Finding the HOTTEST Bites, When Species Collide... by Matt Straw

Finding the HOTTEST Bites, When Species Collide... by Matt Straw

Lake Ontario was silky smooth as Captain Frank Campbell slipped the boat into position along a shoreline break.

“Uncharacteristically flat for April,” he said. “Boat control won’t be the problem. Let’s see if the fish stayed home in this clear water.”

We came to Niagara Falls to drift bait for steelhead in the Niagara River, and maybe drop some spoons on the Niagara Bar for lake trout. But Campbell said we had to spend at least one morning experiencing the pre-spawn smallmouths on the shallow shoals of Lake Ontario.

matt straw smallmouth

The water temperature read 43°F.

After a long, cold winter in one of the Great Lakes, that’s balmy stuff—even for bass. From the lip of the break into 12 feet of water, we could cast well up onto the rocky flat where the smallies came to bask in the sun-drenched shallows. Using 7-foot, medium-power, fast spinning sticks and 6-pound mono, we pitched ISG and YUM tubes on 1/8-ounce jig heads, and allowed them to circle and glide to bottom.

Smallmouth would hit on the drop, or on the lift as we pulled and began to reel, swimming the tube slowly just off bottom for several feet. We popped several nice bass with at least one pushing 6 pounds when I decided to make a cast to the deep side of the break.

I lifted the tube off bottom and began swimming it, rod tip low, reeling slow, and the line transmitted a little “tick,” the same sensation felt when smallmouths picked it up in the shallows. But the rod doubled instantly on the hookset and line began screaming off the little spinning reel. “This is no bass, Frank,” I said. He just laughed.

“You were casting out deeper,” Campbell accused me. About 7 minutes later we had a 12-pound lake trout in the net. And for a couple hours, all along that rocky shoreline, we kept catching bass by pitching shallow and lake trout up to 15 pounds by casting deep with the same tube baits.

Plus a bonus brown trout that weighed over 13 pounds. We know because we entered it in a derby. And it came nowhere near winning any prizes—if that tells you anything about the quality of spring fishing on Lake Ontario.

Anyway—big numbers, big specimens, three species, all within casting range of the same boat position. Stuff of life-long memories.

lake trout great lakes

A few years later I was fishing with Campbell again, catching steelhead and the occasional 'laker' from the Niagara River. But, unbeknownst to me at the time, Captain John Oravec (The Oh Man) was a few miles from us catching muskies over 45 inches, a couple walleyes over 10 pounds, some lakers and a few steelhead from the same drift, using minnows. “Happens all the time in the Great Lakes,” Oravec says. “We have so many dynamic game species in all these huge waterways that, at some point, those creatures are going to collide on the same forage species in the same place and the same time.”

Yeah, but can we predict it?

Anglers often stumble into situations when the bite is on for two or more different species of fish in the same place at the same time.

Great luck?

Sure. After all, not knowing what the next cast will bring is sauce for the goose. But why leave the opportunity for an angling twofer or threefer to mere chance? It is sometimes possible to plan fishing forays to coincide with just such an event.

Any predatory fish species sharing the same body of water can collide when they’re chasing the same forage base at the same time. It’s just a matter of being in the right place at the right time and matching the right forage with your presentation.

Put it all together, and two or more species often respond with equal fervor. The tricky part is knowing where and when to expect these collisions. The easy part is figuring out what to use.

More Multiple Madness

Captain Tim Dawidiuk and I fished the Sturgeon Bay Open smallmouth tournament in Green Bay for a decade. In that time, during both pre-fishing and tournament days, we caught brown trout, steelhead, big walleyes, pike over 20 pounds, and a few big carp.

Other contestants also caught those species and a number of muskies over 50 inches long, all “by accident” while fishing for bass. The key to all those days of multi-species action was a single lure: The suspending minnowbait.

Certain lures appeal to everything and a minnowbait that suspends is one of them. While early spring browns, steelhead, and salmon are relatively rare catches when targeting smallmouth bass, walleyes, pike, and muskies are not.

The only reason trout and salmon seem rare in spring is because they tend to remain on the primary and secondary points outside the bays, while those other specimens tend to wander into the bays and stay there until the water warms to about 65°F. Sometimes the difference is only a dozen yards, and sometimes it’s a couple miles.

Many days, however, we had no idea which species would be the next to enter the net.

It was quite common to catch multiple walleyes over 7 pounds with a Lucky Craft Pointer 100, size #10 Rapala X-Rap, or Baker Lures Series 3 JLD while catching more than enough smallmouths to place high in the tournament. Dawidiuk also uses suspending baits to target salmon that mill around in the marinas and harbors surrounding Sturgeon Bay in the fall.

As mentioned, certain lures, like tubes and suspending jerk baits, appeal to everything that swims. Also on that list is the basic jig-grub combo. A 5-inch Kalin’s Grub on a 1/8-ounce Gopher Tackle Mushroom Jig is one of my favorite multi-species combos wherever largemouths, smallmouths, walleyes, pike, sauger, white bass, or stocked rainbows inhabit the same places at the same time.

