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Lake Michigan Salmon On The Fly

Lake Michigan Salmon On The Fly

From Manistee to Muskegon and beyond, anglers are catching on to the summertime salmon craze, and they aren't using spoons. Read on for the inside line on catching Lake Michigan kings with flies.

According to Capt. Dave Engle of Best Chance Too Charters in Saugatuk, the month of August produces some of the best salmon fishing of the year on Lake Michigan.
Photo by Tracy Breen.

Fishing for salmon on Lake Michigan is a favorite pastime of many anglers in Michigan. There's something exciting -- perhaps even addictive -- about getting up before sunrise and heading offshore to reel in a few king salmon. This summer, heed the king's call and head for the water of Lake Michigan, but don't feel compelled to go about business as usual. This season, trade your spoon for a fly and experience some of the best summer salmon action in our state.

Captain Dave Engle from Best Chance Too Charters out of Saugatuck spends every day during the spring and summer on his boat. He runs charters for the "average Joe" and large companies and fishes tournaments all over the Great Lakes. In fact, Engle and his partner in crime, Bill Bale, have won tournaments in every state that borders Michigan. Engle and his team are among the superstars of Great Lakes salmon fishing. Engle extensively fishes the ports on the west coast of Michigan, and he holds a wealth of knowledge about catching salmon on flies during the summer.

According to Engle, August is the best month to be on the water. "Anglers can find good fishing all summer on Lake Michigan, but in August, the fishing can be phenomenal," Engle said. "Any port on the lake during that time can offer great salmon fishing.

"During the spring, the southern portion of the lake often offers better fishing. In the fall, the north end of the lake is usually better. In August, the lake is awesome everywhere. I would have to sit down and do the math, but in August, we get our limit 80 to 90 percent of the time every day because the fishing is so good. August is the month for trolling with flies."

In August, one of Engle's favorite ports is the Manistee Port. Renowned among salmon anglers, Manistee is characterized by a large ledge that attracts the salmon.

"I like fishing out of Manistee because it is very easy to catch fish there," Engle said. "It's also a great port for novice anglers. Salmon fishing doesn't get any easier than fishing the ledge in Manistee."


If you plan on fishing the ledge out of Manistee, it is about four miles offshore and runs north-south. Although Manistee is one of the most popular places to access the ledge, it isn't the only option for accessing the ledge.

"Anglers can access the ledge from Frankfort all the way down to Ludington," Engle advised. "There are several ports where the ledge can be accessed. When we fish out of Manistee, we find the ledge and fish between 50-150 feet of water. You will find that the water is about 50 feet deep forever, and then drops off to 150 feet. That area is a great place to troll with flies. Morning is usually the best time to fish the area. I usually fish right on top of the ledge if the water is cold, or off from it a bit if the water is warm. You can fish the ledge north or south like this for miles."

A variety of lure presentations will catch fish on Lake Michigan, but when trolling the ledge in August, Engle ties flies onto his line. "King salmon seem to really enjoy hitting flies in the late summer," he said. "Trolling flies are popular because the fish like them. The newer flies are durable and there is a wide variety of color variations so when one fly doesn't work, you have many options."

Engle utilizes many different flies, but a Howie Green Crinkle is one of his favorites.

"Bright green flies work well," he explained. "I have had lots of success with the Howie Green Crinkle. Another good fly is the Pickled Sunshine. It is a green fly that glows in the dark. A few companies like Action Fly and Strong Fly make them. Flies that glow seem to produce plenty of fish. The Riverside Fly is another fly that is similar. These flies work great in the deep water from 150 feet down. They also work well for early morning fishing because they glow. They work well in low-light conditions and really seem to grab the attention of the fish."

As the day progresses and the sun rises, Engle switches to a Mirage Fly. "The Mirage Fly is silver and clear," he said. "It comes with a variety of colored beads; purple, green and chartreuse are a few of the options available. The flies are very productive during the heat of the day when fishing is tough."

Remember that Engle and other charter boat captains don't rely solely on flies. July and August is a great time to fish with flies, but if the fish aren't hitting flies for some reason, they will switch to spoons or another presentation.

There are several places to launch a boat in Manistee. One popular spot is the City Boat Launch on First Street across the street from the Lakeshore Motel. Manistee has numerous hotels that accommodate anglers and don't cost an arm and a leg. To learn more, visit or call (231) 398-9355. Another popular port for accessing the ledge is Ludington. The ledge itself is much closer to shore in Ludington. The Loomis Street Boat Ramp is a great access point in Ludington. There is a fee to park at the launch.

Engle also enjoys fishing for kings, lake trout and steelhead in the southern portion of the lake. He often goes for extremely long trolls in one direction when fishing near home base.

"From Muskegon to St. Joseph, we often do long trolls into the current," he said. "We spend a lot of time making southerly trolls, sometimes 12-15 miles in one direction. We can catch more fish going in one direction for a long period of time than we can if we go around and around in circles. Our goal is to find cold water, and we base how far offshore we are on the water temperatures. If the water is cold, we might troll in 50-70 feet of water. If the water is warm, we might start fishing in 200 feet of water.

When trolling this way, everything revolves around water temperature, especially in these southern ports. The ideal water temperature is mid-40s to mid-50s. We try to troll as close to shore as possible, but sometimes we are a long ways out if the water temperature on bottom is where we want it to be near shore. Fishing in the southern part of the lake is often more difficult because we don't have any structure.

"Our goal is simply to find the cold water temperatures. Then we look for the baitfish and go after the salmon."

