Setting the trap for Spring Kings
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Spring Kings at Saugatuck

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Spring Chinook Trolling Tactics 
for Oncorhynchus tshawytscha or
Mr. Spring King"
by Capt. John  King

It is the largest of all Pacific salmon, with weights of individual fish commonly exceeding 30 pounds. A 126-pound chinook salmon taken in a fish trap near Petersburg, Alaska in 1949 is the largest on record. The largest sport-caught chinook salmon was a 97-pound fish taken in the Kenai River in 1986. Please keep in mind the Pink, Coho, and King (Chinook) are Pacific Ocean transplants.  Atlantic Salmon of course, come from the Atlantic Ocean.  I believe Sault Ste. Marie currently has a small hatchery in operation for the Atlantic Salmon.

This article for the most part was an easy write, because these fish are my namesake, and I jokingly claim they named this fish after me.  The reel fact is, Spring Kings offer the best action of the season.  Why?  Because these fish are on a slash and burn feeding frenzy and not fussy about eating what ever your pulling.

The reel fact here is, "I spoiled many a new charter fishermen when my plan comes together on these battling silver monsters.  It sets a precedence for the anglers that's almost impossible to duplicate at any other time of the year.  This I can say, if the spring Salmon are on the prowl, my guests leave for home knowing full well why they're referred to as Kings." 

Intro to Spring Kings

The spring season for our glamour fish of the Great Lakes, Chinook or King Salmon starts in April to Mid-May depending on which port you plan on assaulting.  The good news here is, spring Kings are generally dumber than a stump and very easy to tempt to your offerings.  No splitting hairs here, complicated depths, speeds and the use of any specialized attractors are required.  By being in the right place, at the right time will spell triumph, in a very significant manner.

The greatest thing about this remarkable early fishery is, that it removes the "ring rust" from not being on the pond for about the best part of 6 months.  While the weather can be on the brisk side, the action will warm you up.  Also, and pay close attention here; the experiences gained from the early season primes the pump from your "well of knowledge" for upcoming "bulldog" summer fishing that will soon be knocking on your door.  

Spring Kings are silver speedsters with loose scales.  They're just waking up from their long winters semi-dormancy, because of cold water and they'll attack anything that remotely resembles a meal.  When the water temperature of the Great lakes drops below 35 to 36 degrees I believe the Salmon get reel lethargic and don't feed heavily.  Being cold blooded creatures they have too, because the prime activity level is supposed to be around 54 degrees. 

Hang onto your socks when a 15 to 20 pound spring Salmon starts testing the drag on your reel.  These fish will smoke line off the reel in a big hurry.  Why....?  Because, there's no warm water you can drag them up into, therefore sapping their strength.  It's an all out brawl and don't be surprised when these vicious "nasty pieces of work" tear you up and your tackle.  Above all else, these fish are in ultra-prime condition, hungry and looking for chow, or more simply put, just plain bad news.  

The message that I'm trying to convey here are only guidelines and in no way be taken as gospel.  Contrary to most other publications I'm not foolish enough to think I can give you all the pat answers, because the art of fishing the Great Lakes is a tremendously complex issue and always will be.

Scheduling Your Attack

Being where the fish are is 95 per cent of the battle as far as I'm concerned.  As I said many times before, I rather be the least experienced fisherman over a huge pocket of fish, rather than being a 30 year veteran who no fish within 5 miles of my vessel.  Just remember the further south you are in Lake Michigan or Lake Huron will increase your odds early in the season.

Having your boat ultra-ready to go and that means extra work.  Cleaning, bottom paint and installing a freshly charged battery are all duties that must be handled well in advance before your first shake down cruise of the season.   Don't let your lack of preparation cause you to miss some of the best fishing of the year.  Please keep in mind, no time during the rest of the season will these fish be as easy to catch.  The opportunities this April and May Fisheries present are tremendous, and some of the best fresh water fishing in the entire world......reel fact!

I've always contended that the early and late season present the best catching
prospects of the season.  The  seasonal crowds like in July and August won't hinder your action.  Heavy fish boxes can be the rule, rather than the exception!

Where and When?

Some ports like Michigan City the fishing gets rolling in late march, with St Joe producing excellent opportunities in early April.  From late April through mid May Saugatuck offers excellent action from my personal experience, and because of the lack of parking at the boat ramps means you'll never be run over by other boats.  Now, by the middle of May, Ludington, Manistee and Frankfort are the leaders in producing heavy boxes of large Kings. 

