Spring/Summer Guide to Lake Michigan
May 12, 2011
Lake Michigan is like an angler's amusement park, with so many attractions you may not know where to start. Well, here's a guide to the best fishing opportunities available during the late spring and early summer.
In February you can catch a few coho in southern Lake Michigan, if you don't mind shoveling snow at the same time. The fish are still biting in March, and so is the bitter north wind. By April the fish are starting to school up, but water temperatures in the mid-30 degree range encourage only sporadic action, and chilly breezes off the water will keep you in winter jackets.
Photo by Mark Romanack
But, when May arrives on the scene, everything begins to come together.
As the sun rises higher in the sky, water temperatures climb into the forties, the alewives swarm inshore to spawn and the salmon begin their summer-long feeding spree.
Shore fishermen will find plenty of tasty young coho cruising along the breakwalls and in the harbor mouths. Virtually any safe access point along the Indiana and Illinois shoreline will hold coho and brown trout. The action will pick up in Indiana first and then spread north into Chicago waters shortly thereafter. By the second week of May the salmon will have worked their way up to Waukegan Harbor and North Point Marina on the Wisconsin state line.
Shore fishing tactics include the use of power lines and casting small silver spoons. The most popular baits among power line anglers are nightcrawlers and alewives cut into chunks. Casters will do well with small, but heavy spoons such as Little Cleos or Krocodiles in silver/blue, silver/green, or silver/red. These types of spoons cast very well and resemble the small alewives on which the salmon are feeding.
Keep in mind that on-shore winds bring in warmer water, which both alewives and salmon prefer, but they also can roil the shallows and shut off the bite, and could cause the fish to move farther out into the lake to find clear water. This will be a very temporary situation, and the salmon will return as soon as the water clears.
As with any big lake fishing, information is the name of the game, so check with your local bait shop, as well as with other anglers to determine where the hottest action will currently be found. A good source of information is Henry's Sports and Bait Shop, 3130 S. Canal St., Chicago, IL 60616; (312) 225-8538; www.henryssports.com
RELATED READ: Lake Erie's Shallow-Water Fishing Opportunities
Charter Captain Bob Potashman, (Confusion Charters), opens his fishing season each year in the Indiana section of the lake. Operating out of Pastrick Marina, Bob specializes in putting his clients on the voracious coho schools that build up there each spring. Over the years Potashman has charted the movements of the salmon and suggests several likely starting points for sportfishermen.
The Inland Steel Co. harbor is a reliable spot for coho and the occasional brown trout. Trollers should work along the wall outside of the harbor, keeping their planner boards within a few feet of the wall. Pay special attention to the harbor mouth itself, because the slightly deeper ship channel often holds large balls of baitfish, and the coho will be right there with them.
The long wall around Calumet Harbor is always a prime area in May. Keep your lures close to the wall, both inside and out, and through the harbor entrance. The ship channel here runs out to a large red bell buoy that can be a salmon magnet.
Troll around the Hammond water intake island, and then follow the underwater intake pipe directly toward the water plant on the shore. The intake pipe creates enough structure to hold fish.
Follow the landfill wall east from Gary Lighthouse to the end of Miller Beach for more action. "OO" red dodgers and small tinsel flies are the right medicine for spring coho.
Potashman's report included his hot spot for lake trout, which lies 50 degrees out of Pastrick Marina, in 50 to 60 feet of water. Keep some silver spoons or "O" silver dodgers with large white flies within 10 feet of the bottom and hang on.
While Capt. Potashman fishes Indiana waters each spring, he follows the salmon up the Illinois shoreline all the way to the Wisconsin line as the water warms. To book a charter, call him at (888) 929-3474, or go to www.confusioncharters.com.
May first will find Capt. Bill Kelly piloting his charter boat, Leprechaun, (773-445-6262), along the breakwater wall in front of Chicago's Navy Pier. He will work his lures close to the wall and in and out of the harbor entrance. While the first of the spring coho are just making an appearance there, Kelly's real targets are the big and plentiful brown trout. Each spring these elusive fish congregate around Chicago Light at the harbor's entrance to gorge on alewife schools. Capt. Bill has taken many browns between 15 and 20 pounds from this hotspot, and catches of 10 to 15 fish are not unusual.
Kelly prefers small, bright-colored spoons for the brown trout, but has a pair of "O"-size silver dodgers with large white/green Howie Crinkle flies in the water, too. To pick up an occasional coho, he puts an "O" red dodger with a small tinsel fly behind Dipsey Divers set at 8 to 10 feet.
Once the water warms in mid-May, the brown trout exit and the coho take center stage. Over the past few years Kelly's clients have enjoyed limit catches of 5 coho each, fishing in 8 to 15 feet of water from Wilmette Harbor mouth north past the very recognizable row of lakeside apartment buildings. Trolling up and down the shore in this shallow water is the perfect way to fill your cooler.