If you are just getting started and don't mind the drive, Engle suggests fishing near the ledge in northern Michigan because it is easier fishing. But if you don't want to go on a road trip, fishing the southern portion of the lake can be very productive; you just need to work a little harder.

"Growing up in Saugatuck has made me a better angler because I had to learn to fish areas that didn't have any structure. Down here, you have to pay closer attention to water temperatures and the current and can't rely on fish being congregated near structure.

Since water temperature is so important when salmon fishing, Engle and his team rely heavily on electronics. He uses a Fish Hawk X4. "The Fish Hawk works great in deep water and is very accurate," Engle noted.

When going after big king salmon, Engle believes the best place to use a fly is close to the bottom. He often relies on flies during the middle of the day when the sun comes out and the fish go deep to find cooler water. When rigging flies, he puts them behind an attractor like a flasher three times the length of the attractor. "If the attractor is 8 inches long, I put the fly 24 inches behind it," Engle explained.

When using deeper divers, he puts the fly 6 feet behind the diver. When looking for king salmon, Engle says in most cases they are in 200 feet of water or less.

Lead core is what many anglers use to get their rigs down deep to where the salmon are located, but in the last several years, Engle has started relying heavily on copper wire because they don't need as much of it to achieve the same depths they would with lead core. "With copper, we can use half as much as we would with lead core to achieve the same depth. This allows us to achieve greater depths faster and allows us to have less line out so we end up with fewer tangles," he said. "We can also feel the fish easier with copper. It is more sensitive and copper makes us more efficient."

Engle often uses copper during the heat of the day. "We are not in a hurry to start out the mornings with copper," he said. "We usually switch to mostly copper rigs after the bite is off the downriggers and divers."

Now that copper is becoming popular, Shimano has stepped up to the plate and is offering a rod designed especially for copper wire with large metal guides instead of ceramic guides. Shimano is making a large-capacity reel with a line counter.

Grand Trunk Boat Launch in Muskegon is a great port for accessing Lake Michigan's southern reaches from Michigan's western coastline. Muskegon is close to Grand Rapids, and the Shoreline Service bait shop is a stone's throw from the launch. Give Shoreline Service a call at (231) 759-7254. For lodging information, call the Muskegon Visitors Bureau at (800) 250-9283, or go online to

Chip Klein also has a charter boat and enjoys fishing the southern portion of the lake. Klein's boat is docked in Grand Haven, one of the busiest ports on the lake. There are lots of charter boats and lots of regular anglers who launch on the Grand River and fish for salmon on Lake Michigan. Klein's charter service is called Hit Man Charters. He spends much of his time fishing between Grand Haven and Muskegon.

"During the mid- to late summer, I spend a lot of time fishing near the fish nets in Muskegon," Klein said. "The commercial fishermen who put nets down don't like a lot of anglers getting tangled up in their nets, but the nets are the only structure we have around. Once you get the hang of fishing around the nets, you can become quite successful without getting tangled. The nets are in anywhere from 60 to 140 feet of water. There are often six to eight sets of nets between Grand Haven and Muskegon. Baitfish hang around the nets, so the fishing can be great.

"When the water temperatures are good, we don't have to fish by the nets. We can stick close to home near the Grand Haven Pier."

When the water is cool, fishing near the piers can be good in Grand Haven, Muskegon and up north. "We look for the muddy water near the pier and find the baitfish. When the water is muddy to the south of the pier, we know there is a north current and the water is probably cool. One way to know if the fishing is good is to observe the number of anglers fishing on the pier for perch. If they are (there), we know the water is cold and the fish are in close. When the anglers are catching perch there, the salmon are also there."

When targeting the area near the piers, Klein usually fishes near the bottom, which is at 23 feet at the Pier Head in Grand Haven, or in the top 10 feet. "Sometimes the fish are near the surface," he said. "If I see seagulls dive-bombing the water and baitfish swirling around the surface, I fish near the top. Wherever the baitfish are is where the salmon will be."

If you have a smaller boat when the fish are in close during July or August, you can fish near the piers and avoid long runs.

When going after the big king salmon, Klein prefers an 11-inch white blade flasher with pearl fish scales. Behind that, he runs an Oceana Fly, which is made by Rapture Trolling Flies.

"The Oceana Fly has been my most productive fly for this type of fishing by far," Klein said. "I've also had good luck with the Green Beaded Frosted Fern Fly. When using this combo, trolling speed is always important. The faster I troll, the farther back the fly is from the flasher. I put the fly as far back as 55 inches with the 11-inch flasher."

Klein likes trolling between 2.7 and 3.1 mph. "The way I look at it, the faster I troll, the more fish I am going to put the fly in front of, which allows me to catch more fish," Klein said. "I like going pretty fast -- within reason."

While some anglers run a variety of lure presentations at the same time from the middle of July into August, Klein mainly uses flies. "I seem to have the best luck running flies during the middle and late summer," he said. "I put flies on everything I have in the water. If something is working, I stick with it, and flies are the thing (to use) this time of the year."

If you plan on fishing out of the Grand Haven port, the boat launch is located on Harbor Island, just west of U.S. 31, south of the drawbridge. A pass is required to launch your boat. Daily and seasonal passes are offered. Daily passes are available at the launch ramp. Seasonal passes may be purchased at the Treasurer's Office in City Hall, 519 Washington Avenue, Grand Haven, Michigan 49417, or by calling (616) 842-3210. For Grand Haven lodging information, call (616) 842-4499, or go online to

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