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Troll Smart for Lake Michigan Salmonids

Here are some trolling strategies to bring trout and salmon boatside.

Troll Smart for Lake Michigan Salmonids

When trolling offshore, it’s key to have lines at a variety of depths and spread out to maximize reach. (Photo by Tom Berg)

Salmon and trout fishing on Lake Michigan is hot beginning in the month of May. This is one month when trollers plying the Indiana and Illinois waters of the big lake have a great chance of catching all five major salmon and trout species on the same trip. Coho salmon, chinook salmon, lake trout, steelhead and brown trout are all active at this time of the year.

Although large numbers of coho salmon and brown trout were present in the shallows in March and April, the gradually warming nearshore water temperatures push both the baitfish and the bigger predators offshore by May. This is where the colder water is, and chinook salmon and steelhead are already cruising the cooler offshore reaches. In fact, the water temperatures are actually still cold enough out in May that the normally bottom-hugging lake trout can be caught anywhere in the water column, all the way up to the surface.

Trollers interested in getting in on the multi-species action simply need to head for deeper water. Successful anglers must follow the fish to remain productive, but they must also employ the right strategies to continue catching fish. When everything goes well, mixed-bag limits of bragging-sized salmon and trout are definitely possible.

How far offshore is far enough? Luckily, when the fish start to wander offshore, they usually do it slowly. It is not necessary to make a 25-mile run in order to locate fish. The areas that are productive in May should be relatively close to those areas that were good in April, just a little farther from shore. Much of the offshore action could be within 5 or 6 miles of shore, depending on recent weather conditions and fish movements.

Fishing reports can play a key role in finding the fish when they are offshore, too. Charter boat operators and local fishermen who are on the water every day usually know where the fish have been biting recently, so listen to those reports. Recent information on fish movements and location can be extremely helpful.


Trolling in the offshore reaches of Lake Michigan requires some specialized tactics and gear. Unlike the shallow, early spring fishery where most lures are positioned to run within a few feet of the surface, offshore trollers should fish at a variety of depths. This will allow anglers to target all five species of trout and salmon, and in turn catch more fish.

The easiest area to cover when setting lines is the top layer of water. Even though you might be fishing in 60 or 80 feet of water, some fish can still be caught near the surface in May. Coho salmon, in particular, are known to cruise fairly high in the water column, so be sure to set some surface lines. Big steelhead are another prime surface target since they are also caught in the top layer of water at this time of year.

Many anglers use planer boards to deploy multiple shallow-running lures on each side of the boat. These boards pull the lures out and away from the boat, maximizing your trolling spread and contacting more fish. But don’t forget the good old flatline. One or two flatlines with their lures set far behind the boat can also be quite productive.

Once the surface lines are set, it is time to start setting deeper lines. Although some coho salmon will still be hanging around the surface, many others will have drifted lower as they search for schools of alewives, shad and other baitfish. Downrigger rods are great tools for sending lures down into the depths.

Downriggers use heavy weights that can be lowered to a precise depth and held there while the boat motors along. A fishing line is fastened to the weight with a release clip or a rubber band to keep the lure running at that depth. When a fish hits the lure, the line is released from the heavy downrigger weight and the angler can fight the fish without the burden of the heavy weight.

In May, trollers often set up in waters that are anywhere from 50 to 100 feet deep, depending on exactly where they are fishing. One good area to target is the mid-range depths of the water column. If you are trolling in 60 feet of water, for example, and you have four downriggers available on your boat, it is a good idea to set two of your downriggers anywhere from 15 to 30 feet deep. Try setting one at 18 or 20 feet and set another at 30 feet.

Adjust the depths up or down every 15 minutes or so until you start getting strikes. If one depth starts producing, switch an unproductive downrigger from the other side of the boat to the same depth. Coho salmon usually make up the bulk of the catch from the middle of the water column, but brown trout, lake trout and steelhead are also common catches on these mid-range downrigger rods.


The two remaining downriggers should be used to target the lower edge of the water column. This includes the actual lake bottom, so set one of the downriggers right at 60 feet so the lure bounces along the bottom as you troll along. Big lake trout are notorious for hugging the bottom, and bottom-bouncing lures can be deadly for lakers.

