Witchin' Hour Kings by Captain Mike Schoonveld

Rivers & Lakes salmon fishing

I don’t know if there were any witches around but there was certainly something eery about the sonar screen when I stopped on my waypoint seven miles from the mouth of the Sturgeon Bay ship canal.

There could have been witches in the dark, but soon my crew and I were too busy to notice. We’d finally gotten there for the “Witchin’”Hour bite.

Our first morning at Sturgeon Bay we left at a “reasonable” hour, around 4 AM, to head for the Bank Reef, the place which gathers Sturgeon Bay kings more than any other spot. It’s easy to find at that reasonable hour.

night fishing great lakes salmon

There’s a solid string of boat lights blinking white, green and red offshore where the early-birds who have gotten up even earlier are already jockeying for position and by the time you make the run, it’s well into the “dawn’s early light” time of day.

The second morning we left earlier.

The lights on the eastern horizon were fewer, and our earlier arrival allowed us a bit more room and the chance to box a couple of kings before the fleet arrived. It gave us a taste.

The third morning we headed out at a decidedly unreasonable hour. The view looking east from the canal mouth was decidedly dark. As my fishing partners worked the back deck I watched my electronics–GPS, compass, and sonar as much as I did the darkness ahead.

That’s when I noticed the sonar screen looked much different than the underwater view it had scanned on previous days.

There were hooks, lots of them. The hooks were all shadowing dark smudges. And some of the hooks became streaks while other streaks morphed into hooks. The water under the boat was alive with suspended bait balls and feeding chinooks. My fishing partners never had the chance to see what I saw.

Tom got his first line set and he was working to send a glow-in-the-dark spoon to the same vicinity under the boat. Doug was zapping his second lure with a camera flash when...

Tom yelled "fish-on!"

I grabbed the yet-to-be-set outfit from Doug to stow forward, out of the way. Doug spun around and freed a rod from the rod holder. “Not that one,” Tom yelled. “There’s a fish on the back rigger on this side of the boat.”

They were both right. Each of the first lures sent down had been eaten.

Tom stopped the downrigger he was lowering to grab the other half of the double header when the rod he was holding jumped and bent down as a third king crashed the party.

In the dark, I couldn’t abandon the helm for long so it was 3 fish and 2 fishermen.

When Doug said it was time, I left the wheel long enough to net the first fish and swing it aboard. The fish on the third rig was still there so Doug went to work on it. 

I netted Tom’s fish with the spare net and turned the fish removal chores over to him. 

The J-Plug hooks were tangled in the mesh of the net mercilessly. Once he was able to get the fish free, he cut the line and coolered his fish. Then he scooped the final chinook with the hook-tangled net and all 3 fish were in the boat. We looked at each other incredulously as if to say, “What just happened?”

What happened is we’d just experienced the adrenalin rush of fishing the Witchin’ Hour for Summer Kings. 

chinook fishing salmonIt’s a phenomenon that occurs all over the Great Lakes and more and more fishermen are leaving the docks at unreasonable hours to get in on the fun.

Great Lakes chinooks have always had a well-deserved reputation for being low-light biters. That’s even more pronounced, these days, in the ever-clear water.

Not that you can’t catch a king on a bright day at high noon. You can.

But if you want to fill your cooler fast, be there for the Witchin’ Hour.

My friends and I made that Sturgeon Bay trip over a decade ago and were ill-prepared for fishing in the dark. We had glow-in-the-dark plugs and spoons. Those have long been staples for Great Lakes salmon. We had a trio of D-cell flashlights, the running lights on the boat and little else. 

Captains these days rig their boats with special light arrays shining both down on the deck and to illuminate the water just astern to facilitate getting the fish into the net. They use special lures, they customize their baits and have a few other tricks you can put to use on your own boat.

I had the pleasure of fishing with 2 of these early-bird captains and picked their brains about how they coped with getting the most from the pre-dawn bite. Capt. Matt Strong, who operates Strong Performance Charters out of Ludington, and I were on Capt. Carl “Fuzzy Bear” Stopczynski’s boat just prior to the Ludington Offshore Challenge tournament. Fuzzy is a top pro on the Great Lakes tourney circuit and he charters out of Pentwater at the end of the tournament season to take advantage of Michigan’s Witchin’ Hour action.  

plugs fishing dw luhr jensen salmon hook

“Start with the divers,” Fuzzy instructed. One of the divers was rigged with a glow Spin Doctor trailing one of Capt. Matt’s Strong Flies. Both the spinnie and fly were quickly zapped with a flashlight glowing purple with an ultra-violet bulb before being sent down. The other diver trailed a glow/splatter-back Dreamweaver DW Plug–also lit-up with a brief dose of UV.

