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Michigan's Best Fall Chinook Fishing

Michigan's Best Fall Chinook Fishing

It doesn't get any better than being able to enjoy Indian summer days, autumn colors and fishing for chinook salmon. If monster kings trip your trigger, you'll want to target these waters.

By Mike Gnatkowski

For many Michigan sportsmen and sportswomen, fall means salmon - big, mature chinook salmon.

While other outdoor types are practicing with their bows or shooting rounds of skeet to get ready for the upcoming hunting season, serious anglers are taking advantage of the seasonal migration of salmon that amass off river mouths and pier heads before heading upstream to spawn. The kings have gorged for several years in the wide-open expanses of the Great Lakes and are now returning to natal river or planting sites. The concentration of salmon makes for the best angling of the year.

Late summer and early fall, salmon can be caught in a number of locations. Late-maturing fish that are actively feeding can still be caught in the big lake well into September. Many of the mature kings begin homing in on river mouths where they frolic in a pre-spawn game of foreplay before heading upstream. On the west side of Michigan, most of the rivers form drowned river-mouth lakes prior to emptying into Lake Michigan. Big schools of pre-spawn chinooks begin congregating in the drowned river-mouth lakes as early as mid-August. Numbers peak in early September and present an excellent opportunity for the angler with a small boat and a minimum of tackle to cash in on the salmon bonanza.

Usually by mid-September, plenty of kings are heading up Michigan rivers to spawn. The once-silvery kings take on a bronze hue indicative of their transformation to spawning attire. The males develop a pronounced kype and an attitude that anglers can take advantage of. While the salmon are not actively feeding, properly presented lures, flies and baits can trigger a reaction or memory strike. Hooking and landing a 25-pound king in one of Michigan's snag-filled rivers is a real challenge.

Following is a list of destinations that you'll want to visit this fall if monster king salmon trip your trigger.


The brawling St. Marys River is a natural draw that attracts king salmon from all over Lake Huron and northern Lake Michigan. Many of the fish were naturally spawned in the St. Marys Rapids or Canadian tributaries feeding into Lake Huron.


"The kings start showing up in mid-July," said St. Marys regular Ivan Doyon, of Sault Ste. Marie, Ontario. "The peak is usually around Labor Day weekend." Doyon claims that fishing is usually hot a week or so either side of the Labor Day peak.

There are a lot of prime locations in the river. "One of the best locations is off the mouth of the Garden River on the Canadian side," suggested Doyon. Also on the Canadian side, Doyon suggested trolling in front of the government dock, in front of City Hall and along the area in front of the Holiday Inn. On the American side, try along the ferry crossing to Sugar Island, near an area locals refer to as the "Clay Banks" and in front of the power plant.

Most of the kings caught in the St. Marys come on downriggers. "The deepest spot you're going to find is 34 feet," claimed Doyon. "The majority of the fish are caught between 15 and 25 feet down." Doyon said the lure of choice is the J-Plug. "No. 3 and No. 4 J-Plugs are the most consistent baits. Best colors are green on green, silver bullet, mongoose and silver/green. Sometimes pearl can be good." Doyon said you see some people pulling spoons. Magnum-sized spoons in chartreuse/white and green/white are the ticket then.

The best fishing often coincides with discharges from the power dam, which runs Monday through Saturday. The increased flow gives lures more action and makes fish more active. Doyon said that last year, while the fish were smaller, there seemed to be plenty of them. "There were lots of silver fish in the 6- to 10-pound range," claimed Doyon. "It's a cheap way to get into salmon fishing. Ideal for the small boater."

There are two public accesses on the U.S. side of the river. Contact the Sault Convention & Visitors Bureau at (906) 632-3301 or online at for information on river access, accommodations and amenities in the area. A good source for fishing reports, hot baits and tackle is Hank's Sports, (906) 632-8741.


"All of the rivers along the north shore of Lake Michigan seem to get pretty decent runs of chinooks," said Northern Lake Michigan management Unit supervisor Mike Herman. "The Ford, Manistique, Cedar and Menominee all get good runs, and they're underutilized." Herman said perhaps it is too far for many downstate anglers to travel. They're missing out on a lot of great fisheries.

"The Manistique River has historically produced a wonderful fall salmon fishery," said Herman. "The fish tend to really pile up." Fishing on the Manistique River is short and sweet. The fish only have a short distance to run before they butt up against Upper Dam. The river here is a series of broken rapids and boulders, and the fish concentrate in the channels in between. The river is wadeable here, and anglers can try a variety of methods.

