Originally printed in Great Lakes Angler August 2017
A high-voltage jolt—a shock wave—races from wrist to elbow to shoulder. While the actual sensation isn’t always pleasant, no one can deny that a king salmon ripping a crankbait near the boat is one of the most exciting experiences in the angling world.
The first time it happened to me, I was on Kevin Morlock’s boat on Michigan’s Pere Marquette River. Five feet from the rod tip, a silver streak of lightning intercepted a Rapala Shad Rap. The drag might have been a little too tight, as the pain widened my eyes, but the sound of that drag releasing line was a clear demand for attention. The spool blurred into other dimensions. Fallen trees and log jams were everywhere. Time for some creative redirection.
The salmon headed for a log jam to our left, so the rod was laid over to the right, offering as much pressure as I dared.
Making a 90-degree turn, the capricious king made for a log jam on our right, so the rod stretched out to the left, fingers feathering the spool As an old mentor, “Steelhead Ed” Bryant used to say, “The stupidest thing you can do when fighting a king is to hold the rod straight up.” (Unless logs cover the bottom near the boat. )
As Morlock eventually slipped a net under that king the pain in my elbow instantly returned. “Ow,” I mumbled. “This is a contact sport. You forgot the part about bringing shoulder pads and a helmet.” But the memory of that strike is crystal clear, as if it happened yesterday.
Fighting a big king in close quarters, on small to average sized streams, is a mind-boggling activity, alternating elation with fear, excitement, hope, and dread. When fish and precious lure are finally corralled in the net, it’s like your team just won the Super Bowl.
“Certainly fish numbers have been down,” Morlock said. “The rank-and-file salmon anglers switched to skein under bobbers in big numbers—and that seemed to happen even before the population declined. The best explanation I can give is that 1 out of 50 kings is a good biter. And more salmon in a pool creates a competitive response. They push on each other and get nasty and aggressive. With fewer salmon in the pools, they’re more cautious. Other techniques seem to be more productive. But you can still put 2 or 3 in the net every day with cranks, even when numbers are low. I fish spinners, cranks, and flies most days. When you get out of the motorized area on the river, you can still get a few kings on cranks. The lower PM turned into a circus the past few years, and that makes it tough to entice strikes with cranks.”
Rivers have been warmer in fall for years and I wondered if temperature was a factor. “We’ve had such inconsistent temperatures that fluctuate so much these days that I haven’t been able to correlate temperature with effectiveness of cranks,”
Morlock said. “When it’s really warm it works, and when the water cools off it works just as well. I think having lots of people fishing skein might be a factor. I’ve been told that up on the Alaskan rivers, skein puts salmon off cranks if everybody is doing it. I thought that was rubbish, but people who fish cranks claim it’s true.”
Maybe having a lot of eggs and the scent of eggs in the river can redirects a king’s attention.
“I don’t find crankbait fishing as effective in August as it used to be,” Morlock said. “But, with a 75% reduction in salmon there’s been a corresponding drop by 75% in angling pressure.
What we’ve lost are the guys that want to bring home hundreds of pounds of salmon flesh in coolers. Mid September is when I start targeting them now. Steve (Martinez of Indigo) still goes after them in August and had good fishing the last couple years until the rivers started getting busy.
As soon as he started seeing lots of motors running up and down it was done. But before that he was catching 4 or 5 fish per day, and the declining pressure is a good omen for cranks this fall.”
When fish counts are low, getting away from boat motors is another key.
“Fish the pools upstream and you’ll get a few pulls on a crankbait,” Morlock said. “We started this phenomena in Michigan by throwing Shad Raps, but twin trebles create problems. Especially with light balsa baits. Those powerful jaws can expand and literally rip the hook harness right out of the lure. Happened quite a bit. Our best bait the past few years has been a Storm Hot ’N Tot. More durable and it has the right action for kings.
We take off the rear treble and put the front treble on a Berkley Cross-Lok Snap Swivel, which spins to keep kings from applying leverage to the hook. It also extends that middle hook back, gives it more of a Wiggle-Wart action and adds another foot or so of dive to it.
I’m landing more with one treble than two because two fight each other. It bounces off more wood without snagging up. And it’s a smaller bait which, when water is low and clear, is better. Kings are either on or they’re not. Never been able to figure that out. It’s either on 1 day our of 4 or 3 out of 4. You just have to try it every day.”