While Bill finds that small spoons or body baits will catch spring coho, his records reveal "OO" dodgers of various colors are far more effective. Behind the dodger Bill adds a very small tinsel fly, blue/gold, green/gold or black/gold being his favorite color patterns.
Capt. Matt Porter fishes out of North Point Marina, eight miles north of Waukegan Harbor and adjacent to the Wisconsin state line. Matt reports the coho have been appearing in his area in numbers during the second week of May.
Since the water in the open lake will still be in the high 30-degree range, Matt seeks out warmer areas where he will find both baitfish and salmon. On a typical charter you will find the "Jackpot" trolling in a tight pattern in front of harbor mouths or close to the warm water discharge at the Waukegan power plant. Matt stays very close to shore to take advantage of the warm water flowing from these sources. Seldom will he venture out beyond 15 feet of water.
Porter carefully monitors his water temperature gauge seeking any slight increase that would signal a potential holding site for alewives and salmon. Whenever he finds a pool of warmer water, even if it is only a few degrees, Matt will make several passes through that area, a tactic that often pays off.
For those seeking brown trout, Capt. Porter recommends trolling the 15- to 30-foot water just south of the Great Lakes Naval Hospital. (There is a small brick water intake building right on the beach there.) The lake bottom in this area is very rocky and at times holds a tremendous quantity of browns. Drop some small, bright-colored spoons well behind your boat at various depths and work the area thoroughly. If the trout are there, it won't take long to connect with them. If nothing happens in half an hour, return to coho fishing.
To book a charter with Capt. Matt Porter, call (800) 345-0259 or check out his Web site: www.jackpotfishing.com.
Without doubt, the most productive lure for spring salmon fishing is the reliable "OO" red dodger dressed with a small tinsel fly. If that is all you put in the water you would surely do as well as anyone else. But, there are a few tricks you should employ to get optimal results from this setup.
The leader on the fly should be 1 1/2 times the length of the dodger pulling it.
Check each dodger for proper action when you put it in the water. The blade should slap sharply from side to side. If the dodger is rotating, bend the tail of the blade down a bit until you get the correct action. If the action is weak, bend the tail up slightly. Changes in boat speed will affect the action of all your dodgers to some extent.
Spring salmon will usually be found in the warmer upper 5 feet of the lake. Put a 1/2-ounce rubber-core sinker about four feet ahead of the dodger and run it 30 feet or more behind planer boards. The small lead weight will keep the dodger just under the surface.
Dipsey Divers set to run away from the boat at 6 to 10 feet will catch a lot of fish. You don't really need downriggers in shallow water.
One final tip that could benefit a spring salmon troller on Lake Michigan is, if you don't find fish in their favorite near-shore hang-outs, head out to deeper water. I wish I could predict how deep that might be, but in fact, even the coho can't do that. As with any other wild critter, these fish will not remain where they can't find enough food and, believe me, at this time of year young coho need a lot of food.
I recall one spring when the alewives mysteriously didn't show up in the shallows off Chicago, and neither did the salmon and trout that normally would have been feasting on them. We trolled out to the water pumping cribs, and found nothing. Finally, in desperation, we motored out into 105 feet of water, looking for lake trout, and guess what? There were the coho, gorging on shiner minnows. Over the following two weeks the minnow schools moved out to over 200 feet of water, and the salmon went right with them. There never was an in-shore fishery in the area that year.
I guess the secret to success is, if what you are doing ain't workin', try something else.
IDNR Fishery Biologist Steve Robillard informs us that total salmonid stocking figures for Lake Michigan are at an all-time low of 11.2 million in 2009, and the 2010 plant won't be much larger. Although rainbow, brown and lake trout planting numbers have remained steady, a fall-off has occurred in coho and chinook plantings.
The chinook plant was intentionally reduced lake-wide both to reduce pressure on the alewife population and in recognition of the sizable quantity of naturally-produced fish coming out of Michigan's rivers. While stocking figures may be lower, the real amount of chinook entering the fishery is effectively similar to "the good old days."
The State of Michigan, due to a budget deficit, cut its coho planting by 50 percent, or 800,000 fish, several years ago with the idea of restoring it when the money became available. That hasn't happened yet. So, instead of the ten-year mean annual stocking rate of 2.380 million coho, we will be working on a plant of approximately 1.75 million. That is still a lot of salmon, and when we consider that nearly all of those that survive will be in the southern basin of the lake until at least mid-summer, there remains plenty of reason for optimism.
Overall, it would seem that everything is in place for another great Lake Michigan fishing season. Everything, that is, except you. What are you waiting for? Get out there and get in on the action.