Report: Great Lakes salmon

ON a recent trip to the US for the launch of Evinrude’s radical G2 E-TEC engines (see report HERE), myself and a few other Aussie fishing/boating journalists managed to escape downtown Milwaukee and head across state lines to Illinois to spend an afternoon fishing in Lake Michigan.

The Great Lakes area of America is home to, well, some really great lakes. Aussies will find it hard to comprehend the size of these freshwater fisheries. Lake Michigan is virtually an inland sea – it measures 200 miles by 80 miles and crosses a couple of state lines plus the international border between the US and Canada.

Last winter the entire lake froze over – that gives you an idea how cold it gets in the north-western states of Illinois and Wisconsin. In summer, strong winds can whip up nasty 3m seas – like I say, it’s basically an inland sea.

We fished Lake Michigan with local charter skipper Scott Pratt aboard his 39-foot Sea Ray flybridge cruiser based out of Winthrop Harbour. The main target species in the lake are stocked king salmon, rainbow trout, coho salmon, brown trout and the native lake trout. Other species include walleye and bass. In fact, we saw spawning bass around the rocks at the marina and watched an excited little kid catch one on a mini spin outfit.

As we motored out into the glistening blue lake I was interested to hear Scott explain that the water was originally a muddy colour due to major river systems flowing into the main basin. Invasive zebra mussels had cleaned the water up via their filter feeding. Althought it made the water nice and clear, Scott wasn’t too happy about the arrival of the zebra mussels as he reckoned their water cleaning activities helped the fish see his lines!

Once we reached the 100 foot drop-off, Scott began setting the lines. We had each purchased an Illinois fishing licence for US$6 – this meant the four of us – myself, Sydney Morning Herald boating writer Dave Lockwood, Club Marine’s Chris Beattie and Scott – could legally troll a maximum of 12 lines.


Sydney-based boating journalist David Lockwood fighting a lake trout in between a busy spread of troll outfits!

Scott started organising his gear, which comprised of longish, quite floppy rods matched with overhead reels. He set two lines complete with flashers and treble armed spoons off twin Cannon electric downriggers and the remaining 10 lines via a complicated series of side planers and “Dipsy Divers” – the idea was to spread the lures out at different depths behind and on each side of the boat.

The main lures Scott favoured were spoons but he also trolled a couple of sparsely tied flies and small skirted lures that we’d use for tailor or striped tuna.

Most of the lines were braid but a couple of outfits sported reels spooled with copper wire in order to get the lures down as deep as possible.

We only had one fairly minor tangle, thus proving that the intricate deployment of all the side planers and other paraphenalia worked in regards to attaining a spread over as much water as possible.

Just about all the rigs sent out featured the addition of a flasher in order to attract the attention of a hunting trout or salmon. Surprisngly enough, the lure was positioned only a few feet behind the flasher.

Once the lines were set – it dead set took almost an hour to get it all sorted and deployed – we started our troll run along a drop-off marking the inshore flats and the deeper “offshore” waters.

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David Lockwood with a nice lake trout.

Plenty of fish started marking on the sounder and we spotted sea gulls feeding on bait. Aside from a few small native species, the main bait in Lake Michigan is a small herring-like fish known as an “alewife”. These silvery fish migrate into the lakes via a long and involved journey from the sea. There are literally billions of them and they caused serious problems by dying and washing up on the shore in huge stinking masses. Predatory salmon and trout were introduced into the system to help keep the alewives under control – creating a burgeoning sportfishery in the process.

After a quiet start we started getting a few hits. One stayed connected with Dave Lockwood bringing a very nice lake trout to the net. As mentioned above, lake trout are native to the lake and are a member of the char family.

I was on strike next and managed to land an 8lb king salmon on a trolled spoon. Although encumbered by copper wire line, a planing board and a foot-long flasher, the fish fought well making a couple of powerful runs and several surgey jumps. On 10lb braid fished off a 3-6kg spinning outfit, it would have made for a really challenging opponent.

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Copper wire lines help the lure get deep but aren’t exactly what you’d call “sporting” … Image: David Lockwood

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A happy Jim with a bright silver king salmon. Image: David Lockwood

Regardless, I was pretty stoked with the salmon – my first – and after a few pics we put it in the icebox. According to Scott, the kings are the prime eating fish in the lake and are always a welcome catch.

We soon headed back to the marina for a welcome beer and a typically massive calorie-laden American style burger with lashings of melted cheese and the obligatory mound of fries. Scott zipped home and brought us back some of his home smoked salmon – awesome stuff!

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Shiny metal spoons are a preferred lure when trolling Lake Michigan for trout and salmon. Image: David Lockwood

If you’re ever in the Great Lakes area and have a few days free, I can recommend chartering a boat and skipper. The way the Yanks fish with multiple lines is completely different to anything I’ve ever done and their gear, rigs and tackle systems are interesting and effective. And those salmon are pretty cool fish – both in the water and on a plate.


These are just a few of the rods we trolled!

You can contact Scott Pratt at or check out

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