Biologists originally stocked Pacific salmon in the Great Lakes in the 1960s to help control the population of invasive alewives. Fifty years later, those first few little salmon smolts have turned the Great Lakes into one of the greatest salmon fisheries on the planet.
Unlike their cousins in the Pacific Ocean whose numbers are dwindling and in serious trouble, the runs in most of the Great Lakes are generally doing quite well. Every year anglers from across the world travel to the tributaries of the lakes in hope of having the salmon fishing experience of their dreams, and most of the time they achieve it.
Fish of the Lakes Chinook salmon, coho salmon, and pink salmon are all present in the Great Lakes, stocked to replace the loss of native lake trout brook trout, and Atlantic salmon (in Lake Ontario) which were decimated by commercial overfishing and introductions of invasive species like sea lamprey. Chinook and coho grow largest and are most popular among anglers. While you can chase them the lakes using trolling methods similar to those you might use to catch lake trout, pursuing these fish in the rivers is where the sport of salmon fishing truly shines.
It’s often called “combat fishing”—and not just because the masses of anglers stacked up at every popular hole occasionally engage in fisticuffs when someone crosses the line. Salmon runs happen hot and heavy, and everyone who’s interested will be there at the same time, in the same spot. Anglers jockey for casting positions, cross each other’s lines, and then all hell breaks loose when someone comes tight.
The real combat, the type you hope for, in salmon fishing comes from hooking one of these giant silver buses in the river where the current is on their side. It’s a feeling similar to lassoing a buffalo. These fish are big, they’re strong, and they can push your tackle and your will to the very limit.
Like many salmonids that migrate up rivers to spawn, salmon don’t feed when they’re in the river. Many anglers new to the fishery find the task of hooking one of these monsters incredibly daunting. However, with the right technique, it can be a lot easier than you think.
Chucking and Ducking Whether you prefer to call it side-drifting, bottom-bouncing, tight-lining, or chuck-and-duck, the method for drifting a weight and bait along the bottom of the river is by far the most reliable fishing method I’ve found to catch migrating Great Lakes salmon. It can be done on spin or fly fishing gear and is a great method for beginners as it’s simple and covers a lot of water. It’s a perfect method for targeting salmon that move upstream in pulses or small groups of fish traveling together that are often here today and gone tomorrow.
The setup for a chuck-and-duck rig is fairly simple. All you need is a heavy-action spinning rod and reel strung with 40- or 50-pound-test line (I prefer to use braided) or a big game 8- to 10-weight fly rod and reel setup with a heavy shooting head fly line, such as the Orvis Bankshot, and a 50-pound leader. Get a spool of 25-pound fluorocarbon, a few barrel swivels, a box of heavy egg sinkers and you’re all set. To set up the rig, slide a heavy egg sinker onto your line and then tie a barrel swivel to the end of your line or leader. Next, tie 12 to 20 inches of fluorocarbon to the other end of the swivel and then tie on your bait or fly and you’re ready to go!
To fish, simply cast or “chuck” the rig at an upstream angle into the flow, targeting the center of deep pools or the heads of long runs where migrating salmon tend to stack up. Reel in the extra slack and let the rig drift back down below you. The presentation should be fished on a light line so that you can feel the weight tick and bounce along the rocks on the bottom. Strikes will either come as a hard and fast pull or with the drift suddenly coming to a stop in the middle of the current. In either case, set hard and hold on.
As far as baits and flies go for chucking and ducking there are a lot of options, but it’s really all about the eggs. Salmon egg and their imitations are by far the most effective gear. For spin gear, you can use a cured egg skein segment strung on a size 4 or 6 octopus hook, but I much prefer to use egg sacks—small packets of two or three eggs wrapped in cheesecloth or artificial netting. These hold up better and last longer and are available for purchase in many tackle shops. Or, better yet, you can cure your own! There are a lot of good salmon egg fly patterns as well, such as the Hawkins Rag Clown and the Meg A Egg, that come in a variety of colors, so be sure to get a menagerie and don’t be afraid to experiment. Brightly colored beads will also work just as well.
Ripping and Stripping While the chuck and duck method is a great way to consistently catch salmon, there is something about ripping and stripping for them that is hard to beat. It’s an entirely visual method of fishing where you actually get to see a salmon chase down and smash your fly or lure like an aquatic heat-seeking missile. It’s an incredibly thrilling and highly successful method of salmon fishing so long as it’s done in the right conditions.
Getting a salmon to chase down and kill a retrieved lure or fly is best done in the early season when the water is warm and the fish are aggressive. It will also happen at times when pulses of migrating fish are breaching as they race to get upstream, crashing into one another and generally in a keyed-up mood.
To rip and strip, locate a pod of moving fish in shallower water, such as at the heads of deeper pools or at the base of fast-moving rapids. Using the same rod and reel you would for chucking and ducking, cast your lure or fly upstream beyond the fish and then work it rapidly down through the middle of the school. Remember that the salmon aren’t feeding so there’s no real need to match the hatch. Instead, use large and gaudy lures and flies that have a lot of action and flash that will trigger an aggressive salmon to strike.
For spin anglers, this means using heavy, flashy spoons such as the Eppinger Devil Dog, or attention-grabbing spinners like the Blue Fox Vibrax. My favorite salmon lure for ripping is a Rapala Husky Jerk in fire tiger, silver, or white. Fly anglers should choose large and flashy streamers such as the Drunk and Disorderly or a Galloup’s Sex Dungeon.
Swinging Swinging is the act of casting a fly or lure downstream at a 45-degree angle and letting it swing across the current where it can be smashed by a cruising salmon. It’s probably the purest and most traditional way to salmon fish, dating as far back as the 18th century. Traditionally it’s performed by fly anglers using long, two-handed Spey rods, but can be pulled off just fine using a single-handed fly rod or even a spinning rod.
Swinging for salmon is best done in longer pools or runs away from the crowds, where the current is flowing at a fast walking pace. Starting at the top of the run, cast downstream and across the current, then let the fly or lure swing gently across the run until it is dangling down below you. Take two steps downstream and then repeat the process until you’ve fished the entire length of the run. This allows you to cover the water efficiently to find traveling fish.
Keep in mind that there’s no reason to match the hatch with this technique either. Spin or baitcast anglers should choose garish lures that will give tantalizing or annoying actions when being simply held in the current. Large bucktail spinners and spoons work well for this, but when it really comes down to it’s hard to beat a long-lipped crankbait like a Berkely Flicker Shad or a Salmo Hornet. These lures hold well in the current and give off a fast vibrant action that just begs to be destroyed by a passing salmon. Fly anglers choosing to swing should forgo the traditional flies they would use for Atlantic salmon or even steelhead and instead choose the most garish and flashy flies possible such as the Gangster Intruder or the Dolly Llama in bright colors such as chartreuse, bright orange, or pink.
The Combat Zone Going to the Great Lakes tributaries to fish for salmon can be incredibly intimidating. Dealing with the crowds and the foul weather while targeting a fish that isn’t eating may seem like an exercise in frustration that a lot of anglers just don’t want to deal with at all. Yet, so long as you avoid the famous pools and runs, remain willing to walk a bit, and are brave enough to accept the challenge, you may find yourself hooked into one of the coolest fish in freshwater—one that will provide you with one hell of a fight and will leave you bruised, battered, exhausted, and wanting more.
Feature image via Daniel Tosh.