warmth of summer piles warm water along the shore, baitfish and salmon head to deeper, colder water. Water temperature is the key. If it exceeds 68 degrees, salmon will stage at the 100-foot shelf about 3 miles offshore in cooler water. Ideal water temperature for salmon is around 55 degrees, although when summer turns to fall, kings abandon their preferred temperature range and head for natal river outlets. During late July and early August, adult salmon congregate in deep water, usually 50 to 90 feet and downriggers, Dipsies and lead core are used to ply the depths. Come late August when the days grow shorter and Lake Michigan cools, salmon congregate in 30- to 50-foot depths straight out in front of the river outlet. Get a strong east wind or hellish nor'wester and warm water can be exchanged for cooler waters almost overnight. At times, a severe eastern blow will push warm surface water out, creating an undertow current that draws frigid 40- to 50-degree water to the beach. With the cold water come alewife baitfish and salmon eager to test the river water temperature. As a rule of thumb, if the water temperature is 70 degrees, head for deep water far offshore; temperatures in the 60s will bring some fish closer and temperatures in the low 60s and 50s will draw alewives and salmon to the skinny water at the pierhead. Occasionally, heavy rain will draw salmon close or a gale force nor'wester can push cold water into the river and drop stream temperatures enough that salmon stack in the channel like cord wood. Always check your water temperature gauge when fishing and talk to other anglers, tackle shop owners, marina operators or charter captains to gain insight on salmon location.

One slick trick is to punch up the Web cam and take a peek at boat traffic at the pierheads. If boats are running out deep, plan to troll deep water, but if there are boats fishing close to the piers, the big lake has probably rolled over and salmon are close to the river current.

GET IN THE ZONE
A zone strategy may be effective on offshore kings. Use a combination of downriggers, Dipsy divers and lead core to take lures deep to cool habitat that is a perfect summer haunt for salmon. The idea is to identify a specific depth or zone that holds salmon and key strikes. Once you begin catching fish, make note of the depth your lures were running and flood the zone with presentations.

Leave early in the morning, some captains limit out by sunrise using Moonshine glow lures. Don't be afraid to troll spoons slightly above fish marks found on electronics that are in the upper part of a coolwater column. It's a good bet they are salmon feeding. Start where the zone meets bottom and move deeper as the sun gets bright.

In August, adult kings often hug the bottom in 100 to 140 feet of water. When you encounter deep kings, rely on downriggers to take spoons or flasher/fly offerings below 100 feet. This is an ideal time to use wire line rods and large Dipsy divers with rings. Place the ring on setting No. 1 and place one green or glow Dipsy on each corner of the boat. When targeting bottom-oriented kings, release enough line to skim the diver above structure.

Last summer, salmon trolling was unbelievable out of Grand Haven and veteran fishermen have never seen it so productive. Limit catches came in less than two hours trolling in 70- to 135-foot depths. Downriggers were placed 40 to 90 feet down, eight to 15 colors of lead core and wire divers were out 100 to 150 feet. Flasher/fly combinations work best using white/

glow or green/glow Fish Catcher or blue bubble Spin Doctor attractor and blue, green or white flies. Nitro Stinger spoons were a good choice off riggers along with Lemon Ice Dreamweaver, Moonshine glow and double Kevorkian Stingray.

When water temperatures cool and salmon move to 30- to 70-foot depths, big kings are caught at the harbor mouth at dawn and dusk. During daylight, the best fishing is found in a 30- to 50-foot trough slightly southwest of the pier. Use glow lures at dawn, then switch to standard colors and place spoons behind riggers set at 25 to 60 feet, two to seven colors of lead core and Dipsies 35 to 100 feet back. When salmon move to skinny water, switch from spoons to plugs. Productive lures include chrome J-plugs, pearl/black dot Tomics, glow green J-plugs, Ace Hi Plugs and double glow Silver Hordes.

UNMATCHED RIVER TROLLING
Unlike any river in Michigan, massive schools of mature king salmon stack into the lower Grand River from the City Waterfront Stadium bleachers to the pierhead, a total distance of less than one mile bordered by a paved catwalk and metal railing. For unknown reasons, salmon like to stage in the lower river before spawning. Of course, the distance they move upriver from Lake Michigan depends on water temperature. If the water is borderline 68 degrees, they stage in the first few hundred yards, near the lake. However, if temperatures are in the low 60s or upper 50s, look for a major school of fish to congregate from Waterfront Stadium to the river mouth. A 36-foot hole upstream of the Coast Guard station is legendary for holding impressive numbers of kings. Here, the Grand is a very large river, 20 to 36 feet deep and wide enough to allow large vessels to troll upstream, turn around and return downstream without tangling lines.

