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Lake Michigan's River-Mouth Kings

Lake Michigan's River-Mouth Kings

Chinooks used to show up along our Great Lakes shorelines in the fall. But now the silvery salmon can arrive as early as July. You should be there to greet them! (August 2006)


They show up like clockwork -- give or take a week or two. They're sleek and powerful, with 20 or more pounds of solid muscle acquired from years of gorging on baitfish. The silvery sheen begins to slightly tarnish, giving way to a faint bronze cast. The male's kype takes on a more pronounced hook to compliment his increasingly ornery demeanor. The hens' bellies bulge, swollen from the skeins of roe growing and maturing inside. One day, there is just a trickle, with the odd fish here and there. Experience a change in wind direction or a soaking rain and suddenly schools of chinook salmon materialize out of nowhere. The kings are stacked top to bottom as they converge on the pierheads before muscling their way upriver.

Labor Day had been a traditional peak for targeting mature chinook salmon near Lake Michigan pierheads, but nowadays the kings can show up as early as mid-July, and August usually produces some exceptional fishing. Wind direction and water levels play an important role in triggering salmon runs. Offshore winds push warm, tepid water out into the lake and bring cooler water in toward the pierheads -- and silvery salmon with it. East winds also push river water farther out into the lake, which leaves a scent trail for returning salmon to home in on. Timely late-summer and fall rains cool and increase river flows, which trigger salmon runs. The added volume helps salmon zero in on their natal streams and rivers.

Once in the shallows, the kings are out of their element. Used to the security of deep water and structure, pre-spawn salmon are skittish, edgy and out of their normal realm when trapped in 20 to 40 feet of water. But as the urge to procreate overwhelms them, they are forced to overcome their shyness and wary nature and stick their noses into the fray.

Savvy anglers take advantage of this silvery opportunity at these locations.


"Sometimes they're there for a day, other times they might hang around for a month," said charter Capt. Kevin Ender when asked when and for how long the chinooks will hang at the St. Joe pierheads. "A lot depends on the flow of the river and water temperature. If the water is too warm, a lot of times the salmon just school up out in 100 feet of water and sit there. They usually show up about the second or third week in September. There are kings off the pierheads every morning then. We had very good fishing for two or three weeks last year."

The port of St. Joe/Benton Harbor produces some incredible chinook fishing in the spring, and those same fish make for an impressive pierhead fishery during the late summer and fall when they return. Upwards of 150,000 chinooks are planted annually at St. Joe. Because of unusually warm temperatures, how many naturally reproduced fish the St. Joe pumps out is in question, but undoubtedly, kings spawn successfully in the tributaries to the river, and thus add to the mix.


Most mornings find fresh schools of kings with their noses sniffing the color line where the St. Joseph River spills into Lake Michigan. "Early is best, just before daylight, and for the first hour after that," Capt. Ender claimed. Exciter-type lures seem to trip a king's trigger then. "J-Plugs are always good in the chrome/redhead, lime back and clown colors," Ender offered. He advised having a good selection of No. 3, 4 and 5 plugs. Flashers and flies can be good, too. A white Spin Doctor mated to a green fly is hard to beat.

Ender indicated kings can be caught all the way from the pierheads up into the river to the Coast Guard Station. The river currents can be tricky. "Speed is critical, and you have to be right on to consistently catch fish," Ender said. If the river cools quickly, the kings will shoot up the St. Joe. A bonus is the Skamania steelhead that converge on the river in late summer.

For more area information, contact the Southwestern Michigan Tourist Council at (269) 925-6301 or online at To book a charter, contact Capt. Kevin Ender at (269) 983-4140 or online at


"The kings typically show up at Grand Haven right around the 25th of August, give or take a day," claimed Capt. Willis Kerridge. "The run usually lasts until about the 18th of September, but there are years when it can be over with by Labor Day." (Cont.)

Rains determine how long the salmon hang around the Grand Haven pierheads. Heavy rains that increase the volume of the Grand River beckon the salmon upriver, and fishing can be short and sweet.

