Lake Michigan has long been revered for its outstanding salmon fishery. During the summer, countless charter boat captains ply the lake’s cool, deep waters for various salmonid species, with the chinook—or king—salmon the most prized. Recently, however, the growing king salmon population—and a boom of other predatory fish, such as lake trout—has had an adverse effect on the number of alewives, one of the lake’s predominant forage fish and the chinook’s favorite.
Ironically, the Pacific salmon once introduced to help control the invasive alewives were now devastating their stocks. Between naturally occurring reproduction in many rivers—some estimates suggest those fish account for more than 70 percent of all chinooks in the lake—and artificial stocking by the Michigan Department of Natural Resources (MDNR) and other agencies, king salmon populations had grown to where fisheries managers feared an imminent baitfish crash. Managers couldn’t alter natural reproduction; however, they could—and did—drastically cut the number of salmon being planted annually.
Perhaps detrimental to anglers in the short run, some evidence suggests these measures have helped prevent a larger catastrophe similar to the alewife crash that occurred on Lake Huron some years ago. In Lake Michigan, salmon numbers have been down lake-wide in recent years, with the fishery almost totally reliant on naturally reproduced fish. Some signs suggest alewife numbers are rebounding, though, with anglers and captains reporting seeing more alewives inside salmon. The MDNR might agree, as modest increases in salmon stocking are set to occur this year. However, it will be years before the benefits of those plants are realized.
In the meantime, an abundance of alewives and fewer salmon have set up a fine scenario for anglers. Although overall numbers are down, the chinooks that do remain are pigging out and reaching proportions most anglers have never seen. If you’re looking for a realistic opportunity at a 30-plus-pound king, your chances have perhaps never been better.
AROUND THE POINTS
There are many great places in Lake Michigan for anglers to get in on the action. One of the finest stretches is along the western Michigan shore from around Frankfort at the far northern end to about Whitehall or Muskegon in the south. Why is this stretch so productive? In short, it boils down to structure and the presence of rivers.
Look at a map of lower Michigan and you’ll see the farthest points west along the Lake Michigan shoreline are Little Sable Point and Big Sable Point. Topography doesn’t end at the shoreline. These points extend outward to create some of the best fish-attracting structure in the entire lake.
It’s well known that chinook salmon love structure, and that’s a major drawing card for salmon between, and on either side of, Big and Little Sable Points.
Another reason chinooks home in on the area between and around the points is the rivers that spill into the big lake here. A large percentage of the chinook salmon found in Lake Michigan these days, as a result of reduced stockings, are naturally reproduced in western Michigan rivers. When salmon were first planted, many biologists were unsure whether transplanted salmon would even reproduce.
These days it’s quite certain that they do. Rivers such as the Big and Little Manistee, Pere Marquette, Betsie, Pentwater and lesser streams and creeks pump out hundreds of thousands of salmon smolts each year. Some years are better than others, but the contributions are significant. And because it’s likely that most of the larger fish still remaining in Lake Michigan are naturally reproduced, those fish are logically drawn to these natal rivers—as well as the premier structure—around these two western Michigan points.
HOW BIG IS BIG?
With more bait and fewer predators, this past season produced some outlandish kings along Michigan’s western coast. Anglers and captains reported some of the biggest salmon they’ve ever caught.
In 2018, Captain Chuck’s II guide service in Ludington (capt-chuck.com) registered 19 salmon over 30 pounds. Last season they weighed 84 chinooks in excess of 30 pounds, and who knows how many more were caught and not reported? Captains who have never caught a 30-pound salmon caught multiple trophies last season. Captains Micah Schmidt and Adam Knudsen run their charter boat, Hiatus (hiatuscharters.com), out of Harbor View Marina in Ludington. On July 17, they caught two huge kings, a 31.6 pounder and a 30.5 pounder. They later caught another 30.05-pound fish during the Ludington Offshore Classic, which led to a first-place finish in the Pro Division and a big check.
