Great Lakes Trolling - Making it Simple & Fun by Darryl Choronzey

Boats salmon fishing Walleye Walleye Fishing

The magic words… “Fish On!” came screaming out from John McKessock’s lips.

great lakes fishing trolling salmon walleye kings chinook steelhead bass

My rod was pumping and bucking.

The Ambassadeur was screaming and moaning. John jumped for his rod to get the gear out the way.

I threw the motor into neutral and I freed and hauled back on my rod. The big king 90 feet under the boat was obviously annoyed with the sting of the 2/0 Mustad barb buried firmly in his jaw.

First the brute headed for safety going deep, then would turn tail, rise and begin heading towards the horizon. From the minute I grabbed the rod we realized the fish was big. It was a constant game of tug-of-war, with the salmon winning the early rounds. For the first few minutes, the distance between angler and salmon stretched out to almost the 100-yard mark. I’d pump, pull and wind and the Chinook would simply protest with a slap of his tail and melt more mono off the 6500 Abu.

Nearby boats began navigating around us.

Of course, it also helped that McKessock was frantically waving a big net over his head in attempt to alert them that a battle was underway. Over the span of fifteen minutes the king was down deep under the boat and the next minute up skimming across the surface with the flasher slapping and big tail thrashing.

To some observers it may have been a case of two fools yelling, screaming and doing a lot of cursing as the battle raged, but John finally had the mesh of the net wrapped around the 25 pounds of thrashing king salmon and hauled it up and over the side and into the boat.

chinook salmon fishing fish on king

Now, this little scene took place in the early ‘70s when the Great Lakes’ salmon fishery was in its infancy. We were fishing out from the big pier at Bronte on Lake Ontario’s north shore. Coho had been introduced by Ontario’s Ministry of Natural Resources in 1967 and the bigger strain Chinook a year later. That day on the water the silver coho seemed to be everywhere and the larger, stronger kings were just coming of age and adding to the all-new Great Lakes’ salmon fishery excitement.

Salmon fever had firmly taken hold from Wisconsin on Lake Michigan to Oswego, New York at the eastern end of the Great Lakes chain.

Out from Bronte an estimated five hundred boats had formed a fishing armada. Boats were everywhere. Fishermen were everywhere. Salmon fever was in full swing. That same scenario was taking place across the big inland chain of lakes. Boat ramps on lakes Michigan, Huron and Ontario, were not just busy, but downright congested. Line-ups were not just the norm, but stretched for miles. Back then, salmon fever really was salmon fever.

It was also a time when all anglers were newcomers too. At the start most ventured out on the big lakes with the smaller boats they owned at the time. The majority of the fishing was carried out close to river mouths and close to shore.

The original baits of choice at that time were wobbling plugs like Flatfish, Kwikfish and Heddon Tadpollys.

As could be expected, the Great Lakes’ salmon excitement had also caught the attention the West Coast salmon tackle manufactures. Luhr Jensen Jr. of Hood River, Oregon’s Luhr Jensen and Sons had even loaded up a large van, travelled east and was giving away J-plugs at each and every salmon port throughout the Mid-West to promote his West Coast brand.

great lakes fishing salmon troll trolling king chinook coho steelhead

With coho being the name of the game he also helped introduce dodgers, flies and plastic squids to Great Lakes anglers. Overnight, the names Luhr Jensen, Dave Davis, Tomic, Grizzly and Yakima became synonymous with the Great Lakes salmon excitement.

The wobbling originals still remained popular, but techniques and baits to tempt the fish were constantly changing. In fact, in the early years of the salmon explosion there was a lot more fishing tackle going through cash registers then, than even now.

It was the golden age of salmon fishing.

The newly introduced fish were definitely out there in amazing numbers. They proved easy to catch, especially when the proper tackle and techniques were applied. 

In those early days, we fished a little different too.

Smaller boats under twenty feet were more prevalent than bigger craft. I started fishing in 1968. My18-foot Starcraft center console it was looked on as big compared to many around me. 

