Spring Coho Craze On Our Big Lake
October 04, 2010
The warming inshore waters of Lake Michigan come alive with schools of feeding coho salmon. Read on for the best areas to intercept these fine game fish right now!
Cohos usually bite no matter what the conditions, from rain to sunshine. These anglers caught their limit catches on a recent Boy Scout outing. Photo by Tom Berg.
Cohos can be taken on surface lures, deep downrigger lines and mid-depth lines at this time of the year. Photo by Tom Berg.
It’s that time of the year again. Winter is behind us and spring is well on its way. Out on Lake Michigan, the coho salmon are making their annual migration along the Indiana shoreline, and hopeful anglers are following close behind. Veteran coho fishermen know that limit catches are the norm in most years, but what will this year bring?
According to Brian Breidert, one of the Lake Michigan fisheries biologists for Indiana’s Department of Natural Resources (DNR), there may be a surprise for coho anglers this spring. We may not have the large numbers of 2-pound salmon that we have become accustomed to. “This year may be slightly different,” he said. “We may see fewer coho in the spring than we normally anticipate. However, because the numbers are down, we may actually see bigger fish.”
When asked to explain, Breidert related an incident that occurred with the Michigan DNR last spring: “They had some mechanical problems while they were renovating a facility in March of 2004, and they lost about 500,000 cohos. Those were fish that would have been released last April or May.”
That puts a big dent in the number of coho salmon that will be swimming around in Indiana waters this spring. Maybe that’s not all bad, though. “My best guess for the spring is that the cohos are probably going to be in the 3- to 5-pound range,” mused Breidert. “I think it has to do with numbers and the impact from the forage base. We did see some good alewife recruitment, so we’ve got a lot of 1- to 2-inch alewives out there, which the cohos will be feeding on in early spring.”
Luckily, the Indiana DNR increased the number of coho salmon to be stocked in Lake Michigan beginning in 2002, going from 150,000 to 240,000 fish. Those extra Hoosier fish will be a real asset this spring, when the lakewide numbers will be reduced.
Things are looking good for the future, too. “Our current stocking numbers are right on track,” Breidert said. “They stocked 96,000 cohos in Trail Creek earlier in the fall, and 150,000 cohos in the Little Calumet River just a week later.” So Indiana’s stocking totals will be slightly higher than the actual goal of 240,000. That bodes well for all Hoosier salmon fishermen. (Cont’d)
The bottom line is that there will still be a lot of cohos cruising the Indiana shoreline this spring. Since Indiana’s portion of Lake Michigan is the first to warm up, nearly every coho in the lake will be crowded into our back yard. The biggest problem will be figuring out where to launch your boat so that you can get out there and catch some for yourself.
There are plenty of places to wet a line on Lake Michigan, but the weather often dictates where you can fish on any given day. The Inland Steel breakwall is a great place to fish, unless there is an east wind. Easterly winds push the waves up against the steel mill breakwall and create a vicious bounce-back effect there, making it nearly impossible to fish. The southeast side of Buffington Harbor, however, is quite calm when the wind is from the east. Knowing where to fish can really save the day on the big lake.
We have picked seven places for you to try. They produce fish year after year, so you would do well to learn as much as you can about them. Each spot has its own characteristics and offers protection from the wind and waves from one direction or another. Once you become familiar with these picks, you will be able to launch your boat and fish for spring cohos in nearly any weather.
MICHIGAN CITY/TRAIL CREEK
The Michigan City area is one of several places where Hoosier fishermen will find good numbers of coho salmon every spring. Early in the season, shore-fishermen and trollers alike will do well at the mouth of Trail Creek. They even fish in the creek itself, mainly between the creek mouth and the DNR building, and plenty of fish are caught there, too.
If the cohos are not hanging around the breakwalls or right at the mouth, they are often found cruising along the shallow beach areas nearby. One good choice is the sandy beachfront just to the west of the creek mouth. When the spring sun warms the shallow water there, the fish will move in and search for food. Boats trolling with planer boards in 8 to 12 feet of water can do very well.
