Big-water salmon savvy

by John Kerr | August 8, 2019
salmon
David Raid took this hefty coho on a fluorescent-red flatfish off Port Credit. Once the salmon are “on top”, the downriggers are stashed and lures are trolled just below the surface, straight from the rods.

Veteran salmon angler John Kerr reviews salmon fishing tactics with insights into how the 1980 Great Lakes salmon run will fare. It could be better than you think. 

August is the month that anglers will be plying western Lake Ontario for coho and chinook salmon. 

The fish, now approaching their top weights, are starting to school and home in on the parent streams where they were stocked.

Add the Star’s Great Salmon Hunt to the action, which gets started on Aug. 16 and runs to Sept. 28, offering more than $100,000 in prizes, and there’s bound to be even more fishermen on the scene than in past years.

Unfortunately, the number of salmon stocked by the Ontario government is down in Lake Ontario’s western basin. Coho returning to the Credit River and Bronte Creek will be adult fish from 1979 plants of 117,000 and 40,000 smolts, respectively; down from a high of 438,425 in 1974. 

Survival rate high

The coho picture at Port Credit and Bronte may not be as bleak as stocking figures would indicate. Despite fewer fish being planted, it appears that the survival rate of the smolts has been high. 

salmon

Last fall, salmon anglers reported an unusually high number of “shakers” — 10-14-inch salmon — hitting lures meant for bigger fish. 

The spring fishery off the Niagara shoreline was also much better than expected this year. An estimated 8,000 trout and salmon were caught during the St. Catharines spring derby. 

Lake Ontario’s first modern charterboat guide, Ron Penfound, says a lot of the fish taken from his boat this spring when fishing near St. Catharines were rainbows, but that the percentage of salmon in the catches increased toward the Grimsby and Burlington areas. 

“Most of the spring coho in the past near St. Catharines were American fish,” said Penfound. “Their plants have dipped for a few years so we’ve caught fewer coho. The Grimsby-Burlington fishery was mainly based on Ontario salmon. That’s why more of them were again caught there this spring, while we hit the New York rainbows. 

“The Americans say they’ve done well for coho lately on their side of the lake. They claim it’s Canadian fish they’re catching. 

“It’s confusing, but I still think we’ll have a good run of salmon off Bronte and the Credit this fall,” he added. 

Pacific salmon contributing

There is also evidence that Pacific salmon are starting to significantly contribute to the fishery through natural reproduction. The number of wild fry and smolts showing in Ontario and Michigan streams has some biologists convinced that the fish are actually producing second and thirdgeneration fish, contrary to first beliefs that it wouldn’t happen.

Pink salmon have definitely increased their numbers in all the Great Lakes, solely by natural reproduction, although it’s taken more than 20 years for them to do it. Coho and chinook may also just be starting to gain a foothold. 

Just the same, the stocking sites are the places to concentrate on. 

In past years, large numbers of coho have consistently arrived offshore from Bronte and Oakville before showing near Port Credit, sometimes even in late July. Also, the Clarkson area, off the cement plant, was a good August coho producer last year. 

This year, there are no adult chinook salmon runs expected in Ontario waters of the lake from our own stockings. However, Bronte Creek and Twelve Mile at Port Dalhousie shared a seeding of 392,000 fingerling chinook in 1978. If the fish hold true to form, these streams should receive small runs or” 10- 15-pound precocious males or “jacks” this fall. The late summer of 1981 should see the 20-30-pound adult chinook come inshore.

Chinook concerns

However, there is some concern that the chinook runs may not live up to expectations. The young salmon averaged 800-900 to the pound when stocked. They should have run 200-300 to the pound for maximum results to the fishery. Cold water at the Wiarton Rearing Station is (again) blamed for stunting the salmon’s growth rates. 

But there will be some big chinook around the north shore of Lake Ontario nonetheless. New York salmon stray to our waters each year, and are frequently caught by Ontario anglers. Besides the waters off the Credit River, Bronte and 12-Mile Creeks, chinook have been taken in past years from offshore waters at the mouths of Duffin’s, Wilmot, Bowmanville and Shelter Valley Creeks, plus the Ganaraska and the Trent Rivers. 

The chinook, like the coho, have also been reproducing on a small scale in all suitable Great Lakes’ streams, thus providing new runs of adults each year. 

In all, it looks like the Bronte Creek area may again be the summer hotspot this year, with a run of coho and chinook expected. 

Lake Erie comeback

A new salmon fishery has also developed in Lake Erie — a lake once declared almost “dead” from pollution. In 1973 and 197 4 surveys showed that more than 2/3 of its Central Basin had no oxygen in its bottom waters because of phosphorus overloading. 

But that situation is changing. As a result, our U.S. neighbours have been stocking millions of salmon on their side of the lake, which have been spending the spring and summer months in the deeper waters of Erie’s Central Basin, disregarding invisible border lines. 

The fishing has been so good that many charter boat owners will be moving their operations there this year. 

If past years can be used to judge the Lake Erie salmon fishery, the Ontario waters from Rondeau Bay (Erieau) to Nanticoke are well worth a visit from early spring until late August, by which time the fish have headed for their spawning streams on the U.S. side. 

Once the schools of salmon are located in Erie, limit catches are common. Most of the fish taken on the Ontario side are coho, with a smattering of chinook. 

Salmon can be found

One trip off Erieau by this writer, on a foggy day last July, saw a three-man limit of five-seven-pound silver coho caught in four hours. Other boats in the area were equally successful. 

Lake Erie salmon are often found far offshore by late summer, since, unlike Lake Ontario, it is necessary to travel quite a distance to hit water deeper than 70 feet. Last year, the salmon were out 10 miles by early August, slowly heading toward the U.S. side of the lake. 

