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Michigan's Triple Crown For Summer Kings

Michigan's Triple Crown For Summer Kings

If you are looking for a great port for catching summertime chinooks, the numbers indicate you can't beat Manistee, Ludington and Grand Haven.

Net pens have increased the survival rate of chinooks planted in Lake Michigan.
Photo by Mike Gnatkowski

Statistics released by the Michigan Department of Natural Resources' Charlevoix Fisheries Research Station for the charter-boat creel catches indicate that three Lake Michigan ports continue to be the best when it comes to chinook salmon fishing.

While Lake Huron's salmon are suffering, Lake Michigan's salmon fishing appears to be booming. Anglers would be hard pressed to find better salmon fishing than you'll find at places like Manistee, Ludington and Grand Haven. These three ports consistently produce the best salmon fishing in our state in terms of catch rates and the number of king salmon caught, along with a host of other species as well.

"The charter-boat catch reports are a very good indicator of the status of the fisheries," said fisheries research biologist Sarah Thayer, who is instrumental in compiling all the data that goes into the report. Licensed charter-boat skippers are required to report their catch each month to the DNR along with information on how long they fished, how many customers they had and whether they were from Michigan or from out of state.

Annually, Manistee, Ludington and Grand Haven lead the state in most categories when it comes to chinook salmon. The three also represent the busiest ports in Michigan when it comes to charter fishing. In 2004, 7,967 charter excursions originated out of Grand Haven, while Ludington was close behind at 7,854 charter trips, and 5,505 charters boarded boats out of Manistee in search of salmon. There's a reason why charter customers flock to these ports -- they are the best in Michigan when it comes to chinook salmon fishing.

The total harvest of chinooks lakewide in Lake Michigan jumped from 57,136 in 2003 to 68,235 in 2004, an increase of some 19 percent. Not surprisingly, Michigan's "triple-crown ports" showed the biggest increases. Ludington posted a 29 percent increase in the number of chinooks caught per hour in 2004 versus 2003 for a total of 14,260 salmon. Manistee showed a 14 percent increase in the number of kings caught per hour aboard charter boats after an impressive increase of 25 percent in 2003. Manistee charter boats reported catching 9,058 kings in 2004 versus 9,170 in 2003, a slight decrease but still very respectable fishing. Grand Haven charters boated 13,019 kings in 2004, up from 8,962 in 2003. Overall, Ludington's chinook catch was up 36 percent last year over 2003. Manistee actually saw a decrease of 1 percent in the number of kings caught there. Grand Haven captains boated 45 percent more kings in 2004 than they did in 2003.

What do the prospects look like for salmon fishing at these ports in 2005? Look for the fishing to get even better.


Acoustic sampling completed in the fall of 2004 indicated that there was a prolific alewife hatch in the lake in 2004. Combine this with a banner alewife hatch in 2002, and there should be plenty of food for the salmon out there.

Salmon numbers seem to be on the rise in Lake Michigan as a result of an increasing number of kings that are migrating into Lake Michigan from Lake Huron. With the collapse of the forage base in Lake Huron, chinooks will go where they need to go to find food. Biologists indicated that the number of micro-tagged salmon from Lake Huron caught in Lake Michigan last season was up tenfold from the previous year.

Each of the triple-crown ports gets a healthy shot in the arm from annual plants. Upwards of 200,000 chinook fingerlings are nurtured in net pens at the City Marina in Grand Haven each year prior to release. The waters off Ottawa County get another dose of 54,000-plus kings each year from plants made at Holland in the Macatawa River.

The Little Manistee River weir is the source for all chinook salmon spawn in Michigan, so plants at Manistee make sure plenty of kings return to the weir for egg-taking purposes. Upwards of a half-million king fingerlings go into the Little Manistee River. An additional 95,000 or so chinooks supplement that stocking after being imprinted in net pens in the Big Manistee River. Just to the north, Portage Lake receives annual plants of around 49,000 king salmon fingerlings.

The Ludington Area Charter Boat Association's state-of-the-art net-pen rearing operation at Ludington State Park is no doubt part of the reason for the tremendous salmon fishing found off that port. The LACA net pens annually receive upward of 149,000 tiny chinooks.