The same goes for Lake Huron with Lexington heating up in early April.  Starting in the southern most ports early, then moving gradually north is the way to go.  Late April and early May means Harbor Beach will be producing fantastic action.  Mid-May Grindstone City and the Port Austin fishermen will be cashing in on spring Kings. Let me add, the scheduling depends entirely on how warm the spring is.  Beware, weather can always throw a monkey wrench into the best laid plans in the world.

Tip:  When the lilacs are blooming in the area you're planning fish, your timing will be absolute perfect.  I've seen this over the past 20 seasons too.  Downstate lilac bloom a bunch earlier than here in Manistee.

As a side note:  I chartered a boat in 1979 to fish the St. Clair River the second week of April.  We fished with Capt. Don Oakes aboard his boat called the "Disco Kid" (it was the Disco Era) and did quite well.  We hammered the fish trolling just downstream from the Marysville Power Plant using riggers and bottom bouncers.  Once we were downstream about 2 or 3 miles, we'd pull lines and run back up river to re-set the lines and troll only downstream.  Stick baits were the ticket and I think we boated 18 kings to 14 pounds in about 4 hours on this excursion.

I got clued in on the St. Clair River in April of 1978 by watching Capt. Steve Jones put a whipping on the Salmon at Decker's Landing on the I believe, the north channel.  I was employed then by Testing Engineers and Consultants and was on a job site.  Me working and having to watch other people catch fish didn't get it, that's why I went into the charter business to pursue something I want to do..........go fishing!

Reason for the Season: Spawning Alewives

Up to this point, I haven't mentioned the main reason behind the Spring King Fishery.  The Salmon are schooling in the onshore waters, chasing the predominate forage base in the Great Lakes, but first let's understand the their prey specie called "the alewife."

The alewife (Alosa pseudoharengus) is native to the Atlantic Coast; alewives entered the Great Lakes through the Welland Canal in the late 1800's and were discovered in Lake Michigan by the late 1930's.  Alewives spend most of the year in the deeper waters of the Great Lakes, but come into near shore waters in the spring when 
they' re ready to spawn
Alewives begin to spawn when the water temperatures reach about 50-60 degrees range. In their native habitat alewives were anadromous, swimming upstream to spawn in the spring, consequently their attraction to the estuaries that empty into the Great Lakes Basin.

In the Great Lakes, the alewives congregate near the outlets of rivers or streams or near harbors that occur at the outlet of a river. Generally, the alewife can begin reproducing at about two years of age. Alewives do not necessarily die after they spawn, but when the fish move from the deeper water to near shore areas they are exposed to fluctuating temperatures. A drastic change in water temperature, can cause a massive "alewife die off," which I'm sure most of you have seen. 

Huge quantities of schooling, spawning bait fish?....very interesting.  If I were a Salmon the prospect of getting a full belly by munching on alewife fodder would sound like a reasonable idea to me.  At times, the inshore waters will be loaded with bait so thick when trolling through it, your rods will tinkle, as the alewives bounce off you rigger rods. This means you're in the right place and Mr. King and his whole clan won't be very far away.  Take note of where these pockets of bait are located on your GPS, because this is the magnet that sets the dinner table for Mr. Salmon.

Seldom when entering a
suspended ball of bait will you take a strike, but pulling your lures out the other side will generally trigger action and heaps of it.  Stay in the area with the bait, it makes absolutely no sense to leave.  Sooner or later the fish will turn on, even if your not taking bites.  I believe they never venture very far away from a food source once the Salmon have located it.

I can't guarantee you much when it comes to Great Lakes fishing, this I can say this with confidence, "if you've located large concentrations of bait, usually you'll fill the fish box. 
It's not rocket science or brain surgery to catch a boat load full of wild, berserk spring Kings once you've established where their grocery store is at."

A quandary:  Lake Huron always created the largest overall average size on spring Kings for me, but it never produced the size of summer Kings that Lake Michigan does.  This don't make any sense to me and never has. 

Tackle Basics..........Not as an after thought

Now, you're in a big hurry and you're just going to grab last summers tackle and throw it in the boat, and tear towards the lake.......WRONG!  These are your weapons systems and they have been stood down all winter long.   You'll need to carefully inspect each rod and reel.  Over the winter the tightly coiled monofilament on your reels assumed the memory of a car spring.  Making matters worse is the fact the cooler spring temperatures will even stiffen the coil spring effect further.  The cure for this is re-lining with new string, besides new mono is a low-priced insurance policy against loosing tackle and more importantly trophy fish of a lifetime.

Your reels level wind worm gear will be needing a light coating of reel lube.  The pawl (part that contacts worm gear) will wear our prematurely if not looked after.  Or, even worse, jam when a screaming hog salmon tests you and your tackle.  Inspect reel seat and a quick visual check of the guides is in order also.  In simple words, if you take care of your tackle, it will in turn, take care of you.