The Original Floating Rapala and other buoyant minnow baits have multiplicity wired, too. Everything responds to the yar, pitch, and roll of a good minnow imitator.

Hair jigs can catch anything, too. Multi-species guide Steve Martinez of Walhalla, Michigan, not only uses hair jigs to target steelhead, salmon, pike, bass, and walleyes—he uses the same jig. “The Swamp Donkey from Hill-Brand Tackle has massive multi-species appeal,” Martinez said. “Not only is it my favorite jig for salmon and steelhead in rivers, I use it to target largemouth bass, smallmouth bass, pike, brown trout, and other species. I always have a 7- to 8-foot rod with a Swamp Donkey dangling from the tip. In the river I use olive, black, or brown versions for everything.”

The jig stays the same, but colors and sometimes sizes vary by species. “Out in the Great Lakes I use olive-and-yellow or brown-and-yellow—gobie-related colors—for carp, northerns, trout, and bass,” said Martinez—who actually guides for carp around the Beaver Island archipelago with Indigo Guide Service partner Kevin Morlock.

“I started tying my own versions of the Swamp Donkey, too. in 1/4-ounce, and I tie it in 1/8-ounce versions for a slower sink and a smaller profile in certain giides a little better for carp...


"They do not want a jig to hop. You have to drag or swim it right past their face. But for kings and steelhead, I stick with the 1/4-ounce size. Steelhead really like the olive and brown, pike just love black, and salmon tend to go for olive with gold flash. I use a 7.5-foot rod with the jig tied direct to 20-pound PowerPro line for just about everything.”

A leech-imitating bunny-strip jig or fly can trigger most species to strike, too. Fly fishing for big pike with a black bunny strip will entice brown trout and any species of bass that happen into the casting zone.

For whatever reason, walleyes seem to prefer that same strip of black bunny fur on a jig head, while pike and bass often care less about which you use.

Everybody knows a Mepps Spinner can catch anything that swims. A size #3 to #5 Mepps Aglia, or any straight-shafted spinner in the same size range, can crush salmon, bass, pike, steelhead, browns, and sometimes walleyes. Toss a spoon like the classic Eppinger Dardevle or the Acme Cleo from a Great Lakes pier and what you catch is dependent on time of year.

Color often plays a role in what ends up in the net, too.

I find that copper blades or spoons in stained water, silver, green or black in clear water, and gold or brass in cloudy or brown water will provide a shot at catching happens to be out there at the time.

Nightcrawlers, Berkley Gulp!, live minnows—we’ve all had action with a variety of species using bait. Presentation is the easy stuff. We all have a few baits and tricks that turned several species in the same area at the same time. The tricky part is being able to plan on it, go to the right spot at the right time, and take advantage of what you know.

Timing and Finding Multi-Species Bites

Obviously, the easiest multi-species action to find takes place around warm-water discharge sites near power plants. We’ve taken hundreds of white bass, crappies, carp, bass, and suckers within 40 or 50 feet of catching brown trout and steelhead in these places.

Temperature bands surround the discharge site, so anglers need:

1. A water-temperature gauge of some sort;

2. To know which bands will hold which species. Warm-water sites and presentations are actually involved enough to demand an entire article devoted to the subject, replete with illustrations and charts.

But it’s like cheating. Anybody can catch multiple species all day around an artificial source of warm water in winter. 

Out “in the wild,” so to speak, timing a multi-species bite is a matter of knowing a little about the biology and life cycle of a variety of species. For instance, we would never have expected to find big numbers of lake trout shallow around the shoals of Lake Ontario in July or August. Lakers like cold water—and in fact can’t survive at all in the water smallmouths prefer during summer. But when the warmest water available is shallow, yet remains under 50°F, all kinds of fish can be found there.

Following are some examples of timing multi-species bites that remain consistent year-after-year. In fact I depend on finding a variety of fish in these places at these times every year.

smallmouth fishing great lakes matt straw

Brown Trout, Lakers, Steelhead, Smallmouth Bass, Walleyes

When: April into May.

Where: River mouths, harbors, shorelines, and islands in the Great Lakes where a gentle to moderate wind is blowing into shore and the water is gradually warming.

Focus: Depths of 2 to 6 feet for smallmouths, 4 to 10 feet for walleyes, and adjacent drop-offs for trout.

Specifics: Water temperatures from about 41°F to about 55°F. Find the warmest spots and concentrate activity there.

Presentation: Suspending jerk baits, 7-foot, fast, medium-light power rod; 10-pound braided line with 10-pound mono or fluorocarbon leader. Pull lure to running depth, use long pauses, and twitch rather than snap.

great lakes baits walleye musky bass pike

Largemouth Bass & Northern Pike

When: Mid-April to early June, depending on weather.

Where: Natural lakes, bays of the Great Lakes, and most reservoirs.

Focus: Moderate depths on shallow weed flats, primarily between four- and 12-foot contours. As bass stage near spawning areas, they hunt perch where weeds first emerge, as do post-spawn pike.

Specifics: Water temperatures between 50°F and 60°F

Presentation: 7-foot, fast, moderate-power rod; 10-pound braided line with 10-pound mono or fluorocarbon leader or 12- to 20-pound tie-able wire leaders; suspending baits, such as Rapala Husky Jerks, Smithwick Rogues and Lucky Craft Pointers. Slow retrieve, long pauses and very subtle snaps of the rod tip.