"Normally, there's a very good early-morning bite right off the pierheads in the mud line," Kerridge claimed. "Sometimes the fish can be caught in the blue water, too, until the sun gets up. Then they tend to move back into the muddy water."

As fishing pressure increases throughout the morning and the sun gets brighter, the kings often move farther up the river. There are several holes that reach 36 feet in the river that the kings stack up in. Savvy anglers follow them. "The fishing can be good all the way from the lighthouse to the Coast Guard Station," Kerridge suggested. The channel leading up the river is maintained at a minimum of 26 feet for shipping purposes. If the river is warm, the kings often drop into the holes found in the river, and fishing tight to bottom often wakes them up.

Kerridge added that the current is tricky to deal with. Compound that with the boat traffic, and getting Grand Haven kings to the net can be tricky, but do-able. "Action can be really rapid," Kerridge mused.

Plugs are a hands-down favorite when the kings show up at the Grand Haven pierheads. "The best baits are plugs," Kerridge claimed. "Atomics are killer. Use the pearl/black dot and metallica in the No. 5 plug. Use lighter colors, like chrome/redhead, when the sun gets up. Dreamweaver's new cut plugs have been good, too." In addition to plugs, flashers and flies also have their day. Kerridge said Spin Doctors and snowman- and icicle-colored flies fished behind a 1-pound drop has been a deadly combination. Spoons have their place, too, and Kerridge said the brighter the better. A hot one last year was Dreamweaver's Gangster.

Kings also stack up outside the Grand Haven pierheads and in a 60-foot hole just south of the breakwaters. "Two- or three-color lead cores can be killer then," advised Kerridge, "but you need to be careful because of the boat traffic."

To book a charter with Capt. Willis Kerridge, contact him at (616) 292-4113.

For area info, contact the Grand Haven-Spring Lake Visitors Bureau at 1-800-303-4092 or online at


"The kings at Muskegon typically show up the last two weeks of August," said Matt Schalk from Muskegon. "Labor Day weekend was fantastic last year."

Annual plants of close to 150,000 chinook fingerlings have bolstered the port's once diminishing salmon fishery. Increased natural reproduction from the Muskegon River has relegated this port to the position of one of the top chinook destinations on Lake Michigan.

"When the chinooks show up depends on water temperature," Capt. Scott Shelagowski claimed. "If the lake rolls over, the fish can be at the pierheads in July. Typically, though, it's right around Labor Day weekend when the fishing gets hot." Shelagowski said anglers can target schools of staging kings outside the harbor in 50 to 60 feet of water. Some rockpiles located in 35 to 40 feet of water south of the harbor hold pre-spawn salmon.

"J-Plugs are the prime bait," Schalk claimed. "The chartreuse scaly in the No. 4 or 5 size was hot." Other hot lures at Muskegon included the flashing green-glow and chrome/redhead colors. Shelagowski advised downsizing your plugs when the fish get finicky or when fishing pressure is intense. The plugs produce off downriggers and divers.

Schools of chinooks can be found stacked just inside the Muskegon channel all the way to the Muskegon Yacht Club. Other hotspots are in front of the paper mill and the "Clipper" and on the north side of the lake off the conservation club. The depth varies from 32 to 50 feet in these locations, and it is key to keep your plug within 3 feet of bottom. Watch the graph constantly and work your downriggers. Keep the leads short.

Not everyone trolls for Muskegon Lake salmon.

"Jigging can be dynamite," Matt Schalk stated. Right off the channel in Muskegon Lake is a hotspot for jigging. Savvy anglers use Swedish Pimples, Hopkins Spoons, Kastmasters and other heavy spoons and trolling motors to slip the current and stay on the fish. The solid thump of a king slamming a jiggin' spoon is a whole different ballgame.

To sample some of Muskegon's hot late-summer salmon fishing, contact Capt. Scott Shelagowski at SS Charters, (616) 890-3478. For area information, contact the Muskegon County Convention & Visitors Bureau at (231) 722-3751 or online at


Ludington is the crown jewel of the chinook salmon fishery on Lake Michigan. King salmon naturally gravitate to the prominent structure, rivers and deep water that this port affords. Fish that are held in net pens in the Sable River and naturally reproduced in area streams aren't the only salmon to show up at Ludington. Micro tags implanted in salmon indicate that fish from all over Lake Michigan converge on this port.

