Part II
Using Cut Bait in Michigan
or how you too can become
Manistee's Master Baiter!

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Herring Fillets



Even though this article was written about 3 years ago, with our fast moving knowledge base, the material is dated to the fall of the 2003 season.  Since then much has been learned. I now make my own line of tackle dedicated to using cut-bait on the Great Lakes. 

3 Fly Meat Rigs

My experience with the bait-rigs I purchased from New York was disappointing when it came to the quality of the line being used on the Twinkie-Twinkie Cut Bait Rig and the Atomic 3 Fly Trolling Rig.  Both of the manufactures need to step up to a better quality line rather than 40 pound test Big Game.  I think it's a matter of the manufacturer's keeping the cost down, because Big Game is priced below better grades of monofilament that are more abrasion resistant like Trilene's XT, Cortland and Ande.  After about 3, maybe 4 fish on the same rig, the leader could become badly frayed, or when a fish bit, a good King would eat through the 40 pound Big Game.   That meant the fish had gnawed through the leader and your expensive 3 fly rig was kinda worthless (being minus the missing head).

I think part of the leader abuse was from the Salmon inhaling the bait deeply.  I un-hooked several gullet hooked fish and this is gonna be hard on any leader material.

For the do-it-yourself devotees, the technical description of a the 3 fly rigs that I'm familiar with is that both the Atomic and Twinkie products are 60 inches, or 5 feet long.  They attach to the attractor via a bead chain swivel.  The treble hook on the Atomic rig is a what I consider a little too small and you might want to consider replacing.  Twinkie rigs comes equipped with a very good 2/0 PermaSteel VMC treble hook.  The spacing on the 3 flies isn't critical, the first fly from the bead chain is 13 inches, second fly is 26 inches and the third fly is 39 inches.  All of these measurements are from the bead chain back.  The hook is tied on at an overall length of 57 to 60 inches from the rear hole on the bead chain.  Metal crimps hold the flies in place, with Atomic using a downrigger sleeve with a toothpick slid inside to hold the crimp.  Twinkie uses a smaller crimp and they it's lightly squeezed onto the monofilament for it's anchoring point.

Not having a interchangeable leader in front of the bait head means you'll have to re-assemble the entire rig from scratch.  A little foresight in the manufacturing process by adding a snap at the last of the 3 flies would make this job a lot easier.  That way, just replacing the leader part would be a whole bunch faster.  As things stand, when the leader is nicked up, you either take a chance with it, or re-do the rig.  I re-did all mine with 50 pound test Ande and found much better reliability.  The Ande was an insurance policy, because even though I had them available off my website, I had problems keeping the most productive colors on my boat. 

These 3 fly rigs are in no way cheap!  Like you, I paid retail of 11 to 13 bucks apiece for them in the beginning, plus shipping from New York.  I too found out; it's a reel-bite in the butt to see they come with leader line that is way to light for adult Kings.  Look for improvements in this area soon, so affordability isn't the problem it is now.  It's an empty feeling to lose a fish, because of leader material not suited for the job.  Plus, it drains your billfold to the tune of replacing another piece of costly tackle.  I've asked George the originator of the 3 fly rig to use 50 pound Ande in the rigs I order from now on.

Having 3 flies in front of your spinning bait rig creates a tremendous amount of turbulence and commotion.  After the main spin and flash of the attractor, this series of sparkle is a definite fish magnet.  While it looks like a string of junk to me, it must look like some where's between smorgasbord or a delicatessen to the fish.  By the way the fish attacked my boat in 2003, it has too!  All this junk in the water must look and  have the scent of a banquet to a Salmon.   And just like us, smelling the aroma of Christmas turkey long before we chow down, adds to our willingness to feast.  It's my firm belief the flies behind the flasher keeps the fishes interest until it finds your rolling chunk of meat (i.e. herring fillet) in a horizontal helicopter ride, saying...."bite me!"

