Targeting Giant Kings by Matt Straw

Boats Lake Erie Lake Huron Lake Michigan Lake Ontario Lake Superior Michigan salmon salmon fishing

On the West Coast, it’s called a “tyee.” In the Great Lakes, a 30-pound king salmon has no special designation, but it’s probably destined to hang on a wall somewhere.

great lakes salmon fishing king chinook fish

A 30-pounder might look small on the Kenai, but it’s a big salmon almost anywhere else.

With some species, it’s possible to target the biggest specimens. Trophy bass, walleyes, and pike can be selected for with bigger baits, or targeted in bodies of water where genetics produce titans. But, with some species, it’s next to impossible to target only the biggest specimens with traditional techniques.

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Most people feel king salmon belong to that latter group. Trolling for them is like rolling the dice. You might get all big ones, all small ones, or a mix.

great lakes salmon fishing king chinook fish

Or you might miss out on the biggest kings out there altogether. Because maybe the true giants stick together, in temperature bands and depths shunned by all but the oldest fish.

All salmon in any system, whether they weigh 10 pounds or 40 pounds, are after the same baitfish, which are all relatively the same size. Fishing bigger baits seldom works. In fact, outsize lures tend to be detrimental. Salmon, like their trouty relatives, can be very selective about things like size.

“I don’t know that I can go out and target the biggest kings in the system,” said charter captain, Tim Dawidiuk of Wisconsin. “But some captains believe if they want to catch a really big king, something over 30 pounds, they can do it. It’s hard to do when clients want numbers, so I don’t get many chances to test my theories on the subject. But I know some captains who do—including Dan Keating, Ernie Lantaigne, and Chip Porter.”

Three classic captains from the Golden Age of Great Lakes salmon—so, of course, I called them up—and Captain John Oravec for good measure. “You really can target kings in the upper 20- to 40-pound range,” Great Lakes Captain Keating said.

great lakes salmon fishing king chinook fish

“Big kings are school fish. Big kings travel with big kings. Three things about giant kings:

First, they like colder water than the other salmon or trout. A water temperature of 42°F is optimum.

Second: Kings are very structure-oriented. If you have some great structure that intersects the right temperature band, that’s the place to start.

Third: Find concentrations of baitfish. Sometimes big kings are out in the middle of nowhere, too.

Great structure and great temperature is nothing without the most important factor: Bait. After that, it’s a matter of sorting the fish out. If I’m catching shakers, I leave. The biggest kings will be somewhere else—with other big kings."

great lakes salmon fishing king chinook fish

“Most salmon fishermen look for 50°F to 54°F water,” Keating continued. “They’re missing most of the big fish. Another thing about big kings—they’re fussy, wary and spooky. Less is more. Fewer lines in the water will translate into more big kings coming to the net."

There are peak periods each year, which would be fall spawners—from two months prior to spawning time to the spawning run. That’s the best time. The rest of the year, if you’re targeting cohos or steelhead early in the year, you can run a couple lines for kings and catch more kings than you would at other times. Big kings are a perfect fish for the guy with a small boat who isn’t going to run 15 to 20 lines. And the best fishing is in the middle of the afternoon for big kings. They feed really hard early, slow down, then get hungry in the afternoon again.”

Keating runs only two downrigger lines, flanked with one widespread Dipsy Diver (#2 setting) on each side, carrying lures down and out to the side on Berkley FireLine or wire, each presenting a dodger—Howie Fly combo. “These kings can see from a long distance away,” Keating added. “Light line helps because the water is so clear, and keeping the spread sparse helps because they’re wary. Most of my big kings are caught on one of the two downriggers. I run a dodger—Howie Fly on one downrigger, and one spoon on 12-pound line, deeper and farther back than the dodger and the Howie Fly. My two favorite spoons for big kings are the size #5 Diamond King with a yellow edge and a green or blue dolphin Silver Streak in the regular or magnum size. A silver Mauler in the blue Oz pattern is another good choice on light line. Light line gives better action and kings have excellent vision.”

Keating uses white or silver glow, size #0 Luhr Jensen dodgers in deep water, trailing white or pearl/blue Howie Flies on 40-pound mono leaders. “Leader length changes from day-to-day,” Keating added. “It’s always somewhere between 16 and 34 inches. When kings are most aggressive, go shorter. Less aggressive, go longer.”

great lakes salmon fishing king chinook fish

Terms Of Agreement

Keating co-authored The Complete Trollers Guide and Great Lakes Salmon And Trout Fishing with former Captain Chip Porter. Like Keating, Porter believes he can target big kings.

“Bigger kings are much colder-water fish than we used to believe,” Porter said. “Go into any lakeshore restaurant with ‘salmon guidelines’ on the place mats and they say kings prefer water in the 52°F to 55° range. But, for the last 5 or 6 years, we’re finding the biggest kings in 42°F to 44°F water. They like it colder than lake trout.”

