Water courses from a salmon river into pulsing Great Lakes currents. River-scented water flows this way then that, at the behest of wind, gravity, and a spinning world.
Eventually, river sediments mix with deeper, twisting currents that always point eventually to the Atlantic.
These are the salmon roads.
“Mature kings out in the big lakes begin to split off from the feeding year classes at some point in July,” says Captain John Oravec of Troutman Charters on Lake Ontario. “They find their own feeding grounds and water temps as they’re drawn to inshore staging structure. But kings don’t stage around piers and harbors as much as they used to. They’re going 80 miles all at once, from deeper water right up the river. The force of the plumes, winds, and trade-wind-like Great Lakes currents set the scent trail in motion. Understanding how river-scented water sets up in your area is the key to finding the biggest kings of the year from late summer through early fall.”
Rivers dump water into the Great Lakes every day all year.
Volumes of that water will collect and deposit sediment in predictable spots, downwind and down current. Oravec hunts for depressions on flats and cup-shaped formations on ledges and breaks where river water eddies and collects.
“To find the big sharks on stage, you have to hunt structure,” Oravec said. “Let the pack go deep over thermoclines. Slow down and scan the inside turns, the humps, and the ledges on the breaks closest to shore in depths of 50 to 150 feet, looking for any bowl or cup that fills up with river-scented water.”
Salmon follow the “road” right into the harbor, but not until they’re ready to run the river. “They’re staying out deeper,” Oravec said. “The Luhr Jensen J-Plug irritates the heck out of staging kings and is at it’s best up on the shallow flats. It’s part of the low-speed program involving muddy or tannic waters from high rivers that paint the flats brown in depths of 5 to 15 feet. But the J-Plug season has been reduced from 6 weeks to a couple of weeks now. We used to have a lot more streamflow, and that good in-shore water just doesn’t set up like it used to.”
Whether in the lake or a river, hooking up with migrating kings has seldom been a high-reward program. Feeding kings may always be on the move, but migrating kings are tougher to catch. Perhaps the key to catching migrating kings is anchoring the boat.
Lakes Within Lakes
A full moon rose as the sun was setting over Michigan’s Manistee Lake. The air was warm. Late-August breezes were light. The moon was full and already rising above the eastern horizon in a clear summer sky. Kings were boiling on the salmon road.
Captain Brad Kamaloski rolled up to the landing with his daughter, Kaleigh, and his river jet in tow. We were meeting for the first time. I heard about his unique method—ambushing kings by sitting in the middle of their road in an anchored boat.
A rack of 9-foot, medium-heavy spinning rods stood equipped with 1-ounce jigging spoons from Cabelas and several other companies. Some of those jigs didn’t look at all familiar. Kamaloski, owner of North River Charters and Guide Service in Manistee, Michigan, backed us away from the ramp, rammed down the throttle and quickly eased back.
Left to Right: Hopkins Spoon, Cabela’s Real Image Jig-N-Spoon, Terminator Pirk Minnow, Acme Kastmaster XL, Northland Tackle Macho Minnow
He dropped anchor only a few hundred yards from the landing, on the “Little Manistee” trail of kings. “Those headed for the Big Manistee run up that side of the shipping channel,” Kamaloski pointed north. “The kings that come through here are bound for the Little M.”
So the salmon road has a fork in it on Manistee Lake.
River-scented water from the Big Manistee River draws kings to the north end of the system, and the scents and sediments carried by water spreading into the lake from the Little Manistee send salmon born in that river to the south. According to biologists, maybe half the kings heading up the Big Manistee are naturally reproduced at best—most of those originating in Bear Creek.
But all of the salmon of the Little Manistee reproduce naturally. Stocking is not required. Are the “wild” fish of the Little Manistee less susceptible to vertical-jigging techniques? Kamaloski doesn’t think so. “We catch just as many on that ‘road’ as the other,” he said.
We anchored, broke out the rods, dropped spoons to bottom, and began vertical jigging over depths of 17 to 20 feet on the edge of the river channel. His medium-heavy casting sticks were equipped with stout round reels and 15-pound monofilament—a good option for picking fights with kings in close quarters.
“Some guys use braid for this, but salmon will straighten hooks on you,” Kamaloski said. “The distance between rod tip and fish is short. Stretch is a good thing. And the diameter and flex of mono gives the spoon more action. Makes it look more lifelike. You don’t need that much hook-setting power when you’re standing 20 feet above a salmon that is going to instantly accelerate into hyper drive. No need for bait or plastic trailers. Just a spoon. Tipping kills what little action the spoons have. Kings lunch it because it’s shiny and right in their face.”
After 20 minutes or so, nothing happened. The moon rose higher in the sky as daylight faded into dusk. The lake was flat—like our diminishing expectations. So Kamaloski picked up the anchor and moved us over to the Big Manistee River trail, just another few hundred yards away. “Getting sick of these long boat rides,” I quipped as the depth finder revealed the bottom rolling down to a depth of 21 feet. Again, we dropped anchor right on the deep edge of the channel, where most kings tend to travel on this road.
