While the Spring Coho run that occurs near my port of Waukegan, IL is truly a special time of year as it kicks off the season and with fast action, summer sets aside a whole other set of anticipations and excitement. Summertime on the Great Lakes is special not only because the weather is great and everybody seems a little more relaxed but it also means that the season for catching big Chinook Salmon has arrived. Chinook Salmon are the top predator in the Great Lakes and while they can be rivaled in size by any of our three Trout species (Lake, Rainbow, Brown), Chinook are far more aggressive and they fight the hardest with their signature, drag-ripping runs. Good numbers of Chinook anywhere in the 6-28lb weight class will be caught during the summer (and into the Fall) with the action sometimes as fast and as nonstop spring Coho fishing. I wrote this article as a broad-based overview of fishing for Chinook during the summer but I will also touch on fishing for Rainbow, Brown, and Lake Trout during this time of year as well.
Sometime in June usually starts the transition from spring fishing for Coho Salmon to summer fishing and catching primarily Chinook Salmon. Every year is different as to when exactly that transition comes and how long the transition lasts but eventually it ushers in the period we know simply as Summer and absolutely as Chinook Season. I’ll briefly add here that Chinook (and mostly larger ones) can indeed be found and caught in the spring as they will often shadow the big Coho schools. However, since the Coho action in the spring is SO good and SO fast, even if large Chinook are nearby, many (but not all) of them will usually pass up the typical red dodger and small coho fly that we almost exclusively deploy when Coho fishing. But, you can often catch these spring run Chinook while Coho fishing if you are willing to lower the same spoons (or cranks) you run in the summer on downriggers.
Most of the Coho we catch in the spring will be in the top 10-15 feet of water on planer boards and divers anyway so it pays to fish for Chinook in the spring with your downrigger rods. If you feel really adventurous, go ahead and run a 4-10 color leadcore or short length of copper with a spoon or crank down the chute or better yet, off of big inline boards on the inside of your other planer boards that are rigged for Coho! The adventure being that hard-fighting, spring-run Chinook when hooked can often make nasty runs up into some of the 12-16 other lines that we run for Coho in the spring.
Chinook are aggressive, heavy feeders but they can also be very finicky and anglers need to pay attention to every variable they can be in control of when presenting their baits. I will narrow down some of my favorites when fishing for Chinook from the huge variety of lure selection makes/models/colors but first we will broadly discuss presentations and some trolling fundamentals. Details such as trolling speed and angle or direction on compass are important considerations and generally are variables that need to be adjusted every day and sometimes every hour to find what the fish want. Trolling speeds of 1.8-2.5 is the general range for Chinook trolling while anglers that fish flasher/fly heavy spreads may tend to have their speed kicked up a little higher than that. Trolling angle needs to be adjusted frequently if you are not getting action as well. Subsurface currents are most always present and will effect the action of your lures. Speed at downrigger ball devices are expensive but will aid you into trolling at a proper speed at specific depths. Without down-speed devices, you can make a general assessment as to how your downrigger wires and diver lines are running. Are they just hanging there or are they really cranking through the water at a sharp angle?
Take the time the look at what your surface speed gauges are telling you and then look at your lines to detect whether stiff currents are present. Depth to begin fishing can often be dictated by wind regimes and mostly by your search for finding cold water in the 42-55 degree range. Underwater structures in individual locales will influence depth of course also. Chinook will often orient themselves to structure as well so generally begin fishing in cold water and near structure if you have some. The same can be said for schools of bait. If you find schools of bait then try working that general area too.
Remember that Chinook are a top predatory creature. They will often be found near bait fish or in the vicinity. I must add here that thermoclines and scum-lines serve as pseudo-structures for most fish and of course Chinook. Chinook will often congregate near these pseudo-structures like they will other legitimate geographical structure mostly because of what they provide to baitfish and forage. Preferred water temperature for Chinook also plays a role in this discussion as well. Many pages, like several other topics we will only touch on in this broader-based article, can be written on thermoclines and scum-lines and perhaps we will make this a focus of a future article. However, I will say that when you locate such pseudo-structures like thermoclines through your sonar or scum-lines by plain sight (you will see scum-lines on the water surface), fish these areas.