"Lake Michigan off Manistique is ideal for the small-boat fisherman," claimed Herman, "and there's not a lot of fishing pressure." Herman said that a few of the locals take advantage of the fishery, but that's about it.

The fishing is uncomplicated off Manistique. Crisscrossing back and forth across the river mouth pulling high lines or body baits off in-line boards results in steady action from kings staging to head upriver. The standard array of plugs, magnum-sized spoons and flashers results in limits of chinooks, many of which will top 20 pounds.

"One of my favorite places to fish salmon up here is near Fairport," said Herman. "It a beautiful area, there's some great structure and deep water there that attracts lots of fish, and you hardly ever see anyone fishing."

Fairport is located near the tip of the Garden Peninsula not far from historic Fayette State Park in Delta County. While Big Bay de Noc is better known for its big walleyes and giant smallmouths, it's a sleeper for fall salmon. Islands, reefs and deep water concentrate schools of kings headed for rivers farther up the bay. The fishing really heats up in late summer and early fall.

Anglers can launch their boats at Sand Bay, just south of Fayette State Park. You'll find good structure and salmon in the 60-foot hole just off Burnt Bluff. For more information, contact the Delta County Tourism & Convention Bureau at (906) 786-2192 or online at

"Menominee is a very, very big salmon port," claimed Herman. "You'll find good fishing all the way to the mouth of the Cedar River." Kings begin making an appearance in Green Bay in mid-July, and their numbers build as fall approaches. Herman said that the small boater who uses his head will

find great fishing. During the late summer Herman said to look for kings over 120 feet of water at 60 to 70 feet down. One area where he has enjoyed good success is off Whaleback Shoal, a 7-mile run from Menominee. There are a number of reefs in the area that attract salmon schools. They gradually move shallower as fall approaches.

There are several boat launches in Menominee. Try the Mystery Ship Launch in downtown Menominee or at River Park. There is a very nice Department of Natural Resources facility at the mouth of the Cedar River. For information on amenities and bait shops in the area, contact the River Cities Regional Chamber of Commerce at (906) 863-2679 or online at

The areas called "The Shelf" and "The Barrel" off Onekama collect chinook salmon in the late summer and early fall. Photo by Mike Gnatkowski


King salmon and structure go hand in hand. That's one reason why Onekama is such a productive late-summer and fall salmon port. Combine that with the fact that you'll find little competition and you'll understand why Onekama is one of the top ports on Lake Michigan when you're talking fall chinook salmon.

"There are two areas that seem to attract kings during late summer and early fall," said veteran charter skipper Kevin Hughes, who runs his 36-foot Tiara Sandpiper III out of Onekama. "Kings seem to collect in the area we refer to as 'The Shelf' where the bottom drops from about 80 to 120 feet, and some structure that's kind of a rectangular shape hole that locals refer to as 'The Barrel.' Both spots hold lots of kings." Another productive area to the south toward Arcadia is called "The Herring Hole."

A good plan is to skirt the edges of The Barrel at first light to target the kings staging there. Late-season kings can be goaded into striking flasher/fly combinations, plugs and magnum spoons. Green, chartreuse and glow are good colors. Once it gets bright and the kings scoot toward deeper water, smart anglers follow them. Reverse the pattern in the evening. Both spots can be very productive for coho salmon later in the fall.

To book a charter with Capt. Kevin Hughes, contact him at (231) 889-4258 or online at For area information, contact the Manistee Area Visitors & Convention Bureau at 1-888-584-9860 or online at


Manistee is a natural for king salmon. The port gets a healthy dose of kings via plants every year. The Big and Little Manistee rivers are some of the top natural reproduction rivers in our state when it comes to chinook salmon. Combine these factors with the structure offshore and the natal river mouths that attract king salmon and you have the ingredients of a salmon mecca.

Manistee has a shelf that is typical of northern Lake Michigan ports where the bottom drops abruptly from 60 to 120 feet. Kings gravitate toward this structure. You'll find 100 feet of water approximately five miles out of the harbor. You can go either north or south from there to find schools of kings. Landmarks include the Clay Banks, Gurney Creek and Little Point Sable to the south, and the Green Onion and Orchard Beach State Park to the north. Fishing can be hot all the way to Onekama.

Kings begin collecting around the pierheads in preparation for their upstream migration beginning in mid-August. The action peaks around Labor Day. Small boats as well as big boats can cash in on the schools of mature kings. The traffic can resemble bumper cars though. Anglers pull chrome/redhead, chrome/chartreuse, pearl, and green/glow/black/ladder-back J-Plugs and Silver Hordes on long leads and at slow trolling speeds to irk the pre-spawn kings into hitting. Trollers will also find good action in Manistee Lake, where kings school prior to heading up the Little and Big Manistee rivers. Plugs are the lure of choice there, although spoons and body baits sometimes score.

