Spring Chinook Trolling Tactics
for Oncorhynchus tshawytscha or
"Mr. Spring King"
by Capt. John King
It is the largest of
all Pacific salmon, with weights of individual fish commonly exceeding
30 pounds. A 126-pound chinook salmon taken in a fish trap near
Petersburg, Alaska in 1949 is the largest on record. The largest
sport-caught chinook salmon was a 97-pound fish taken in the Kenai River
in 1986. Please keep in mind the Pink, Coho, and King (Chinook) are
Pacific Ocean transplants. Atlantic Salmon of course, come from
the Atlantic Ocean. I believe Sault Ste. Marie currently has a
small hatchery in operation for the Atlantic Salmon.
This article for the most part was an easy write, because these fish are
my namesake, and I jokingly claim they named this fish after me.
The reel fact is, Spring Kings offer the best action of the season.
Why? Because these fish are on a slash and burn feeding frenzy and
not fussy about eating what ever your pulling.
The reel fact here is, "I spoiled many a new charter fishermen when my plan comes together on
these battling silver monsters. It sets a precedence for the
anglers that's almost impossible to duplicate at any other time of the
year. This I can say, if the spring Salmon are on the prowl, my
guests leave for home knowing full well why they're referred to as Kings."
to Spring Kings
The spring season for our glamour fish of the
Great Lakes, Chinook or King Salmon starts in April to Mid-May depending on
which port you plan on assaulting. The good news here is, spring
Kings are generally dumber than a stump and very easy to tempt to your
offerings. No splitting hairs here, complicated depths, speeds and
the use of any specialized attractors are required. By being in
the right place, at the right time will spell triumph, in a very
The greatest thing about this remarkable early fishery is, that it
removes the "ring rust" from not being on the pond for about
the best part of 6 months. While the weather can be on the brisk
side, the action will warm you up.
Also, and pay close attention here; the experiences gained from the
early season primes the pump from your "well of knowledge" for
upcoming "bulldog" summer fishing that will soon be knocking on your door.
Spring Kings are silver speedsters with loose scales. They're just
waking up from their long winters semi-dormancy, because of cold water
and they'll attack anything that remotely resembles a meal. When the
water temperature of the Great lakes drops below 35 to 36 degrees I
believe the Salmon get reel lethargic and don't feed heavily.
Being cold blooded creatures they have too, because the prime activity
level is supposed to be around 54 degrees.
your socks when a 15 to 20 pound spring Salmon starts testing the drag on your
reel. These fish will smoke line off the reel in a big hurry.
Why....? Because, there's no warm water you can drag them up
into, therefore sapping their strength. It's an all out brawl and
don't be surprised when these vicious "nasty pieces of work"
tear you up and your tackle. Above all else, these fish are in ultra-prime
condition, hungry and looking for chow, or more simply put, just plain bad
The message that I'm trying to convey
here are only guidelines and in no way be taken as gospel. Contrary
to most other publications I'm not foolish enough
to think I can give you all the pat answers, because the art of fishing the
Great Lakes is a tremendously complex issue and always will be.
Being where the fish are is 95 per cent
of the battle as far as I'm concerned. As I said many times
before, I rather be the least experienced fisherman over a huge pocket
of fish, rather than being a 30 year veteran who no fish within 5 miles
of my vessel. Just remember the further south you are in Lake
Michigan or Lake Huron will increase your odds early in the season.
Having your boat ultra-ready to go and
that means extra work. Cleaning, bottom paint and installing a freshly
charged battery are all duties that must be handled well in advance
before your first shake down cruise of the season. Don't let
of preparation cause you to miss some of the best fishing of the
year. Please keep in mind, no time during the rest of the season will these
fish be as easy to catch. The opportunities this April and May
Fisheries present are tremendous, and some of the best fresh water
fishing in the entire world......reel fact!
I've always contended that the early and late season present the best
catching prospects of the season. The seasonal crowds like in July and August won't hinder your action.
Heavy fish boxes can be the rule, rather than the exception!
Some ports like Michigan City the fishing
gets rolling in late march, with St Joe producing excellent
opportunities in early April. From late April through mid May
Saugatuck offers excellent action from my personal experience, and
because of the lack of parking at the boat ramps means you'll never be run
over by other boats. Now, by the middle of May, Ludington, Manistee
and Frankfort are the
leaders in producing heavy boxes of large Kings.
The same goes for Lake Huron with Lexington heating up in early
April. Starting in the southern most ports early, then moving gradually
north is the way to go. Late April and early May means Harbor
Beach will be producing fantastic action. Mid-May Grindstone City
and the Port Austin fishermen will be cashing in on spring Kings. Let me
add, the scheduling depends entirely on how warm the spring is.