A Hot ’N Tot is at its best in slower rivers. “Where we fish, current speeds are a little slower and Hot N’ Tots wiggle best at low speeds,” Morlock said. “Pools are smaller so we cast downstream, quartering across and keeping the lure as high in the water column as possible, so you’re not running the bait up their tails. We keep the rod tip as high as we need to keep a lure over their heads.”
Morlock uses 30-pound Power Pro with 20-pound Maxima fluorocarbon leaders tied in with double uni knots. “We use 7-foot, medium-power, fast action spinning rods these days,” he said. “With a small Hot’N Tot, you put the screws to kings too hard and you’re not going to land them anyway. You need a tip with some give. Medium-heavy sticks rip hooks free, snap lines, and straighten hooks.”
Captain Mark Chmura guides for kings on Lake Michigan all summer, then chases them up the Big Manistee River in fall. Though the Tournament Trail has been eating up a lot of his time for river kings, he understands them like few others.
“The first run of kings all go up the Little Manistee,” Chmura said. “It’s like a spring run, and 99% of the people don’t know about it. Trolling in the big lake gets really, really good early, then dries up suddenly. We think they’ve moved up north or somewhere, but a lot of them are ramming up the Little Manistee. In fall tournaments. we all know it gets progressively harder to catch kings in the lake because they’ve run up the rivers. It starts in May and gets heavy in June on the Little M. The trolling bite slows until mid July when the fall run starts staging. They start in August running up the Big Manistee, and some of those fish run the Little M as well.”
Chmura likes fishing cranks in rivers. “Crankbaits can be really good—unfortunately I’m out there fishing tournaments until September and by then there’s so many people the crankbait bite tails off.
In August the pressure is light and the crankbait bite has been hot for the past few years. The number-one bait has been the the Storm Deep Thunderstruck Jr. in Fire Tiger patterns. You’ll catch kings on an array of colors, but Fire Tiger is the number one go to.
You need a 9-foot rod with a lot of backbone but you want the tip to flex quite a bit to protect hooks and connections. About 4 feet of flex with solid backbone from there on is about perfect.”
The longer rod on bigger rivers allows you to blend more of each property (flex and backbone) into the blank to apply more pressure without snapping fish off. “Most people use 20- to 50-pound Berkley FireLine with 15- to 20-pound fluorocarbon leaders,” Chmura said.
“Fine-wire hooks are critical. You want to bring the lure back from the many log jams by straightening the hook, but don’t be lazy about changing them out afterwards. It’s happened to me. You rip it off a bush or two, and the more you bend it the easier it is for Kings to straighten.”
Kings on crank might be crazed, but before getting hooked in the jaw they follow nature’s ancient directives to a T.
“The best time to hook kings on cranks is just as it’s getting light and just as it’s getting dark,” Chmura said. “Get on the water early and stay until dark. They go crazy on wobbling, thumping baits during low-light periods. The best days are dark, windy, or both—especially in low water conditions. Sometimes when the water’s high, midday can be exceptional.
Kings are hottest for cranks within the first five days of hitting the river.
After that, the ratio of days spent sulking compared to chasing lures gradually increases from 3:4 to more like 1:10 just before the spawn. I leave spawning kings alone in rivers like the Little Manistee, where natural reproduction is high. But I love to chase spawning kings with a fly rod in “put-and-take” rivers dependent on stocking.
Even when runs are low in number, you never know what time of day you might run into a stacked pool—a bees’ nest of jostling, aggressive salmon. But know what kind of water to look for as the days pass.
“The best holding water changes as the season progresses,” Chmura said. “Kings will be right in the turbulent water where the oxygen is highest when they first come in, especially during August when the water is warm. As they get acclimated, kings start moving off to the sides of those shoots and necks with broken water on top. The later you get in the run, the more salmon choose deep eddies with even less current. Kings get most aggressive when some rain rises the water and drops the temperature to at least 67°F. If the water hits 65°F or less early in the run, kings rip cranks like crazy.”
The Author with a Small River Chinook Salmon.
Crazy is the operant word. Kings on crank are a little insane.
Maybe a lot insane. Bring extra hooks, twice as many lures as you think you need, and a magnum tube of BENGAY.
- Written by Matt Straw