Typically when people talk about salmon fishing on the great lakes it involves big groups on big charter boats paying an astronomical amount of money to just crank in a fish or two per person. Sure it's fun and all, and yes you get to bring home some tasty fish but where's the fun, where's the satisfaction of catching those fish yourself? You don't need a 30 foot boat with a 16 line spread with 3 downriggers, 300 copper, 150 copper, 5 color, 7 color, 10 color leadcore, and dipsey divers to catch these fish. The salmon lifecycle allows us to target these fish in the fall close to shore and utilizing equipment that you may already have in your boat. Here is how I rig my 18 foot tiller for simple and effective salmon fishing on Lake Michigan.
A 25lb MONSTER King Salmon caught trolling a Flicker Minnow behind a planer board
Two of the easiest methods for trolling fall salmon are long-lining crankbaits and running dipsey divers with spoons. If you have any familiarity with fishing planer boards for walleye, long-lining crankbaits is no different. In fact, you can even use your walleye trolling rods (8'6" medium rods with 10lb monofilament on a linecounter reel) to do this. That said there are a few finer details involved that can make the difference between landing fish and loosing baits. If you have the luxury to do so, spooling up with 20 to 30lb braided line with a 20lb fluorocarbon leader is an added insurance policy when fighting fish upwards of 25lbs, however it CAN be done with 10lb monofilament. It is also important to set the drag on the reels to the point where the fish can easily take line. It is VERY important to let the fish run. Too much pressure on the line and the line can break and the hooks can straighten or pull out. On that end, it is also important to upgrade your hooks on your crankbaits.
Pictured top to bottom: 400 series Rip Stick, size 7 Flicker Shad, size 11 Flicker Minnow
Crankbait selection really isn't something to overthink with these fish. When the 4-year old King Salmon return to the harbors to spawn they undergo a series of changes, including color change from silver to brown as well as no longer feeding. When these fish enter full on spawn mode, they no longer eat for the sake of sustenance, but rather attack baits out of aggression and impulse. That said if you run a bait in front of their face, they will either hit it or not regardless of color and style. They certainly DO need to be able to see it, so in dirty water bright colors work best (as they do in clear water, too). My top 3 salmon crankbaits are size 7 Berkley Flicker Shads, size 11 Berkley Flicker Minnows, and Reef Runner 300/400 Ripsticks.
Off with the old and on with the BEEF. Stock hooks and rings above a modified bait
As mentioned before it is important to "beef up" the crankbaits. Anybody who has fished the "Flicker" series of baits from Berkley knows how light the hooks are and how easy they can bend. They work great for walleye, but not so much for an angry salmon. Through lots of trial and error I have broken, straightened, and straight up lost plenty of hooks while running the stock hooks. That's no good for anybody. I upgrade my hooks to size 4 Trokar 2x strong treble hook as they are super sharp and heavier to handle big fish. They aren't cheap but they are worth the money in my book! I also beef up my split rings on the hooks and on the lip to something a little heavier duty. The added weight of the upsized hooks and split rings tends to somewhat dull the action of the bait, however they are absolutely necessary to land these fish.
Generally most harbors are anywhere from 20 to 30 feet deep so we aren't fishing super deep water; depths that can be attained with these style lures. As far as fishing these walleye baits on steroids goes, I typically run them 80 to 120 feet behind an Off Shore Tackle OR12 planer board with the longest lines on the outside of the spread and the shorter lines closer to the boat to avoid tangles when fish go crazy. My average speed is around 2.5 mph however it is important to make turns to speed up and slow down baits to trigger strikes and tell you what the fish want. With a 6-line spread I like to run 2 shad style baits and 2 stick style baits in my planer board spread (one of each higher up and one of each deeper) to see what the fish prefer on that particular day, along with 2 dipsey diver rods.
Waiting for that "ZIPP ZIPP ZIPP" with Doritos in hand
For those unfamiliar with a dipsey diver, think of it as an underwater combination planer board/inline weight. They are designed to pull the line down and away from the boat then release tension on the line when a fish hits. It is actually a very cool and very easy system to learn to use. My dipsey diver rods are 10 foot Shimano Talora trolling rods (which you certainly don't need to do this as any 9-12 foot medium heavy trolling rod will do) paired with a linecounter reel and 30lb Power Pro braid (some people like to run upwards of 50lb braid).
2.5 setting on the left side setting on a size 3 dipsey diver
I run two size 3 dipsey divers, both on a 2.5 setting, one angled for the port and the other for the starboard side of the boat. Behind the dipsey diver I have a Luhr Jensen 12" snubber to act as a shock absorber, followed by a 6 foot long, 20lb fluorocarbon leader to a snap swivel.
Dipsey, snubber, flasher, and spoon rig layout
On the business end of the leader I run a spoon. With hundreds of different patterns and sizes of spoons on the market it can be very difficult to pick a color. That said in dirty water go with something bright and flashy, in clear water just about anything goes. It's good to have a small assortment of different colors on hand to experiment with and switch out throughout the day. I really like the Pro King, Michigan Stinger, and Moonshine brand spoons.
A few of my (and King Salmon) favorite flavors for trolling the harbors in the fall
A helpful addition to the spoon rig in dirty water is to utilize a flasher about half way between the spoon and the snubber to provide a little more flash and attracting power. When running the dipsey divers I generally run mine about 25 to 35 feet out (on the line counter or "LOC" - Line On Counter) and place them pointed slightly downward towards the water in a rod holder with the reel clicker on. It is important to set the drag light enough that about every 10 seconds you hear the reel "click" as line slips out. If the drag is too tight it is easy to pull the hooks when a fish hits. When a fish hits, grab the rod and lighten the drag to let the fish run while maintaining tension on the fish. I can't stress enough how important it is to let these things run when they want to run!
There was certainly a large learning curve to figuring out the rigging do's and dont's for trolling these giant fish, however hopefully with this first part of the small boat salmon series you have the tools to go out and take advantage of this amazing bite only about an hour away from Madison! If you have any questions email firstname.lastname@example.org and we will tell you what we know! Stay tuned for part 2!