But let’s be honest, a lot has changed since the early ‘70s. The average size of boats has changed. Tackle and techniques have changed. What surprises me most is the attitude towards fishing itself has changed. Caution though. With those changes the number of anglers out on our Great Lakes has changed.

Before I sat down to put this article together, I conferred with a number of “old” time pros that still ply the waters of lakes Superior, Michigan, Huron and Ontario.

To the man, each agreed that the numbers of anglers fishing their ports are down from the early seventies when those first salmon were first introduced. Line-ups at the boat launch have decreased and anglers on water have followed suit.

In the mid-‘70s I coordinated the Toronto Star’s Great Salmon Hunt.

We carried out weekly counts of boats on the water between the ports of Bronte and Port Credit. Our surveys indicated average boats fishing the study area at between 400 and 500 craft on study days.

Again remember, they were for the most part smaller sized boats than we see today. Today’s numbers are also far lower than back then. Surprisingly, the actual number of charter boats are lower as well.

Safety on the big water is certainly a fact.

Bigger boats are safer boats.

Contaminant concerns are a factor.

Still, jurisdictions on both sides of the lakes annually release recommendations on consumption. Each species of fish in the Great Lakes, trout, salmon, walleye, bass and just about everything with fins are categorized. Follow the guidelines on size and regularity and just how to clean your catch, eat you catch, and you can still live to be a hundred.

great lakes fishing salmon troll trolling king chinook coho steelhead

I’ve been around this game since Howard Tanner released those first coho into Michigan’s Platte River back in 1966. I had the opportunity to fish his first salmon, I’ve probably help raise a couple of million salmon. I’ve been closely associated with some of the biggest salmon derbies on the lakes. I also have my own theory on why the decline?

For starters we aren’t witnessing the same numbers of newcomers entering the fishery.

When salmon were first introduced, very few folks around the Great Lakes actually knew how to catch a coho, a king, a brown trout or a laker in open water. Again, small boats were the norm and it took a while for anglers to learn the best baits and for tackle manufacturers to either introduce or invent the baits and techniques we use today. The fish were there and proved easy to catch. Newcomers visiting the docks were enthralled and easily caught the “salmon” fever.

As can be expected, boats got bigger and there were more techniques to learn.

Rod limits per angler were also on the increase.

On the Canadian side of the Lake Ontario it went from one to two. Across the lake it increased from two to three. Regulations vary on just where your fishing. In most waters, anglers are allowed to troll two lures on each rod. So, in theory a craft with four anglers could have 12 rods out and 24 lures in the water.

Boats had to get bigger.

Both recreational boats and charter boats got bigger. As the years went by pay as you play tournaments sprouted up all over the Great Lakes with big money payoffs.

Now, before I go further, let me explain that I love and appreciate the growth of the derbies, charter boats and tournament fishermen. All three factors have introduced the new techniques most utilize today. Also, all three groups along with the tackle manufactures are leading the way to ensure that governments continue to support the fishery with adequate fish plantings.

I just hope that more newcomers enter the fishery as they did in the ‘70s and ‘80s when it truly was a simple, but still an exciting era.

No doubt about it, first timers coming down to the dock today can be intimidated by the sight of the bigger boats with a dozen rods hanging off their sterns. They’re also intimidated by the thought of the cost to enter the fishery.

I lived and fished on the west coast of British Columba 50 years ago.

I’ve visited and fished the Pacific from Oregon to Alaska for almost 4consecutive years.

Surprisingly, that fishery has changed little over the years. I seldom if ever see a charter boat or any boat with more than two downriggers mounted on their sides and trust me, they are big, safe, comfortable boats. It’s interesting to note when a salmon strikes, anglers immediately stop the boat and enjoy every fight with the fish. Jeez that’s the same style of fishing we practiced here on the Great Lakes when salmon were first introduced. 

There is no denying that our charter boats and the tournaments have to catch fish to stay in the game.

The business charters keep their customers happy providing and dependent on plenty of action and plenty of fish. The tournament fraternity, depend on numerous hook-ups in hopes of the big ones and the cash at the end of the day.