Beware, weather can always throw a monkey wrench into the best laid plans
in the world.
Tip: When the lilacs are blooming in the area you're
planning fish, your timing will be absolute perfect. I've seen
this over the past 20 seasons too. Downstate lilac bloom a bunch
earlier than here in Manistee.
As a side note: I chartered a boat in 1979 to fish the
St. Clair River the second week of April. We fished with Capt. Don
Oakes aboard his boat called the "Disco Kid" (it was the Disco
Era) and did quite well. We hammered the fish trolling just
downstream from the Marysville Power Plant using riggers and bottom
bouncers. Once we were downstream about 2 or 3 miles, we'd pull
lines and run back up river to re-set the lines and troll only
downstream. Stick baits were
the ticket and I think we boated 18 kings to 14 pounds in about 4 hours
on this excursion.
I got clued in on the St. Clair River in April of 1978 by watching Capt.
Steve Jones put a whipping on the Salmon at Decker's Landing on the I believe,
the north channel. I was employed then by Testing Engineers and
Consultants and was on a job site. Me working and having to watch
other people catch fish didn't get it, that's why I went into the charter
business to pursue something I want to do..........go fishing!
for the Season: Spawning Alewives
Up to this point, I haven't
mentioned the main reason behind the Spring King Fishery. The Salmon
are schooling in the onshore waters, chasing the predominate forage base
the Great Lakes, but first let's understand the their prey specie called
The alewife (Alosa pseudoharengus)
is native to the Atlantic Coast; alewives entered the Great Lakes
through the Welland Canal in the late 1800's and were discovered in Lake
Michigan by the late 1930's. Alewives spend most of the year in
the deeper waters of the Great Lakes, but come into near shore waters
in the spring when
they' re ready to spawn. Alewives
begin to spawn when the water temperatures reach about 50-60 degrees
range. In their native habitat
alewives were anadromous, swimming upstream to spawn in the spring, consequently
their attraction to the estuaries that empty into the Great Lakes Basin.
In the Great Lakes, the alewives congregate near the outlets of rivers or
streams or near harbors that occur at the outlet of a river. Generally,
the alewife can begin reproducing at about two years of age. Alewives do not
necessarily die after they spawn, but when the fish move from the deeper
water to near shore areas they are exposed to fluctuating temperatures.
A drastic change in water temperature, can cause a massive "alewife
which I'm sure most of you have seen.
Huge quantities of schooling, spawning bait fish?....very
interesting. If I were a Salmon the prospect of getting a full
belly by munching on alewife fodder would sound like a reasonable idea to
me. At times, the inshore waters will be loaded with bait so thick
when trolling through it, your rods will tinkle, as the alewives bounce
off you rigger rods. This means you're in the right place and Mr. King
and his whole clan won't be very far away. Take note of where
these pockets of bait are located on your GPS, because this is the
magnet that sets the dinner table for Mr. Salmon.
Seldom when entering a massive suspended
ball of bait will you take a strike, but pulling your lures out the
other side will generally trigger action and heaps of it. Stay in
the area with the bait, it makes absolutely no sense to leave.
Sooner or later the fish will turn on, even if your not taking
bites. I believe they never venture very far away from a food
source once the Salmon have located it.
I can't guarantee you much when it comes to Great Lakes fishing, this I
can say this with confidence, "if you've located large concentrations of
bait, usually you'll fill the fish box. It's
not rocket science or brain surgery to catch a boat load full of wild, berserk
spring Kings once you've established where their grocery store is at."
A quandary: Lake
Huron always created the largest overall average size on spring Kings for me,
but it never produced the size of summer Kings that Lake Michigan
does. This don't make any sense to me and never has.
Basics..........Not as an after thought
Now, you're in a big hurry and
you're just going to grab last summers tackle and throw it in the boat,
and tear towards the lake.......WRONG! These are your weapons
systems and they have been stood down all winter long. You'll need to carefully
inspect each rod and reel. Over the winter the tightly coiled
monofilament on your reels assumed the memory of a car spring.
Making matters worse is the fact the cooler spring temperatures will
even stiffen the coil spring effect further. The cure for this is
re-lining with new string, besides new mono is a low-priced insurance policy
against loosing tackle and more importantly trophy fish of a lifetime.
Your reels level wind worm gear will be
needing a light coating of reel lube. The pawl (part that contacts
worm gear) will wear our prematurely if not looked after. Or, even
worse, jam when a screaming hog salmon tests you and your tackle.