The first diver down quickly drew the attention of a Ludington king, followed by a second king which nailed a glow-spatterback Dreamweaver DW Plug, followed seconds later....  It was the Witchin’ Hour and until the sun topped the dunes on the shoreline a few miles east, the action was heady.

As the sky brightened, the action slowed and Fuzzy added rigs to the spread including lead core and copper wire outfits from 200 to 400 feet on in-line planers.

“In the dark, I’m a proponent of the KISS method,” Fuzzy said.  Keep it simple, stupid.  Three downriggers and a pair of divers will keep one or more fishermen at the stern, most days. 

"Add additional rigs if the action is slow and you can get to them, but don’t race to get your usual daylight array of high and low divers, side planers, long lines and others out.

You’ll end up with a giant mess, lost lures, tangled lines and probably fewer fish in the long run.” 

Captain Matt had brought along a handful of his Strong Flies which worked well both in the dark and after, but I was more interested in the hook harnesses he used on the DW plugs.

Instead of the bead-chain, double treble harnesses which come standard, he’d removed both treble hooks added a second split ring to the one which serves as a stopper under the plug and cinched a single 1/0 VMC Vanadium hook to the braided line trailing from the second split ring. The single hook was adjusted so the bend was right at tail-end of the plug.

“When fishing the pre-dawn bite, I don’t have time to mess with hooks tangled in the nets or want to worry an excited customer is going to be impaled by a dangling treble as he tries to ‘help’ get the fish and lure out of the net.

I’m sure the hook-up rate is less than when using trebles, but hey, it’s the Witchin’ Hour. Either the fish that doesn’t get hooked will come back or another hungry king will be along in a minute or two,” said Strong.

I’d fished the same area a few year earlier with Capt. Mike Gnatkowski, a frequent contributor to GLA magazine. He rigged standard harnesses for his plugs with 24-inch leaders and had a couple dozen of them at the ready. “I don’t even try to get the hooks out of the net,” Capt. Gnat told me. “I rip the hooks out of the fish, unhook the leader from a snap at the end of the main line, thread a new leader/harness set through the plug’s body and it’s ready to go. I can deal with the hook-tangled nets after daybreak or when I’m back at the dock.”

LIGHTING UP

The fish can see in the dark, but us fishermen can’t.

Lights are important.

Both Fuzzy and Capt. Strong have rigged powerful lights on the rocket launchers at the rear of their hard-tops to illuminate the deck and the water immediately astern where the fish are netted.

Strong substituted yellow-hued automotive fog lights instead of bright white lights.

“The halogen lights are plenty strong, even with the yellow tint, but I think the off-color isn’t as hard on human eyes going back and forth between looking into the darkness and back on the boat.

I used a similar trick when rigging my boat for Witchin’ Hour action.  I don’t have a hardtop or overhead rocket launcher to attach overhead lights.  Instead, I positioned a pair of automotive fog lights on each gunwale so they shine down into the light-colored interior of the boat. They make the floor glow with an off-white hue.

I mounted a single headlight on the middle of the transom to illuminate the water just astern to facilitate seeing the fish being brought to net and we equip each person in the rear with a battery powered headlamp they can turn on or off as needed. The lamp helps see the counters on the riggers, the line-counter reels and can focus a bright beam when needed to help unhook fish or performing other detailed chores.

TIMING

I’ve never gotten out “too early” for Witchin’ Hour kings. I used to fish spawning run kings at the pier heads starting at sundown and found the later it got, the better the action.

The wee-hours were always better than pre-midnight.  Capt. Bob Poteshman, who runs the charter boat, Confusion out of Illinois’ Northpoint Marina opines the lighter the night, the earlier you need to be on the water. “With a full moon shining, I’ll ask my customers to show up at 3 AM,” he said.  “On a cloudy night or a night with little moonlight, I still want to be out by four.” 

Personally, it’s not hard to coax me out of bed to be on the water during the Witchin’ Hour. I’ve been “witched” before and look forward to the next time.

 - Written by Captain Mike Schoonveld

 Note: 

The extended glow or super glow pigments made with strontium aluminate and used nowadays on spoons, plugs and flashers, react faster and glow longer when hit with Ultra Violet light instead of white light. 

UV Light plug fishing flashlight crankbait chinook salmon king

Older lures with the “old-fashioned,” zinc sulfide based glow-pigments can be zapped with a camera flash or other bright light in the visible spectrum.  The glow-time on them diminishes quickly. Figure a recharge, every 20-minutes or so. During the “Witchin’ Hour” don’t count on having a lure in the water untouched much longer than that.



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