Over the winter, your ultra sharp hooks have gathered moisture and are likely to be slightly rusty.  Perhaps the split rings are rusty too, so
scrutinize every piece of your costly tackle you plan on using.  This will pay immense dividends in the future.  Sorting and readying your fishing gear is the opening act in the new fishing season.  

Trolling Tactics that Work  

For the most part, you'll concentrating your spread in the top 40 feet of water.  This calls for the complete awareness of side planers, diver tactics, speed kills and the downriggersI've enclosed these links to the pages relevant for sharpening your skills, if needed.

Something I found very successful on Lake Huron from Lexington to Harbor Beach was trolling NE or SE instead of directly east to find deeper water, or the fish.  By trolling diagonally you stayed in the same depth longer, giving it a better chance to produce fish. 

Lake Michigan the same pattern should work, although adjusting for the current sway in your cannon balls is more important (they must hang straight).  For the most part southern Lake Michigan offers the same gradual sloping bottom Huron does, however east and west here, has worked better for me.

Play with your speed, some days the Salmon want a smoking hot, other days a dead slow crawl is almost too fast.

Spring Salmon can be reel-narrow banded.  By banded I mean, laying in a strata only a couple of feet thick.  I've pounded on Salmon at 17 feet on the counter and couldn't buy a fish at 15 of 19 feet down.  Pay close a attention to your counters and re-zero them often, especially if they're BJ's.  Also, take careful notice of how full the spools are of cable, because a full 150 to 200 feet on the spools will give a different reading than a spool containing half the amount.  It's the larger circumference that makes a difference to the line counter.

Spend Your Time, Not Your Money

A leisurely stroll past the charter docks at the right time will give you a major clue, as to what the fish are gnawing on best.  Take note of what's dangling on the successful boats, it's a large clue that helps.  Most charter operators like me and don't strip the lures off the rods when returning to port and some will even point out the best one's if they're not busy with charter clientele.  Be patient with charter operators, because their time is always on the short side.  

Be creative and take chances, if your not taking fish in one area, don't be afraid to pick up lines and run 3 or 4 miles from the unpopulated neighborhood you've been washing baits in.  A change of scenery just might start putting fish in the box.

A preseason trip to your favorite or local tackle store or boat launch might be a tip-off to what's going on.  All fishermen like to brag and the successful ones, even more so. It don't hurt to ask, is the way I've always looked at it, so when you see a boat being retrieved a simple question like, "how'd you do?"......could garner enormous

So, always be sure to return the favor when someone asks you for info, even a bad report helps eliminate unproductive areas to steer clear of.  Plus, it's just plain courtesy and always remember you didn't invent Salmon fishing!


1. Turn off fish ID feature.

2. Check dipsey leaders often for nicks in the line.

3. Watch your boat speed, cold water means a slower troll in most cases.

4. Don't overlook the surface fishing, use inline planers.

5. Free sliders will cover the high fish.

6. Store your reels with the drag unscrewed (no tension).

7. Don't use 2 piece ferruled downrigger rods, because they always break at the joint.

8. Don't turn on your sonar while if your boats not in the water, damage can occur.
9. Fish the marks and don't worry about "temperature."

10.  Check your lures often when in heavy mounds of bait to make sure your hooks aren't fouled with alewives.

11. Smaller profile spoons like the Mini Streak, Stinger (regular size) or the Fishlander size 1, work best for me.

12. Slide Divers for the high diver with a longer leads can out produce the Dipsey Diver if the fish are very wary or boat shy.
13.  Don't even leave the dock early in the morning if the seas are running 4 feet or better, by 9 or 10am the wind generally kicks up the sea to twice that. 
14.  Have the best sonar you can afford and have total confidence in it, remember spring fish don't mark well.  It has been said, their air bladder (which reflect most of the sonar waves) isn't used much to maintain zero buoyancy.  I guess the colder water density has something to do with it?................but, I don't know for certain.

15.  You won't see most of the fish you're catching on the sonar, if they're up high.

16.  Don't try to out think a fish, complicated preconceived notions, seldom work.

17.  Relax and let the fish do their job, don't feel pressured to force feed fish.

18.  Stay out of "packs,"  fish your own program above all else.  Hey, if it don't work, there's always the next time when it will.

19.  Be patient with large spring Kings, meaning let them get tired away from the boat.  It's a nightmare to have a wild May 20 pounder behind the boat to soon, if it's still "green" or full of fight.

20.  Safety above all else, if your thinking of pulling lines, because it's getting to rough.....stop thinking and head for the shelter of the harbor.  

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