Meat Me?
Please refer to above photos for a complete visual guide

Installing a herring fillet into the bait holder head is a very simple process, because the heads were designed for this. Let me verbalize, just slide the herring, or what ever kind of fish flesh you want to the head and slide a toothpick through the longer side of the trolling bait head.  The short side of the bait head has a slightly smaller sized hole to accept the taper of a pick.  On longer side of plastic head, that hole is kind smaller when compared to the other side.  This difference in hole sizes helps wedge the toothpick into the meat you're using.  Remember, the skin you're trying to puncture is gonna be tough, so dry toothpicks are a unadulterated must!  Wet picks turn into limp noodles, bending and not fully penetrating thru the skin and chunk of fillet meat.

I always put the skin side of the fillet on the outside, with the face of the skin in the shorter side of the bait head.  Now, the white, or fleshy side is covered under the Mylar fringe of the Twinkie rig.  On the Atomic bait rig there's no Mylar fringe and I caught fish with both styles.  

Care must be taken when inserting the toothpick that sets the distance from the hook to the rear of the bait holder.  While you have to push in fairly hard to hold the proper peg gap to the hook, if you shove to hard, that rear hole in the plastic can split.  I normally strive for the treble hook to ride just at the rear of the chunk of meat I using.

Are the 3 fly cut-bait rigs necessary?  From my experience, I'd have to say yes.  Running just the trolling bait head clean, minus the string of 3 attracting flies can generate some strikes.  However, the triad of flies seems create a better center of attention and far superior results.  At least from my proven results during the 2003 summer season.

As the market stands, there are only two companies manufacturing the trolling bait heads featured in the above photos at the header of this page.  One is a Canadian firm called, Rys Davis and they also make the herring strips I used.  Challenger is the other  company and their product is made in one of the Pacific rim companies.  I both of these products and found a problem with quality control and some do not spin, or at differing rates.  I have since re-engineered the meat heads and have a far superior product.

I'll admit it, I was basically mesmerized with this whole idea of using reel-bait. This was a brand new area for me to conquer, learn and sharpen whatever little skills at catching fish I do have.  I can say, "now, I've caught fish on all venues known to the Great Lakes Salmon fishermen."  If I sounds like I'm evangelizing the idea of cut-bait, maybe I am.  But, in all certainty it's just my way of saying, " I'm captivated by anything that will entice a fish to yank down on my rod."  To me it's a mystical encounter every time I fool a fish.  I guess it's sort of a mind game, outwitting Mr. Sal Monoid (with the brain only about the size of pea), that can possess the perceptiveness mental giant.  Fooling this critter into striking is plain all-out fun me.  Salmon fishing has been in my blood since October 1st, 1968 when I caught my first Michigan Coho Salmon.  The date of this composition is about 10/20/03, so that's at least 35 years in my book. 

 Correct  Toothpicks

Buy only good quality double ended toothpicks.  Stay way from the real cheapies, because the cheap ones are to flimsy to peg the bait head correctly at the rear adjustment point.  Cheap ones will work to how the meat on the bait head, but spend an extra few cents and get the best quality wooden toothpicks available.  Buy only double ended toothpicks and you'll get twice as much mileage from the same picks.  One two ended toothpick will take care of pegged the fillet in place and anchoring the hook-set distance point.

Keep your tooth picks dry above all else.  Wet toothpicks get soft from the water in a big hurry, rendering them almost useless.   Trim the toothpicks off with a pair of scissors, close to the body of the bait holder head.  We me it's a neatness issue.  I generally stow a good amount of toothpicks in my pocket in the morning, so I always have an ample supply available.  Saving time on the water means more fish, as your efficiency level goes up a speedy line set is worth it's weight in gold.

OK, back to the reel-info on how important toothpicks are in enhancing a successful affair when fishing the bait rigs.  If you neglect to re-peg the hook set hole in the bait holder head every morning, chances are you're gonna miss bites.  From some reason unbeknownst to me a missed strike generally means the fish has push the bait head up the leader and away from the hook.  I know that in the morning in a rush to set lines, but never and I'll repeat never miss re-pegging that rear hole in the bait head with a fresh pick.  Seldom is yesterday's peg job any good, due to the swelling and shrinkage of the wood in the toothpick.

