Head Games
or how and when to fish deep water
on Lake Michigan

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Introduction to the Game

By Capt. John King 

June is the month that can offer the most exciting fishing you've ever experienced, this it the time for the offshore surface fishery to shine.  Doubles and triples of sky rocketing, mint silver Steelhead can be the rule, rather than the exception once you've located the proper set of circumstances.  When Lake Michigan develops vertical thermobars, or sharp temperature breaks, it's creating natural fish attracting conditions or barriers that act like fences to contain the fish in concentrated areas.  

Why are the predator or game fish on these thermobars?  Because, of the bait like alewives that are feed on the breaks are there too!  Pollen, debris and bugs all mean food to the fish.  Water density comes into play, because the warm and colder waters resist mixing.  Current rips can and will form if you're on a good break and you'll see the water moving forming pockets and slack pools.   

Scum line is a name you've probably heard before, although finding actual scum lines is more a matter of luck than science.  Scum lines generally contain large amounts of pollen, that are a great minnow food source.  What you will be finding are, sharp differences in the temperatures.  Case in point, you'll be traveling along and you'll have a noticeable a drop in your surface temp monitoring device (a surface speed gauge is a necessity).  Keep in mind the current and the wind keep waters constantly on the move.  The body of water known as Lake Michigan is a live and vibrant and is not static or stagnant by any means.  

Surface temp charts can be found at: http://www.coastwatch.msu.edu/michigan/m23.html
and can aid in the quest of searching out surface hugging Steelies.  The only problem with the charts is the lack of current postings and the info can be 3 or 4 days old, but if they're current, you're in business.  Look for the isobars (lines), that are all bunched together and that's where the best probability for filling your fish cooler or box, so let the games begin.

Time and Conditions

This can depend on where you're fishing Lake Michigan.  Southern ports like Michigan City and St. Joe can have awesome conditions during April, while ports further north (Ludington and Manistee) won't be productive until June.  As the inshore and shallower water warms the main body of the lake remains much cooler.  The warming surface waters keep pushing out further and further, causing temp breaks as much as 10 to 15 degrees in some cases. 

Now, to complicated the time issue, a good strong north blow can roll the surface over and bring cold water to the surface anytime there's sufficient wind to cause this to happen.  I've seen water on the surface, even during August as cold as 38 degrees.  So, always be prepared to concentrate your efforts in the top 10 to 30 feet if the big lake rolls over.  Birds or side planers will generally be the best producing rods on your boat. 


ET's on Lake Michigan?  Yep, terrestrials or insect are blown off the land and onto the surface of the Great Lakes.  What kind of bugs you might ask?  Well, you name it and they'll be on the surface, causing a natural food source for bug sipping Steelhead.  I've seen many a Steelie sucking down bugs and a flat calm day when slicks form.

Also, during the off shore season water born aquatic life will be in the fishes gullet too!  I've seen the Steelhead just loaded with poppy seed sized little critters, which I don't even have a clue as to what they were.  Of course beetles, June bugs, butterflies and ever imaginable insect will be in their stomachs, along with small baby alewives or minnows of some sort.    

Surface Supreme Selections

Spoons, spoons and more spoons dominate today's off shore Steelhead Fishery.  Back in the 80's when this type of fishing was first discovered stick baits like Bombers in orange and pearl were the "big deal."  Stick baits can and will take fish to this day.  However, breakage and hook screws pulling out are a problem due to the ferocity of the Steelhead's initial strike.  Also, if you plan on using stick baits increase the hook size to at least a number 4 (9650 round bend) or even better yet, number 2s.

Best colors have been in the red and orange spectrums, with greens rating a honorable mention.  Cloudy days mean gold plate, out produces sliver as a rule.  Lures like Stingers, DW's and Streaks are my mainstay.  Concentrate your efforts on the surface (Birds), because that where most of the fish will be caught on most days.

As a interesting side note to the history of the charter fleet, off shore Steelhead fishing kept many charter operators in business during the early 90's when the much over publicized Salmon crash of 1988 got planted into the fishing public's mind.  I know for a fact it helped me maintain my charter business.  With the resurgence and the rebounding of the King or Chinook Salmon, June has taken a back seat to July and August as far as my bookings go.

While credit has been given to various fishermen for discovering the awesome, deep water Steelhead to truth the way that I see it is that Capt. Bud Raskey and Jack Crawford where the first to find it.  The time frame was the mid-80's and the area first to produce was off Manistee, Big Point Sable and Onekama.  All be it may, others received credit for it.

