Fishing for salmon on Lake Huron in April and May can be a challenge for even a seasoned big-lake angler. The fish are constantly on the move in search of the right water temperature and schools of bait fish. Additionally, the weather at this time of the year can change drastically, affecting not only the fishing, but also the safety and comfort of those trolling from boats.
When I stand on the shore and look out over any of the Great Lakes, I’m amazed that any of us can catch even one salmon. Trolling on the lakes is like trying to find swimming needles hidden in an enormous haystack.
Two things have helped me find Lake Huron salmon in the spring: Studying the migration habits of the fish and learning to recognize the “magnets” that attract them to certain parts of the lake. These two keys will help you select a port to launch from, and what to look for once you’re on the water.
A large percentage of the immature King Salmon in Lake Huron migrate to the southern end of the lake late in the fall and during the winter. This has been proven, over the past few years, by a Michigan Department of Natural Resources tagging program. Fish tagged and released in Rogers City, for example, are often caught off Lexington or Harbor Beach early in the spring.
Jim Johnson, biologist in charge of the DNR Fisheries Division’s Alpena research station, told me he thinks some salmon remain on the north end and in the middle of the lake, too. He says the probably hold near schools of alewives in about 200 feet of water.
In the spring, the salmon that migrated to the south end of the lake join the fish planted there and start to move up the western side of Lake Huron along Michigan’s thumb. Through April and May, the fishing success peaks and tapers off in a northerly progression. This pattern lasts only until about mid to late May depending on the weather. By late May the water in the entire lake is a bit warmer, and the bait-fish move farther offshore.
The salmon seem to scatter, but during the summer the fish planted in the northern part of the lake continue to drift back closer to their home streams. In late July and through August, salmon start to show up in numbers nearer to shore. Again, many tagged fish are caught far south of their planting sites. I’ve been told this is one of the reasons the Fisheries Division plants more fish in the north end of Lake Huron. The migrating salmon supplement every southern port’s own plants and provide some action at a few ports where no salmon are planted.
King salmon are mainly attracted to three things in April and May: Food, warmer water, and structure. Usually, if you can find two or all three of these near each other in Lake Huron, your chances are greatly improved. Fishing in water lacking these items will depend on random luck at best. The trick is to find spots in the lake containing the three magnets (two of which can move around by the hour) and eliminate about 90 percent of the lake that holds only widely scattered fish.
Likely fishing spots, in the location you want to try, can be found on a lake chart of the area. Good starting points will be outlets such as river and stream mouths. The water flowing out of them will be warmer than the lake. This warmer water alone will attract salmon, but it also attracts the bait fish. A river channel extending out into the lake also can provide structure to hold both of them. Other geographical features to look for are a reef or sand bar extending from a point on shore and sharp drop-offs near shallow water.
If you are fishing at the mouth of a stream or river, look for a plume of cloudy water, which is caused by silt from the spring run-off. A condition will exist where the warmer stained water meets the clearer and colder lake water, similar to the scum lines formed on the lake later in the summer. The edge of the plume is another type of structure sought out by salmon, trout, and bait fish.
A place often passed over is the outlet or break-wall for the harbor. When I fish at Harbor Beach, I try to be one of the first boats out in the morning to make a few trolling runs at the outlets to the harbor and along the rocky break-wall. The fish clear out once the day’s fleet starts to depart, but some mornings I’ve boxed a salmon or two before most of the boats have left the dock. Another tactic that sometimes works around mid-morning is to return to fish the outlet when the boat traffic dies down.
Most salmon anglers know that salmon prefer a water temperature of around 55 degrees if they can find it. In the spring, the average temperature of the lake may only be in the 33-45 degree range with 40-50 degree water in the upper 20 feet.
Therefore, you must look for places in the lake that are possibly only a few degrees warmer than the average. Generally, the active, feeding fish that you should target will be in this top 20 feet of water. It’s not the preferred water temperature, but it’s the warmest that they can find this time of year.
When Salmon are active in this top 20 feet don’t be discouraged if you don’t mark any on your graph. Since salmon are spooked by boats, not many are going to show up in this small of an area directly beneath you.