Why Does Herring?
Thumbnails, click on for full-size

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              My Dream Team               Homemade vs. Prepared Strips

In an internet web search doing research into reasons why our Salmon are so willing strike herring fillets with such reckless abandon, I came up with some very interesting and facts.  The similarities between herring and our alewife is nothing short of amazing.  Herring travel in large schools, spawn in the shallows during early spring and are bluish green in color with shiny sides. About the only difference is that adult Pacific herring tend to be larger then our resident forage base.  Hummmm.......sounds almost exactly like our bait fish population, specifically Mr. Ale Wife.  

parallels could explain several things.  Like the normally fantastic early inshore season we have on spring Kings.  The reason the spoons in blue and green have been my best spring colors for as long as I can remember is another tip-off.

Keeping in mind, long before Michigan ever thought of having a fishery for Salmon, the Salmon were feeding on herring in the Pacific Ocean from California to Alaska.  Herring have been prey food source for the Pacific Salmon for eons of generations.  So, consuming herring is inherent to our Salmon, which are transplants from the west coast.  Plain and simple our Great Lakes Salmon are governed by instincts instilled in them by evolution of countless generations, so they haven't lost their taste for herring.  

Re-Usability of Cut Herring

To be, or not to be?  Making the decision to go to cut-bait if you've never used it is not the easiest thing in the world.  Maybe, for many seasons you've probably developed a fond l liking to a particular style of trolling like using spoons, J-Plugs, dodgers, or flasher-fly combos.  I'll admit, hanging on a chunk of herring "meat" for the first time does not instill much confidence, that is,.....until you use it!

Taking care of the herring fillets aboard is no big deal, because of the salt content in the brine.  I put a few on the stern of my boat where I have plastic trays installed.  This way, I have a ready supply at hand.  I keep the extra herring in a tightly sealed container in my cooler I use for pop and extra fish ice.

Make sure it's a "tightly" sealed, as not to spill the brine solution on the contents of your personal cooler.  Be forewarned the brine stuff has a fish smell to it. 

Now, when your done fishing, carefully remove the toothpick that holds the fillets in place and save that chunk of fish meat you've been dragging.  Just put it back in a container and you're ready the next day's outing.  Yesterday's leftovers fillets worked as good as using a fresh meat, especially for the early morning banzai bite.

Pack Up and Go!

Normally, I would not give you a dissertation on trolling in a pack of boats, but with bait it didn't make much of a difference in my catch rates.  The smell signature of the bait was an amazing advantage.  I pulled doubles and triples with boats on both sides of me, while they just watched the show my customers were putting on.  Now, I'm not saying this like I'm anyone special with a magic wand.  I am not the world's greatest, nor pretend to be, but I know what puts fish in my boat!

Unlike the past many seasons in Manistee the slowed economy meant I ran several half day trips during August.  On half day deals,  you don't have time to run the boat very far.  In this case, circumstances predicated journeys closer to home and amidst the entire fleet.  So, we'd just set up in this jungle of boats and commence to go to work on the Salmon.  Sure, we seen other boats around us catching fish, but not to the level of what was happening on our vessel.  I did see a definite advantage in the heavily trafficked neighborhoods, like straight out of Manistee.

Comfort Factor

I'd be amiss in this long-winded commentary to you, if I didn't mention the positive feelings you might, or might not have.  Say you're in a area with little, or no fish around.  I don't care who you are, you're not gonna get something to bite that's not there.  In that case, pack up your boat and travel to another spot known to produce.  I done this several times, as the fish move to parts unknown, so do I.  Last evening's "hot spot" might not be holding many fish, especially if the wind, or the current has moved the bait population.  So, please never beat on dead horse.  Being  stubborn and toughing it out seldom leads to a full box of fish.  Don't be lazy, get up and move your boat, unless you don't want to clean a lot of fish.  However, there is some reel-merit in not cleaning a bunch of fish too!

Pay little, or no heed to the radio, because it's generally your worst enemy.  That radio can be all over the lake and has no effect on what's under your boat.  Fish your fish and I know that sounds too easy, but it is!  Chatter on the radio is a major distraction as far as I'm concerned and most of the time I have it turned off.  This saves me from listening to two jerks who are both in the wrong, trying to argue which one is right.  I see no fun in hearing a bunch of disgusting gobblely-gook.

