Cranking for Kings by Tony Ensalaco

Cranking for Kings by Tony Ensalaco

“Hey Tony, why don’t you take a couple of these and give them a try,” said long time Michigan river guide Steelie Dan Manyan.

Our drift boats were anchored next to one another on the lower Pere Marquette River. It was late August and the fish were just starting to make their return to the lower PM. If judging by how bright the salmon were in the system, the actual ritual of spawning won’t be taking place any time soon, I thought to myself.

“What are they?” I inquired, hoping not to seem like I wasn’t up to date on all of the new fishing paraphernalia.

“They’re called Thunderstick Jrs,—Storm makes them. They just sent me a box. Chinooks really knock the crap out of them,” Dan continued to brag.

“How do you fish them?” I reluctantly asked.

salmon chinook fishing fish ensalaco great lakes crankbaits

“Fish them the same way you would when you’re pitching spinners. Even the goofy bastard in the front of your boat can catch kings with them,” he cackled.” By the way, I’m Steelie Dan. Nice to meet you, chopper!”

The guy upfront was my buddy, Danny Koslow, from Naples, Florida. He was spending a few days with me chasing salmon.

For another few minutes we exchanged more pleasantries, thanked Dan for the tackle, then decided to continue down river.

A short float later we arrived at one of the more productive holes on the stretch. I think it was Danny’s first cast with the new lure when his rod tip jerked forward. A dime bright chinook came blowing three feet out of the water. The twenty-five-pound male came crashing back into the water, dislodging the sprung treble hooks from its jaw. It all happened in an instant. What I do recall vividly is the bait came screaming back toward the boat, hitting me in the hand and leaving a small cut on my knuckle.

Who said fishing was a non-contact sport?

That episode happened about twenty seasons ago. When using the proper equipment, casting crankbaits for salmon accounted for countless hookups over the years.

I prefer a rod that’s anywhere from 7 to 9 ½ feet in length, and has a fast action with plenty of backbone to muscle fish away from obstructions. That’s easier said than done with feisty chinooks. Rods that are rated for 12- to 20-pound test should suffice. My personal choice is a custom built G. Loomis ST1025 GL 2 spinning rod. It casts, fishes, and fights large salmon like a dream.

I use 12-pound Maxima monofilament exclusively. I like some stretch in my line. Bad things happen with salmon in close quarters. Sometimes a little give makes the difference between a landed fish and a spit hook.

Many fishermen swear by using braided line. The strength and durability comes in handy when a large salmon tries to saw you off on a log. I say fish whatever you feel comfortable with.

As far as reels go, a good quality spinning reel with adequate line capacity and a smooth drag seem to be the ticket for most fishermen. Casting reels can be a great choice as long as you don’t have too much difficulty casting the light weight of the crankbaits.

Now to address the business end of the setup.

I use Deep Thunderstick Jrs. almost exclusively. I have them in several colors, which I rotate throughout the day. Any minnow type lure in your favorite salmon colors will catch fish. I have seen Shad Raps, Rattle Traps, Tadpollys, and Reef Runners, among others, stuck up in the trees. If guys are launching them, then they must be catching fish.

One thing I’d like to note. The banana plugs that are so popular when back trolling for salmon do not seem to work nearly as well when casting them. I’ve tried them several times, and I keep switching back to a Thunderstick.

I always modify my baits before using them. Never use these lures straight out of the box. They were not designed to tangle with the wrath on a pissed off chinook.

The first thing I do is remove the split ring from the nose of the lure and replace it with a quality snap. This will make the bait wobble better.

The next thing I do is remove the factory hooks. Save them for the walleyes. I add a second split ring to the one on the lure. I can’t stress enough how important this trick is. It combats the torque a salmon unleashes during the fight. I run a double split ring set up with all my lures that have multiple trebles. My landing percentage has skyrocketed since I made the change.

The next step is to add the hooks. On a Thunderstick Jr. I will always use size four, permasteel treble hooks. They remain super sharp even after hanging up in the brush. I have never had a salmon straighten a permasteel hook that wasn’t wrapped around a log. You could really put the screws to a fish without worrying about springing the hooks.

Now truth be told I despise using treble hooks. My first choice would be an offset Siwash. Unfortunately, I feel that a treble hook is a better choice for these particular baits.

If you must run a single hook to comply with regulations, then the best way is to attach a bead chain to the belly eye and add a size 1 or 1/0 siwash to the other end.

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Once you’re set up, it’s time to fish! Fishing a crankbait is pretty straightforward. Cast into any traditional salmon holding water you find, and retrieve the lure back. It’s that simple. You can keep changing the speed of your retrieve to figure out what the fish will respond to best.

My favorite way of fishing crankbaits is to float slowly down river and cast at any depression, hole, or logjam, that’s deep enough to hold salmon. This is a fantastic way to fish tight spots that cannot be covered by other techniques. Oftentimes chinook will tuck deep into logjams due to sunlight, clear water, or heavy fishing pressure.

That’s when crankbaits really shine.

The reason why they are so effective when fishing around logs is you can work a crankbait, due to their buoyancy, more accurately than you could if you were using lures that sink quickly, such as spoons or spinners. Cast a crankbait upstream of a logjam and let the lure drift down with the current. Once it reaches the desired spot, start your retrieve. When you connect with an enraged king in a pile of logs, hold on! It’s the equivalent of getting into a fistfight in a phone booth!

Casting crankbaits for salmon has been compared to bass fishing on steroids. The lures seem to work in all types of holding water. Any cast you make could result in a hook-up. Chinook really crush a lure zipping past their nose. It’s easy to see why so many fishermen have added crankbaits to their arsenal of salmon tools.

Try them this fall and I’m sure that you will too!

- written by Tony Ensalaco



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1 comment

Do sponge balls work with other species aside from salmon & trout? Can they be used for bass, walleye, etc? Thanks.


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