Good numbers of bronze-colored kings enter the Big Manistee River by Labor Day and provide exciting fishing. The lower reaches of the river produce the best sport in September. Try the area around Rainbow Bend and Bear Creek. Kings will move under the cover of dark and stack up in deep holes or near cover during the day. Several tactics will convince the salmon to strike. Many anglers simply anchor above a deep run and allow Flatfish or Kwikfish to wobble in the current in front of the fish until they get mad and hit it. Another tactic is to back-bounce with golf-ball-sized gobs of spawn. Even though the kings aren't feeding, they will grab the spawn. In-line spinners cast in amongst the logs and stumps where kings hide and be effective, too.

For a list of river guides and Lake Michigan charter captains who operate out of Manistee, contact the Manistee Area Charter Boat Directory at


Mention fall chinook salmon on Lake Michigan and the port of Ludington is bound to come up. Ludington offers fall salmon anglers the total package. You can fish Lake Michigan, Pere Marquette Lake and the Pere Marquette River. There are great accommodations in the area, plenty of restaurants and facilities that cater to anglers.

As good as the structure is at ports like Onekama and Manistee, the area called "The Ledge" between Ludington and Big Point Sable to the north might be the best on the Great Lakes. Because of this, huge numbers of kings converge on the structure prior to spawning time. The salmon are naturally reproduced in local rivers and planted in the Sable River. Anglers converge there too, and it's not uncommon to see upwards of 300 boats plying the waters on Labor Day weekend. The quarry is chinook that routinely top 30 pounds. Savvy anglers avoid the crowds and head straight out of the harbor or south toward the Consumer's Energy plant to find their own fish. Standard, late-season tactics using flasher/flies and plugs account for limit catches.

Many anglers with small boats troll the tannic-stained depths of Pere Marquette Lake. The moody kings there turn on and off at will, but when it's good, it's very good. Long leads, J-Plugs and downriggers are the most productive combination during low-light periods. Small boats can launch at Peter Copeyan Park right on Pere Marquette Lake.

Kings begin entering the Pere Marquette River as early as July, but the main run is in early September. Small boats can be used in the lower reaches of the river to drop-back plugs or cast in-line spinners or crankbaits. Farther upstream of Walhalla the kings begin shadowing the spawning gravel, and flyfishers get a crack at them then. Fresh kings continue to enter the river into early October.

For area information, contact the Ludington Area Convention & Visitors Bureau at 1-800-542-4600 or online at


"We don't get a lot of chin

ooks moving into the St. Joe until late in the year because the river is so warm," said charter captain and river guide Russ Clark. "The fishing can be tough because the salmon just blast right up to the dam, but anchoring with plugs, like Flatfish or Hot-N-Tots, can produce some pretty good catches at times. If you use spawn you might pick up a bonus Skamania steelhead, too."

Clark said the best river fishing in September is usually in the first few deep holes below the Berrien Springs dam. Clark said the best fall chinook fishing in the big lake is right off the pierheads at St. Joe/Benton Harbor. "The hottest fishing usually starts right around August 25 and lasts until mid-September," said Clark. Stitching the color line off the river mouth and trolling very slowly with J-Plugs and Spin Doctors is dynamite. The usual chrome, chrome/redhead, and lime/black are good colors for the plugs. Try a white/glow Spin Doctor and seaweed fly on a diver. Limits of kings topping 20 pounds are common.

To book a charter out of St. Joe, contact Russ Clark at (269) 429-6110 or online at


Rogers City is the destination for many of the chinook salmon that swim in Lake Huron. Huge plants of kings at Swan Creek ensure that plenty of salmon will return to the port in the fall.

The salmon stage along the ledge between Quarry Point and Adams Point prior entering Swan Bay. Both trollers and surfcasters get a crack at the kings then. Chinooks patrol the 100-foot dropoff north to Forty Mile Point, too. Anglers can access deep water very quickly at this port, so the fishery is ideal for someone with a small boat. King salmon ran on the small side during 2003 in Lake Huron, but there were plenty of silvery chinooks, and limits are common. Anglers will find plenty of kings at Rogers City until Oct. 1.

For area information, contact the Rogers City Chamber of Commerce at (989) 734-2535 or online at

* * *

Indian summer days, autumn colors and fishing for chinook salmon. It doesn't get any better than that!

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