The river, warmer than the air, exhales mist into the pre-dawn chill of a late August morning. Birdsong fills the air. A deep pool reflects the surrounding forest, until a boil erupts on the surface. Fifty yards away, another boil. And another.
The first signs of the return of the king to a small Midwestern stream are cause for great excitement and anticipation, because what follows will surely be the mayhem of screaming drags, broken lures, shredded lines and, occasionally, photos of smiling anglers hugging muscle-bound Chinooks.
Television cameras came ready to capture the homecoming. Several casts into the morning, the first king came calling, closing his jaws on a balsa crankbait, sinking fangs into it so deep it later became a sinking model. The rod buckled and jumped. Shoulders ached from the shock. Line burned from the reel. Arms and wrists soon screamed for rest as the fish raced first upriver then back down. Jousting with kings is not for the timid in any event, and pitching cranks that get blasted at close range calls for some BENGAY and plenty of aspirin.
I’ve had many a tilt with kings coming home to the river. In 30-plus years of chasing them with metal and plastic, salmon eggs and spinners, hardware and cranks—I’ve never found anything more effective than the tactics outlined here for the vanguard, the early kings of late summer.
Early River Kings
The run peaks in late September or early October in most Great Lakes ports, but some kings always return early to rivers where some natural reproduction occurs. Stocked kings run early when rivers are uncommonly high or cool in late summer. But kings are staging around river mouths everywhere by the last week of August, and the same lures and tactics described here for river angling excel for shorebound anglers that target staging kings from piers, breakwalls, and surf.
Great Lakes kings are most likely to crush aggressive tactics like spinners, plugs, and spoons within the first 5 days after they enter a river. As salmon approach their spawning window and start dropping eggs and milt, the less effective crankbaits become. Conversely, kings that run early are most prone to striking cranks. Most Great Lakes kings spawn between late September and late October. So Michigan guides like Kevin Morlock of Indigo Guide Service and Jed LiTwiller of J.L. Guide Service like to push the envelope right along with the kings and start hunting in late July if rivers are up, though the vanguard of the salmon run may not appear until mid-August when rivers are low.
“That’s a key time to pitch cranks to kings on Michigan streams,” Morlock said. “Early fish are hot fish.” The lure of choice is not the traditional round salmon crank with an intense wobble. The right baits have a subtle swimming action and a “real fish” look, like Rapala Shad Raps, Berkley Frenzys, Cotton Cordell Grappler Shads, and deep minnows like the Storm Deep ThunderStick Jr. and Dave’s KA-BOOM! Deep Shiner.
“It’s the swimming action of Deep ThunderSticks and Shad Raps,” LiTwiller said. “The body doesn’t just vibrate and thump, it swims and rolls back and forth. We’ve tried virtually all the crankbaits on the market and can’t pull the same number of fish with any of them, except the similar styles. An open, loose wobble is the key. It projects a wounded-baitfish action to salmon. They don’t feed in the river, but it must be hard to switch off that feeding-machine mentality, because they can still be triggered.” Shad styles and deep minnowbaits do have more of a tail-wagging, swimming motion, which is probably why they trigger river-running kings like few other hardbaits.
Kings can be very color sensitive. “I’ve gone through runs without a bite, switched colors and caught fish on the next pass many times,” LiTwiller said. “Firetiger, pink-purple, pink-black, or chartreuse-pearl are the only colors you really need. Nine days out of 10, firetiger is our go-to color. Lots of colors work, but some are inconsistent. For instance a green-silver Storm ThunderStick Jr. works very well in low light, but under a bright sun it simply won’t catch fish for us at all.”
Morlock likes natural shades in clear water and gaudy colors in cloudy water. “Blue and green shades are natural because that’s what kings see a lot, reflecting off the backs of smelt and alewives in the big lakes,” he said. “But firetiger has proven best overall. The best producers have a pink, orange, or red belly, telling us kings that strike must be looking up at these baits and the belly color is more important than top or side colors. You want them to see the belly so you don’t want a super-deep diver. Kings rarely strike when the lure is constantly making contact with bottom.”
