Cohos On The Fly

There's no better combo for Lake Michigan coho salmon than dodgers and flies.

by Mike Schoonveld

"What's that supposed to be?" asked the friend I was treating to a day on Lake Michigan. It was his first trip to try for Great Lakes salmon or trout, and he was confused by the rig I was about to set out.

I don't blame him. I thought the same thing years ago, the first time I saw a skipper rig up a dodger and fly as a lure to tempt coho salmon from the Great Lakes waters. But it was the "dodger and fly" time of the season, and a morning spent battling a dozen Lake Michigan cohos had me convinced to stop by the tackle shop to stock some of these baits on my boat.

I understand the "fly" part of the rig. Trolling flies simulate minnows. Salmon eat minnows. Why not a hair and tinsel lure designed to look like a minnow?

But the dodger? What's that all about?

No one really knows, and until fish science advances to allow humans to read the minds of the fish we are after, there will be no definitive answer.

Some claim the dodger simulates a feeding salmon or trout. When a salmon sees the flash and feels the vibrations put out by the dodger, its brain translates that as another salmon or trout striking at a forage fish or perhaps a number of salmon on a feeding spree. Since the main goal of a salmon is to eat from the time that it's planted to the time it makes its spawning run, it swims in to join the fray. It views the fly trailing behind the dodger as a baitfish the other salmon missed or as another minnow. In either case, the attack is on, and the happy angler up above on the boat is soon connected to another "coho on the fly."

A bright orange dodger and trolly fly were the undoing of this Lake Michigan coho salmon. Photo by Mike Schooveld

Another theory is simpler but just as likely. A dodger flipping through the water spins, rolls and wiggles, reflecting light rays that can be seen by a salmon from a good distance. The larger the object, the bigger the light reflections, so it makes sense that a dodger measuring 6 or 8 inches in length is easier to see and from a greater distance than a 3- or 4-inch flasher. Everything that moves through the water causes some sort of disturbance a fish can hear or feel with its lateral line. Same thing, a 6- or 8-inch dodger moving along is going to create more "noise" than a small plug or spoon.

Salmon are bold creatures. While some species of fish require a stealth approach, salmon are attracted by loud noises and bright flashes. It could very well be that a coho detects the dodger by sight or sound, swims over to investigate and though it can't very well attack the large dodger, it can make a meal of the small fly trailing the attractor.

Personally, I don't really care what's inside the mind of the fish that bite the flies I tie on behind my dodgers. I just hope they do it, and do it often, as each day on the lake progresses. Come this time of year, they usually comply.

If you don't know what a dodger is, think of a license plate. Scale it down to a 6- or 8-inch length, add a shiny or fluorescent finish, and put a swivel to each of the shorter sides of the rectangle. Some brands are more rounded, some are more rectangular, and each type has some "strategic" bends in them designed by their maker to impart the perfect fish-attracting action.

The mostly-flat attractors, designed to wobble back and forth more than they spin, are true dodgers. Attractors that are bent to make them rotate 'round and 'round as they pull through the water are actually called flashers, but most Great Lakes anglers call any attractor used ahead of a trolling fly a dodger.

Manufacturers produce dodgers sized from 4 inches long to big dudes measuring over 12 inches. Great Lakes coho fans have settled on the 6-inch and 8-inch models as most appropriate. As a rule of thumb, early in the season - say before early May - the 6-inchers are best. By the end of June almost everyone has switched to 8-inchers. During the May/June switchover period, anglers experiment to see which works better for the day and often find the deeper-set lines will score better using the large sizes, while the dodger/fly sets from the surface to mid-depths still produce using the smaller-sized dodgers.

Dodgers come in a variety of finishes and colors. Few anglers have a large enough tackle box to include a selection of each style and color, so they narrow it down to a few. Most coho experts would agree the top color to choose would be fluorescent red. Probably more cohos fall to flies trailing behind the bright red dodgers than all the other colors combined.

The second choice would be a toss-up between "clown" (bright yellow with fluorescent orange dots) and just plain chrome. From there, anglers can let their checkbook be their guide. Dodgers aren't much more expensive than most lures, but if one decides to get a few pearl colored ones, some hammered chrome, a few smokey-silvers and then purchase some in the conventional shape, a few bent ones and get both 6-inch and 8-inch sizes, the cost will quickly skyrocket.

Perhaps the first flies used behind dodgers were familiar trout fly patterns such as the Muddler Minnow, Mickey Finn or Grey Ghost. Great Lakes coho fans soon learned gaudier but less complicated patterns worked better. The most popular trolling flies these days are made from mylar tinsel. The mylar strands are available in a multitude of colors, and once again, an angler could go broke trying to stock up on every possible pattern.

Trolling flies are usually less expensive than other lures, so a good selection doesn't raid the treasury quite as deep. They are quite easy to make, so many anglers "tie" their own. The amount of money it would cost to buy a couple dozen flies will purchase enough materials to make over 100 "hand-crafted" models.

Anglers just getting started can get by picking a few light-colored flies made with silver, pearl or aqua blue tinsel and then select a few dark colored flies made with combinations of royal blue, kelly green, purple or black.

Coho flies vary from small ones (less than 2 inches long), medium sized (2 to 3 inches in length) with large models being those over 3 inches. Generally, the small sizes are used in March and early April. By mid-April, most anglers switch over to the medium sizes, and they stick with them on into June. The large sizes are for summer use. By summer, the little cohos of spring have doubled or tripled in size and are more interested in snacking on bigger forage - or bigger flies.

A fly without a dodger

is a poor salmon lure. That's due in part to the attraction of the dodger, but it's also because as the dodger wobbles or rotates through the water, it imparts action to the fly, making it look like a darting baitfish.

All anglers know fish can be moody. Some days they'll like a fast, high-action lure, other days they'll disdain anything but a lazy, sultry approach. There are three ways anglers can adjust their dodgers and flies to match the mood of the fish.

One is change the trolling speed. A dodger's action shifts radically with changes in speed. A slow wobble can become a tight spin and either mode can be what trigger strikes. Anglers can adjust their trolling speed using the throttle or simply make moderate turns. The lures on the outside of the turn will speed up; the ones on the inside will slow. If strikes come consistently on the fast lures or the slow ones, use it as a signal to make changes.

You can also change the leader length between the dodger and the fly. A good "average" leader length is about 18 inches when using 6-inch dodgers and about 22 inches when using 8-inchers. Shorter leaders increase the amount of action the dodger imparts to the fly. Longer leaders produce a more subtle movement. Expert dodger and fly skippers keep a spool of 30- to 50-pound leader material on board, so they can quickly shorten or lengthen their leaders if need be.

The other way to change the action of a dodger and fly is to shorten or lengthen the "stretch" - the distance between the lure and the downrigger weight. A short stretch, 2 to 5 feet behind the weight, imparts a tight, snappy action to a dodger. As the stretch increases, the dodger's action mellows into wider, more leisurely swings or rotations.

There's only one way to become a proficient dodger and fly angler - experience. Before long, you'll be eager for the next chance to catch some "cohos on the fly."

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