"We usually start seeing kings around the pierheads in August," stated Capt. George Freeman, who has been running his 31-foot charter boat Free Style out of Ludington for more than 20 years. "They can show up sometimes in July depending on the water temperature and wind, but generally the peak is between mid-August and mid-September."

Kings at Ludington make nightly forays into the shallows throughout August, and anglers who set up in the 20- to 30-foot depths before daylight can enjoy frantic action. Fishing can be good all the way from the Ludington pierheads north to Big Point Sable. Body baits, spoons, crankbaits and plugs in glow-in-the-dark colors score in the shallows fished off in-line boards, divers, lead-core and shallow-set downriggers with long leads. The action is hot until about an hour after daylight when the kings retreat to the safety of deep water, but savvy anglers follow. As the month wears on, the salmon spend more and more time in the shallows before heading upriver.

Big schools of salmon stage in Pere Marquette Lake prior to heading up the Pere Marquette River. Anglers in boats big and small have a field day when the chinooks invade the lake. The lake can get quite crowded on weekends and on "blow days" on Lake Michigan. The kings can be caught on a variety of lures, including spoons and flashers, but plugs are a mainstay. No. 4 J-Plugs in chrome/ redhead, green/glow/black ladderback and pearl are hot colors. Long leads off downriggers fished 25 feet down are a good combination.

Watch your depth closely and where people are trolling in the lake. There are pilings and dock remnants from the logging days that can rip a downrigger board off your boat. Prime locations in P.M. Lake include the Sand Dock, Parlor B, the Red Can, in front of the car ferry Badger and in front of the Coast Guard Station.

Labor Day has been a traditional peak for salmon off the Ludington pierheads. The best action occurs at first and last light. Glow-in-the-dark and lighted lures draw the wrath of pre-spawn kings. The action can be hot from the pierheads out to 60 feet both north and south. With the size of Lake Michigan salmon on the decline, you won't find many 30-pounders, but the biggest fish of the year are often taken during late August and early September.

For more information on lodging, charters and accommodations in the area, contact the Ludington Area Convention & Visitors Bureau at 1-800-542-4600 or go online to


The Big Manistee River and its tributaries are a huge attraction for spawning chinooks.

"It usually takes a big blow to bring the fish into the pierheads," suggested Capt. Paul Schlafley of Riverside Charter Service. "That can happen in July. When it does, you'll have a mix of chinooks and summer-run steelhead at the pierheads. But usually it's mid-August before the real run of kings shows up."

Schlafley said the kings can be difficult to catch in the warm water, and you need to keep an eye on the wind. Offshore winds can cool waters quickly and turn indifferent fish on. He also said kings stack up in a hole just outside the south pierhead. The hole is 40 feet and the surrounding water is 28 feet, and the salmon congregate in the depression. Competition and traffic can be keen from everyone trying to fish the same location. Pier-anglers find good sportfishing at the inside of the south pier by casting spoons while fishing a bottom rig with live alewives.

Another option is the shallows along the Manistee beach. "Beach fishing was awesome last year," Schlafley declared. He said a hot combination was a three- or four-color lead-core line trailing a glow plug or spoon. Shallow-set Slider Divers take fish in the skinny water, too.

Anglers also chase kings up the river. "The river is about 28 feet in the middle," Schlafley said. "Generally, we fish from 15 to 18 feet down. You can go up as far as the marinas, but I usually turn around at the boat launch. In front of the Coast Guard Station is usually good." Schlafley indicated that a hodgepodge of plugs, flashers and spoons works when the salmon are in the river. Experimen

t to find the choice for the day.

To book a charter, call (231) 723-4901 or go to www.riversidecharter. com. For area info, call 1-888-584-9860, or go online to www.mansitee. com.

* * *

The kings of Lake Michigan are definitely not at big as they were just a few years ago, but what they lack in size, they more than make up for in numbers. And catching a cooler full of 14- to 18-pound chinooks is not a bad thing!

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