Targeting a Vulnerable Species?

Many have said this has led to the over harvesting, especially the river fishermen.  Let me tell you this, "the largest catch available to the charter fleet was in 1996 when something like 21,000 Steelhead were harvested."  Keep in mind this covers the entire fleet from March thru April form the "tip of the mitt (Mackinaw City)" to St. Joe.  When you look at it that way 21,000 doesn't seem like such a large number.  The numbers were taken from the charter boat catch data all charter operators have to fill out according to Public Act 244 in the State of Michigan.

It no big secret the 2000 and 2001 seasons for River Steelhead were on the slow side for the northern streams, but the banner fishery of 1996 didn't exist on the big lake either.  The way I look at it is that everything cycles in the fishes population, what down for a couple of seasons can be great in a year or two.

Game Rules or Setting the Trap

A multi-dimensional attack will be employed if you plan on scoring big on Mr. S. Head.  Birds (inline side planers), divers (both Dipsys and Slide divers), riggers and lead core rigs all come into play.  Diverolgy 101, Offshore Birds, Release Me and Slide Diver are articles that I've completed that should help you get a firm grasp on what you're up against.  Don't be to broke to pay attention to the afore mentioned articles.  They could be a major part of the invitation you're sending out to Mr. Steel Head.

Use the complete arsenal to balance your attack, and you'll be much better off.  This year is the first complete year, the 3 rod per angler rule is in effect for Lake Michigan, so carry a full spread to enhance your prospects.  If I have the 6 anglers aboard, 16 rods isn't out of the question.  Four side planers per starboard and port quickly add up to 8 rods, 4 divers both Dipsys or Slide Divers.  So now, I'm up to 12 rods, set 4 riggers from 10 to 30 down and you'll total out to 16 rods in a big hurry and we haven't even thrown out a couple of trailing lead core rigs yet.    

Free sliders have worked better for me when off shore over deep water.

Tip: leave extra belly on the rigger rods to have the sliders tail back a little further than normal.  I know you have to wind like hell to catch up to the fish when using free sliders, but I'll use what creates the most action for my guests.

Please keep in mind, this is a Steelhead spread and I wouldn't even consider running a ton of rods, if large, berserk adult King Salmon were on the menu.


This can cover the entire gamete of possibilities.  From dead slow to a smoking 5 mph have all worked for me, but I settle on something between 2 and 3 mph for today's approach.  Most important is to give the fish what they want, as I've said for years, "I just wanna catch 'em, not change their minds."

Be flexible, and vary speeds until you find out what's working best.  Pay attention to the course or direction you're hitting the fish on.  Direction can be as important as anything else and has a major impact on how the fish view your presentations.  Normally, in the mornings a (east) bearing or course away from the sun is best and afternoons a west course will be most productive. 

Safety Concerns

I would be amiss in my duty if I didn't inform you that is a fishery designed for larger boats with radar, GPS and twin engines for safety.  The ability to navigate to the fishing grounds and back to the harbor is of paramount importance.  Dead reckoning navigation will get you back home when the electronic gadgetry is broke.

Tip:  Keep track off your course, time traveled and speed over ground.  In other words use seat of your pants navigation in case the GPS or Loran breaks or goes down.

Fog can be the reel villain when tackling the long distances sometimes required.  Also, out of Manistee there's the freighters that will be traveling north and south to contend with.  Radar is a must here, it you want to feel semi-safe.

Not enough can be devoted to the safety concerns, especially if you've ever been caught in a severe thunderstorm with winds to 70 mph, 20 miles out from the safety of your harbor like I have.  It's just plain scary and will leave you with racing stripes in your underwear, believe me!


(1.)   Fluorescent orange and reds are usually the best colors.
(2.)   Keep an eye out for fish cruising the surface.
(3.)   Mono divers will out produce spectra and fire lines (don't ask me why).
(4.)   Run a light drag on the "Bird" rods to absorb the shock of a rampaging Steelhead.
(5.)   Check both sides of the temp break to see which one produces best.
(6.)   This can be a late mid-morning bite, so be patient until the fish turn on.
(7.)   My best Streaks are orange and gold and orange crush.
(8.)   Inline planer out produce the standard dual planer board, plus they're a faster set.
(9.)   Keep your hooks sharp as possible, or high flying Mr. Steelhead will escape often.
(10.) Keep an eye on the weather, people who take chances are called statistics!
(11.) 38 to 65 degrees has produced outstanding catches for my guests.  

All rights reserved by Michigan Sportsman & Capt. John King Copyrightę2001