On this note, a word of caution is in order. Fog or rough seas can blot out shoreline features in a hurry on Erie. Be sure to carry a reliable compass aboard; know how to use it; keep track of your location and where port is. 

“Catching the salmon is the easy part,” said charterboater John Chorba. “As long as you can get out on the lake, the salmon can be found.” 

Standard downrigger techniques and lures used on Lake Ontario salmon are all effective for Erie fish. 

Erie coho also have the distinction of being the only salmon in the lower Great Lakes that have a clean bill of health for the dinner table. 

In late August or September, the waters off Lake Huron’s Saugeen River are also worth a try for chinook salmon. The run there isn’t large, but does number more than 1,000 adult fish some years. 

Fishing pressure is relatively light, so success rates can be fairly good once the salmon are schooled off the Saugeen and in the lower river at Southampton. 

Most of the Saugeen salmon are taken by flatlining with spoons’ and wobbling plugs in the relatively shallow rivermouth. But a search of deeper, offshore waters in August, using downriggers and depth sounders, should produce some salmon before they actually enter the rivermouth. 

The basics

Deciding where to concentrate your efforts for coho and chinook is one thing; finding and catching these exciting gamefish are quite other matters.

The Great Lakes are big waters; there’s room for salmon to hide.

To start, a downrigger for controlled-depth fishing is necessary to take full advantage of the offshore fisheries. 

These units are fairly simple devices that are fastened to the boat. They consist of a small winch, holding wire line, a footage counter to register how deep you are trolling, a heavy weight to get your bait down, and a release mechanism that lets a fish pull free from the downrigger. 

Separate outfits are used for actual fishing. Most popular are 8-9½ foot, medium-action rods, teamed with level-wind reels that are loaded with 15 or 20-pound test lines. 

The actual fishing line and lure are played-out behind the moving boat and then fastened to the downrigger’s release, located near the unit’s weight or “cannonball”. The ball and bait are then lowered to whatever depth at which salmon should be feeding. 

This depth is easy to hold because of the downrigger’s counter. Once the lures are at the proper level for fishing, the rod is placed in a holder and cranked into a full bend, taking up any slack between it and the cannonball. 

When a fish strikes, the rod will spring free of the downrigger, signaling a hit. 

Finding the zone

Deciding on what depth to troll is important. This will usually be in what is referred to as the salmon’s “preferred temperature zone.” This is where the fish spend most of their time. Coho salmon generally suspend in 12°C (52-54°F) water, while chinook prefer water from 11-12°C (50-54°F). Also look for chinook to be found closer to bottom structure in their temperature zone. Coho may be at any level their comfort range is located. 

An electronic temperature gauge can quickly give you a temperature readout of the different depths, allowing the thermocline — the area where the salmon are usually found — to be pin-pointed. 

The thermocline is the middle layer of water in a stratified lake that has a drastic temperature change over a relatively small band. That’s also where 11-12° water is usually found. Above this will be the warmer epilimnion and below it the colder hypolimnion. 

Once you determine what depth to fish, it is also important to make sure that your lures are working at the speed where they give the best action. A simple, trolling-speed indicator, costing less than $20, takes care of that problem. It clamps onto the side of a boat. The lure’s speed is checked visually at boatside and correlated to the indicator’s gauge. This speed can now be held, even if wave action or turns disrupt your normal trolling pattern, by adjusting the throttle to stay at the speed of the indicator. 

Depth sounder helpful

Basically, the downrigger, temperature gauge, and trolling speed indicator should let you start salmon fishing. But you may wish to increase your changes by purchasing a depth sounder. Without one, you really have no idea where bottom is. These are available in relatively inexpensive flasher units or in complex and costly paper graph models that give you a printed picture of the action beneath you. The graphs will mark bottom, the cannonballs, and any fish below the boat. 

If your budget’s tight, consider only a basic downrigger, a trolling-speed indicator, and the purchase of a reliable C.B. radio. 

Salmon fishermen are a chatty lot, and nearly all of their boats are equipped with a CB and often a VHF marine radio. They’re more than willing to inform other anglers where and at what depth the fish are hitting. Of course, you’ll need some tackle, besides rods and reels. 

Dodgers, plugs popular

One of the most popular lures is still the herring dodger or flasher. They’re used as attractors in deep water, where they dart and swing back and forth, sending out vibrations that sound much like the tail-slap of feeding salmon. The actual fishing lure, usually a small spoon, plug or fly, is trailed behind the dodger. 

There are a multitude of dodgers on the market; all of them work well. Just be sure you have the following basic colours aboard: fluorescent red, chartreuse, and chrome. Sizes O and 00 are most popular. 

Once the salmon are in the upper 35 feet of water, wobbling plugs such as Flatfish, Fireplugs, Tadpollies, Ping A-Tees, J-Plugs, Canadian Wigglers, Canadian Plugs, Kwikfish and the like, become effective without attractors. Larger models can be used deeper. 

Popular salmon spoons include Millers, Andy Reekers, Manistee Wobblers, Williams and Flutterspoons. 

Most sport shops catering to salmon fishermen will tell you the lures fish are hitting. 

Experiment for the best lead

How far behind the downrigger’s cannonball that you run your lure can also spell success or failure. Chinook are generally more shy of the weight than coho. Try 20-50-foot leads for chinook; 5-30 foot leads for coho. Experiment each day to find what’s best. 

Also make sure all lines are running lures that are compatible with one trolling speed. Veteran salmon fishermen advise using only identical lures or else those they know work together. 

It does little good to have several lures working at the right speed, and then to use others that are not. 

Finally, make sure your boat’s equipped with all necessary safety gear, and keep your eye on the weather.

Originally published in the August 1980 issue of Ontario OUT of DOORS magazine, and authored by former editor-in-chief John Kerr.

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