Tackle and Techniques

But… there is something to be said for Old School fishing. It could be referred to as sitting back and smelling the roses.

Sit back and enjoy the atmosphere around you. It used to be fishing, not just harvesting.

My 26-foot Mako is outfitted with four Magnum Metalz rigger mounts on her sides. Planer board pulleys are positioned up front on the rails, along with a half dozen rod holders evenly spaced. For the last four decades it has been downright overkill. Like many, I’ve got too many downriggers hanging in the garage. I seldom attach four riggers to the boat. As a matter of fact the great white can handily carry six anglers, but I seldom take even three anglers on the water… including the captain!

There’s no telephone poles or cable allowed.

Back in the early seventies I purchased a half dozen Abu Garcia Ambassedeur 6500 round reels and matching Conolon medium-lite action 12 weight trolling rods. I’ve probably owned a hundred other trolling outfits over the years, but still treasure and use the old originals.

I spooled 20-pound Trilene on the reels back then and even now spool 20- to 30-pound Trilene or Maxima on those same originals. Oh, I’ve snapped a few rods and had to replace them, but the reels are the same and the outfits can truly be described as medium-light outfits.

great lakes fishing salmon troll trolling king chinook coho steelhead

The rods still pump and buck and reels still scream and moan when fighting kings, coho, steelhead and browns.

And the motor is always shut down when a fish hits.

Back in the beginning it was all dodgers and rubber squids. Like just about everyone else, I’ve graduated to Spin Doctor flashers and Dream Weaver Action mylar flies.

Spoons are always an option, but I prefer the smaller varieties of metals. From 50 years of fishing the West Coast I know the importance of natural bait, but prefer anchovy over strip or whole herring.

The major difference being, I often prefer the use of a “dummy” flasher attached to my Shark cannon balls and not on the main line. My Spin Doctors are tied directly behind the tail of my Shark cannonballs with the aid of 5 to 20 feet of 50-pound test Maxima monofilament.

The trick then is positioning the actual line release above the Shark with the aid of a halibut snap. With just a little practise you have the mono and bait angling down behind the flasher. The fish strikes, the rod pops and you are fighting the fish without any pressure from an attractor. 

I’ve often found that longer leads identify smaller fish that are hooked, yet can’t pop the release.

Here’s a simple suggestion and again a West Coast remedy. All my release are at least 24 inches in length, but most are now 48 inches and others even 60 inches long.

Smaller fish dip and weave on the long lead, transferring the signal to the end of even the tautest bent over downrigger rod. I’ve redesigned all my Off Shore releases with longer 150-pound monofilament to longer lengths. The Scotty Downrigger company out of Sidney, British Columbia makes line releases with distances from 16 to 60 inches in length,

Even with in-liner planer boards a few of us old diehards differ from the new generation. I always have and always will set my releases light.

great lakes fishing salmon troll trolling king chinook coho steelhead

When the fish hooks itself, I don’t want the board up front taking the fun out of the fishing. I also never double wrap a release pad.

Now this is tough to carry out around crowds of boats or in rough seas, but I avoid the crowds and pick the days I fish. Yes, I’ve lost some boards to thieves and waves, but not many.

Again, I love the “real” tug and fight of a fish.

The only other major change I’ve made is to include the use of the West Coast single-action mooching reels and rods into my arsenal more than three decades ago.

Want a lot more fun and action during your time on the water. It’s one to one retrieve when fighting a fish. Drags are built in to my Islander mooching reels, but I prefer to palm the spool to slow the run of a big coho, king or lake trout.

Now one last time, there is absolutely nothing wrong with guides and tournaments.

great lakes fishing salmon troll trolling king chinook coho steelhead

They are an important factor throughout the Great Lakes. Heck if you think you can handle three rods per angler that’s fine too. Multi-lures, divers, planer boards, riggers, patterns and set-ups maybe the way most do it today and insure more fish and heavier coolers, But still, there’s something to be said for enjoying a little sunshine, tranquillity and getting the best action and fight out of a fish your chasing. 

Smell the roses folks and enjoy your fishing!

- written by Darryl Choronzey



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