Captain Dave Ellis has been running charters for 33 years. However, he said he’s never landed a king as big as he did last July when he caught a 35 pounder on an 8-inch Dreamweaver Spindoctor Chrome Killer with a UV Green meat rig on 300 feet on copper. He caught the bruiser at midday following a full moon the previous night.Like Schmidt and Knudsen, Captain Brent Daggett, who runs two charter boats (sportsmencharters.com) out of Pentwater’s city marina, caught two of his biggest kings of 2019 on the same day. Those were 33 and 34 pounds.
"Twenty years ago, we’d get four or five of those [30-plus-pound kings] a season," Daggett said. "Last year we caught more big kings than we’ve caught in 10 years. I think we caught 10 kings over 30 pounds last year and two in 2018."
To say the big salmon have caused a lot of excitement in Lake Michigan’s sportfishing community is an understatement. Although the numbers of fish seen in years past might not be present, shots at true trophies are certainly possible, and odds may be the best they’ve ever been.
HOW AND WHERE?
The old adage that "big lures catch big fish" would seem to hold true when it comes to trophy chinook salmon in Lake Michigan. The most productive trolling rigs often consist of a flasher—either a paddle or rotator—paired with a meat rig or trolling fly. According to several charter boat captains, an 8- or 10-inch Dreamweaver Lures Spindoctor in the Chrome Killer pattern was cited as the rotator used when catching trophy fish. Often, this was paired with a UV green meat rig.
However, many different paddle/rotator and cut-bait rig/trolling fly setups were used, as were trolling rigs that incorporated spoons. Daggett, for one, caught his biggest king of the season on a Dreamweaver Lures Fuzzy Bear Arlo spoon on 75 feet of copper wire. He added that spoons trolled on copper were fairly productive all year. Captain George Freeman, who runs his 31-foot Tiara, Free Style (freestylecharters.com), out of Ludington further confirms this.
"We did really well with Dreamweaver Super Slim spoons in Green and Blue Skinny Jeans and Rasta Goose," Freeman says. "We ran these smaller spoons off a downrigger or as a stack. I think the fish [are attracted] to the spread and then see these smaller baits as stragglers."
Specific targets again should incorporate structure. The two aforementioned points—Big and Little Sable—and surrounding areas offer loads of it. Captains Schmidt and Knudsen caught their 30 pounders in a stretch from Big Sable Point north about three miles. Similarly, Ellis’ 35-pound king was caught just north of Big Sable Point.
That stretch of shoreline from the Bathhouse at Ludington State Park north to about Gurney Creek has some of the best structure for salmon in the entire Great Lakes. Ample structure around Little Sable Point also offers opportunities, with the point itself and areas off the point, such as nearby Silver Lake State Park, producing as well. Most captains noted that their biggest fish were often caught fishing deep.
Daggett recommends targeting ledge structure in 80 to 120 feet of water. Most locals simply refer to this area as "the bank" or "the ledge." Last summer, Daggett’s typical course of action was to spend part of the morning trolling this area, hopefully picking up four or five big kings, before heading west to get clients on a mixed bag of coho salmon, steelhead and lake trout. The kings would provide the big fish action; the others would provide the numbers.
"It’s pretty obvious that there’s a lot fewer fish out there and more bait," says Ellis. "You can see it on the graph. We’re seeing the big bait balls again and a lot fewer hooks, which makes them tougher to catch."
It’s ironic the humongous chinooks caught between the points last year were the result of cuts made in the number of salmon being planted. Some might view it as an unintentional example of giving with one hand and taking with the other.
"The big kings tell me that we’ve stepped back from the brink of the collapse of the forage base," says Central Lake Michigan Fisheries Biologist Mark Tonello. "There’s more bait because of the reduction in the number of chinook salmon out there. The forage base has improved since 2015, but there are still no big year-classes of alewives out there. Yes, there’s more alewives and fewer salmon, so we’re seeing some bigger fish, but the only variable we can control is stocking. Hopefully, we learned something from what happened on Lake Huron."