The bottom line is to rely on your own intuition.  It's your sixth sense and feeling comfortable with your program and chosen piece of water is one of the biggest keys of success.

General Snippets
General advice that can be applied to most fishing topics

1. You must use a Sampo ball bearing swivel with any flasher and especially with any rotating flasher.  Use an additional 30# test Sampo in front of the 165# test Sampo I supplied on my "Reel-Flashers."

2.  Staying tight to the fish.....because of the 5 foot leader to the bait-head hook the fish will drag the attractor sideways causing additional drag if you're not pulling tight towards your foe.  Keep a good hard bend in your rod. 

3.  If you miss a strike, be sure to check and make sure your bait-rig head hasn't been slid up the line.  This when happen, especially if you don't check the tension on the rear peg hole on the bait head.

4.  Gravitate towards a simple spread, with bait, less is more.  The biggest advantage with reel-bait is gonna be for the smaller boat fishermen that don't generally run a lot of rods.   Battle cruisers that run a ton of rods will still take a bunch of fish.  However, the major increase will felt be in the 16 to 25 foot range, where running 18 rods is out of the question.

5.  Gain confidence with it, and run only bait.  If you're not gonna go "whole hog" with cut bait and run a program committed to it.  Then don't make the leap into the land of cut-bait.  Confidence breeds confidence is my opinion.

6.  Hook sharpening is more then important, it's a must and check after every fish.  Take a moment or two to visually inspect the hooks before re-setting lines, often you'll damaged hooks that are useless and need replacing.

7.  Run no less the 30 pound test on your reels when trolling with any attractor.  It's cost effective and heavier line does not cause a fish to shy away from a attractor.  Use at least a 50 pound leader when you re-do your trolling bait heads.  It will save you $$$ in the long run.

8.  Line frays are gonna happen, so be deadly aware of the reel-fact and replace the rig, rather then taking a chance with beat up line.  I found my line more abraded when  using cut-bait.  This was caused by the fish taking it deeper down it's throat in many cases.  I even bought a special long nosed pliers with a angled end to unhook the deep eaters.

9.  Stay ultra-alert to capitalize on the advantages cut-bait offers,  Fish often hit at the least inopportune time, so be prepared for those sneaky rascals the strike when you're back is turned.

10.  Judge speed by the cables on your downriggers, cable angle, sway or blow back will tell you just as much and any 600 and some dollar Fish Hawk. 

11.  Once the pack clears an area, don't be afraid to troll right back thru those areas, most won't be dialed in on the bait thing like you.  Artificial offerings fast lose their appeal as the morning wears on.

12.  You've got maybe 2 seasons before the rest of the fleet picks up on trolling with cut-bait, so enjoy your advantage for now. 

13.  If structure is available and temperature allows for it, stay shallow next to the drop off.  This will further fence up the fish to scrutinize your big rigs.

14.  Patience is golden and not wandering off to places unknown seldom increases your probability of a heavy fish box.  If you're over fish, never leave fish to find fish.  I know this sounds convoluted, but it's the truth.  Keeping in mind your wanderlust might be a wild goose chase.

15.  K.I.S.S. stands for keep it simple stupid, so pay attention to this rule.  Running to many lines is gonna cause you more problems then it's worth.  Simple is better and it's sure beats untangling wads of monofilament, lead core.  Also, the bigger the fish the more trouble free your spread should be.  Greed can work against you on summer's large adult Kings.

16.  Shallow trolling requires a longer cannon ball lead lengths then deep.  Deep trolling can requires slower trolling speed also, to keep the cable blow-back within reason.

17.  Many had used cut-bait, found success on Lakes Huron and Michigan, then kept it hush-hush, because of tournament reasons.  I found this out after I let the cat out of the bag in the summer season of 2003.

18.  During the times of the year when the fish-hook water flea infections are at epidemic proportions, even the best quality ball bearing swivels can be clogged with the tiny critters, thus causing problems of severe line twist, or even spinning to the point of the line twisting off, hence no flasher and bait rig.  Check your lines often at the swivel to make sure this don't cost you a 20 some dollar loss in terminal tackle.