Wind direction will affect the surface temperature of the lake if the wind remains steady for a period of time. An offshore wind will disturb the warmer water near the shore and push it out into the lake where it will disperse. Onshore wind will crowd the warmer water near shore; after a persistent blow, this is where the trout and salmon may feed at certain times of the day because the bait fish will also seek the warmer water.
Every kind of trolling method can be used in the spring. Fishing the top 20 feet of water permits anglers to use long lines, downriggers, planer boards, and outriggers. Just remember that when the salmon are near the surface, the lures need to be away from the boat. Trolling speeds will vary according to the lures used and how active the fish are, but normally they range a bit slower (1-2.5 knots per hour) than at other times of the year.
Keeping the lures away from the boat can be accomplished by setting them 60 to 120 feet behind the boat and by using outriggers or planer boards to troll lures off to the side. When running lines this far back it’s very important to avoid sharp turns. The last thing you will want to do on the water is to sort out a severe case of the tangles. But, by staggering the lures’ depths and distances from the boat, the risk can be reduced.
One of my favorite combinations in the spring is a planer board running approximately 25 to 30 feet off the side of the boat with a Count Down Rapala for the bait. This lure differs from the standard model by being weighted to help it run deeper. I attach it to a single-line release out near the planer board. The lure’s running depth can be increased or decreased by changing the length of the line to the lure behind the release. The boat’s trolling speed will also affect the running depth of this lure. This combination used in the spring will also work for steelhead and brown trout.
There usually a mystery to be solved almost hourly when trolling. Every fisherman on the water wants to know which type of lure and what color the fish are hitting. If I don’t glean any information from the bait shop or anglers who fished the day before, I’ll start the day with some combinations that have consistently produced for me year after year.
Generally, I will have body baits on at least half of my rods all the time. The three types that I like to use are Long A Bombers, solid and jointed Rapalas, and the smaller sized J-Plugs. Colors vary widely to match the current conditions, but some seem to work more often than others.
I have mostly Bombers in my tackle box for spring fishing in a dozen different colors. The three colors that catch fish for me almost all the time are purple over black, fluorescent green over orange with printed-on scales, and black over silver with an orange belly.
The standard black-over-silver Rapala is hard to beat, but under low light conditions the black and gold works good, too. I also have a jointed size No. 11 Rapala in chartreuse that usually gets washed every trip. When I try a J-Plug, it is the “Wonder Bread” color combination that I have the best luck with. A second choice would be a scaled pearl and green.
Lightweight trolling spoons are used frequently and I prefer Northport Nailers or Silver Streaks. Just about all the colors available will work at one time or another. I guess if I had to choose just one color combination to fish with, it would be black and raspberry.
When fishing your lures 20 feet down or less, sometimes it’s not very productive to run a slider because it can’t get far enough away from the boat. (A slider rig is a lure and leader attached to a rods’s line with a barrel swivel so that it can slide about half way down the line; that way, you can legally put two lures on a rod.)
To keep this two-lure advantage I use a three-way swivel rig. (see diagram) On the bottom eye of the swivel I’ll use a three foot leader with a diving plug. The leader for the top eye is five to six feet long and baited with a light trolling spoon. The difference in the leader lengths prevents the two lures from tangling. The spoon adds some flash to attract fish to the plug.
One time this worked so well that we had two salmon on the same rod, one on the spoon and one on the plug. It was a strange battle and the hardest part was netting both fish at the same time, which we fortunately did.
One last item to consider when fishing the Great Lakes in the April and May is a little extra caution on the water. Fog often will form when the warm air from shore moves out over the lake. Frosty docks and boat decks in the morning can cause unexpected falls. One of the worst things that can happen to you is going into the frigid water. Even a good swimmer will be in trouble with the shock from the cold water and being weighted down by heavy clothing. If you use some common sense and follow the basic boating safety rules, your early trips should be incident-free.
When the ice starts to break up at the end of winter, every salmon angler I know looks ahead to the first fishing trip of the year. The initial preparation of rounding up all the gear, putting new line on the reels, and uncovering your boat after the long winter just adds to the anticipation. The day when you can go fishing will finally come. And the pure sense of adventure one feels motoring out onto the lake again after being away so long is what keeps us all coming back each spring.
One time this worked so well that we had two salmon on the same rod, one on the spoon and one on the plug.