Capitalizing on the Fall Run (Salmon) by Russell Gahagan

Boats Lake Michigan Michigan Rivers & Lakes salmon fishing

Every season, mature salmon start making their way toward harbor mouths...

...to stage for their fall run.

Depending on the conditions this can start as early as mid to late August and go as long as late September.

 great lakes harbor fall salmon chinook king

Written By: Russell Gahagan

The fish come to the harbor in batches and they are at different points in their maturation when they arrive. 

One batch of fish will come in and may be mostly males which are turning colors already and are further along in the staging process while the next batch that arrives may be females bright silver in color and are just starting the process of changing colors.

Early in this process in late August and early September, the meat in the fish is the same quality as it was when you caught them a few weeks prior out in the lake.

The first place I look for the salmon to show up is the first shelf out from the harbor mouth.

This shelf is generally the first drop off which plateaus for a small stretch.

This shelf generally will hold the salmon for a small amount of time before they make their next move toward the harbor mouth.  This is a great spot for any fisherman who prefer not to battle with the boat traffic around the harbor mouth area.

These fish are a little bit harder to predict because there is really no reason for them to hold in this spot for long.

As I said earlier in this article the fish come in batches so you can fish this spot most of the fall and have success as different batches of fish make their way in.

Depending on the depth of this spot, you should fish it as you would normally in this depth. 

For example, if this area is in forty feet of water, downriggers, Dipsy divers and leadcores in segments of five colors and seven colors would be best to target staging kings.

Fishermen who are willing to tackle the harbor mouth area and deal with the boat traffic will be rewarded the most.

This area can hold fish for longer periods of time and depending on the water color that comes out of your river, it can be fantastic fishing at all times of the day. 

In my experiences, the ports with stained or commonly called “dirty river water” tend to have the best fall fishing.

In Sheboygan, my home port, the natural color of our river water is coffee colored, a transparent brown color.

Depending on how far down in the water column the dirty water goes, it can act as a sun blocker which allows the fish to be very active all day long.

I have found that there usually is an early morning bite right away but when fish are stacked in front of the harbor mouth and the dirty water is pumping out the fish can and will bite all day long.

If you’re new to fishing the harbor mouth area one of the first things you will want to pay attention to is how the local boats are making their trolling passes around the pier head area.

Each port generally has their own system and if you get in line and follow the pack you will generally have no troubles with other boats.

I also recommend when you fish the pier head area you have a person onboard just dedicated to driving. If someone is dedicated to driving they will be paying attention at all times and will not put the boat in a bad position or in danger.

Let’s talk a little more about the colored river water pumping out into the lake. 

On days when the wind is blowing off the shore this will generally push the river water out into the lake. These conditions are usually ideal for fishing around the pier heads and are the type of conditions I would look for if I was only able to fish a few times a fall or needed to travel to fish.

The picture below is a great example of a boat making passes in and out of the dirty water line. This is a standard when fishing outside the pier heads. Each port has different structure outside the pier heads. I recommend this summer when you have time idle around the harbor area and check the depths looking for small areas that may hold the salmon while their staging out front of the pier heads. Some areas that may be found outside your harbor that will hold fish may be deep holes, rocky structures along the pier walls or ends of piers and humps. Scan your pier head area for these types of structures.

harbor mouth dirty water salmon trolling fish great lakes

The tackle that is used in and around the harbor mouth can and usually is very different than the tackle used out in the lake.

The first thing to get an understanding of when selecting baits for fishing around the harbor is what stage is the fish in of their spawning cycle.

Salmon which are silver in color and in their early stages of their spawn bite different baits then when they are colored and are later in their spawning cycle.

Early on their priorities are still feeding, surviving and spawning.

Later in their cycle, it changes to spawning and surviving and they no longer care about feeding anymore.

crankbaits walleye trolling lures great lakes salmon fishing

When they first arrive around the harbor mouth they tend to bite on bigger baits that mimic mature alewives for that time of year. One of Sheboygan’s best secret weapons for years around the harbor mouth is a device called the 6 pack.

This attractor is made by Luhr Jensen and mimics a school of baitfish with a wounded baitfish behind. The wounded baitfish is a spoon that you rig up using a either twenty or twenty five pound mono line in the length of eighteen inches. When the fish are in and around the harbor area this attractor with a spoon is deadly behind a 107mm Fish Hawk deeper diver.