A typical and optimal summer spread of mine starts with usually three but sometimes four downriggers. The two outside (or boom arm) riggers usually employ a segment of two or three colors of leadcore which runs behind the downrigger weight to the lure. These setups then terminate with a segment of flourocarbon to the lure, typically a spoon. The principle behind this approach is that it presents your spoon deeper than the downrigger weight by roughly 3 or 4 feet per color of leadcore as well as presenting it well behind the downrigger weight by 30 feet per color of leadcore. A flourocarbon leader of another 20 or 30 feet or so completes this spoon presentation. You can certainly run a flasher and fly on this setup too but generally the leadcore segment is unnecessary for that. Next, a middle rigger or two corner riggers run clean monofilament and is usually set deeper than the outside riggers with more spoons or perhaps one or two flashers and flies.
Next I employ 4 to 6 leadcores rigged to large in-line planer boards and rig those mostly with spoons but will sometimes run flashers/flies off these as well. 7-10-12 colors of leadcore will be used for each of these applications with the shorter lengths of leadcore (shallowist) run furthest to the outside. If the conditions call for it and I am deep enough, I also run 300 feet of copper in place of some of the leadcores on the inside of this spread or even one straight off the back.
Lastly, usually 2 divers or slide divers will run on each side but sometimes we run 4 total divers or 2 per side. Braid line like Power Pro works very well to minimize the stretch that monofilament line possesses. Braid’s thin diameter also allows it to cut through the water better to achieve greater depths with less line out than mono. Now, at the outset in the mornings, I like to orient the divers to carry all spoons. Depending on how the bite progresses as the sun rises, I might start to experiment more with the divers in both depth and different baits because sometimes the bite tapers off when spoons alone are left to run as they were during the lowlight morning bite. Wire line divers can also be employed and will achieve greater depths than braid. Wire is to braid as braid is to mono, so to speak. I can continue to write at considerable length here regarding divers and Chinook fishing but we have other topics to cover so lets move on.
With considerations now made to depth, speed, trolling angle, structure, and a setup spread in mind, let’s add a few words regarding the often stubborn Chinook. When considering all we have said so far, you must be willing to experiment and tune into what will trigger a Chinook to strike on any given day or hour. Being able to fine tune your spread of baits can make the difference between a good box of fish and a poor one. While these principles also apply to other species in the lake, Chinook are effected the most by them on a relative basis. It is hard to say exactly why Chinook are so finicky compared to say, their cousins the Coho. Perhaps it is this stubbornness which in turn evolved them into the “King” of all salmon species.
When fine tuning your overall Chinook spread, also keep in mind how your other baits, lines, divers, dowrigger weights and wires are influencing – enhancing or detracting – your broader presentation. In other words, that flasher and fly you are running 88 feet down may not have received any strikes but the spoon running at 75 feet on the rigger next to it has. Changing up the flasher and fly to a similar spoon may seem intuitive but you may have just shutdown the rate of strikes you were getting on the original spoon as a result. This theory works in reverse too. This is a very broad topic as well but touching on it should trigger a thought mechanism which should make you consider what your overall spreads looks like when it is running underwater. This isn’t a revelation either and other anglers have written about this at length elsewhere. I indeed recall thinking about this topic and ultimately adjusting spread presentations accordingly in the late 1980’s when I was a young first mate out of the same harbor that I now captain from. It doesn’t take a lot of time on the water to realize that the actions you take with some rods will often effect that of others in which you have not even touched.
While favorite and effective baits vary sometimes significantly from port to port – for instance the spoon vs. flies and dodgers/flashers – one thing that seems to hold true is that patterns develop where one or a set of baits will perform better than others and sometimes for several days or even weeks at a time. Many of these baits will work well year in and year out and in some regards there are baits that will work well earlier in the Chinook season (June/July) and there are other baits that will work better later on in August and into September/October. Some baits are surefire go to setups in one area of the lake and may not work well in other areas. Being on the water a lot will enhance your ability to stay on top of what Chinook want and learn to develop a winning set of lures that work for you.
Let’s narrow down some of my favorite baits that I like to run for Chinook in the summer. In my region in southern Lake Michigan out of Waukegan, spoons consistently catch more Chinook than other baits . Spoons like Michigan Stingers, Silver Streaks, Pro Kings, Moonshines, Fishlanders, Dreamweavers, Northern Kings, Diamond Kings, Maulers, Warriors and even older generations of spoons such as Styner Shiners, Northport Nailers, Suttons, Finns, Dardevle Clickers, and Norwegians (Storlaksen) can be found on my racks of spoons and I probably even left a few out. However, if you are on the water enough you will find that a collection of several dozen spoons of a handful of different makes and colors will be your go to baits.
