Late Summer Fun
Kevin Essenburg, aka “Far Beyond Driven”

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Nice Harbor King
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J-Plugs & Flashers
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Harbor Views

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Harbor Kings Top to Bottom

Other than maybe in the spring when the lake starts to wake up from it’s slumber, with browns in the skinny water near shore and coho working their way north, my favorite time to fish has to be when the big kings show up around the pier heads in fall. The fishing is often fast and furious, the presentations simple, and for the most part, the fish are all large and full of anger, ready to put you and your gear to the test.

However, just because you know there are kings in the harbor, it does not mean you can go out and fill the smoker every time you leave the dock. Following are some observations that can increase the odds in your favor.

Let’s begin with a little bit of courtesy. My group uses the term “Labor Day Syndrome” for this time of year, when people who get out once or twice each year for salmon try to get these fish as they are not way off on the horizon. Throw in a crowd of boats in one small area, ill suited equipment, and a general ignorance to the unwritten code of salmon fishing and the stage is set for arguments that help no one.

This is not that time to run light lines and light rods. I put the Ugly Stiks away and run M action or heavier rigger rods. 25 pound mono is a minimum, 30 is better. Forget wire, as you don’t want it in your prop and really don’t want it in anyone else’s as well. Also, make sure your boat is ready to go, and all the gear is working properly. Just because you’re only going out just in front of the channel is not a reason to cut corners, and it’s difficult to keep things ship-shape when the big fish are taking their toll on your tackle. Buy spares in advance or be ready to look hard and pay much for the hot lures.

Lastly, although I love introducing rookies and kids to fishing, this is not the time and place. Don’t load up with an inexperienced crew and expect perfection on the lake under harbor patrol conditions. If you’re going to take some rookies, take one or more experienced people that won’t set hooks on a raging rigger hit or give a blank stare when told to “clear that dipsy”.

So, the boat and crew are ready and reports say kings are staging. Now forget calm weekend mornings. Too crowded, and the pressure puts fish off. Fish at night, take a day off and fish a weekday morning, or fish in nasty, rainy weather. If your crew can take it and you keep a mindful eye to the things that river currents and breakwaters can do with a good wind thrown in, often 3-4’ chop leads to excellent fishing without any other boats around.

Once out we tend to set up in the river or river mouth lake. In the morning, you cannot do this too early. I took a day off this year and got out an hour before the sun would think about sliding up over the dunes, and had a king rip the line off the first rigger release I set before I could lower the ball. I was glad it was not in my fingers at the time. Setting up on the way out gets the rods ready to go before you encounter the kings, and you can always drop them to the proper depths as you work out. Charge up all glow lures with a flash or spotlight before shipping them down and any time you have them back into the boat.

What to set? At this time of year I run an almost all plug program. Attractors will work, as will spoons (in fact the biggest harbor king I’ve seen came off a silver/blue Nailer), but I stick with plugs. The bulk of my arsenal involves size 4 J plugs and Orcas in mostly green glow, with silver and pearl variations filling in the gaps. Rebel Fastracs, Thundersticks, Husky Jerks, Bombers, and magnum Wiggle Warts all come into play as well. Plugs are checked and tuned to run at high speed. If running stick baits heed Captain King’s advice in regards to removing and replacing hooks on stock Rapalas. If I had, we’d not lost a massive king after forty minutes when the “OK for walleye” hooks on a Thunderstick straightened.

Typical spread involves two J plugs on the riggers, stretched about 75’ back. One of these will be set high – like 4-6’down and the other about 10’ off the bottom so the plug is ticking near the bottom. A mindful eye on the graph will ensure that corrections can be made and your favorite plug isn’t donated to rocks and snags. I’ll compliment these with a pair of slide divers on 30# mono. Dipsies will work, but I prefer the longer stretch behind the boat that the slide diver offers. One of these will get a J-plug, the other will see a stick bait. If seas and traffic allow, another stick and J plug are put 50-100’ behind yellow birds and sent off to the sides. I run these high and forward in bow rail mounted holders on my Four Winns, the “Twilight Zone”, and if looking forward I can see the hit as the bow rail shudders under the impact. It’s also fun to see the boards rip backwards or just disappear like a bobber in a farm pond.

I run fast, faster than most and even faster still in this application. These fish are not eating and are out of temperature, so I have heard it said they are fussy and lethargic. My take on this is that may be the case, either way I’m trying to more or less anger the fish into a reflex strike, and as such I’ll start at 2.7 mph and work up to 3.2-3.3 on the GPS until things get going. The first fish is good, but the second fish sets a pattern. If the deep J goes then the other one gets dropped. If the boards are going and the fish are porpoising, then some other rods get pulled and more boards ran. If the boards are silent and the riggers are going, then I’ll add two more lures on the other two riggers, being careful to stagger them with shorter and longer leads and at different depths to avoid tangles due to the searching action of the J plugs.

If all else fails and you can’t get fish in front of the harbor, try slightly deeper and fish the bottom ten feet with plugs and fishcatchers. Often kings will hide out on the bottom in this area, starting even in mid-August, when pressure gets too intense or if the river is just too warm. For more information on this technique I must defer to the excellent article recently published in Great Lakes Angler by “Skip” Berry.

The stage is set, the hot lures are out, and the speed dialed in just as it needs to be. If all goes well you’ll be rewarded with a massive rigger hit or a diver rod that bends well past the point you’d expect it to break while the reel screams in protest. At this time you’ll be happy you’re running a four to six rod spread. Now you need to get the bugger into the cooler. First, slow the boat down if the fish is raging. If you’re sadistic and want a longer fight and doubles or triples, keep the speed up, but only if conditions allow. Second, move the rods around to open the back of the boat so the lucky person on the stick has room to fight the fish without other rods in the way. If traffic is sparse and the waves are not too big, pull an inside rod (particularly the planer board) and begin a slow circle around the fish, if not, try to pull the fish out of the traffic and resume your trolling pattern after the fish is landed and the rods are reset. Due to the large number of long, shallow leads in this spread, and the surly nature of the fish, tangles will happen. I have found that unless the tangle is threatening to break the line the fish is on, to let it go by putting the tangled rod on free spool with the clicker set, and sort it out when the fish is in the net.

One last thing I have noticed, the fish seem to stage in certain areas, much like stream trout. Take a note where and in which direction you took a hit and try to repeat. This applies in the river channel, the river mouth lake, and even in front of the channel in the big lake.

So, when the lake starts to cool next year, sort out the gear, make a few calls, and renew some acquaintances over a cooler of heavy bronze tinted salmon. It’s a good way to store up some memories, and the freezer, for the long winter ahead.