Filming a television spot with Morlock and LiTwiller, a firetiger SR-8 Shad Rap proved to be the hot lure, with a purple-pink Deep ThunderStick Jr. coming in a distant second. The first morning was one long fire drill, but we had the show finished by about 10 a.m. Big silver missiles were rolling everywhere on the river, ready to launch at the prick of a treble. Every day a king spends in the river, it seems to become more prone to sulking and less likely to leap. By contrast, August kings catch monster air and sometimes rip balsa lures to shreds. Literally.
Breaking Lures with Panache
The right rod for pitching cranks to river kings is over 8 feet long, with a medium action and medium-heavy power. The length is required to absorb shock and to control lures in current. A long rod held high keeps cranks swimming over shallow wood and rock. Held to one side, a long rod can be swept to the opposite side, creating a significant change of direction for the lure—an awesome trigger for kings.
“I use an 81⁄2-foot Shakespeare Intrepid, coupled with a Pflueger President spinning reel,” LiTwiller said. “I like 20-pound FireLine and tie direct to a size #5 or size #7 snap swivel. FireLine is amazingly resilient in wood—which is the predominant form of cover in the rivers we fish. In wood, FireLine is highly abrasion-resistant, and it’s knot-friendly stuff, which is critical with kings.”
Morlock said he uses a variety of rods. “I’ve used all different brands of 81⁄2-foot rods and most rated for 12- to 20-pound lines are sufficient,” he said. “My salmon reel is the Shimano Stradic 4000, because the drag is silky smooth. You need a drag that adjusts consistently, too—each increment of adjustment creating the same amount of change in pressure on the line, to slow a powerful run toward a log jam without having the drag seize up, or to loosen the drag slightly when heavy fish rush the boat and snap their heads.
“I fish with casting gear too—usually an 81⁄2-foot Shimano rod with an Ambassadeur 6500C3 reel. I use 20-pound Fusion, but I like FireLine, too. The fused braids have superior knot strength and better abrasion resistance. On small rivers you often can’t cast far, and you want the lure to get deep quickly, the reason we use braids. Cranks get deeper faster. Because of the lack of stretch, things get critical in a hurry with braids, so we start with a light drag setting and use the long rod to take pressure off the knots and the line.”
As mentioned, early kings tend to be aggressive. Filming with Morlock and LiTwiller, the fish did nothing to dispel that theory—the kings were, in fact, quite pleasingly rude. They ripped hook harnesses right through the balsa baits, perforated them with their pointy teeth and snapped braided lines by dragging them through fallen trees and logjams. The idea for making this show was brought to our attention several years ago by one of these compromised Shad Raps, sent to us by Morlock. It looked like a barracuda victim.
To destroy a lure, in this case, is a good thing. The short list of lures provided here is the first key. These lure types trigger early kings without any fancy manipulations. Morlock, in fact, believes a straight, steady, moderate‑to‑slow retrieve works best most of the time. But I threw a little wrench into the machinery, catching the first 4 or 5 kings by adding a small wrinkle to the retrieve. Using a 10-foot Pflueger spinning rod, I quickly realized it had the potential to make the lure change direction almost at right angles. Working from a drift boat, we started off pitching to a bank laden with overhanging grass and drawing the lure through a deep run from an anchored position. With the rod held low and pointing downstream, I triggered the first fish by changing the lure’s direction midway through the retrieve, quickly sweeping the rod across until it pointed cross-stream. The first king struck 5 feet from the rod tip. Even with a light drag setting and a 10-foot shock absorber, pain stabbed my elbow and ran through my shoulders like an electric shock. That simple tactic worked over and over again the first morning.
Sometimes the best retrieve is no retrieve—just cast straight across the current, close the bail, tighten the line, point the rod tip down, and hang on. The current will make the lure work as it sweeps through a pool or runs in an arc. Most of the time, a straight retrieve across the current is the ticket. Straightforward, simple, and kings respond. What could be better? Maybe a box full of lacerated, chewed-up, broken lures. “We go through a lot of lures,” Morlock said. “That box of lures you sent me last year? All history within a month.” Going to try this? Bring twice as many lures as you think you need, a bulk spool of FireLine, a long rod, and a magnum tube of BENGAY.