Locating Suspended Salmon & Trout
September 24, 2010
Now's the time when knowing where salmonids are suspending is the best way to catch 'em on our Great Lake.
Beautifully marked brown trout, like this one, can be found almost anywhere in the water column at this time of the year.
Photo by Tom Berg
For Lake Michigan salmon and trout fishermen, May is a transitional month. Earlier in the spring, coho salmon and brown trout are caught in large numbers by anglers fishing close to shore in very shallow water. During the summer, coho and chinook salmon, as well as lake trout and steelhead, are caught by trollers out in deep water. This deep water can be miles and miles from shore.
During May, gradually warming water temperatures cause the coldwater trout and salmon to begin moving offshore and to cruise deeper in the water column. At the beginning of the month, there may be schools of coho salmon hanging around only a mile or two from shore. By the end of May, however, the same schools may be found several miles offshore.
One of the nice things about fishing Lake Michigan during May is the variety of fish that can be caught on a daily basis. Cohos are not the only fish that make their way into the cooler. Steelhead trout also begin appearing in larger numbers, and chinook salmon become more common, too. Even lake trout and brown trout are caught with some regularity.
Once you find a concentration of fish, the action can be dynamite. Quick limits are often the rule, and since the catch is typically made up of multiple species, there could be a wide range of fish sizes in the cooler. There are usually no complaints by the anglers onboard when a 15-pound steelhead crashes the party!
To be consistently successful while trolling at this time of the year, however, you must be willing to search for the fish. Since the salmon and trout are on the move, they can be hard to find. The best anglers always have a plan for finding the fish. If you hit the water without a plan, you may go home with an empty cooler.
FINDING SILVER FISH
Your "fish-finding" plan may be as simple as using other boats as an indicator of schooling fish. There are definitely times when a hot school of salmon can be found by visually locating a big pack of boats and then trolling near them. Other boats can also help by giving out important information over the marine radio. Successful fishermen often talk to each other over the radio and report where the fish are biting. It's always a good idea to listen to the radio chatter and head for those productive areas.
Using your other electronics is another way to find the fish. Depthfinders have evolved into sophisticated pieces of equipment for the Great Lakes angler, and they often include GPS (global positioning system) functions in addition to their normal sonar capabilities. Many captains plan to head for specific GPS coordinates when they leave the marina in the morning. They can even return to a productive area from the previous day by recording and using the GPS numbers for that spot.
Once you are out on the water, watch your sonar screen closely for signs of fish. Individual salmon and trout can often be seen on the screen, so keep an eye out for the tell-tale "arcs" that indicate their presence. Silver fish (the trolling angler's term for salmon and trout) also congregate around schools of baitfish, so dark clouds of bait on the screen is another good sign. As soon as baitfish appear, stop the boat and start setting lines!
Unfortunately, there will be plenty of times when you get out to the fishing grounds and don't see anything positive on the depthfinder screen. Don't worry about it too much, as long as you have confidence in the area because of recent fishing reports or other information. Go ahead and set your lines and watch the screen for any signs of baitfish or larger fish as you troll along. It is very common to get the rods set and then see isolated pods of baitfish on your depthfinder as you are trolling along. Mark that spot with your GPS unit and then work the area thoroughly.
You certainly don't need to see fish on your screen to catch a salmon or a trout, but it doesn't hurt! Mike Schoonveld, a charter boat captain who has been fishing the southern end of Lake Michigan for many years, said, "If I had to see a fish on my sonar to be able to catch it, I'd be in big trouble -- and if I caught every fish that I saw on the screen, I'd be awful good!"
TARGETING SUSPENDED FISH
Once you find the fish or see schools of baitfish on the depthfinder, it is time to start setting rods. Since the fish are suspended, it is very important to get your lures down to the level of the fish. Keep in mind, however, that fish tend to look up rather than down, so it is far better to set your lures a little too high than a little too low.
The most common method of reaching suspended fish is to use downriggers. Downriggers are little more than a steel rod and a large reel spooled with stout wire, with a heavy lead weight at the end to take the lure down into the depths and hold it there. Electric 'riggers are more convenient than manual models, but both get the job done.
Use your electronics to help you determine how deep to set the lines with the downriggers. If the water is 70 feet deep and you see a school of baitfish hovering on the screen between 20 and 35 feet, set your downriggers accordingly to target the productive area. Most boats are equipped with four downriggers, so a good spread would include one lure set at 16 feet, another at 20 feet, a third set right in the middle of the baitfish at 27 feet, and the last lure set at 36 feet (to catch any fish cruising just below the school of bait).
If you hook a fish as you pass the school of baitfish, make a mental note of which rod got the strike. If it was one of the high rods (the lure set at 20 feet, for example), you will instantly know that there are active fish near the top of the school of baitfish. It would be a good idea to move one of the deeper lures up to 20 feet (or somewhere near it) to see if you can get some more action.
Coho salmon and trophy-sized chinook salmon routinely haunt the edges of baitfish schools, but don't forget about tackle-busting steelhead. Steelhead can be found cruising over the top of baitfish or beneath them, along with the occasional lake trout. Silver-colored spoons that resemble the baitfish (mostly alewives and gizzard shad) work very well, but dodger-and-fly combinations can be hot, too.
You can also set a couple of rods with directional divers in addition to the downrigger rods. The directional divers pull the lures down and away from the boat, and you can experiment with different depths until you find one that is productive. Many reels come equipped with line counters, and that is a handy feature to have w
hen fishing for suspended trout and salmon. If you hook and land a fish with 75 feet of line out (according to the line counter), it is very easy to reset that rod at exactly 75 feet to duplicate the conditions that led to a strike.
Rods equipped with lead-core line are another good option for targeting suspended fish. Some trollers run one lead-core line straight back behind the boat, while others use planer boards to run a lead-core rod (or two) off each side of the boat. A good rule of thumb is that the lure on a lead-core line will sink about 10 feet for every "color" of line that you let out, so use that guideline to estimate the depth that you are fishing.
Once you find a productive spot or even a productive depth, be sure to work it thoroughly. Don't make one pass and then keep going. Troll through the good area and then make wide sweeping turns so that you can go back through the same spot. You may even want to mark the spot on your GPS unit to pinpoint the exact location. Many trollers pass through their hotspot and continue on for a half mile or even more before turning around. You don't want to turn so fast that you tangle the lines behind the boat.
May is a great time to be out on Lake Michigan. The fish may not be as easy to find as they are in March and April, but once you do locate them, the action can be fast and furious. You also have a better than average chance of hooking a real trophy out there in the offshore waters, so be ready!