Even with substantial annual plants it is estimated that upwards of 50 percent of the kings caught at ports like Grand Haven, Ludington and Manistee are naturally reproduced. Pristine rivers like the White, Pere Marquette, Little Manistee and Platte pump out hundreds of thousands of naturally reproduced smolts each year, but in recent years many of the larger rivers have been contributing even more smolts. Concessions made by power companies following dam re-licensing a few years ago has benefited salmon natural reproduction in rivers like the Manistee and Muskegon. Current regulations that require run-of-the-river levels have resulted in the Manistee and Muskegon rivers now producing an estimated 1.6 million smolts where a decade ago they produced almost none.

With baitfish numbers booming, a good carryover of fish from the last two banner years, natural reproduction at an all-time high and heavy plants, fishing at our "Triple-Crown Ports" might be better than ever this season.


"Mid-July is when the bigger kings typically show up," said veteran Grand Haven skipper Chip Klein. "It's usually right about the time the fleas show up."

Klein has run his 31-foot Tiara Hit Man out of Grand Haven's Chinook Pier for more years than he'd probably care to admit. There aren't any captains who know that portion of the big lake better.

Klein said that it's not uncommon for a slug of mature kings to show up at the pierheads in late-July, long before anyone expects them to be there.

"Big numbers of kings can be found in late July just about anywhere," advised Klein.

The fishing typically takes place from 100 to 260 feet straight out of the harbor in July.

"People heading out deep are running right by the fish," observed Klein. "Usually we can keep it quiet for a few days before people find out and the fish leave."

When they do, Klein said the best fishing is from Grand Haven north to Musk


"The fishing to the north is the most consistent," said Klein.

While ports like Manistee and Ludington have plenty of chinook-attracting structure, Grand Haven's lake bottom is featureless.

"To do well at Grand Haven you need to learn how to fish the nets," advised Klein. "Nets are structure here."

Trap nets in the area funnel salmon. Besides avoiding them and preventing loosing gear, learning the layout of the trap nets can help pinpoint schools of hungry salmon. Klein said he normally heads north during late summer and sets short of his destination to have his program set and to prepare to fish the nets. Landmarks to the north include J.P. Hoffmaster State Park, Mount Garfield and the outflow of Little Black Lake.

"The first of July starts flasher time," claimed Klein. Klein said that you'd be hard pressed to find a better combination for kings at Grand Haven than a green-crushed ice glow or white-crushed ice glow Fishcatcher mated to a Rapture trolling fly. Spoons still take their fair share of fish. Klein estimates that he runs flashers and spoons at about a 50-50 ratio. Michigan Stingers are very popular at Grand Haven.

"Last year there was one we call 'The Shamster' that was red hot," said Klein. "It's a bright orange or red spoon with a gold or silver back. It didn't matter if you were out deep or in close. It was a king killer."

Grand Haven kings are where you find 'em.

"There's usually some pretty dependable fishing straight out in 260 to 300 feet of water," advised Klein. "You're going to find a lot of juvenile fish there. The bigger fish like the warmer water."

Klein said that generally what you'll find is that there is a lot of baitfish way out that run on the small side. Juvenile salmon are usually abundant around the small baitfish. Big bait -- and big kings -- is more likely to be in close. A hotspot is a hole just south of the harbor in 65 feet of water.

"You can find some great fishing when you can find 47-degree water close to bottom in 65 to 80 feet," claimed Klein. Normally though, Klein doesn't hunt temperature. "I don't pay too much attention to temperature. If I see fish on the graph, I put my lines there."

Temperature becomes even less important when kings converge on the Grand River in late August. Action can be hot then around the pierheads and up the river. The river has a 30-foot channel, and when the kings disappear at the pierheads, savvy skippers chase them up the river. Klein said that flasher/fly combos, magnum-sized spoons and plugs work then. One of Klein's personal favorites is a pearl with black dot Tomic plug. The area around the color line where the river spills into the big lake can be a hotspot.

To book a charter with Capt. Chip Klein, contact him at (616) 677-1860 or online at For information on lodging and accommodations in the Grand Haven area, contact the Grand Haven-Spring Lake Visitors Bureau at 1-800-303-4092 or online at


Since salmon were first introduced to the Great Lakes, Ludington has been one of the premier salmon ports in our state.

Kings salmon naturally gravitate to the waters off Ludington. Kings encounter the first real structure when headed north at Ludington and often take up residence there. Rivers in the area are a natural attraction for spawning fish. Deep water off shore provides a safe haven for schools of baitfish and juvenile salmon.

