A New Way of Fishing Lake Huron

by Julie Shafto

The author's catch shown off for this day

It was July 27, 2007, my sisterís birthday, and also a memorable day spent on ďFish Squeezer.Ē  It was a typical start for us around 7:00 AM .  We headed west out of Rogers City harbor, and began setting lines in about 50 feet of water.  The first thing we noticed was that all of the baitfish and the sport fish were showing up on the graph in shallow water!  This was very atypical in years past to be fishing in 50 feet of water after the sun had completely risen. However, itís been very typical for 2007.

It was about 7:45 AM when the slide diver went off and the fight was on.  Twenty minutes later a king around 13 pounds came on board the ďFish Squeezer,Ē one of the biggest so far this year.  We continued to fish from Seagull Point up to 40 Mile Point Light House.   We stayed in water depths of about 45-70 feet, going in and out of shallow to deep water, hitting the structure along the way.  Why?  This is really the way to fish Lake Huron now.  Fish the shallower water and structure thatís available.  The shallow water harbors the nutrients and plankton available for baitfish, while the structure provides the food and shelter.  A lot of small smelt and shiners use this for food, and hide until the predator fish find them.  They also use it as their home until they reach a certain age when they move to new areas.  Because of this phenomenon, the shallow water and structure fishing have been outstanding for 2007.

Since the demise of the alewives and salmon around 2003 in Lake Huron , the fishing has changed dramatically.  This includes both bait fish, as well as the size and numbers of salmon.   The variety of species available to catch has also changed.  But, this has been a real bright spot!  Lake Huron has turned into a fabulous multi-species fishery.  In 2007, it was very common for us to come in with Chinook salmon, Coho salmon, Steelhead, and Lake Trout.  Our fish box also contained an occasional Atlantic salmon and Brown Trout, along with a stray Walleye.  Weíve had these terrific catches just about every trip in 2007.

Julie Shafto with a nice size Lake Huron King   

Mussel Cause & Effects       

What has caused this change in luck?  It always seems to boil down to the food!  Invasive muscles, Zebra and Quaggas have caused a broken link in the food chain for the Salmon.  There has been a shift of nutrients from the upper and middle part of the water column more towards the lower part of the water column where the Zebras and the Quaggas live.

As a result, the species that lived on the plankton in the upper and middle parts of the water column are not getting the food they need. These are the alewives whose numbers are diminishing.  The plankton Diperia, a favorite alewives food, is being consumed by the muscles.  The muscles  can filter up to a gallon of water per minute so one can imagine if a large number of these muscles are living on the bottom, what they can do in short order.  The Diperia canít reproduce fast enough, plus their food is being taken by these muscles as well.

Since there isnít a healthy stock of alewives available, the salmon have decided to look elsewhere for food.  They have options.  One of them is to swim and hunt for food, ending up miles from home.  Another option is to look for new resources or types of food. Or finally, the salmon just starve and die.  Right now, Alpena and further north seem to be where most of the salmon are finding a food source.  There seem to be lots of structure along with a variety of food available.  The smelt and emerald shiners, particularly the smaller ones, are of great abundance right now especially in the Hammond Bay area.  The salmon are healthy and as feisty as ever.  Our catch of kings certainly reiterates this with several over 10 pounds throughout 2007.  Other bait fish that have been available are smelt, sticklebacks, gobies, and some chubs.  There are some alewives but very scarce.  The fish have become very nomadic looking for food.  This explains why the catch has been spotty and inconsistent.  One day the fish are there, and the next day they have left that area. 

The Bright Side of the Sunrise Side

On the bright side, Lakers, Steelhead, Browns, Atlantic Salmon, and Walleye in this area have been doing very well as of lately.  They have been able to exploit the entire water column to find food.  One example of this is the explosion of Lake Trout in Lake Huron , even though they are not planting any more fish now than they have in the past.  However, the Lakers are just taking advantage of the goby population.  The browns are also surviving and getting huge on gobies.  Many of the Steelies we have taken this summer have been full of small smelt and shiners along with insects from the surface.    On a couple of real flat days when we were out, we could see them feeding on the surface and in the scum lines.  It was an awesome site!

Itís been very difficult for the traditional salmon fisherman to grasp this new way of finding salmon. They have been accustomed to using water temperature and water depth.  Although the water is very warm at times very early in the morning or very late in the day, after the sun goes down has been better.  The best thing to do is to hope for a stout east, southeast, or south wind for this area.  This brings in the cold water and the fish feed aggressively. The sooner you can get out after this wind, the better.  As I recall from my diary, the water we were fishing was cold in the low 50ís as a result of a southeast blow the day before.

