by Dave Mull
Many anglers don’t realize they can enjoy incredible springtime fishing on the Great Lakes out of their trailerable 14- to 18-foot boats. With common sense and a weather eye, smaller boats offer a safe means to get out after the salmon, trout and steelhead that now maraud the shallows of the Great Lakes.Take these tips to heart, and you can cash in on some great action and fine fillets.
This is primarily a trolling game, with the goal of covering water to contact wandering fish. In the spring, coho salmon and brown trout often cruise shallow water near shore, sometimes joined by bigger king salmon and steelhead. It’s all about baitfish, which are usually in the warmest water they can find after a long winter. The warmest—even if it’s just a couple of degrees warmer—is usually right along seawalls and the beach.
When the cohos are close to shore, fishing is fast and furious. When they’re not in, you can often either go out deeper and find them or stay close and target brown trout in the shallows. You often come across a roving steelhead and the occasional king salmon in shallow, too.
For lures, crankbaits and stickbaits rule early in the year. If you pursue bass or walleyes, you’ll likely have some hardbodies that will work great for salmon and trout, too. There’s no need to buy a bunch of specialized artificial baits, although a few like the Brad’s ThinFish are worth adding to the arsenal. Brown trout like natural-looking minnow baits such as Floating Rapalas and Bomber Long As, while coho attack plugs with high action, bright colors and rattles. The venerable Rat-L-Trap lipless crankbait and Dave’s Winning Streak are coho killers.
Rods and reels can be whatever you use for your favorite species. You don’t need super heavy line—even though you might hook into a bruiser that pushes 20 pounds, the big lakes with featureless bottoms don’t offer anything for the fish to wrap your line around. Most anglers spool with 10- to 20-pound test.
Basic trolling gear for your boat starts with decent rod holders. You don’t want to have to hold a rod the whole time, and most states around the Great Lakes allow you to troll with two or three rods at once. A good “spread” of lures helps contact fish, so the more rods, the merrier. When Kevin Essenburg, an experienced salmon angler from Holland, Michigan, takes his two young daughters trolling in his 14-foot aluminum Sea Nymph boat, he often runs eight, sometimes nine rods. To avoid tangles and increase the width of his spread, he employs inexpensive, on-line planer boards, which clip to the fishing line in front of the lure and take the lure out to the side.
The key to avoiding tangles is to run deeper lures and shorter lines closer to the boat and the longer lines with shallower lures outside of them. For instance, you might run deep-divers like Reef Runner Deep Little Rippers directly behind the boat, then run shallower diving lures on longer line, rods pointing directly away from the boat. Shallow, small-lipped stickbaits behind planer boards can then go well to the sides of the boat. When running more than one planer board on the same side, the longer lines and shallower lures should go outside of deeper diving lures, which you should set closer to the planer boards.All five of the Great Lakes offer ports that can produce great springtime action, much of it along the southern shores of the lakes where southerly winds create fishable conditions by keeping near-shore waters relatively calm.
The southern end of Lake Michigan offers a variety of species and the earliest spring action due to its most southerly location among the big lakes. Action can be found from Milwaukee Harbor in Wisconsin through Illinois and Indiana waters and on up to the port of St. Joseph/Benton Harbor. The very earliest fish catching often happens in the waters from Portage to East Chicago, Indiana, where effluents from steel mills provide warm water. While not the most pristine fishing experience, you soon stop noticing the backdrop of smokestacks when you start loading the cooler with cohos and browns.
Lake Erie, mostly known as a walleye fishery, also produces springtime steelhead for trollers. From Erie, Pennsylvania’s Presque Isle Bay through Cleveland to Sandusky, Ohio, steelhead provide springtime targets that are often within a few hundred yards of shore.
Lake Ontario provides multi-species action at the Niagara Bar at the mouth of the river of the same name on the west end, easily accessed from Lewiston, New York. Brown trout provide great action from New York ports eastward all the way to the city of Oswego.
Springtime salmon central on Lake Huron can often be found at Port Huron, Michigan and Sarnia, Ontario, where the St. Clair River starts.
The latest spring action heats up on Lake Superior, most northerly of the lakes. Great fishing can be found from where the St. Louis River comes in at Duluth all the way though Wisconsin and Michigan waters to Sault Sainte Marie. In this coldest of the Great Lakes, shallow crankbait spreads can rule the day right into June.
No fish is worth dying for, and if you go into 40-degree water, you won’t last very long. It’s about as dangerous as boiling oil.
If possible, caravan with a buddy or two to the lake so someone in another boat can render assistance if need be. Before leaving, make sure your motor is in good, running condition after winter storage, and that your bilge pump works—put some water in and make sure it pumps. Sound alone doesn’t mean it can move water.
Safety gear should include a flare kit, a fire extinguisher and a horn or whistle (all required by the Coast Guard for boats 16 feet and longer). Also bring along a handheld marine radio, preferably one that floats. Enter the local Coast Guard phone numbers in cell phones, and make sure you keep your phone dry. A plastic zip-style sandwich bag works great.
Do we really need to suggest you wear a life jacket? And if you’re even slightly uncomfortable with the waves or weather forecast, head for an inland body of water and fish there instead.
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