Fishing & Boating News

Slow Down in School Zones

Overhaul the lessons learned nearly 50 years ago and catch more late-season Great Lakes trout and salmon today

by: Mitch Eagan,

Photo by Bill Lindner
(Sep 22, 2016 - )

It happens right after Labor Day every year: Cold front after cold front roll through the Great Lakes states and Canada. And with every frigid rain and stony north wind, another pod of Chinook and coho salmon make their way from the Great Lakes into one of the many tributaries that feed them.

Being it’s now fall, rumor has it any salmon that was going to spawn has already left the big lakes and made their mad dash upstream. As soon as this word goes around, many shrink wrap their boats and park them in the back of the pole barn.

But savvy anglers know better than to put away their gear just yet; some of the best catching in these huge waterways is yet to come. And the most successful folks this time of year? They’re the ones who mix old-school ways with modern-day methods.

The skeleton keys to success? Slow down, lighten up a little and keep an eye on your electronics.
What it was
When the very first salmon showed up at the mouth of Lake Michigan’s Platte River in the late-summer of 1967, folks were more than befuddled.
First off, it was unclear whether the newly introduced coho were even going to show up in this Michigan river at all. And once the fish did show their silvery sides, it was realized straightaway these were a completely new species for Michiganders, unlike any they had ever fished for before.

Nevertheless, with nothing more than the limited tackle and gear on hand, an army of anglers pushed their small crafts off the sandy shore into the mouth of the river and out into Platte Bay.
And they caught plenty of fish.

Now, remember, this was nearly 50 years ago; most anglers didn’t even know what a “fish finder” (sonar) was let alone own one. And downriggers as well rods and reels made for catching these hard-fighting fish weren’t common place yet, either.
But that didn’t stop anybody.

The fact was there were so many boats in motion on the bay, when you stood on shore of the Sleeping Bear Dunes National Park, nothing but the rumble of low-powered 2-cycle outboard motors could be heard as anglers slowly trolled by.

And there it is, the word “slowly”. Outboard motors were small in comparison to today’s units, and a slow speed was all you had. In fact, many of the vessels were small rowboats, powered with nothing more than a set of oars. And if you’ve ever row-trolled, you know it’s an unhurried endeavor.

Lures of yesterday… and still today
During the early years of salmon trolling, if you didn’t have a Flatfish, you were gonna fail. And if you’ve ever pulled one of these banana-shaped ultra-wide-wobbling baits through the water, you know that any speed over 1.3 MPH would flip the lure up, over and get it skiing on the surface.

Contrary to today’s common trout and salmon fast-trolling theories, however, lures shaped like Flatfish that sway wildly at a snail’s pace, as well as thin metal trolling spoons with erratic or swimming actions, still take more than their fair share of fish.

Take the Lazy Ike and Luhr Jensen’s Kwikfish, for example. Both bodybaits are overlooked these days. And then there are spoons such as Bay de Noc Lure Company’s Flutter Laker Taker, and Keweenaw Tackle Company’s Fin-Wing. Spoons like these have unique curves to their bodies that allow them to flutter and swim at super slow speeds. And all have the flash needed to draw attention from afar.

These baits, however, need to be fished on lighter gear than what’s the norm these days.

Lighten the load

Today’s Great Lakes anglers feel nearly naked without a swath of downriggers, copper-wire and leadcore rigs, as well as in-line planer boards. Back in the day, anglers didn’t even have rod holders to set their rods in. They were held by hand, allowing them to feel every waggle the lure made, as well as the wrist-jarring strike. 

Rod holders, however, are pretty much common place on every vessel nowadays; which is okay as the rods themselves are much more sensitive than those heavy-action fiberglass rods of yesteryear. To boot, some of the best rods for slow trolling are those marketed for species other than trout and salmon.
St. Croix’s Eyecon trolling rods were created with walleyes in mind, but 10-foot 6-inch and 12-foot models are built with blanks superb for trolling slow with wide-wobbling baits for trout and salmon as well. Their lengths allow for a wide spread without having to use in-line boards. And if you desire more lines out, the 5-foot Eyecon trolling rod is perfect for pulling leadcore well inside the reach of those long rods. That’s four lines out with no tangles.
Overall, monofilament line still works best in this situation because of its ability to stretch. And not just when fighting a fish...

When trout and salmon strike out at a lure, they often swirl and miss (whether this is on purpose to disorient their prey or just bad aim is always up for debate). The stretch of monofilament allows a lure to literally come to a complete stop when nipped, just like live baitfish when attacked. The moment that bait starts up again, it’s in perfect tune with the real thing and fish come back for that second whack.

Overall, soft, subtle mono of 14-pount test, such as Sufix Titanium Plus, is a good all-around choice. And if fish are line shy in the super-clear water, a small ball-bearing swivel with a 3-foot section of lighter-pound-test fluorocarbon as a leader is always an option. Seaguar makes species-specific STS Salmon & Trout/Steelhead leader material that fits the bill. Just use a small snap, rather than a snap-swivel to attach your lure to your line to give it it’s best action without adding too much weight.

One of the biggest advantages anglers have today over 50 years ago is modern sonar.

Overall, if you’re trolling high in the water column over deep water, say, the 45- to well over the 100-foot mark, and standard 2D sonar shows baitfish under the boat, you had better be ready to grab a rod with a fish on whether you’re marking predators or not. Just make sure to mark a GPS icon over the pods of bait so you can troll back over the area again.

Shallower water, however, and a unit with side-finding capabilities can save the day. Again, when a small school of fish is seen, you’ll want to make sure to add that waypoint so you can come back later.

Overall, schools of fish are smaller this time of year verses when the run’s at full force, so you’ll want to make sure your adamant about marking fish and bait when you see it whether you get hit or not.   

Lessons learned
Overhaul the lessons learned nearly 50 years ago and you’ll catch more Great Lakes trout and salmon later in the season. Maybe even more than during prime times.

Just remember so slow down your presentations while using lures that swim well at such relaxed speeds. Lighten up your gear so the lures run their best and fish don’t get spooked. And watch your sonar for any signs of life, and place that icon so you can come back and catch more.