A reel mixed bag of fish!

We ended up with a heck of a cooler of fish for the day.  We had at least 2 kings over 10 pounds, and a couple around 6-8 pounds.  We also had 3 nice Lakers going 4-6 pounds.  Our score was 7-9 that day.  We lost a nice Steelhead after an awesome aerial show.  The big highlight of this trip was a quadruple with just two of us fishing.   We managed to get 3 of the 4.  With 2 other boats closing in on us, fighting the fish, steering the boat, and fish flopping all over the boat deck, one can imagine the chaos.

Of course all of this is taking place in shallow water, around structure, and during the mid-daylight hours.  This is very atypical for salmon fishing, especially in the shallow water and during mid-daylight hours.  Itís been like this in 2007 and will likely continue because of the shift of the food web and ecology in Lake Huron .  I was very hesitant to fish this new way at first, but I knew the fish had to eat. I also knew they were eating something somewhere because they are very healthy fish.

I first started fishing in Lake Huron when I became employed by the DNR in the late 90ís as a creel clerk.  The salmon fishing at that time was just one word, ďawesome.Ē   It was big fish and lots of them. Since then it has changed and some say fishing just hasnít been as good.  We have a boat, which was purchased during the time when the salmon fishing began to deteriorate.  I was determined not to let that get me down.  It didnít matter to me.   Lake Huron is an awesome fishery, not just fishing for Chinook salmon, but for Lakers, Browns, Atlantics, Steelies, and Walleyes.  I love the multi-species fishery.  The best thing about it now is that it has become a very simple fishery, in shallow water and being close to shore.  Because of all the erratic shoreline structure, you must keep an eye on the GPS and graph for great changes in water depths, as they change rapidly in some areas. 

Core of Julie's Game Plan

Itís a pretty simple fishing plan.  I have eliminated 1 of 4 downriggers and opted for more lead core and planer boards.  I use a 6 rod spread and 3 downriggers: one set  in the 20 feet range, one set in the 30feet range, and one 10 feet off the bottom.  I also use anywhere from 1-5 colors of lead core.  I have 5 different rods set up respectively.  The important thing here is that you canít fish a full core and hook up a planer board on the lead core.  It will break the outside Dacron line.  Secondly, a full core will be fishing too deep and catch bottom.  Itís important to have plenty of backing for hard fighting fish and getting the lure away from the boat. 

My favorite lead core set ups have been 3 and 5 colors.  I let out the entire lead core plus another 50-100 feet of mono behind the lead.  This gets the lure away from the boat.  At this point I put the board on and move the board a good 75 feet away from the side of the boat.  I do this with both lead core set ups.  If I see surface feeding, the water is cold, or we are fishing waters less than 40 feet deep, I will opt for the 1 or 3 color lead core set-ups.  I may even just run mono off the board as well.  It all depends upon the situation for that given day. With my downriggers, the one I run in the 20ís, I put that back at least 80 feet off the ball.  The one I run in the 30ís is usually around 50 feet back.  The one I run 10 feet off the bottom, I usually have around 30 feet off the ball.  Sometimes the fish will surprise you and hit lures shorter off the ball.  Itís important to pay attention to how deep the fish are hitting, and what they are hitting on.  If they are hitting lead core and divers, they will be a bit spooky or timid.  Therefore, try to adjust everything to accommodate that including the downrigger set ups.  If they are hitting the riggers, they may not be as spooky or timid.  If I get more than one hit at a particular depth, or anything on a particular downrigger, I will set 2 of them right in that zone.  The third one will be set 10 feet higher or lower depending upon the hot zone.  Most of the time with the downrigger set 10 feet off the bottom, I will add a slider. 

Deadly Diver Usage

The slide diver which is very similar to the dipsey diver is another awesome shallow water tool.  The big difference with the slide diver is that you can put the lure as far back or as close as you want to the boat before you let out the diver disk part.  Once you clip the diver on the line and set the number according to what you want, clear the counter and let the amount of desired line out for the desired depth you want to achieve.  The best scenario that works for me is letting out 60 feet of line, clipping the diver, and having it set on #3 and letting out 160-170 feet of line.  I am using 30lb mono for my diver line.  It will get between 30-35 feet down.  This has been the hot zone for the slide diver for us. 

Another change for us has been lure speed.  It seems like going a little faster has been much better.  We can monitor speed and temp at the ball.  Our favorite speed has been 2.5mph at the ball.  We use this speed all the time except in the spring or when we fish for Laker Trout.  Lake trout are attracted around 2.0mph.  Going a little faster has deterred many of the small Lakers.  Most of the Lakers we get are keepers, but there are those days where the little ones just wonít leave us alone.

