by Dave Mull
Bud Roche, veteran Great Lakes salmon troller, has a mantra when it comes to catching big king salmon on Lake Michigan.
“He who has the best bait wins,” says Bud, a retired union electrician from Chicago who now calls the quaint port of New Buffalo Michigan on Lake Michigan his home. “I’ve found that to be true in saltwater when fishing for groupers and snappers, and it’s true with Great Lakes salmon, too—they originally came from the Pacific Ocean, right?”
A commitment to bait is not a common thing throughout most of the Great Lakes, where artificial lures such as spoons and flashers with flies are the main weapons in most salmon anglers’ arsenals.
But Bud, better known as “Uncle Bud,” believes using bait targets big fish.
“Big king salmon didn’t get that way by eating spoons,” Bud said. “They got that way by eating meat.”
His tournament record would seem to support his contention. In the past seven years he has either won or finished second in his local salmon club, accumulating the most weight over the course of monthly contests throughout the season. A couple of years ago he finished second among 75 boats on the amateur side of a pro/am event out of Ludington, Michigan. This year in two open tournaments out of Michigan City, Indiana, he finished second in each, narrowly missing wins in both.
Did we mention that Bud just turned 81 years old in April?
Bait, for Great Lakes salmon trollers, is mostly herring that’s frozen and shipped to the Midwest after being netted in the Pacific or Atlantic oceans. Some anglers, including Bud, also use alewives, a silvery fish that invaded the Great Lakes from the Atlantic and has successfully reproduced in the freshwater seas for decades. They are the main natural prey of salmon and trout in the big lakes. Although some anglers fish these herring or alewives whole, most anglers fillet them or buy herring as fillets or “strips.” Alewives are only available commercially as whole fish.
All four states bordering Lake Michigan allow three rods per person, and with three people aboard his 22-foot Grady-White, Bud deploys nine rods. More often than not, all nine will be rigged up with bait, either fillets in plastic bait heads or fillets wrapped underneath the popular tinsel flies, creating what has become known as a “sushi fly.”
Bud buys whole frozen herring usually in the “blue label” size, which means 6 to 7 inches long. He usually catches his own alewives, often while perch fishing. On his electronics, schools of perch hang close to the bottom or have a bullet-shaped appearance, while alewives are less dense and generally in bigger schools, coming up higher in the water column. When he spots a group of the silver fish, he tosses a six-hook Sabiki rig in their midst, often catching several per cast. These go directly on ice in his cooler until he vacuum packs and freezes them as soon as possible. He keeps both herring and alewives frozen until the night before a fishing trip, filleting them while they’re still quite frosty.
Bud fillets both herring and alewives, removing one fillet from the backbone, then cutting the head off the remainder, leaving a headless half of a baitfish with the backbone, fins and tail. He often uses the boneless fillet as the tasty part of a sushi fly or under a plastic squid. The fillet with the backbone gets pegged in a plastic bait head specially designed to hold a strip of real fish, creating a presentation complete with the baitfish tail.
Once the fish are filleted, Bud salts them down with non-iodized salt. This preserves them and makes them tough enough to last a few hours trolled through the water. He also adds a squirt of herring oil to the baits for extra scent.
Bud notes it’s important to keep the baitfish cold until you put them out for fish. The ends of his special bait cooler have six large “Big Gulp” type plastic cups in which he places flashers, baithead (or fly) and bait. A big chunk of ice is in the middle with more cut bait on top of it.
Fishing with Bud can be an exercise in patience, and when he has an array of flashers and bait out, smaller fish seem to ignore them.
“I’m not fishing for small fish,” Bud says. “I might go for quite awhile without a bite, but when one of those rods gets a hit, I’m pretty sure it’s going to be a good one.”
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