Each season that may change a little to include others while mysteriously excluding a bait that was hot one year and may not do much the next. Also be aware that sometimes some baits will work across other boats and sometimes what is working for you won’t work on other boats. It is far more frustrating when this process works in reverse when your friend has a certain spoon working but you can’t buy a hit on it! The primary reason for this is the expression you might have heard “every boat fishes differently”. And as true as that is when trying to duplicate how a spoon that weighs less than an ounce is being pulled by a vessel that weighs several tons or more, it is also difficult to exactly replicate the somebody else’s exact overall spread. You should right now be thinking of the example I just mentioned regarding how baits enhance or detract from others. Become comfortable through a moderate degree of trial and error and bait setups on your own boat and your own experiences while taking hints of what is working for other anglers. Color patterns that work well for other boats in the same region will usually have either a moderate or good degree of success for you too.
For me, this has meant spoons such as:
- Pro Kings in all cracked ice, half green and cracked ice, black & gold, and purple with glow ladderback
- Michigan Stingers in Natural Born Killer, Mongoose, purple (Kevorkian), Green Dolphin, Monkey Puke, Lundington Special, Wonder Bread glow, Dirty White Boy, Carmel Dolphin, Watermelon, Bloody Nose
- Moonshine glow spoons in green, blue, and orange Flounder. Bloody nose, Nightcrawler, Mongolian Beef
- Silver Streaks in Evil Alewife, Hot Lobster, Green Dolphin, Blue Dolphin
- Warriors in Hey Baby, Dirty Diaper glow
The choice between magnum or standard size can depend on many variables and philosophies. Some anglers like to ‘match the hatch’ of the size of the baitfish that Chinook are currently feeding on. Other anglers like to go magnum when fishing shallow and standard when deeper and vice-versa. There are some spoons where specific color patterns or just plain manufacturer work better in magnum sizes than the same color in standard (and vice-versa). And then there are some delivery devices that tend to work better when teamed with a particular size spoon. I tend to use more of the magnum sizes than not and I believe that Chinook may be smart enough to reason that pursuing larger prey is a better reward for the energy they spend in trying to catch it.
In other words, regardless of my past success in magnum size spoons, I would normally go magnum because I believe it gives me a better chance to catch Chinook. The “big bait/big fish” theory has been around for a long time and even in regards to what I said above, I don’t really adhere to it per se; I catch a ton of small Chinook in late summer and fall on magnum spoons as well. Chinook that are just getting large enough to go after lures and they choose to strike spoons that are sometimes half the size of themselves! |
But back to colors, we have come a long way from what I would look back on as fairly simple color combinations on spoons. While some productive colors remain simple, other colors look very different from those in the past. The above set of spoons that I like are what have consistently put Chinook on the lines for me. Other baits of course have taken fish but not on as a consistent basis. I can almost guarantee that while some of these will work for you, some may not! And similarly, some go-to lures run by charter captains in the slips next to me will not work as well for me when I lower them into the water!
One “color” that has made huge strides in the past 10 years or so are glow lures. Specifically glow spoons and especially when fishing for Chinook. We catch all species of Trout and an occasional Coho on glow spoons also but they are especially appealing to Chinook however. While the glow concept in salmon fishing existed years ago and often incorporated mini light sticks, it wasn’t the same ‘class’ of glow as today’s equipment. And because few fish were caught on the legacy glow lures, glow was not thought to be that effective. In reality, I believe it was just the wrong type of glow but we also need to consider that the lakes have also changed very much in the past 20 years. Water clarity due to mussel infestations might play a part in why glow works so well these days but that is up for debate. But, I’d be willing to bet that the glow lures we have available and use today would have worked well 20 years ago too. Intuitively you would run glow spoons for
Chinook during the dark or at dawn and dusk and indeed that’s where they really perform well. However, there are many days where glow spoons work all day long regardless of light conditions. I am looking for an ongoing trend in new glow lures to continue to come on the market in the future as I expect to see them become as ubiquitous as past standard colors.
Getting into flies and dodgers/flashers, I probably only catch roughly 25% of my Chinook on the flies. I know that in other regions there are captains that run heavy concentrations of flies and do very well with them. However much more of my success has been with spoons and therefore my spreads are concentrated in that direction. My overall success in this department has been with the 8-inch versions (dodgers/flashers) but the larger 10-11″ models have worked as well and are favorites of some anglers. You may recall from another article and I will briefly add here that most of the Coho I catch are on on dodger/flasher and flies. And that goes for the Coho I catch all season long and not just the small orange/red dodgers and small Coho flies we run in the spring. Many of the flasher/dodger fly combinations that I run for Chinook will catch a lot of Coho as well and that is especially true in late spring and early summer.
