Northern Wilds Magazine
Points North

Points North Hunting for salmon on Lake Superior

By Shawn Perich

At this time of year, keeping up with all the harvesting and foraging at hand is challenging. The garden, of course, requires constant attention, while in the woods and waters, a changing platter of natural “crops” are available. It’s hard to find time to gather all of them.

Soft summer evenings are devoted to catching walleyes for fresh fish dinners. We spent a couple of sunny afternoons picking blueberries before moving on to wild raspberries. In between, I’ve been gathering chanterelle mushrooms and fly-fishing for trout. But when Lake Superior’s surface water warms up, all of the above plays second fiddle to a few short weeks of trolling for salmon and lake trout on the big lake.

This summer, the warm-up didn’t arrive until the end of July, when the sun shined on mirror-flat waters for more than a week. I began hearing the lake trout were up in the shallows from some of my fishing friends, but couldn’t find the time to get my boat wet. Last Saturday evening, I finally went out for a short, trolling shakedown cruise to make sure my gear was in order.

My time was limited, so I worked some rocky structure not far from the boat landing. I was surprised to find the surface water temperature was 67 degrees, although the warmth likely didn’t penetrate very deep into the water column. I decided to fish with two lead core lines and small spoons—a setup better suited to roving salmon than bottom-dwelling lake trout. I fumbled a hard strike (the first one of the summer), but soon redeemed myself by bringing a 22-inch Chinook salmon to net. My evening shakedown was a success.

The next morning, I went back out with Jim Boyd of Grand Marais and his 10-year-old grandson Ferguson St. John, who was visiting from Colorado. We got a late start–it was after 8 a.m. when we hit the water—because I needed to finish rigging my boat. While the fishing is often best in the early morning hours, I was optimistic we’d find some chinooks.

In other words, catching one salmon the previous evening had sparked a case of salmon fever. I catch the fever every year around this time, when Chinook salmon begin to bite. While you can catch the odd Chinook even when the water is very cold, they show up in numbers at the height of summer. Then, for a week or two, you can have good fishing.

While most everyone catches salmon while they are around, not everyone fishes specifically for them. A fair number of folks troll randomly, which is easy to do in a lake as vast and deep as Superior. They drag lures behind the boat for a few hours and are happy with whatever they land. Some anglers focus on lake trout, which are the most abundant and easiest to catch fish in the lake. Still others go for Coho salmon, the Chinook’s smaller cousin. Lake trout are mostly found on the bottom, sometimes at great depths, while Coho salmon are often just beneath the surface.

In contrast, the Chinooks hang out at mid-depth in the water column, anywhere from 25 to more than 80 feet beneath the surface. They often lurk on the deep side of structure, such as a reef or rocky point, or rock formations on the bottom. You’ll also find them further offshore, in deeper water, generally 50 or 60 feet beneath the surface. Wherever you find them, Chinooks are most active around dawn and dusk.

Fishing for Chinooks is a lot like hunting. I have a milk run of “spots” where I’ve caught them in the past. I can never predict where or if I’ll catch salmon on a given day, but they are usually where I expect them to be. While I may catch two salmon from a spot, rarely do I find more than that. My usual routine is to catch a salmon here and another there. On a good morning, fishing with another angler so we can run four lines, we may boat five Chinooks.

On Sunday morning, we started out where I’d found Chinooks the previous evening and caught one as we turned out along the deep side of the structure. In addition to the lead core lines, I ran two downriggers to get down 45 to 80 feet with glow-finish spoons. We tried another spot with no luck and then picked up the lines and ran down the shoreline to a favorite spot. We caught a second Chinook immediately and a little further down the shoreline found yet another.

Ferguson landed the first two salmon and I took the third, which a little bigger. The battle was classic, if not epic. I’ve caught plenty of Chinooks both in Superior and in their native Pacific Ocean. This four-pounder fought the same way as a 40-pounder, making strong, locomotive runs. I held the rod, listened to the reel sing and enjoyed every moment of the fight.

The action, which hadn’t been fast, slowed to nearly nothing as the sun climbed higher. We connected with a fourth salmon as we trolled off a rock shelf into deeper water, but lost it just behind the boat. By this time, it was nearly noon. Ferguson, who’d spent the previous two days in the voyageur re-enactment camp at the Grand Portage Rendezvous Days, was more than ready to head ashore. And so we did.

Sunday evening, I went out alone, just to give it another shot. Rain clouds gathered over the North Shore hills. Perhaps it was the changing weather, but I found no Chinooks. My only catch was a lake trout too small to keep. While I intend to get out at daybreak whenever possible in the coming days, whether I’ll catch any more salmon is impossible to predict. That’s the way it is with Chinooks. And that’s why I like hunting—I mean fishing–for them.

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