Another day where it pays to look around. 
This catch was from Calcite Harbor to well past Adams point.

We pretty much fish anywhere.  We gamble just about every time out.  Our favorite places to fish were straight out of the harbor.  This is where we generally started.  Then we either headed west towards 40 Mile Point or south towards Adams Point.  We only took off to a direct spot if we heard about it before we went out.  On many of our trips we just trolled to the area where we caught fish in the past.  Many times we caught fish well before we got to that area.  Many times we never made it to that specific spot.  It pays to be just as nomadic and flexible as the fish are.

Keying in on Structure

Structure is really an important ingredient to the success of currently catching fish in Lake Huron .  This is what is happening.  Colonies of Zebra and Quagga muscles have trapped much of the lakes productivity into mussel colony ďsinksĒ on the lakes bottom where high biomass has accumulated. This is not efficiently channeled to the rest of the food chain.  The mussel colonies appear to have caused productivity to shift from plankton in the water column to the ďbenthic zoneĒ which is to say the bottom of the lake, particularly in the shallow bays and near shore areas of the lake and near shore structure.  The structure not only harbors a haven for fish but provides most of the food sources available.  Some excellent places that hold good structure close to shore is Seagull  Point area, from US 23 high way all the way up to 40 Mile  point, and off Manitou Shores.    These are some specific spots.  I would say most of the shoreline from the harbor all the way up to Hammond Bay offers some excellent in close structure fishing in  45-60 feet of water.  Fishing south offers some awesome structure.  Directly off of Calcite break wall in about 100 feet of water, a huge hump comes up to 65feet of water.  That has offered us some great lake trout fishing.  The shipping channel closer in has also been a good place to fish.  Enough canít be said for the close to shore fishing from Swan Bay down towards Adams Point.  There is some excellent structure and some excellent fishing to be had.  Once on the other side of Adams Point, it really is quite crazy with lots of structure and one should be very careful navigating close to shore.  A GPS is highly recommended.

Julie's Favorite Lures

As for lure choices on this particular day, they were hitting silvers and whites.  The hot ones were Silver Streaks clown set down 30 feet off the rigger.  The Ludington water melon off the diver, Bugsy Bait orange crush with 5 colors of lead off the board, and the Bugsy Bait bonnie blue set 45 feet down on the rigger.  Silver Streaks Miss Piggy was very good on the high rigger 20 feet down.  One thing I have noticed since fishing these shallower waters, the bright colors orange and silver, silver, white, yellow and green, orange glow, orange and pink, plain orange, and the silver with a color have all been hot choices.  When the water is cold, blue is very good.   The  Silver Streak blue SLT or the Bugsy Bait blue bayou, the small Silver Streak blue snake skin glow flodger with a small green alewife spoon, or the small Silver Streak yellowtail flodger with the small yellowtail spoon have all been very good for us.  If we manage to get out early before sunrise, the moonshine x-glow yellowtail and bullseye have been excellent for us.  I am mostly using Silver Streaks and the new Bugsy Baits.   I have no preference over a particular lure brand.  I use them all at one time or another throughout the season.  What has worked great this year has been the small Silver Streak flodgers and the small spoons behind them.  Most of the bait has been on the small side.  So, I have been trying to match it. 

For the last year, or two I have been paying very close attention to the Solunar tables.  In order for this new way of fishing to work, there has to be the right conditions for salmon and trout.  The water should be the proper temperature. There should be some stable weather, not a lot of wind back to back.  It works the very best when you have the cool to cold water around.  In northern Lake Huron I have noticed that the last full week before the full moon has been great for fishing that 7am-12pm timeframe.

The stability of weather seems to really be another important factor.  If the winds stay the same for a while, or if there is no wind for days, the fishing really picks up.   And the fishing really picks up when the wind doesnít blow for 2-3 days.

Friends that donít fish very often help make an awesome trip.

On a final note, fishing for some is for fun, just going out dropping some lines and hoping to get some fish.  For me, fishing has become a passion.  I say that, because I am always watching the weather, wind, and water temperature.  I try to take advantage of the right conditions.  The more chances I can get with the cold water and stable conditions, the better the fishing.  Finally, donít forget to take your friends out and share the fun, especially with ones who have never fished this way. It is fun especially when a king takes out lots of line and the reel is screaming.  Taking the old salts out is really lots of fun, because we can always talk about the good old days and memories from past trips. Taking out handicapped individuals is another story in itself.  To see that great big grin from their faces when the rod bends and the fish pull, it is priceless!