Get tuned in to Lake Michigan's chinook

By Gary Engberg
What: King salmon averaging about 15 pounds in the Milwaukee area.
When: Now through early October
How: Find baitfish schools and troll a flasher and spoon.
MILWAUKEE, Wis. — Lake Michigan has seen its share of ups and downs in the last 50 years.
First, it was the lamprey that came and nearly wiped the lake trout population.
Then, it was the alewife that some believed was responsible for the perch demise.
Exotics have played a part of Lake Michigan’s hot and cold fishing.
Now, anglers have to deal with the zebra mussel, the spiny water flea, the European ruffe and the Goby.
Science saved the Great Lakes once when the chemical known as TFM was introduced into streams and selectively killed lamprey larva in their spawning streams.
King Salmon
A variety of methods will catch Chinook, but be prepared to move and follow the fish.
TFM took care of the lamprey and helped bring back some predator fish.
These predators (such as the lake trout) feed on another exotic, the alewife, which had taken over part of Lake Michigan in the 1960s and 1970s.
A small group of scientists observing the salmon run on the West Coast had a bright idea. Why not introduce salmon into Lake Michigan?
They obtained a small patch of eggs, hatched them in a Michigan stream, and the rest is history.
Today, despite a downfall in the 1980s and early 1990s, there’s a thriving, varied fishery of coho and Chinook salmon on the big lake and also good fishing for steelhead rainbow, brown, and even brook trout.
Even the lake trout protected from over-harvest and lamprey predation have returned to some extent.
Lake Michigan has bounced back, but it still is dependent upon stocking to maintain its current fishery.
All the fish populations come from stocked fish.
There are many different and divergent groups (those representing sporting interests, professional fish managers, commercial harvesters) who all have opinions on how to best manage the fishery.
As I said, the lake is under attack from the exotics that find their way here in the ballast water of ocean going ships.
All of these exotics have the potential to damage and adversely affect the resource.
However, Lake Michigan is well enough to be enjoyed by the deep-water fisherman as well as the shore angler.
Salmon in constant motion
Salmon in constant motion stay in constant motion.
All of the lake’s fish seek temperatures at which their bodies function the best, and also where their forage is found.
So, the salmon are constantly moving, looking for water that provides their basic needs.
As the predator fish follow the schools of baitfish, they can be, as the old saying goes, “here today and gone tomorrow.”
Or, in the summer, the fish move to colder and deeper water in response to higher temperature changes.
Trout and salmon are constantly looking for that “comfort zone” in the lake.
Another factor that contributes to the fish’s motion is the urge to reproduce.
Great Lakes fish are going to spawn, no matter what, and they move in ways that will allow them to do it.
Chinook salmon have some migratory behavior, according to Mike Toneys, the DNR fish biologist in Sturgeon Bay, Wis.
Mike said that Chinook are stocked in streams all along the Wisconsin shore.
When they enter the lake, they too head for the southern waters looking for that “comfort zone.”
But, the Chinook don’t get involved in a seasonal journey.
Instead, they generally spend three or four years maturing in the southern waters before the reproductive urge takes over.
They spawn and die unless they are caught on their journey to their home stream.
Chinook also prefer alewife and smelt for forage, and these forage species are much more plentiful in the northern and central portions of Lake Michigan than they are in the south.
This is why a large percentage of Chinook stay north and provide a more consistent fishery than the coho.
Watch wind and weather reports
Now and through the fall, there is a very good Chinook salmon bite from Racine to Sheboygan along Lake Michigan.
A great place to launch out of or rent a charter is Milwaukee’s McKinley Park. All one has to do is check weather and wind reports.
The wind direction is so important, with a west wind being the best and an east wind the worst.
What the west wind does is push the warm surface water near Milwaukee to Michigan and forces cold water back from underneath.
It is possible for the water temperature to drop 10 to 12 degrees. The baitfish also like the colder water, much like the salmon.
The area where the Root River enters the lake tends to get the least wind. Look for baitfish schools.
Four or 5 miles out is the furthest you’ll need to travel. The ideal water temperature for salmon fishing is 54 degrees.
Most of the fish now being caught in the Milwaukee area are Chinook or king salmon and a few browns.
The kings’ average size is about 14 to 16 pounds, which may be a little smaller than normal.
There are not huge schools of baitfish, just small balls of forage. But what seems like the most important factor is the right water temperature.
For 5-day forecast, wind direction, and surface water temperature info, go online and visit
On the scene
The day that we were fishing, we were on the water by 4:30 a.m. and off by 10 a.m. The wind blew gently out of the west at 5 knots.
We started running spoons, flies and J-Plugs as soon as we were out of the harbor.
Some days, you’ll start marking fish at 40 to 50 feet, while other days the fish are out in 100 to 120 feet.
The farthest that you have to go to find fish this year is just 4 to 5 miles from shore.
We ran downriggers with a 13-pound ball and Dipsey Divers to catch our fish. Our speed was 2.8 to 2.9 mph with the current and 2.2 to 2.3 mph without it.
Our rods were 7-foot, 10-inch G. Loomis steelhead rods with Daiwa 47 Line Counter reels spooled with Berkley Trilene in 20-pound test.
We didn’t use any lead core line, but we did use Dipsy Divers. Spoons were by far the best fish catcher, even though we tried Howie Flies and J-Plugs.
Pro King and Northport spoons in green and white worked best, but when things slow down, change colors and lures regularly.
Glow spoons worked well before the sun rose and are well worth trying.
Later, green/white flashers with Howie Flies started to work and produce some nice fish.
Despite all the things working against Lake Michigan, it is alive and well and producing fish just like the “good old days.”

To top