19.  Never store the bait rig by wrapping the line tightly around the flasher, this goes for divers too.  Interaction between differing types of plastic to mono can cause line failure later, not to mention the sharp kinks caused from this.

20.  Take extra care when unhooking a fish, by grabbing the exact shank of the hook stuck into the jaw.  Do not just twist and tear, if you do this the hook might snap off.  The tensile strength steel used in manufacturing a good hook will not take bending back and forth.  A broken hook (means replacement) and will slow the re-set time of your "hot rig" before it returns to the water and trolling depth.

21.  Take care of the resource by utilizing your catch.  Either can it, smoke it or eat it fresh before it hits the freezer.  In all likelihood your gonna catch more fish then you're ever gonna eat.  Return surplus fish back to the water if and when possible.  Killing a limit, just to say you killed a limit is an empty victory if the fish are gonna go to waste.  In my opinion our Great Lakes cold water species do not keep well in the freezer and turn unpalatable within 3 months in my opinion, no matter how you freeze them.  I know I'm gonna hear from the "freeze in water" and "vacuum sealer" folks on this issue, so please refer back to "in my opinion."

22.  Beware of misinformation that will send you in the wrong direction.  It's easy to sucked in, I know....because it's happen to me before.  Formulate your own plan and don't keep making the same mistakes.  If I'm gonna make another mistake, I want it to be a brand new one.  Trial and error is what effects the outcome of every fishing adventure we go on. 

23.  A early start can mean more action.  More action can lead to a quick limit.  The cleaning table is a lot less crowded at 10am then it is a noon.

24.   Don't burn the candle at both ends.  Fishing until past dark then trying to get up for the early daylight bite is next to impossible to do.  Sure, you can do it, but your alertness level is going suffer.  Get plenty of rest between outings and your time on the water will be a lot more enjoyable.

25.  Use a sealed Tupperware container to haul your bait to and from the boat.  A sealed container keep the smelly herring juice the herring are froze in from spilling all over.

26.  Study the info contained in this article and use it as described.  Do not deviate from what I've written, until you've gained enough experience with "meat."  Follow my instructions explicitly if you want to conquer and master using cut-bait.

27.  I have a private message board to further answer your individual questions about use cut-bait.

28.  Never give up, defeat is not an option.  Bait will save your butt when the crowds dissipate.  The best thing about bait is that it will produce action even during the middle of the day.

29.  I wasted a lot of time figuring out how to run more then 5 rods, but the truth is being over the fish is the deal.  My best results were with a simple, non-complicated spread.  The spooky fish don't tend to shy away from your presentations.  Less is better and don't forget that last statement.

30.   I've had several reports of fishermen using belly meat from Lake Trout, Salmon and even Catfish as a substitute for herring strips.

31.  OK, you've done your homework and now go out and put it to good use!

Click here to purchase Capt. John's  "On-Line Reel-Flashers"

I Rest My Case

I have fished the Great Lakes relentlessly since 1968 and never have I found a method produces day-in and day-out like this stuff.  Plain and simple, cut-bait is an all-out "no-brainer" to use, because finesse of any kind is not a prerequisite.  In some ways, I look at bait as a blessing, because after 21 years as a full-time charter operator and guide, cut-bait made my job a whole lot easier.  I liken using herring strips as getting back to the uncomplicated, trouble-free basics of Great Lakes fishing, something akin to a cane pole and a bobber, as far as I'm concerned.  

Is it the best choice to have in the water on any said particular day?  Maybe not, but it will produce steady consistent results on a daily basis.  I adopted a "live by the sword, die by the sword' mentality once I found out how productive it was, I never put anything else on the water in July, August and September 2003.  During the time span I used it in 2003 my bait program showed more fish, on less rods, in a shorter amount of time, then what the rest of the charter operators in brought to the fish cleaning table (at my marina), or laid on the accurate reel-fact!

My complete overall assessment is that even though I spent about 10 bucks a day on bait, my savings in my gas bill and lessened time on the water to produce limits of Kings, more then made up for the measly 10 dollars!............Capt. John King

Click Here for Part I

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