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How to Locate Fish on the
Great Lakes

Search Pattern Tactics for 
Salmon & Trout

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Organized Confusion?

How do I find fish?  This question can be answered.  Responding to this requires much thought and takes the "Wisdom of Solomon" to give a satisfactory retort.  Simply put, it's like trying to find a needle in a haystack, quite a discouraging task to say the least.  Putting the odds in your favor can, and will help solve this problem, or look at it like I do, solutions can be found to any problem.  

Now, if I were looking for the proverbial "needle in the haystack" with 21st century technology, the smart bet would be to find a metal detector and start sifting through the hay.  Sooner or later you will find the needle.  The same case scenario, exists in finding the elusive quarry in the Great Lakes known as Mr. Sal Maniod.  Using modern day electronics, past experiences and just plain being lucky will aid in your pursuit of being a successful fisherman.  Using past experience and known fish migration patterns will help you to find what you're after, a full box of fish.

Now, before you begin your "magic carpet ride" to becoming a "Salmon Slaying Star," you'd better be on the alert to constantly changing conditions.  Paying attention to the details or clues will help you solve the Great Lakes Puzzle and soon you'll be reaping the rewards of a screaming drag and a bent rod.

Use common sense and you won't be playing "pin the tail on the donkey" blindfolded.  Being aware to ever changing conditions and having equipment that you can rely on is the secret, savvy anglers utilize.  It has often been said, that 10% of the fishermen catch 90% of the fish and I believe that statement to be exceptionally true.  Wanna join the select top 10%?     Then read on................


The sonar development and refinement took place back in WW II as a defense against German U-Boat attacks.  Men's lives were on the line and the reel smart people got to work on finding those sneaky Subs, that were decimating the Atlantic Fleet.  So, don't think it was developed just so you could go fishing.

Sonar works by sending down into the water a electronic radio pulse, then if a target is found then machine times the returning signal, so it can tell you how deep the scales and tails you're looking for is.  The speed of radio signals are known, but don't ask me what they are.  I swam under the transducer on my boat before and actually felt the pulse hitting me, when I was close enough to the transducer.

My advice to you here is spare no expense when it comes to rigging your boat with a fish finder.  I've used a Raytheon L750 for the past 3 seasons and the performance of the 750 is as good as my paper machine, the King 1350 with the 50 kHz transducer.  The L750 is both a 200 kHz and 50 kHz machine and has more bells and whistles than I need to use.   Remember, purchasing top notch sonar will give you an edge, like being able to mark defined thermoclines, spot bait and fish most other anglers don't even see. 

Study the instruction manual completely, modern day sonar units are as complicated to run as this computer I'm using to write this article.  Use as high a power setting as the machine will take before blacking out, and discard any auto features such as fish I.D.  Your fish finder is your underwater eyes and you're going to need at least 20/20 vision in conquering the Great Lakes.

Special Note:  Early season fish don't mark well, because the sonar mainly picks up the air bladder in the fish.  In the cold denser water, fish don't need much of a air bladder to maintain neutral buoyancy.

 Information and Migration

Gathering intelligence from reliable resources like a CIA Agent is called for.  Use only  knowledgeable fishermen for the answers to the questions of: what, where and why.  Unless, you know the person personally, ignore idle radio chatter that can send you on a wild goose chase.  Believe me, if you fish out of a port more than a few times you will get to know other fishermen who are willing to share their info with you.  Good info is a two way street and should be shared as much as possible.

Scour the Port Reports page on this website, the hot lures from one port tend to work in all ports.  Use the temperature charts on the Great Lakes Info page I done.  The surface temp thing usually only works for spring and early summer fishing.  Once warm water forms all the way across the lake, the fish will tend to become thermocline orientated, which means they'll be deep as a rule.

Pay careful to pay attention to surface feeding gulls, they could be signaling large schools of bait fish near the surface.  The gulls have to fish for a living and we don't.  So, be watchful when it comes to where the dumpster ducks are feeding.

Using the migratory patterns of a Salmon, because "all's fair in love and fishing."   In the beginning of the season you have to go hunting for the Mr. Fins N. Gills, however the spawning urge works in your favor as the Salmon begin staging and gorging themselves off the major rivers that empty into the Great Lakes.  As a matter of fact, the fish are looking for you, and everything just got a whole lot easier.

In Manistee, Michigan the adult Salmon begin entering both the Big and Little Manistee Rivers around the first part of July.  All be it may, the first run of fish isn't  huge, but it signals what's to come.  The Chinook or King Salmon Fishery that exists in our area means that all the fish don't run at the same time.  Throughout mid-July through mid-September means the Kings will be entering our rivers everyday in decent numbers, so for about 2 months we have an excellent Salmon Fishery.  If the lake rolls over and we get reel cold water outside the pier heads, our harbor fishing is incredible.

I guess the point that I'm trying to make here is that, somewhere within striking distance of your home port there will be schools of hungry fish waiting to attack your offerings if you're in the right spot and you did your homework.

Crowd Control

Using the hordes of fishermen that descend of the Salmonvilles of summer to your advantage is what this is about.  Heavy pressure tend to move fish or shut down the "bite."  Be aware of this the next time you're all bunched up with 6 boats to your east and 6 boats to the west.  I believe it's a safety in numbers thing the way traffic is all congregated together.  Oh yeah, let's head for the pack approach, because I know they're catching fish just don't work.  

When the crowd becomes intolerable off Big Point Sable, I'll start an east-west troll the escape the pressure.  Now I'll let you in on a vast secret, I'll take just as many adults over 400 feet of water as I do over the 100 foot range.  

