COHO MOJO - Mike Gnatkowski

COHO MOJO - Mike Gnatkowski

The outflow from major rivers, like the St. Joe and Grand, attracts schools of salmon in the spring. The murky outflow of the rivers is much warmer than the big lake in the spring and fish take refuge in the veil of the tepid water. Stitching the color line is a proven tactic where major rivers enter the lake. 


A silver/red herringbone Mag Lip was the hot bait. 


One of the first opportunities Great Lakes anglers get at open water angling is typically in the early spring for coho salmon in southern Lake Michigan. Cohos planted all around Lake Michigan gather in the tepid waters of the southern portion of the lake over the winter and well into spring. Prevailing winds, shallower depths and effluent from industry cause the southern part of the lake to stay slightly warmer than the surrounding lake. Baitfish gravitate to the lukewarm temperatures found there and cohos follow. Savvy anglers are right on their heels. 

“Last year was a particularly good year for Michigan anglers when it came to Cohos,” said Michigan Department of Natural Re-sources Lake Michigan Basin Coordinator Jay Wesley. “I think it had something to do with water conditions, but more of the coho tended to stay on the Michigan side of the lake than years past.” It was good news for Michigan anglers. During a typical year Michigan anglers account for approximately 15 to 20% of the coho catch in the open waters of Lake Michigan. “We (Michigan) obviously catch more cohos in the rivers because we plant more,” said Wesley. 





“Michigan has typically stocked right around 1.5 million cohos since the program began,” shared Wesley. “We’ve always planted St. Joe, the Grand River and the Platte. But we added Saugatuck and the Sable River in recent years. We made more strategic plants in the Grand River in recent years planting the fish further downstream rather than up by Lansing. We’re not sure whether the change in Coho distribution was due to the changes in stocking or changes in the lake that kept more of them in Michigan waters.” This season should give researchers and anglers some additional insights.

The MDNR plants spring yearling coho, which gives them the best chances of survival. Last year the MDNR planted 1.48 million cohos at Escanaba (48,000), the Boardman River (104,000) the Platte River (772,000), Manistee (82,000), the Big Sable River (42,000), Muskegon (37,000) the Grand River (248,000), Saugatuck (37,000), St. Joe (90,000) and at the Galien River (21,000). By comparison Wisconsin planted 500,000 cohos, Illinois (300,000) and Indiana (230,000).

Wesley stressed that coho survival is a good indicator of the strength of alewife year classes in the lake. When there’s an abundance of small prey in the lake cohos do well. The outstanding fishing in 2022 would seem to indicate the alewife population is doing well.






“2022 was a pretty typical year for cohos in the Lake Michigan waters of Wisconsin,” shared Brad Eggold, Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources Great Lakes District Fisheries Supervisor. “Ports like Port Washington, Milwaukee, Kenosha and Racine experienced pretty good spring Coho fishing and probably saw a slight up tick from 2021.”

Eggold said that like the Michigan side, cohos in recent years have tended to migrate half way up the west coast of Lake Michigan and then disappear. In previous years anglers would catch cohos all summer long all the way up to Two Rivers. There’s only one place the cohos could have gone—to the middle of the lake and closer to their planting sites in Michigan and the rivers that they naturally reproduce in.


Anglers try their luck off the St. Joe pier for spring salmon.


“We’ve tried to stock more coho in the northern part of the lake in recent years to encourage migration,” said Eggold. The WDNR planted 369,869 coho in 2019. Wisconsin anglers harvested 40,349 coho in 2020. The WDNR has planted fall fingerlings in years past, but now plants spring yearlings, which have a much better survival rate. Wisconsin lacks the rivers that Michigan has to attract mature salmon and promote natural reproduction with a few exceptions. “We had a good run of coho in the Root River last year,” claimed Eggold.

Traditionally, wherever Lake Michigan coho are planted or naturally reproduced they end up in the southern part of the lake during the winter and early spring. “Anglers at ports like St. Joe, New Buffalo and the Galien River typically experience outstanding fishing for coho in the spring beginning in March. Some years the spring fishing is good all the way to Grand Haven,” said Wesley. Last year anglers fishing out of Muskegon, Whitehall and Ludington reported catching more than the odd coho in spring and early summer. Some anglers fishing out of the more northerly Michigan ports reported catching a half dozen cohos a day in the spring. Normally catching a coho then is an oddity.






The outflow from major rivers, like the St. Joe and Grand, attracts schools of salmon in the spring. The murky outflow of the rivers is much warmer than the big lake in the spring and fish take refuge in the veil of the tepid water. Stitching the color line is a proven tactic where major rivers enter the lake.