On days when there is a lot of wave action or the wind is blowing strongly from any direction other than south, small boats must exercise caution. As mentioned earlier, there is room for trolling inside the creek mouth, but there is not room for a lot of boats. Large craft can still get out and fish the nearshore areas, but the owners of small boats are better off launching at another site.
THE PORTAGE AREA
In years past, the Port of Indiana near Portage was a spring hotspot for cohos and coho fishermen. The waters inside the port are off-limits to boaters now, though, so fishermen who prefer to launch their boats at the Portage Marina on Burns Waterway must fish somewhere else.
Luckily, there are other options. When the cohos first show up in early spring, they are often caught by trollers cruising right along the rocks at the mouth of Burns Ditch. As the season progresses, the fish begin to move out and feed throughout the entire area.
The beach areas to the east and west of the creek mouth are productive on calm, sunny days when the water warms up, just like over at Michigan City. The sandy beach between the mouth of the creek and the rocky breakwall of the port is especially good, and the corner where the rock wall meets the beach is one of the hotspots. Since the Port of Indiana is only about two miles east of Burns Ditch, it is a relatively short run even for small boats.
If the fishing is slow along the beach, it is a good idea to troll along the outer breakwall of the port. The water is much deeper out there, and schools of cohos swim along near the surface looking for food. A congregation of boats usually means that the coho fleet has found the fish! Just keep in mind that the Portage area is unprotect
ed from winds blowing out of the west or north.
Another perennial favorite among spring fishermen is the Gary Light. This spot is named for the large red beacon light mounted at the end of the curved breakwall on the U.S. Steel property in Gary. The breakwall juts out northward from shore, and then bends to the east to offer some protection from the north wind.
At the back of the small harbor that is formed by this wall, there is a fast-flowing warmwater discharge. This attracts lots of coho salmon and brown trout. Steelhead show up here, too, along with the occasional chinook salmon and lake trout. There is always a chance of catching a trophy-sized fish when trolling at the Gary Light.
As winter gives way to spring, the fish migrate out from hovering right in the discharge current. Sometimes the schools of cohos can be found wandering throughout the harbor, while at other times they’ll hug the breakwall. As the weather warms, they tend to move out of the harbor altogether and congregate on the outside of the breakwall.
There aren’t any boat-launching facilities near Gary Light. The closest ramps are located at Pastrick Marina in East Chicago, which is a six- or seven-mile run by boat. Keep a close eye on the weather to ensure that you don’t get caught out in the open if a storm blows in from the north.
Buffington Harbor is found directly east of Pastrick Marina. As a matter of fact, trollers who plan to fish the Buffington area often start setting lines as soon as they emerge from the marina breakwall opening. Depending on where the fish have been biting in recent days, you should either troll straight east along the beach or head northeast out through slightly deeper water. The coho schools can be anywhere in this area.
One of the nice things about fishing around Buffington is that it is fairly well protected from the wind. The nearshore beach area is protected from south winds, and there is a rocky breakwall on the east side that shields boaters from an east wind. Inland Steel offers protection from a west or even a northwest wind, too, so north/northeast winds are the only bad winds at this location.
Even if there is a light north wind, trollers can work their way inside the harbor breakwall and fish in nearly glass-calm water. There is room for several boats to troll inside, as long as everyone gets into the same trolling pattern and uses some common sense.
THE INLAND STEEL WALL
One of the most popular places to find coho salmon at this time of the year is the Inland Steel property in East Chicago. This steel mill sits upon a manmade peninsula that extends northward about three miles into the lake. This peninsula provides some unmistakable structure that attracts cohos and coho fishermen by the droves.
Boaters who launch their craft at Pastrick Marina can exit the marina waters and head straight along the Inland breakwall toward deeper water. Cohos pile up along this eastern breakwall, and they can be caught along the entire three-mile length of the wall, all the way out to the corner.