Porter surmises that bigger kings are, indeed, warier than the average salmon. “It takes a thinner spread at the depths big kings use. If you start putting all kinds of stuff down there, you won’t catch ‘em in that 90- to 130-foot range. It spooks ‘em. Too much flutter. Those fish prefer a smaller, less aggressive spread. We call it deep stealth. But we also have a spread up high in the 50- to 75-foot range. Up there you’re catching browns, smaller kings, cohos, steelhead, and the occasional big king. But, when I’m tournament fishing, I’m looking for big kings and I’m fishing deep. All the big kings in one tournament—every king we caught was over 20 pounds—came from the bottom in 138 feet of water.

great lakes salmon fishing king chinook fish

“Big kings use specific bands of water,” Porter added. “If you find a band of big kings at 100 to 125, then take off to try spots 10 miles away, chances are the big fish will be in that same depth band. They move along it like a road. And until there’s major weather change, or the fall migration starts, kings will stay in that band of water. For that reason, ‘down temp’ on the cannonball is critical. If you don’t have it, you have to get on the radio and ask, ‘where’s the 42°F water?’”

Porter uses suspended wire line rigs, FireLine or wire Dipsy Diver rigs and downriggers to probe deep. “It’s key to run a dodger and Howie Fly five to ten feet behind the cannonball, and to place a spoon five to 10 feet deeper and about 10 to 15 feet farther back than the dodger rig. The dodger draws ‘em in, and if they drop back, they tend to drop down, too. That’s where the spoon kicks in. This sparse rigging can be accompanied by a suspended wire line also carrying a dodger-fly. It should be your deepest presentation, but sometimes they want it right in the set. But that’s about it. Any more baits amount to clutter.”

When fishing deep, Porter insisted that color is a major factor. “At extreme depths, water filters out most frequencies of light,” he said. “Down there, the best dodger colors are either white with silver tape or silver-glow (a flat matte finish). Most colors become gray at that depth, so white and glow colors seem to work. The number one fly down there, bar none, is a pearl Howie Fly. Regular white is good, and ‘little-boy blue.’ My spoons for targeting outsize kings include the Silver Streak (green dolphin, “Monkey Puke” or “Sister Sludge” patterns), and the Mauler (blue edge and baby Oz patterns).”

great lakes salmon fishing king chinook fish

Ernie Lanteigne, a former biologist with the New York Department of Environmental Conservation, and a charter captain for over 20 years, won the big-salmon award in a derby on Lakie Ontario a few decades back with a 39-pound specimen. Needless to say, Lanteigne, too, believes in targeting big kings at times. “Rigging, tuning, depth and speed are critical aspects of targeting big kings,” Lanteigne said. When he says big, he means big. “Around here, 25-pounds is not considered big. To target kings over that size, you need to fine tune lures, flashers and dodgers at boat side and get them all dialed in and running perfectly together within the same range of speeds. With a sparse spread, it’s critical to have everything running at peak efficiency.”

Porter and Keating like to target big kings deep in July and August. Lantaigne says September is one of his best months for targeting big kings as they begin to stage near the rivers they run, using cutbait tactics.

Captain John Oravec (Tight Lines Charters, 800/443-2510) who also works Lake Ontario, calls big kings “sharks.” He also believes they can be targeted, and has put several over 40 pounds onboard over decades of guiding. “Stealth is imperative,” Oravbec said. “Paying attention to rigging nuances that trick the old mossbacks is the key. Big kings respond better to a sparse spread. Less hum from wire cables, fewer cannonballs displacing water, and less flash—that’s what puts sharks in the net.”

great lakes salmon fishing king chinook fish

And, like the other seasoned vets we talked to, Oravec believes in getting down there. “What it takes to stay down is another reason to run a sparse spread,” he said. “It takes 150 feet of cable to get a 20-pound ball down 130 feet some days. With 5 riggers deployed you can’t even turn the boat. Nothing like an eagle’s nest of tangled wire to ruin your day. Oswego last year was an eye opener. We caught kings at 130 feet or deeper, running only 3 downriggers. And the first king we caught was a 29-pounder.”

What once may have been considered attraction is now a spook factor.

Oravec believes in downsizing when kings get shy, and getting away from the cannonball with “junk” presentations. “When kings shun a standard size Michigan Stinger—put a ‘Chicklet' out there on leadcore or copper line and they’re on it. Smaller spoons and lures work best when deployed well away from the boat and the cannonballs. A slider—that extra line clipped onto another line clipped to a downrigger—can be run back 150 feet or more so it’s not only way above the cannonball, but way behind it. We call any small lure deployed way behind the spread a ‘tailgunner.’ Long-lining with copper lines and leadcore—that’s what we call junk. Thinning out the spread fools those mature sharks. I can’t stress it enough when trying to get people off the little immature fish program, but so many just want action. It’s like telling walleye meat hunters to leave the Maumee River alone right now!”

The mission is clear.

Thin the spread. Look deeper. And find that magic 42°F temperature band to put bigger kings on the bull’s eye this summer.

- written by Matt Straw

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  • Michael Collins on

    Very good article. Kind of surprised that no one commented on the speed they like to run their various preentations. Especilly good to know when they sometime prefer dodgers that can be speed intolerant.

  • Marty Piccola on

    The best article yet! I fished Oswego in Lk Ontario today. Did ok but wish I read this yesterday lol. Keep up the good work!

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