When the fishing is hot, boats will have 25- to 50-fish hookups and catch more salmon in a couple of days than most trollers boat the entire season. When schools of salmon pack into the lower river, the trolling action is non-stop and fish tend to migrate into the area in waves. Hit the peak run, which often comes in late August or early September, and you will boat the largest fish of the season -- big ol' naturally reproduced varieties that are heavy with roe. You can expect channel and pierhead trolling to be hot at dawn and usually kings are in the area for about a month. If water temps warm, salmon will drop back to the big lake and make another charge upstream following a cold front, heavy rain, strong east wind or north blow that stacks colder lake water into the channel. Both the channel and river mouth produce fantastic fishing with J-plugs set 10 to 17 feet down, three to five colors of lead core and Dipsies 24 to 40 feet back with a No. 4 J-Plug placed 6 to 9 feet behind the diver or white flashers followed by flies colored lime green, chartreuse or glow. This point is best made by the following anecdote.

I got a hot fishing report from Stephanie Trapp, a DNR fish census clerk, who heard cold water was pushed up the Grand by a strong northwest storm that blew 50 mph and brought two days of pouring rain and the channel was alive with kings. Limit catches were the norm, rather than the exception and most fish were mature 4-year-old kings in prime shape.

I loaded trolling gear, grabbed food and drink, tossed ice in coolers, hooked up to the boat, zoomed down the highway and was launching my craft at the city ramp around noon when a 24-foot boat slipped into the dock next to me.

"Catch any kings"? I asked.

"Holy cow, the river is packed with fish!" remarked an older fisherman as he lifted the top on his cooler and revealed a limit catch of silvery chinooks fresh from Lake Michigan. "Just set your lines at the Waterfront Stadium and troll up and down the channel a few hundred yards with J's about 14 to 18 feet deep and you will catch your limit in less than an hour," he explained.

I hurried down the channel, set two J-plugs 15 feet down, and cut the motor to a 2.4-mph trolling speed. It was a beautiful day, sun bright, wind dead calm and I noticed the water temperature was 59 degrees, and the graph was cluttered with large inverted V-shaped marks that indicated salmon were present. Suddenly, my graph went black and one of my rods started jumping, and something was stripping line off the drag and I thought I ran onto a shallow sandbar.

I scurried to lift the rod and almost had it ripped from my hands by a hard-fighting salmon. Then, the second rod jerked violently and another fish was smokin' line off the line counter reel. I was into a double header and my graph went black as a massive school of salmon so thick and dense with fish bodies that thousands of kings cluttered the graph into a black mass. It took several minutes to boat the two kings that were mint silver, hard bodies from the Great Lakes. The entire time I was fighting fish I could not mark bottom, the huge school of salmon was the entire length of the channel. I turned back upstream, dropped J's 15 feet down and trolled into the deeper water of the Coast Guard hole.

POW!! The rod shook to the frantic strike of another salmon as he stripped line from the reel and charged upriver. I pumped him boat side, slid him into the net, reset lines, and immediately hooked a big 9-pound coho, and a 7-pounder came next. The trolling was out of this world, colossal, unbelievable action and I sat down as sweat poured down my forehead and looked at my watch. Heck, I put my limit of three kings and two cohos on ice in 45 minutes. I didn't have to spend money for gas to go far offshore or deal with high seas and unsafe fishing conditions on the big lake. Is this Michigan's easiest salmon trolling fishery available to small aluminum boats or large vessels? Give Grand Haven salmon trolling a try this summer. Bet you'll be back for more.

For information on lodging, charters and accommodations, contact the Grand Haven-Spring Lake Visitors Bureau at (800) 303-4092 or online at grandhavenchamber.org . For updated fishing reports, pier cam and more, try ghsteelheaders.com . For a list and map of boat launch sites, marinas and slip reservations, go online to boatingontheweb.com/Michigan.asp . Grand Haven has a large charter fleet contact Web site at www.micharterboats.com. The Grand Haven Municipal Marina is on 101 N. Harbor Drive.

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