There are a couple of landmarks that fishermen use when fishing here. The one closest to the marina is called the First Light. Maps label it the South Bulkhead Light, and sometimes it is the hotspot. Farther out along the wall is the next landmark; it is called the Hole-In-The-Wall. The “Hole” as it is known by local trollers, is just that. It is a hole or gap in the breakwall where the rock wall changes to a wall formed by steel pilings and poured concrete. It is one of the best spots. The third area is out at the end of the wall, called (aptly enough) the Corner. It can be red-hot, too.
One of the nice things about fishing along the Inland Steel wall is that it is totally protected from prevailing west winds. Many other areas can be impossible to fish with a strong west wind (or you can’t get to them safely), but the water will be glass calm here. It is even protected from northwest winds, since the property heads in a more northeasterly direction than straight north.
THE SHIP CANAL
The Indiana Harbor Ship Canal, also called the Ship Canal or simply the Canal, is one of the areas that attract a large number of coho fishermen every year. Cohos begin arriving here before the end of winter, and they often stay right into April.
The canal is a working harbor for ore ships, barges and tugboats that service the steel mills, so fishing boats must remain attentive and give the large commercial vessels a wide berth. The canal faces almost due north, so keep that in mind when watching the wind. The canal is protected from east and west winds, and unless the south wind is really howling, it is safe to fish here with a southerly breeze, too.
In April, look for cohos around the mouth of the canal. Be sure to try near the foghorn at the end of the eastern canal wall, and by the light at the end of the western arm. Sometimes the cohos congregate 100 yards inside the mouth or a half-mile outside of the mouth. It pays to explore until you find the fish.
Northeast winds and high waves spell doom for the small-boat coho fisherman in the spring, but there is one place where you can get out of the waves and fish in relative comfort. That place is Calumet Harbor at the Indiana/Illinois state line near Hammond and Whiting.
The long breakwalls that form Calumet Harbor (also called “Cal” by the locals) extend east and then southeast from shore, effectively protecting a large area from northeast winds. The water near the breakwall stays calm even in the nastiest gales, and if it wasn’t for the frigid winds and wet weather that usually accompany northeast winds, it would be quite pleasant to fish here.
Die-hard coho fishermen don’t worry about nasty weather or fishing in comfort, though. They simply want a place to continue chasing springtime cohos, and Cal provides that place. Boats can be launched at Calumet Park or at the Hammond Marina, and then it is only a short jaunt across the bumpy waves to the calm water beyond.
Cohos tend to stack up in the harbor at this time of the year, so there are plenty of opportunities to catch fish. Trolling along the calm side of the wall is very productive, but the best spot is at the gap between two sections of the breakwall. This gap allows boat access to the harbor without going all the way around the breakwall, but it also creates swirling currents that confuse the baitfish and attract salmon.
Certain lures and presentations are far more effectiv
e at catching cohos than others, especially under different conditions (clear water vs. muddy water, etc). Two types of baits that have really proven themselves over the years are crankbaits and dodger-and-fly combinations.
Crankbaits, especially shallow-running models, are extremely productive during the spring coho fishery. Rattling crankbaits are among the best choices, because they attract fish from longer distances, even when the water is cloudy. Favorite colors for crankbaits vary from angler to angler, but fluorescent orange and red are always good. Mix in a little black with bright orange for contrast, and you’ve got a real coho-catching machine! Other hot colors include fire tiger, gold and silver.
Fishermen who prefer the dodger-and-fly rig use colors a little differently. Many use orange dodgers, and nothing else. Other anglers use a combination of orange, chrome and clown (chartreuse with red dots) dodgers. When they notice a preference for one color, in particular, they’ll switch over to that color.
Dodger-and-fly fishermen do vary their fly colors, however. Subtle differences in hue from lime green to forest green are touted as the best by some anglers, while others use more generic color schemes. A good rule of thumb is to use a combination of colors, like silver/blue or silver/green. Silver and gold always make a good base for a hot combination. Last spring, the blue/green/gold combination was hard to beat.