Two spring hotspots (pun intended) on the Michigan side are where warm water discharges dump into the lake at St. Joe and Port Sheldon. The tepid effluent is a siren’s song to baitfish and hungry coho. Anglers experience hot coho action out of Michigan City and Portage Indiana in the spring. Waukegan and Winthrop Harbor are two of the better ports in Illinois for spring coho.





Friends Jim Balzer and Gerry Adler had been slaying the cohos for more than a month before I was able to join them in mid-April last year. Limits were the norm when the weather cooperated and justified the long drive from the Detroit suburbs to St. Joe. I rendezvous with them in Saugatuck, which was perfect from my residence in Muskegon.

It was shortly after daylight when we arrived at the St. Joe launch, but the ramp was already busy with boats launching and there were a dozen trailers already in the parking lot. Gerry and I readied the tackle while Jim steered us towards the big lake.


Jim Balzer with a spring coho caught out of St. Joe. 


There were probably a dozen boats working just out of the harbor mouth and the graph showed why. The graph lit up with marks of good fish in the outflow of the St. Joe River. We all agreed we needed to try off the river mouth before venturing any further. Never leave fish to go find more fish. We put out a spread of Church in-line boards trailing an assortment of gaudy Thin Fins and Tadpollies Jim and Gerry had been whacking the coho on.





There was a 7- or 8-degree temperature difference between the river water and the colder lake. The graph revealed the predators definitely had an affinity for the warmer, murky water. Big hooks on the graph were stacked from top to bottom when our boards were skipping along in the dark water. But we couldn’t buy a bite. We kept a watchful eye on the other boats in the area. We never saw a net move. After an hour or so we watched several charter boats pull lines and either head south or west to greener pastures. That was our cue.

Jim nosed the Triton into the shallows and started a zig-zag course to the south in 30 to 45 feet of water. The wind was a steady 15 to 20 mph, but out of the east otherwise we wouldn’t have been fishing. The air temperature nearly matched the water temperature in the low 40’s, but it felt much colder. It was damp and a bone-chilling cold that went to your core. Fish showed with regularity on the graph, but the rods never moved. We whipped the boat around and did a north troll thinking our problem night be direction of troll, but that didn’t change anything.





Finally after a couple of hours without any action I asked if I could try something different. I pulled the Thin Fins and Tadpollies and replaced them with Mag Lips ( and Live Target Rainbow Smelt Banana Bait Deep Divers ( and attached them to my Yeck planer boards. I figured it couldn’t hurt. I had a suspicion though the fish were just being fish.

We’d only gone about 15 minutes when I was looking directly at the middle boards on the starboard side. It shuddered, dance sideways and then started taking off when the board tripped and started sliding down the line. I grabbed it and started reeling like crazy until I felt weigh. It was about then that the coho felt the sting of the hooks and started cartwheeling madly. I prayed the hooks would hold and not clip the light leader I had on. Eventually the fish tired and I was able to ski the fish into the net. We had the important one.


In-line boards are used to deliver baits to spring salmon. 


I’d barely gotten the line reset when it went again. We added the twin silvery 5-pound coho to the box. One fish could be an accident. Two fish is a pattern.

The board never moved before the next coho was somersaulting on the surface with the Mag Lip firmly notched in his jaw. Unfortunately, he took it with him as a souvenir. I had one more of the 3.5 Mag Lips in the silver/red herringbone the fish were picking out. I put another Mag Lip in a different color on another rod thinking maybe it was the action and not the color. We didn’t get a bite on it.

We turned to make a pass back though where we’d caught the fish and on the turn another coho smacked the hot Mag Lip. We were just about back to the pier heads when the outside boards trailing the Live Target Smelt started screaming towards the Cook Nuclear Plant to the south. The fish didn’t jump and was smoking line off the reel. I had a feeling it wasn’t a coho.





I stuck the rod butt in Gerald’s stomach and told him to be careful as I only had a 12-pound leader on the rod. The Diawa 17 LC reel was getting low on line when the fish finally showed signs of turning. Gerry played the fish with kit gloves and finally coaxed it close enough for Jim to slip the net under it. It turned out to be a nine or 10-pound king with scales the color of a new dime and a cobalt back to match.

The fishing obviously wasn’t a hot as what Jim and Gerry were use to, but in some ways it was more rewarding having to figure out what the fish wanted that day and sticking with it. I know I won’t be going to St. Joe this spring without a supply of Mag Lips and Live Target Smelt.




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