That said, the following flies and dodgers/flashers have performed well for me:
White plastic Hot Spot flasher or ‘Police Car’ pattern teamed with a Blue Boy Howie, white, pearl, aqua, or Mirage fly. I also run the same flies behind a white, smoke, or chrome Luhr Jensen dodger or a Spin Doctor with either blue or green tape.
Green crinkle tinsel fly behind yellow or green Hot Spot flasher. 16″-24″ fly leaders work best. Generally troll a little slower with dodger setups and a little faster with flasher setups however, some captains can get dodgers to work very well when they spin them at higher trolling speeds. Experiment here with speed though as you would with spoons but most of the captains that do well with flasher heavy spreads usually run a little faster.
Along the lines of the flies and dodgers/flashers theme, I will sometimes experiment with a spoon behind a dodger as well. While being moderately successful from time to time, this is an approach that I continue to work on and develop and I believe has greater potential. It is certainly an overlooked presentation that not many people bother with but I see interesting prospects with this setup. I have taken some large Chinook with this method and will also pick up some bonus Lake Trout with it as well. I fondly remember one afternoon years ago when I was running a spread of rods as first mate on the back of a boat in very choppy seas. The bite was slow and in the interest of shaking things up and experimenting, I decided to try a spoon three feet behind a chrome dodger on downrigger. We all have had at least one of these days but this setup immediately started taking big chinook, one after another when hardly anything else worked in our spread or across other boats that were out that day. There are many theories of mine as to why this rig was so productive that day but I continue to run variations of it with success. Several other baits that have worked in the past behind a flasher/dodger are squids, squid/fly combos, as well as whole alewife or alewife strips tucked underneath a fly. Some captains have specific names for these latter applications.
Those last concepts are a good lead in to what are known as meat rigs. Similar to a dodgers/flasher and fly setup, meat rigs indeed have their fishermen that swear by them or have otherwise done well with them in the past. A true meat rig is generally a large flasher that may look like nothing you have ever seen before (such as a John King) which is trailed by about five feet of leader resulting in bait head which holds a variety of different kinds of “meat” such as a whole or a strip of a herring, alewive, or anchovy etc. Another option are artificial bait strips soaked in herring oil. Between the bait head and the flasher, located within the five feet of leader, there are usually several ‘tinsel’ attractors fixed directly to this leader as well. There are debates as to whether Salmon use their sense of smell or not when feeding. What we do know is that Salmon at the least, possess a sense of smell and it probably should not be totally discounted that salmon ONLY use their eyesight and lateral line but very possibly smell too when feeding. A lot of people also say that they usually catch larger, 4-year old (spawner) Chinook on meat rigs more than any other kind of fish. Maybe this means that Salmon’s sense of smell develops very sharply as spawning approaches and they prepare and begin to find their place of birth (or origin of release). Let’s face it, Salmon undergo massive other physical changes before and during spawning time as well and it’s possible that a keener sense of smell in their fourth year may trigger more strikes from them on scented bait. Many ocean and river fisherman use scents for salmon fishing as well. But with meat rigs, we must also consider that overall this is a very different presentation and perhaps it’s this variable that leads to their effectiveness regardless of the trailing scent. I have only experimented with these rigs in only a very limited fashion (literally a couple of times). In that regard, I have hardly even given them a chance to catch fish but I look forward to experimenting more with this unique presentation so I felt compelled to mention the device here.
Moving onto plugs. Plugs have their time and place but generally take the fewest Chinook of any of the other commonly run baits in my region. Plugs that are most often run are J-plugs or similar styles along with minnow imitators such as Rebel Fastracs, Jointed Rapalas, or Hot n Tots. In the 1970’s and 1980’s J-plugs were commonly run during the summer months but their use began to decline as other baits had better success. However, J-plugs are finding their way back again on the end of many leadcore and copper lines when fishing in deeper water in the summer. While I occasionally have one, maybe two out, I can’t say that I often run many J-plugs (or other plugs) for Chinook during the summer season. However, if conditions set up right in for Chinook to be active near shore, at least some J-plugs and Fastrac-type plugs should be employed on planer boards, flat lines, and slide divers. The same goes for spawner Chinook in the fall but we will touch on that more in a “Autumn Article”.