-Magnum Spoons

-Silver Horde 5 Plugs or Ace Hi 5 Plugs

-Size 20 or Size 30 Rebel Fastracs

-Storm Deep Junior Thundersticks

These baits match the profile well of a mature alewife which is what the salmon are still chasing. There will be a point in the process were all of the salmon are no longer feeding and now will only bite out of aggression or anger. At this point the salmon will tend to feed on smaller baits.

I have never been able to find a date or way to know when it’s the right time to change over to all smaller baits. I have had success just mixing smaller baits in here and there until the fish tell me it’s time to switch over by striking the smaller baits consistently over the bigger ones.

The other bait choosing factor late in the cycle is noise. Baits with rattles tend to out produce baits without at this point. Baits like bomber long a and 3 inch silver horde plugs with rattles work better then the same baits without as this point. Best baits for this time of year are:

-Size 10 Rebel Fastrac

-Bomber Long A

-Silver Horde 3 inch Plug

-Storm Deep Junior Thundersticks

The color patterns of the baits picked to run in the fall will make a huge difference in your success rate this time of year.

I can and will tell you some of the best colors to use but it’s more important for me to help you understand when and where to use what colors. There are two main factors that dictate what colors you should be using:

Factor number one is what color is the water the fish are in.

Is it blue water, green water or dirty water? The water color will really dictate the color of the bait that will be most successful. In blue or green colored water natural colored baits or metallics work best. A lot of the best patterns we use in these conditions are prismatic or mylar. The baits that are clear and have the shiny tape inside the bait is what we call mylar. If its blue or green water the sun penetrates through better and these reflective colors work better in this condition. When the fish are located in the dirty water or later in the cycle when they are biting out of anger not hunger bright and or glow color patterns work best. 

salmon harbor fishing plugs great lakes mylar bright

The final piece to the puzzle for ultimate success fishing in and around the harbor mouth for fall salmon is your spread.

This spread will vary a little by the depth inside and outside your harbor area.

There are a few things that have changed since your grandpa fished the pier heads. Just like when fishing in the lake the water is cleaner than ever before which makes these salmon very spooky in this shallow water.

Due to the clear water two pieces of equipment have excelled in recent years and they are slide divers and planer boards. Both of these devices help you get the baits away from the boat which is the key in this shallow water. I like the two downrigger spread with very long leads behind the downrigger ball.

Leads of seventy-five to one-hundred feet behind the ball work well.

On the downriggers I like to run either magnum spoons or plugs.

Planer boards are very productive but can be a hassle to run if the traffic is heavy. Sheboygan’s harbor area is shallow in comparison to most with the average depth being fifteen to twenty feet.

I tend to have my best success with mono line and Storm deep junior Thundersticks. These crankbaits work well both outside and inside the harbor and dive to around nine or ten feet.

Remember when using these they are made for walleye fishing and you need to be very easy on the fish while reeling them in on these baits or you will rip the hooks out of the fishes mouth.

If your harbor area is deeper maybe averaging twenty five to thirty feet deep short segments of leadcore like two or three colors with Silver Horde plugs on them are hot.

Be very careful when running planer boards around the mouth as you may get them ran over by other fisherman and that is the risk.

I run one slide diver on each side as my outside/high diver and almost always have plugs on them.  I like to run leads of thirty to fifty feet behind the slide diver.  Rememebr that the plug will dive a few feet as well so don’t put these divers too close to the bottom.

Use a four setting on the back of the slide diver to get it out and away from the boat.

I will then run one 107mm deeper diver on each side of the boat inside and deeper than the slide divers. These divers should be on a one and a half setting so they stay closer to the boat and run deeper. Early in the fall run I usually will run spoons on these or my 6 pack rig. Later in the fall run this is my favorite spot to put those bomber long a crankbaits.

Depending on how your boat is setup you may have success running more planer boards or more downriggers tweak the spread a little until you find what works best for your boat.

harbor fishing spread great lakes salmon fishing chinook

- This article, about Salmon Fishing in Great Lakes Harbors, was written by outdoor writer Russell Gahagan



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  • Robert Morris on

    I disagree…..planers and leadcore/plug combos pull LOTS of fish from west michigan pierheads, just keep them close to boat

  • Pastor Dick on

    Russel, as always, informative and helpful. See you on the water.

  • Clyde Richardson on

    On the Michigan side of the lake it would be unwise to run planer boards anywhere near the harbor mouth from about the third week in August. Downriggers and dipseys with short leads will catch fish and keep the combat fishing to a minimum.

  • Jennifer on

    This is a great article, I learned so much from it. Easy to read and understand.


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