Inspect reel seat and a quick visual check of the guides is in order
also. In simple words, if you take care of your tackle, it will in
turn, take care of you.
Over the winter, your ultra sharp hooks have gathered moisture and are
likely to be slightly rusty. Perhaps the split rings are rusty too, so scrutinize
every piece of your costly tackle you plan on using. This will
pay immense dividends in the future. Sorting and readying your
fishing gear is the opening act in the new fishing season.
Tactics that Work
For the most part, you'll concentrating
your spread in the top 40 feet of water. This calls for the complete awareness
of side planers, diver
tactics, speed kills and the downriggers. I've enclosed these links to the pages
relevant for sharpening your skills, if needed.
Something I found very successful on Lake
Huron from Lexington to Harbor Beach was trolling NE or SE instead
of directly east to find deeper water, or the fish. By trolling diagonally
you stayed in the same depth longer, giving it a better chance to
Lake Michigan the same pattern should work, although adjusting for the
current sway in your cannon balls is more important (they must hang
straight). For the most part southern Lake Michigan offers the
same gradual sloping bottom Huron does, however east and west here, has
worked better for me.
Play with your speed, some days the Salmon want a smoking hot, other
days a dead slow crawl is almost too fast.
Spring Salmon can be reel-narrow banded. By banded I mean, laying
in a strata only a couple of feet thick. I've pounded on Salmon at
17 feet on the counter and couldn't buy a fish at 15 of 19 feet
down. Pay close a attention to your counters and re-zero them
often, especially if they're BJ's. Also, take careful notice of how full the
spools are of cable, because a full 150 to 200 feet on the spools will
give a different reading than a spool containing half the amount.
It's the larger circumference that makes a difference to the line
Your Time, Not Your Money
A leisurely stroll past the charter docks
at the right time will give you a major clue, as to what the fish are gnawing
on best. Take note of what's dangling on the successful boats, it's
a large clue that helps. Most charter operators like me and don't
strip the lures off the rods when returning to port and some will even
point out the best one's if they're not busy with charter clientele.
Be patient with charter operators, because their time is always on the short
Be creative and take chances, if your not taking fish in one area, don't be afraid to
pick up lines and run 3 or 4 miles from the unpopulated neighborhood
you've been washing baits in. A change of scenery just might start
putting fish in the box.
A preseason trip to your favorite or local tackle store or boat launch might be a
tip-off to what's going on. All fishermen like to brag and the
successful ones, even more so. It don't hurt to ask, is the way I've
always looked at it, so when you see a boat being retrieved a simple
question like, "how'd you do?"......could garner enormous dividends.
So, always be sure to return the favor when someone asks you for info,
even a bad report helps eliminate unproductive areas to steer clear
of. Plus, it's just plain courtesy and always remember you didn't
invent Salmon fishing!
1. Turn off fish ID feature.
2. Check dipsey leaders often for nicks in the line.
3. Watch your boat speed, cold water means a slower troll in most cases.
4. Don't overlook the surface fishing, use inline planers.
5. Free sliders will cover the high fish.
6. Store your reels with the drag unscrewed (no tension).
7. Don't use 2 piece ferruled downrigger rods, because they always break at
8. Don't turn on your sonar while if your boats not in the water, damage
9. Fish the marks and don't worry about "temperature."
10. Check your lures often when in heavy mounds of bait to make sure your hooks
aren't fouled with alewives.
11. Smaller profile spoons like the Mini Streak, Stinger (regular size)
or the Fishlander size 1, work best for me.
12. Slide Divers for the high diver with a longer leads can out
produce the Dipsey Diver if the fish are very wary or boat shy.
13. Don't even leave the dock early in the morning if the seas are
running 4 feet or better, by 9 or 10am the wind generally kicks up the
sea to twice that.
14. Have the best sonar you can afford and have total confidence
in it, remember spring fish don't mark well. It has been said,
their air bladder (which reflect most of the sonar waves) isn't used
much to maintain zero buoyancy. I guess the colder water density
has something to do with it?................but, I don't know for
15. You won't see most of the fish you're catching on the sonar,
if they're up high.
16. Don't try to out think a fish, complicated preconceived
notions, seldom work.
17. Relax and let the fish do their job, don't feel pressured to
force feed fish.
18. Stay out of "packs," fish your own program
above all else. Hey, if it don't work, there's always the next
time when it will.
19. Be patient with large spring Kings, meaning let them get tired
away from the boat. It's a nightmare to have a wild May 20 pounder
behind the boat to soon, if it's still "green" or full of
20. Safety above all else, if your
thinking of pulling lines, because it's getting to rough.....stop
thinking and head for the shelter of the harbor.
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