Just because birds of a feather flock together, don't mean you have too.  So, using the crowd to your favor is the way to go.  Leave your nets laying horizontal on your boats gunnels helps hide the fact, you're taking fish.  That way you're not signaling to the fleet.  Any waving of a net should be kept to a minimum, and foregoing the "show off" victory rinse helps too!  Hey, let the fleet find their own fish!!

Repeating the Same Mistake?

To cut to the chase, trial and error is what fishing is about.  Trolling for a 3 miles at a 100 deep with no action,  some folks will plow the exact same water on a return course in the hopes something will change.  Retracing a unproductive course is akin to being dumb and dumber.  Move to deep or shallower water if going back is your choice.

Be unstructured in your line of thinking and you'll be much better off.  If north and south trolls aren't working, try a east and west tactic until you located some aggressive fish willing to strike.  Forget about what you did yesterday, that was then, this now!

Using the Thermocline

The thermocline is your one of your best allies you have going for you.  Thermoclines stratify the fish at a more or less constant depth, you can key in on.  The reasons the fish are found at thermoclines are many.  But, first you'll need knowledge of how the bio-mass of the Great Lakes operates.  The beginning stage is phytoplankton, which is the algae type stuff.  Next comes zooplankton, which feeds on the phytoplankton.  Now zooplankton is the minnow food.

As the lake blooms with plankton growth the tiny creatures live from a few days to a couple of weeks.  When the plankton dies, it settles through the warmer water until it hits the colder denser water and actually suspends along the thermocline, becoming a great food source for the bait fish, meaning mainly alewives.  If you have concentrations of alewives sooner, or later you'll have predator fish looking for chow. 

To use the thermoclines to your advantage you'll need to monitor downrigger depth or have a graph that will mark it.  Vertical thermobars that happen in May and June, will be likely fish holding areas also.  

Run Silent, Run Deep!

It has often been said, that 54 degrees was the preferred temperature of Salmon.  This statement is still true, but our species of Great Lakes Salmon has developed a higher tolerance to colder water than when they were planted back in 1966 in Bear Creek (Manistee County) and the Platte River (Benzie County).  The early fishery demanded you find 50 to 54 degree water to be successful.  The 54 degree thing held true until several generations of Salmon were becoming more accustomed to the year around waters of the Great Lakes, which are a heck of a lot colder the 54 degrees.

Now, I use 54 degrees as a starting point and gradually start dropping lines down deeper as a morning progresses.  Why are the fish going deep into the colder waters?  Who knows, but I know that from 10pm on, the fish that my boat is catching are from 50 to 38 degrees, with 44 to 38 providing the best action.  The fish that are moving down are probably being affected by light penetration and most important boat traffic.  The crowds off major Salmon Ports are huge, and I'm sure 5,000 cannonballs at the 54 degree range are helping move the fish below all the commotion.  

Scatter Shot or Taking Aim

Wandering about aimlessly on the Great Lakes will not enhance your likelihood of become an accomplished "Salmon Slayer."  Having a flexible game plan as you're motoring to your fishing area will help.  Take in consideration of all factors, such as wind direction, crowded conditions and water depth will help you de-mystify the question of, how do I find fish?

If you don't keep track of your course, depths, speed and direction, lady luck will seldom come to your rescue.  You'll be trapped in what I call, "the holes in the Swiss cheese," that's lots of empty space and absolutely no substance.   So, you can pay attention, or pay for a gas bill that led to little or no fish.

At all times be ready to alter the "plan."  Preconceived notions of what to do when you leave the harbor will soon go by the wayside if your goal is to fill that box.  The exact point that I'm trying to stress, is be flexible above all else and at all times!

Confidence Means Success

Knowing your vessel and having belief in your equipment is half the battle.  The other half is,  have the confidence in yourself.  Knowing that you're going to catch fish every time you leave the dock is a definite help.   While tackling the Great Lakes can seem like a insurmountable task, it can be conquered.  You can catch fish!

Even a poor previous day means you've eliminated an unproductive area and gives you a fresh approach for the next outing.  The constant process of elimination is what fishing is about.  Lures that the fish have ignored should be stowed away.  Fresh colors and changing to attractors, plus varying speeds should all be considered.

As I said countless times before to my charter guests, "We're not doing anything hard, we're just going fishing, we're not performing brain surgery or shooting rockets to the moon.  We're just going fishing."  But secretly, I'm thinking, "I'm gonna turn this fishing thing, into catching."


(1.)  Turn off the fish I.D. ASAP, because it's a marketing ploy that don't work.
(2.)  Get an early start, so you can beat up on the easy fish, just before daylight.
(3.)  Ignore the radio and fish your own program.
(4.)  Stay away from crowds, look for the least amount of traffic.
(5.)  Spring fish don't mark well, because of water density issues.
(6.)  Don't have a favorite "I'll run it" everyday lure, be flexible or be stubborn.
(7.)  Don't ignore the warm water for adult Kings, they could be anywhere.
(8.)  Try different speeds, before changing lures.
(9.)  Don't become overly creative on color choices, stick with what works.
(10.) Don't be stingy with good info, what comes around, goes around.

Reel tip:  If you're marking huge schools of bait with large hooks (arches or fish marks) and you're not taking hits when fishing in the afternoons or evening, stick with that vicinity until the fish start munching.  Your scalely quarry will turn on!  

Fact:  Fishermen are great imitators, but they're extremely poor innovators.

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