WINDY CITY SALMON - Capt. Mike Schoonveld

WINDY CITY SALMON - Capt. Mike Schoonveld

There are many reasons a Great Lakes Angler would want to fish Lake Michigan offshore of the Windy City—and just as many to stay away. It’s certainly not for everyone but it is special in its own, unique way.

Great coho action can be found just off Chicago’s Loop in April and May. 


I included a review of a Toyota Sequoia  in my Tackle and Toys column in GLA in the August/September issue last year. Here’s a quote from the review about where I drove the test vehicle. I wrote: “... in stop and go traffic on Chicago’s Fullerton Avenue heading for Diversey Harbor. (Long story why that trip was included.)” This is the long story.

Years ago I fished the Chicago lakefront with Capt. Sam Romano, one of the pioneer charter captains on Lake Michigan. I knew the chance of catching a salmon was slim and I knew Capt. Sam knew it, as well. It was late in September and though the Illinois DNR stocked Chinook salmon in a few locations near downtown Chicago, it was mostly for the benefit of shore anglers who assembled on harbor walls at various marinas or other select locations where shore angling is allowed. Boat fishing for fall kings in Chicago (or the rest of Illinois) is only slightly productive, at best. Illinois has no tributary streams.

I was a fledgling member of the Association of Great Lakes Outdoor Writers (AGLOW) at the time, just starting my career as an outdoor journalist. The association was holding their annual conference in Illinois and at each conference, the organizers and hosts arrange opportunities for writers from around the region to sample a bit of the outdoor hunting and fishing opportunities available locally.





Capt. Sam offered a morning of fish-ing along Chicago’s lakefront. I signed on, knowing our chances for success were more than slim. I didn’t much care. 

For one, Capt. Sam was legendary, one of the first men to become a fishing charter captain on Lake Michigan to take advantage of the salmon being stocked. How often does a person get the chance to fish with a legend?

Another factor for going was despite the inherent ugly covering much of Chicago, when viewed from Lake Michigan, Chicago has a skyline as recognizable, dynamic and beautiful—in an urban sort of way—as any city in the world. On that sunny morning, the Sears Tower, Hancock building and other skyscrapers glowed as they got a double dose of sunlight from the sky above and reflecting up off the calm surface of Lake Michigan. 







We didn’t get a nibble, as I expected, but my camera got a workout. It also set the stage for a few days of fishing more than 30 years later. These recent trips featured fishing just as spectacular as the scenery.

Every year in March and April, Indiana has the fastest fishing in the Great Lakes for coho, browns and kings. Limits are the rule, doubles and triples are common but all good things come to an end and when it ends in Indiana, it starts up in northern Illinois and southern Wisconsin. Whether it’s the same school of fish us Hoosiers (and our visitors) have been working over for six weeks or more or a completely different batch doesn’t matter. The cohos and kings storm the waters there and once they arrive it’s just like home—limit catches are the rule, doubles and triples are common. 


Summer fishing off Chicago features lake trout and lots of them. 


For several years, several fishing friends and I have made a pilgrimage to fish out of Illinois’ Northpoint Marina, just shouting distance south of the Wisconsin border, following Capt. Bob Potishman’s advice—come the week after Mother’s Day. Capt. Bob is the “admiral” of the Confusion fleet of boats operating out of downtown Chicago and Northpoint Marina. We were never disappointed until last year. 

Mother’s Day or not, the fish weren’t “there” yet. Blame it on slow-to-warm waters down south (in Indiana), the abundance of alewives off the Chicago lakefront or just the fickle nature of the salmon, we had to choose between catching a few fish up near the Wisconsin line or limits farther south. If we wanted to catch many fish we had to commute from Chicago’s north suburbs each day, to downtown Chicago, along with tens of thousands of commuters heading for the Loop to go to work. 

We wanted action. So we headed to Diversey Harbor, the closest marina with a public boat ramp when coming from the north. The “commute” wasn’t complicated. Interstate 94 (Chicagoans call it the Edens Expressway) has an exit onto Fullerton Avenue and Fullerton dead-ends at Diversey Harbor. Fullerton is not an expressway, but a surface street with plenty of traffic signals and in some stretches it threads along with on-street parking. The harbor itself is a jewel. There’s a self-service gate accessing the launch ramps and adjacent parking. Shove a credit card in the slot, push a few keys and the gate opens.  image



In a short phone call to Capt. Bob I learned the best action was “right off Navy Pier” which is about as downtown as it gets for the city of Chicago. Navy Pier is immediately north of the mouth of the Chicago River along which the city was founded in 1833.

Heading out of the mouth of Diversey Harbor and looking south about a mile away, it was easy to see the breakwall that runs parallel to the shore along downtown Chicago’s lakefront as well as the light house that marks the breakwall. The Chicago Light also marks the gap in the wall and the channel to the Chicago River. We shut down about half way from Diversey to the breakwall to start setting our lines. 



No other lure catches more coho salmon in Illinois (or much of the rest of Lake Michigan) than a six-inch metal dodger trailing a short, two- to three-inch trolling fly. If you can only choose one color, you’ll do just fine with fluorescent red blade on the dodger. If I could only choose one fly pattern it would be one with an equal mix of dark blue, gold and green tinsel. 

Until too-warm water temperatures at the surface drive the fish deeper, most of the willing-to-bite fish can be caught on lures run from just under the surface to 10 feet deep. Illinois allows three rods per person, so with myself and two fishing partners, our spread included six lines (three per side) planed out from the boat using a mast and Riviera Dual Planer Board system, two Dipsey Divers (one per side) and one downrigged lure. 