Besides the fishing, Ludington has great facilities for the visiting angler. Motels and campgrounds abound, the beaches are some of the best in the world and the town has an atmosphere that angling families can appreciate. With salmon numbers on the decline in Lake Huron, anglers from the Tri-Cities and Flint with trailerable boats can jump on U.S. Highway 10 and make the short jaunt to Ludington. When word got out last year that the kings were hot at Ludington, boats would be lined up for blocks waiting to launch at the public ramp on Loomis Street.

Kings show up at Ludington in May and usually stay for the balance of the summer, but a slug of bigger kings usually makes an appearance in mid-July. The chinooks suddenly appear at the pierheads to slash spawning alewives and then disperse to deep water or to shadow structure.

The main structure at Ludington is "The Ledge," which stretches from a few miles north of Ludington past Big Point Sable toward Manistee. The bottom there is undulating as you move to the west before dropping sharply from 70 to 200 feet. Kings stack up along the ledges and take advantage of currents that funnel baitfish schools past them.

Anglers flock to The Ledge from mid-July through Labor Day as the number of mature kings build. On peak weekends in August it's not uncommon for 300 boats to be plying the waters near the point. Action is often frantic at first light before boat traffic spooks the kings to deeper water.

Anglers can easily find 500 feet of water within five miles of shore off Big Point Sable, and a good tactic is to take advantage of the hot first-light bite and then head west. Besides the edgy adult salmon, the offshore waters are home to pods of foraging juvenile kings, migrating cohos and bonus steelhead that can be relied on to provide midday action.

"A good tactic for me last year was to run past the point and the net there, and fish between there and Manistee," said Capt. Pat LaPorte. "Most guys don't run that far."

LaPorte used his 27-foot charter boat Heckler to make big catches of kings with the fishing fleet in the distance. Putting a little distance between himself and the pack of boats allowed LaPorte to run his full compliment of lead-core line, which is a deadly weapon for Ludington kings. Spin Doctor flashers in white, green and blue trailing pearl, blue, green or chartreuse Action or KRW flies account for the undoing of many a Ludington king.

While the point is a major attraction, it's not the only place to find kings at Ludington. On a prime August weekend a few summers ago I watched the stream of running lights headed north as I approached the pierheads. On a hunch, I turned the bow of the Equalizer south toward the Consumer's Energy Project. By 9 a.m., a dozen kings resided in our cooler and there wasn't another boat in sight. Anglers would be wise to head south or straight out when fishing pressure is intense at Ludington, which is most of the time after the Fourth of July.

Ludington boasts one of the largest charter fleets on the Great Lakes. To get more information on booking a charter out of Ludington, contact the Ludington Area Charter Boat Association at 1-800-927-3470. For information on amenities and things to do, contact the Ludington Area Convention & Visitors Bureau at 1-800-542-4600 or online at


Even though Manistee is only a short boat ride from Ludington, the fishing can be quite different.

"The bottom really drops off straight out of the harbor, but it's not as sharp as it is down by Ludington," said Capt. Mark Chmura. Chmura's 36-foot Tiara Pier Pressure is a regular at the top of the leaderboard during Great Lakes tournaments on the west side of our state. Chmura's knack for finding schools of kings that others ignore or can't catch had helped him cash big checks in the most prestigious tournaments around.

"Structure and temperature are key," advised Chmura, and he said he normally finds that in 100 feet of water out of Manistee. The first drop-off produces hot action for kings from mid-July through early September. Once boat traffic and sunlight spooks edgy kings, Chmura said there's a second shelf out of Manistee in 240 to 400 feet of water that holds midday kings. Anglers target the shelf off the First, Second and Third Claybanks to the south, and off Orchard Beach State Park all the way to Onekama to the north.

Chmura cautioned to watch the wind direction though. "Sometimes a north blow will turn the lake over and put the fish right in on the beach in 40 feet of water," he claimed. When that happens, Chmura relies on a spread of shallow-set lead core, divers, flashers and plugs to target spooky kings. Chmura used the tactic to win the Manistee Salmon Splash tournament two years in a row.

Chmura sees big things for Manistee and West Michigan anglers in 2005.

"We were catching 3-year-old fish at the end of the season that were bigger than the adult fish," claimed Chmura. "I'm expecting we'll see some big fish again this year."

To book a charter with Capt. Mark Chmura, contact him at (231) 864-4051. Information on lodging and other amenities can be had by contacting the Manistee Area Visitors & Convention Bureau at 1-888-584-9860.

Expect big things at Michigan's top three ports again this season.

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