The final downrigger should be set somewhere near the bottom, but not right on it. The 50-foot area would be a good place to set this last rod. Hungry lake trout which are hovering near the bottom will certainly swim up 10 feet to hit that lure, but large chinook salmon might also take the bait. Chinooks tend to inhabit the lower levels of the water column, and since they can weigh 20 pounds or more, they will put up a tremendous fight.

Rods equipped with directional diver disks, or Dipsy Divers, are great tools for the offshore troller. Dipsy Divers are also productive for taking suspending salmon and trout, as long as you set them deep enough. Directional divers have three settings that allow the disk to pull the lure deeper or farther out to the side of the boat as you let out line. Experiment to see what is the most productive on any given day. If possible, set one Dipsy rod on each side of the boat.


Today’s fishing lures come in all sizes, shapes and colors, but when it comes to choosing trolling lures for salmon and trout, a few quickly rise to the top of the list. The crankbaits and stickbaits that were so productive during the early spring have slowly given way to other lures like thin trolling spoons and dodger-and-fly combinations.

That’s not to say that crankbaits are no longer useful in May. Crankbaits, especially rattling crankbaits, are still productive when used on flatlines and planer board lines set near the surface for cohos. Since coho salmon love the colors red and orange, choose a crankbait that is painted fluorescent red or fluorescent orange to catch their attention. Steelhead also love fluorescent red lures, so don’t be surprised when a big steelhead slams into one of these bright red surface lures, too.

One of the hottest lures in the May timeframe is the dodger-and-fly combination. Dodgers are flat or bent attractors made from a thin piece of steel (sometimes plastic), and they can be painted a variety of colors or covered with reflective decals. The fly is usually a small tinsel fly with either a treble hook or a single hook, set 12 to 18 inches behind the dodger.

The dodger-and-fly combination is so productive because it can be used anywhere in your trolling spread. Dodger-and-fly combos can be absolutely deadly on surface lines, as long as they are weighted with a small keel sinker to keep the dodger from riding too high in the water column. The bent dodgers seem to work best on surface lines. These rigs are also very productive on Dipsy rods, for cohos, lake trout and steelhead. Chinook salmon will also hit them.

Dodger-and-fly combos are efficient producers when set deep on downrigger rods, too. The larger, flat dodgers are best here, and they should be set fairly close to the downrigger weight to give them the greatest undulating action. Set them 6 to 8 feet behind the downrigger weight and get ready for action.

Thin trolling spoons are another good choice when probing the offshore depths for salmon and trout. These silvery lures do a good job of imitating gizzard shad and alewives, so the bigger predators really key in on them. Spoons perform the best when set on downrigger rods and Dipsy rods since those lines are held at a constant depth by the forward motion of the boat.

The month of May often produces some of the best multi-species salmon and trout fishing of the year for Lake Michigan anglers. Limit catches are common, too. Whether you prefer to target coho or chinook salmon, lake trout, brown trout or steelhead, this is an excellent time to be on the water. Try some of the tactics mentioned here and be ready to shout, “Fish On!”


The best way to maximize your trolling spread is to employ planer boards. When salmon and trout are near the surface, you should have multiple rods targeting that zone. Two main types of planer boards exist for Great Lakes trollers: small in-line boards, which attach to the line of each individual fishing rod, and large planer boards (one set on each side of the boat) which attach to a mast with a heavy tether cord.

Planer boards pull lures out and away from the boat, allowing multiple rods to be set on either side. Some trollers set two or three rods on either side of the boat with planer boards, while larger boats set as many as four or five rods on each side. The number of rods you can run is only limited by the number of licensed anglers on board.

The large planer boards are extremely efficient while trolling, as they stay in place and don’t need to be brought back to the boat. Multiple lines can be set on each planer board rig by clipping a line to the tether cord and letting line out from the rod so the clip slides down the tether toward the board. Multiple rods can be spaced out evenly on each tether cord in this fashion. When a salmon strikes, the line pops free of the tether cord and the angler can fight the fish unencumbered by the planer board.

The other option, again, is to use small in-line boards that are attached to the line of each fishing rod. These boards are popular with many coho fishermen. They are less expensive than the large boards, and they are useful on small boats where it is hard to mount a rigid mast. Their main drawback, however, is the board stays on the line during the entire fight and becomes awkward, especially when the fish is brought up to the net.

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