Early Fishing Tips for Great Lakes Salmon

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The first cold fronts in August bode more than the promise of leaf fall and geese migration. They are ushering in a unique window of opportunity for large Great Lakes salmon and trout. Eric Haataja knows all about it. The Multi-Species Fishing Guide hunts big fish year-round in his home state of Wisconsin and elsewhere, but early fall on Lake Michigan marks one of his favorite times. And many anglers, whether by boat or ashore, can benefit from this bite.

“It’s definitely one of the best times of the year to catch really big fish,” Haataja said. “If you haven’t gotten tangled up with any of these fish, this is a must to try.”

The early season for Great Lakes salmon

Chinook and coho salmon are not native to the Great Lakes, but they have been stocked for decades and continue to support a thriving sport fishery. They behave much like their native cousins ​​in the Northwest, spending summers foraging in vast expanses of open water. Then, when they are old enough, they migrate to streams and tributary rivers to spawn in the fall.

fisherman with a king salmon caught in the Great Lakes
Come fall, Haataja has the king’s bite made up. Eric Haataja

According to the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources, Lake Michigan king salmon typically spawn after two to four summers in the lake. Haataja said these fall spawning fish average between 17 and 22 pounds. Coho typically spawn at 2 years of age and older, after two summers in the lake, but some male coho spawn after only one summer. Haataja said fall coho typically weigh between 4 and 8 pounds.

Along the shores of Lake Michigan in Wisconsin, the fish pass in early fall through many ports and harbors from Door County south to the state border near Kenosha. Similar possibilities abound at the mouths of tributaries into other Great Lakes with good salmon populations. The seasonal change can begin in late summer and usually peak as fall progresses.

“If you start to have westerly winds and rains and cold water temperatures in August, the fish will start to appear there,” Haataja said. “Everything is dictated by the direction of the wind, which changes the temperature of the water, which moves the fish. I usually start in September at jetty heads and at the mouths of rivers, where all the fish stop.

Here today, gone tomorrow

King salmon usually arrive near tributaries first, followed by coho salmon. Kings usually outnumber coho in harbors and river mouths, although anglers sometimes find a good number of both during years with cold water temperatures. Action in port areas and river mouths typically lasts between two weeks and a month, depending on conditions, but Haataja said patterns can change quickly.

“My philosophy with the Fall Gathering Fish is that they can be here today but gone tomorrow, which means they stop here today, but it’s raining overnight and they’re gone, going up again. the river tomorrow, “he said. “They are moving, but they are not difficult to locate. This is the right thing.

In fact, Haataja said, locating the halting salmon with electronics or even general observation might be one of the easier parts of the chase.

“It’s a very favorable time of year for anglers,” he said. “In a boat, use your sonar’s side imaging. If you don’t see them there, look around. Often they will jump and porpoise like a trout or tarpon, going up and down. They are very visible fish, so if you are around them you will see them come up. If you don’t see anything on your chart or future, don’t fish there. Get out of here. Go to the mouth of the river. Go to the port. Fish will tell you where they are through your electronics or eyeballs. And once you’ve found some salmon, the fun begins.

Read more: 8 vintage stream flies for salmon and trout

How to Catch Salmon in the Great Lakes

Haataja said anglers can use several methods to catch fall salmon. Whether you’re fishing from a boat or from piers and harbors, Throwing Spoons, including Kastmasters, Glow Spoons, Moonshine Glow Spoons, or one of Haataja’s exclusive Haat Jigging Spoons, trigger strikes. Rattle baits and crank baits also work.

Read more: How to spoon lures in the fall

“A lot of the baits that seem to work well in the fall are fire tiger, chartreuse, lime green or even an orange pattern,” he said. “You can’t go wrong with the Fire Tiger, really. “

When fishing from a boat, the presentation options expand considerably.

“When I troll in the fall, you can catch them with spoons, and you can still catch them with a flasher-fly combo,” Haataja said. “You can catch them on J-Plugs and crankbaits. Everything works fine in the fall. When you throw or jigging, you can achieve them by vertical jigging with a jigging spoon or a plastic. Or you can also fish them (dried salmon roe) under a float or directly under the boat. And I was also successful in using alewife in the fall that I caught and used as bait.

The best water conditions for fall salmon

The choice of methods can depend strongly on the conditions. Haataja said water temperatures in the mid-1950s are ideal. In slightly warmer waters (low 60s) the fishing can still be good, but salmon tend to be more finicky and difficult to catch.

“If the water temperatures are warm enough and there are even more fish outside the lake rather than inside the harbors, I could troll crankbaits,” he said. -he declares. “If the water gets colder and gets really cold, sometimes I’ll troll the J-Plugs and the spoons more. And when the water is warmer, I like to fish more at night. When the water is cold, you can have it all day.

Whichever method you choose, use rods, reels, and lines that are strong enough because large salmon fight fiercely. This is especially important when fishing from shore, as shore anglers are not as mobile and cannot chase fish to facilitate easier landing.

“You really have to be ready in terms of equipment because they will wind you up,” Haataja said. “Typically, you would consider at least a 2500 to 3500 size spool with a 30 pound braid. And a 15 pound fluorocarbon leader is a pretty safe bet. Also, if you are fishing for Fall Kings, be sure to bring an extra spool of line with you in the boat or from shore as they will have you running around everywhere.

Fishing after spawning

As fall progresses into September and October, salmon will migrate to tributaries to spawn, followed by other species of fish. Around mid-October, Haataja will abandon her boat, don waders, and start hitting streams and rivers to target these fish, usually using spinning.

“After the king spawns, coho salmon will migrate upstream to spawn, followed by brown trout and rainbow trout,” he said. “For salmon, the river fishing par excellence takes place from mid-September or from the end of September to October. For brown trout and rainbow trout, it’s late October, November and December, whenever the river is open. This is a great opportunity to catch several species of fish in the same day, all from shore.

Of course, many anglers give the fish a break during the fall, swapping their rods and reels for bows or shotguns. This year, consider giving in to the allure of the jaw-dropping action on monster salmon. Deer and ducks will be waiting, and your fall efforts might catch the fish of your life.


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