Kamaloski picked up his rod, dropped the heavy, slab-sided spoon to bottom, and began to work it. “I like a two-foot hop starting a foot off bottom,” he said. “Some guys use a really erratic action, but I like to keep a fairly tight line. You don’t want to lose the feel of the spoon, or have a bow in the line creating slack. I want the spoon to have action on the drop but without slack, so I’m dropping it fairly quickly on a semi-tight line. The spoon is stopped a foot to 20 inches off bottom—right in their face as they amble along the trail. ” A king interrupted his description and he hooked up. The salmon went bananas beneath our feet and took off. The reel began shedding the line in a blur. After several spirited runs, the king was soon throwing water all over us as Kaleigh effectively corralled it with her father’s long-handled net.
I dropped my 1-ounce Cabela’s Real Image Jig-N-Spoon to bottom and quickly lifted it a couple of feet. I gave it a snap for attraction, then practiced a more subtle lift-drop-pause cadence. On the pause, jigging spoons turn as line untwists, sending flash in all directions. Before long I felt a take, then the jarring shock that runs from the wrist to shoulder as the rod doubled over. In close quarters, kings give as well as they take. The salmon went spiraling off toward other anchored boats in the lake—an anxious proposition. I really wanted to land the first king I ever hooked on a jigging spoon. No worries. Kaleigh was up to the task and netted this one, too.
We each boated a couple of kings as the last hour of the day melted into the first hour of the night. I’d never seen the technique in action and it was impressive. “I probably started doing this about 5 years ago,” Kamaloski said. “We were out messing around on the lake and saw a couple of other guys doing it. They were catching fish and had our full attention. I read up on it and a few people were doing it already off the piers in Wisconsin, but it’s really just starting to catch on in Michigan.”
I have walked the piers with jigging spoons before, snap jigging them along the concrete walls as we stepped. And Oravec used to employ a similar technique for big browns staging in harbor areas. But those tactics involved exaggerated, aggressive jigging motions as the spoon was ripped up 4 or 5 feet and allowed to flutter back down. Kamaloski’s technique, by comparison, is much more subtle.
Kamaloski, who also guides for steelhead, walleyes, and smallmouth bass, said the action takes place on the edge of the shipping channel in any of Michigan’s many drowned river-mouth lakes connected to salmon rivers. He said he knows other anglers and guides who work jigging spoons vertically in harbors like Milwaukee and Racine in Wisconsin. too. “Doesn’t work in really shallow lakes or harbors,” he said. “Seems to work best in depths over 15 feet. Best colors, for me, are green glow and rainbow-trout patterns. I use Megabait Spoons, Cabela’s Real Image Spoons, and others from ¾ to 1 ounce. Hopkins Spoons work, but a lot of spoons have too much action. They flip up and foul the line. Slab-sided spoons without a cupped surface actually seem to trigger more strikes, too.”
The best months for vertical jigging are August through mid September—whenever the kings are rolling on top or occasionally being caught from the piers.
“That last big-lake turnover when they make their move into the river is best,” Kamaloski said.
“Those darker fish, later on, have lockjaw. Typically, 4 p.m. until dark is prime time. Oddly enough, I’ve never had much luck in the morning. More fish run at night than during the morning hours, and that late push into the harbors starts in the evening these days.”
On his best night of jigging, Kamaloski was entertaining a Michigan Outdoors TV crew. “We did a little pre-fishing the night before,” he said. “Got one hit and missed it. I almost called in and canceled the filming session, but we boated 14 the night we filmed the show. We were only out there a little over 2 hours. That’s how good it can be sometimes.”
We began discussing how, quite suddenly, so many tactics have evolved for king salmon in rivers over the past few years.
“Once upon a time, you chose between spinners or skein under bobbers,” I said. “Now we’re pitching cranks, vertical jigging, swimming hair jigs, using 12- to 14 mm beads, plastics under floats—and Kevin VanDam is posting up around river mouths to whale on kings with lipless cranks and bass tackle.” Kamaloski had heard about that, and tried to get VanDam up there. (Strange as it may seem, the best bass fisherman on earth was a little too busy to fish for kings last fall.)
Isn’t that the point of all tactical evolution in the fishing world?
To find something different fish will respond to? Something that beats the conditioning that always follows heavy pressure? Suddenly, we have a heavier bag of tricks, affording Pacific salmon less luxury to visibly sulk in the deep, clear pools of a late summer stream.
Oravec, who guides on the Niagara River all winter, Lake Ontario all summer, and up in the St. Lawrence for muskies in fall, likes the idea of jigging for kings.
“I’ll try it this summer if I get a day off,” he laughed. “I’m not surprised, though. Kings are the sharks of the Great Lakes. They don’t come in hungry—just mad. The universe is not fair. They live for 4 years, and somebody always wants to cut the meat off their bones and throw them in the hot oil. But they still climb dams and ascend rapids to end up in some little creek that kids can jump across, mad about everything at that point.”
Find something that touches off that flashpoint, something that shreds the last vestiges of anger management, and more kings end up in the hot oil. Jigging spoons prove that life isn’t always fair for the wandering kings of the salmon roads.
But it’s always vivid.
- written by Matt Straw