While this article has focused nearly exclusively on Chinook, we certainly catch good numbers of all three Trout species during this time as well as Coho Salmon too. However, our catch is usually made up of Chinook and therefore our bait spreads, trolling speed, and just our overall mindset on the water will be geared in direction of Chinook. We do catch other species on the same baits that we run for Chinook such as: Rainbows when fishing deep and when we are running baits in the top 60 feet of water (especially lead core), Lake Trout when fishing deep and running baits deep or nearer to the bottom, and Brown Trout when fishing inside of say 70 feet of water. While each Trout species tends to favor other baits as well as water temperatures and structures generally speaking, many are still caught using Chinook baits which often gives us an added bonus of variety. However, you may also encounter situations where Chinook fishing is either slow or they might not be in the area that you are fishing in while perhaps some trout species may be present. If you are in a situation where Trout are present and Salmon may not be and you are happy to catch Trout, then I would begin outfitting with more Trout-oriented baits and overall presentation. While still keeping some of your favorite Chinook baits in the water, I would orient myself to the following:
Lake Trout – try slow trolling speeds to 1.6-1.8 or lower and see if Laker action increases. You may need to employ trolling bags or even a large bucket or two over each side to achieve this. Put out another one or two (chrome, smoke, or white) dodgers that are trailed with flies, spoons, or spin and glo with a fly tail behind it down on downriggers, wireline dipsy divers, and straight wireline rigs with 12-24oz lead balls. (There have been new developments in the wire arena too with weights such as “Dive Bombs” that do a better job taking baits down with less drag). White or pearl flies, or green, “clown”, or half and half (red/chartreuse) spin and glos with pearl, white or green fly tails all work well. In the summer, Lake Trout are usually a little or lot deeper than other game fish so try dropping some lines. Long leads off downriggers are usually not necessary and even consider running dodgers as close as 6-12 feet back. Experiment here too because sometimes Lake Trout can be a little bait and presentation finicky also.
Rainbow Trout – kick up trolling speeds a little more to like 2.4-3.2 to see if Rainbow action increases. Rainbows typically travel in large, loose schools. If you have had some Rainbow action or if others in the area have, then more Rainbows are probably in the area. If the water temperature is roughly 68 degrees or below on the surface, run spoons, minnow baits such as Fastracs, Thin Fins, HotnTot and even J-plugs 50 or more feet behind planer boards as well as on 10 and less color leadcores. You may even run small orange/red dodgers and small coho flies up top too. I like to leave downrigger baits as mostly spoons and even consider running some sliders with spoons on riggers. Some anglers indeed do well on Rainbows on larger flasher/ dodgers and flies though. Lengthen leads off downriggers and orient dipsy or slide divers with spoons and generally run them above downrigger baits.
Brown Trout – you will most likely be fishing inside of 70 feet for you to be getting into a good Brown Trout bite. Browns can be skittish so as with Rainbows and long leads off planer boards and downriggers, think along the same lines in that regard with Browns as well and go with baits like spoons and plugs off planer boards. I do not catch many Brown Trout on flashers/dodgers and flies therefore I would not run any. I like to also run some smaller (than standard) spoons on riggers with long leads for Browns and on planer boards running on outsides of your spread. If you are deep enough, incorporate a set or two of leadcores with spoons off of larger planer boards on the inside of your other planer boards. If you have slide divers, run spoons at least 25 feet in back of the diver.
I’ll summarize by again saying that writing this article was a little like trying to paint a detailed picture with a large brush. It gets us started with some broader philosophies and techniques in which I consider important to successful summer Chinook fishing and introduces some specific color patterns and baits to consider from the hundreds that are available. It in fact surprises me how lengthy this article finishes out but that is also a good indicator of how Chinook fishing is difficult to generalize. Chinook fishing will humble any angler from time to time but perhaps it’s the highly specialized and unique methods and challenges that have hooked so many fishermen while even making careers for others.
Captain Rick Bentley is a full-time U.S. Coast Guard Licensed charter boat Captain out of the Port of Waukegan in Illinois and is owner/operator of the vessel *Independence* and *Windycitysalmon.com*. He is one of the younger Captains in the harbor and on the Lake, originally getting his start in the industry as a Deckhand/First Mate. For more information or to read Capt Rick’s fishing reports please visit WindyCitySalmon.Com