I’m sure we could have scored just as well with all dodgers and flies, but for variety as much as efficiency, we trolled one crankbait on each side along with a pair of dodger/fly combos. Each of the cranks were custom painted by Hunter Boys Outdoors in their Red Hot Tiger pattern—one on a Rattlin’ ThinFin body the other on a Bass Magnet body.


The Windy City offers one of the most stunning fishing backdrops anywhere on the Great Lakes.


Each diver had a six-inch dodger and a mix of flies—hard towards dark colors—blue, green, gold as well as black and gold did most of the work. A few of our fish hit a double orange crush spoon we positioned on the downrigger ten feet below the surface. All of the lures produced well enough each day there was no need to switch them other than for a change of pace or when one of the flies would get so chewed up, it needed to be switched out. 

The first coho hit just as we trolled along the breakwall just outside of the lighthouse. By the time that fish was in the boat, in the cooler and the planer board line reset we were well past the gap in the wall so we continued to the south end of the breakwater, several hundred yards. No more action so we made a sweeping turn to try on the inside but before the turn was completed fish number two, hit. On the inside, the action was more than steady with fish after fish, all cohos, slamming our lures.

That first day, the limit came quickly. The next couple days were equally productive, but not nearly so quick or consistent. 

The salmon seemed to be roaming in loose schools. We’d hit a fish or two, make a quick turn, get another bite or two, then that spot would go dead. Eventually we’d find the area where they’d gone and pick up a few more. 





Considering Chicago is America’s third largest city with almost 10 million people in what’s called the Greater Chicagoland Area, the lake was surprisingly uncrowded. I’ve fished in much more crowded condi-tions in places far less populated and in places where the boat access and fishing success wasn’t as good. 

Only Captain Bob and one other charter boat were in the zone and perhaps another ten boats with recreational anglers were present. We were fishing on week-days, but elsewhere on Lake Michigan, when the bite is on, there are plenty of anglers any day of the week. 



Though Chicago has a good number of lakefront marinas, only a few of them have public boat ramps providing access for trailer boat anglers. That’s one of the reasons so few fishermen were out. The other is few people want to put up with the traffic and city driving required to get to the facilities—it’s easier to trailer to the north side or down into Indiana.

*Chicagoland’s North Shore: Some of the cities along the Illinois north shore of Lake Michigan, notably Waukegan and Winthrop Harbor do operate marinas with public boat ramps. I’ve launched at Waukegan and Northpoint Marina (Winthrop Harbor) several times and both facilities have good ramps, ample parking and fish cleaning stations.

*Diversey Harbor: This is the most northerly harbor with a boat ramp within the Chicago city limits. The ramps are good, parking is adequate but no fish cleaning station is available and the rest-rooms are a line of porta potties. 


Chicago’s Diversey Harbor is the northernmost public launch in Chicago. 


*Burnham Harbor: This is where Capt. Sam Romano had his boat moored. It’s adjacent to McCormick’s Place - Chicago’s biggest convention center as well as Soldier Field, the Field Museum, the Shedd Aquarium and other popular destinations—all in the same vicinity. It does have a public ramp and limited trailer parking.

*31st Street Harbor: I’ve never been to this marina since it’s the newest along Chicago’s waterfront. Most online reviews reported favorably on the marina’s cleanliness, docks and launch facilities. Most negative reviews dealt with security issues and lack of visible staff. 

*Calumet Park: Chicago’s city limits extend on the south side all the way to the IL/IN state line. Here’s where you will find Chicago’s southernmost city park and boat launches. The ramps are located at the east end of 95thstreet. I’ve launched and fished this area many times since the fishing area is actually in Indiana inside Calumet Harbor. This area is reciprocal, so either Illinois or Indiana fishing licenses and stamps are valid. 

I’ve never experienced a problem, but this is the East Side of the Chicago, home of Bad, Bad Leroy Brown, if you remember the old Jim Croce song. If I want to fish Cal Harbor (great on a north or north-east wind) I now launch at the Hammond (Indiana) Marina located about a mile to the south. With a major casino boat in the Hammond Marina, security is tight and Leroy Brown and his cronies aren’t an issue.


A fluorescent red dodger with a small dark fly is a top lure anywhere Great Lakes cohos are found.




By April first, each year, coho salmon and browns will be being caught as far north as downtown Chicago. Fishing pressure is light through the period; and as the month progresses, the fishing success will improve. In May, what fish don’t migrate farther north head due east to deeper water. Off the city, the bottom only gently slopes into the depths. Target 60 to 70 foot depths in late May and early June, seven to ten miles out, then as the surface warms, continue five or more miles offshore to waters 80 or 100+ deep. 

Kings and cohos are usually suspended where ever alewife schools are found and at the same depths they show up on sonars. Steelhead are often encountered just above the alewives. 





In recent years, thanks to natural reproduction as well as stocked fish, Illinois has the highest concentration of lake trout anywhere on Lake Michigan or the other Great Lakes. Fishing just off the bottom, an eight-inch white, silver or smoke dodger pulling a Spin-n-Glo will reliably put trout in the boat everyday of the year in waters deeper than 75 feet. 

For the non-salmon Great Lake fishing fans, Chicago has decent to superb perch fishing much of the summer and fall and remember, in 2000 the Bassmaster’s Classic Tournament was won by Woo Daves with limits of Lake Michigan smallmouth caught just outside of Burnham Harbor. 

There are many reasons a Great Lakes Angler would want to fish Lake Michigan offshore of the Windy City—and just as many to stay away. It’s certainly not for everyone but it is special in its own, unique way. For a challenge, a change of pace or to experience one of the most beautiful lakefronts and skylines in the world, it just might be worth the trip. 





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