Smallmouth Bass & Walleyes

When: July through August.

Where: Large natural lakes with numerous offshore rock reefs and rocky structure.

Focus: 5 to 9 feet of water around edges of shallow, isolated rock piles and reefs early and late in the day. Water temperature is irrelevant; best is warm, stable, calm to slightly breezy weather where low numbers of open-water forage—alewives, ciscoes, emerald shiners, shad, and smelt—drive walleyes inshore and surprisingly shallow, where bass are feeding on crayfish and structure-oriented baitfish.

Presentation: 7- to 8-foot, fast, medium-light spinning rod; 4- to 6-pound mono; near bottom, slowly swim 4- to 5-inch plastic grubs or action-tail worms on 1/16- to 1/8-ounce jigs. Or suspending baits with a medium-light spinning rod, 10-pound braid and 10-pound fluoro leader.

Smallmouth Bass, Northern Pike & Walleyes

smallmouth bass great lakesWhen: July through early September—Windy days, especially with wind blowing off the main lake to an off-shore reef. 

Where: Main-lake rock reefs on big natural lakes 5) 6) Open-water forage species such as ciscoes and emerald shiners follow wind-driven currents and veils of plankton.

Focus: Reefs create natural ambush points for bass and pike, with walleye often joining in during low-light periods. Wind brings deeper pike up on top, creating a free-for-all.

Presentations: 7- to 7½-foot, medium-power spinning rods; 10-pound braided line with light (10- to 18-pound) wire leaders (preferably green or black) ; shallow- or deep-running suspending baits, suspending shad baits (Rapala X-Rap Shad), Mepps Spinner, or jig-grub combos, depending on the mix of species involved.

Walleyes & Yellow Perch

When: Mid-July to early September.

Where: Great Lakes and large natural lakes with relatively shallow basins (25 to 70 feet) around subtle rock humps or rises on hard-bottom flats, 20 to 30 feet deep.

Focus: Warm weather and steady barometric pressure are key; surface temperature between 61°F and 74°F as both species key in on suspending main-lake baitfish, including alewives, emerald shiners, ciscoes and smelt.

Presentation: 6- to 6½-foot, medium-light spinning rod; 4- to 6-pound mono; ¼-ounce jigging spoons or jigging minnows, such as Rapala’s Jigging Raps and Northland’s Puppet Minnows, presented vertically under a transducer if possible.

Muskies & Northern Pike

When: September through early October.

Where: Great Lakes, natural lakes and reservoirs on deep, main-lake weedlines meeting gravel and rocky structure.

Focus: As water temperature drops below 60°F and the lake turns over or shallow weeds begin to die, things kick into high gear. Both species move to the deep weedlines as ciscoes (lake herring) come in to spawn while smelt and emerald shiners move shallower.

Presentation: Baitcasting gear, preferably 8-foot or longer specialty bucktail rods for creating quick changes of direction; mid-size bucktails and other straight-shafted spinners on 40-pound braided line with 80-pound test fluorocarbon leaders.

walleye strawPike, Muskies & Big Walleyes

When: Late October through early December as ciscoes (lake herring) move out of open water and begin staging to spawn.

Where: Main-lake areas of Great Lakes and large natural lakes in 8- to 15-foot depths over anything from gravel bars to softer substrates typically adjacent to weedlines.

Focus: Find concentrations of baitfish by running across main-lake areas over the depths of 20 to 8 feet with sonar. Staging ciscoes will be deeper, attracting lots of predators.

Presentation: Trolling with Rapala Original Floaters or Shad Raps, 8-foot trolling rods and line-counter reels.

Steelhead & Chinook Salmon

When: September and October.

Where: All Great Lakes tributaries that entertain runs of both kings and fall steelhead, immediately below spawning redds and flats used by salmon.

Focus: Water temperatures between 45°F and 55°F are best as steelhead hover downstream within a few hundred feet of spawning salmon, gobbling loose eggs in the vicinity of staging kings not in the process of spawning.

Presentation: Spinner on an 8-foot, medium-power spinning rod, or streamer on an 8-weight rod with floating line and split shot or sink tip (depending on current speed), and 12-pound mono tippet. Cast fly or spinner slightly downstream and across and swing it ahead of visible fish or through deeper pools and runs on a tight line.

multi species fishing trout great lakes rainbow steelheadSteelhead & Brown Trout

When: November through January

Where: Great Lakes tributaries of all sizes with enough ground flow to remain open during winter.

Focus: Precipitation is key to triggering fall steelhead runs; browns may run regardless as they spawn in the fall, then remain in the rivers for a time as steelhead stage for spring spawning. both species will use classic, wide wintering pools in areas of low gradient.

Presentation: 12- to 15-foot float rods with center-pin or spinning reels; spawn sacks tied with fresh salmon or brown-trout eggs on 1/64- to 1/32-ounce jigs.


Read more Great Lakes Fishing Articles from this talented outdoor writer & others, 

- Written by Matt Straw 

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