When a 25-30 pound King salmon decides to blast a lure, you better have a firm grip on things,” says Craig Reiger, a fishing industry consultant in Wisconsin. “It’s like grabbing a lightning bolt,” especially the way Reiger goes about it. He walks the piers in fall, vertically jigging the edges with spoons. So, when a king hits, he has about 10 to 20 feet of line between him and a fish he could water-ski behind.
Some of the best shoreline fishing on earth occurs when the kings come home to roost in fall. Great Lakes salmon cross open expanses of water to zero in on the river where they were stocked or born. Every year, between late August and mid-October, salmon are, indeed, kings of the harbors. Boats by the dozens pepper the shoreline for miles around every major river mouth, while shore fishermen crowd the piers.
Shore-bound Great Lakes anglers have, for 30 years now, been mystified, amazed, and beaten up by these tackle-rending giants. Unlike boat fishermen, the shore patrol can’t chase down the big ones, and many a forlorn angler watches in dismay each fall as something too big to stop melts line off the reel so fast the spool revolves like a power drill.
And, unlike walleyes, steelhead, and brown trout, which also make fall runs up rivers, kings stop feeding at some point. They morph into spawning machines, with shrunken, shriveled stomachs and constricted throats. Once they morph, they may strike because of an emotive response, or because something triggers a residual, instinctive feeding response. Some days they don’t seem to strike much of anything at all.
A variety of methods for busting these broncos have become conventional over the years. Most anglers throw casting spoons like Acme Little Cleos, EGB Blinkers, or Eppinger Dardevles. Or they throw bait—especially salmon eggs tied in netting (spawn sacks). The sack is held near bottom with an egg sinker (calm days) or pyramid sinker (windy days), but kept off bottom by adding a little colored styrofoam to the bait. And for tackle, the middle road is about 12-pound test with 12-pound fluorocarbon leaders on long 12- to 14-foot medium-power surf rods—if you actually want to land a few. More realistic tackle would be 15- to 20-pound line on an 8- to 10-foot medium-heavy casting rod.
Less conventional alternatives include livebait options. Alewives—the preferred forage of kings—often work better when kings are still silver, so some pier fishermen use throw nets to capture bait at dawn. Some wade the shallows and spot fish for kings and trout with fly-rods, a truly unusual and exciting approach. Then, of course, came Reiger.
To Jig A King
Jigging is perhaps the most unusual—and most exciting—approach to fishing salmon with both feet on solid ground. Reiger spends his September mornings vertically jigging along the edge of piers and breakwalls with Acme Little Cleos and Luhr Jensen Krocodiles. The first step is to select a river mouth that’s drawing a huge run of fish, by pulling up stocking and return records off the internet, calling contacts along the lake, or by checking fishing hot lines.
“I walk the entire rim of the pier, dropping spoons vertically along the edge and jigging, as I would for walleyes,” Reiger explains. “Most of the time I simply lift the spoon 1 to 11⁄2 feet off bottom and let it flutter back down. Some days it’s a real snap-drop routine, popping the lure up and immediately letting it flutter back down on a free line. Kings sometimes slam the lure on the rise, so an exaggerated jigging motion is key. Let it hit bottom, reel down to the lure with the rod tip pointing down, and rip the lure 3 to 6 feet off bottom.
This is especially effective when the fishing is hot. Early and late in the day, kings become more aggressive about chasing and reacting to lures. During midday, spawn dunkers catch most of the fish. But in the evening, I’ve consistently outfished bait fishermen in the same area by a ratio of 6 or 7 to 1 over the past several years by jigging the pier walls.”
Reiger uses 1/4- to 3/4-ounce “action” spoons (as opposed to the classic “slab” spoons designed for vertical jigging, like the Hopkins or Cotton Cordell CC Spoons), depending on wind and depth. Little Cleos and Krocodiles are stamped out of thick steel, so they drop fairly quickly. The wavelike shape of these spoons, however, doesn’t let them drop straight down. The resulting flutter puts out flash, and since the water around pier walls is seldom extremely deep (usually less than 20 feet), drop speed isn’t really a problem.
Reiger uses heavier lures on windy days and in deep water. Harbors where big rivers push out into the lake have an added force to contend with: current. Sometimes a slab spoon like the Bait Rigs Deep Willow or the Acme Kastmaster, in sizes up to an ounce, are necessary to combat wind, waves, and current at the end of the pier.
“Most days, kings just want the lure dangling there on a pause after a more subtle jigging motion. Give it a pop, let it settle, and repeat. If nothing happens, keep moving along. I also cast spoons along the wall or out a little ways and let them fall to the bottom. I let the lure settle, point the rod at it, tighten down and pop it up a couple feet, let it settle and repeat until it’s dangling just off bottom below me. I jig it a few times at that point. Kings will follow things, and vertically jigging the bait triggers some of these fish.”
The mix of currents and wave action along pier walls and jettys can concentrate a cluster of kings at some point along the wall. The wall itself creates a route of least resistance for the kings to follow as they nose into the river, and corners along the wall can create eddies and resting spots. “It’s best to just walk the entire pier, because you never know where that hot spot might be. Some days, each strike comes from different spots. Other times, one or two hot spots along the wall hold more fish,” Reiger says.
Start with the downwind side of the harbor. In other words, along a shoreline that runs north-south, go to the south pier during a north wind. The wind bends the current when it hits the lake, and in this case, pushes it south. Kings follow the trail of cooler water and hover in the edges of the mudline, where the edge of the (usually) cloudier river water meets the clearer water of the lake.
Kings treat mudlines like structure, following it to the river, where many come in contact with the south pier head in this scenario. Concentrate on the river side. But walk the north pier, too, especially if big waves are breaking into it or slightly over it—but be careful—and concentrate on the lake side. Wave action on the pier has a more disorienting effect on smaller baitfish, like alewives, while larger kings have an advantage.
Walking along the pier or breakwall, Reiger drops, jigs and walks softly, carrying a big stick. “I use a 7-foot medium-heavy fiberglass rod with a large-capacity reel full of 17-pound mono,” Reiger says. “With such a short amount of line out, things can get critical in a hurry. You want some stretch. This is no place for braids. As it is, when a 20- or 30-pound king jolts that spoon, don’t be reaching into your pocket for a stick of gum, unless you enjoy launching fishing rods like Fourth-of-July fireworks all over the place.”
A second angler casting for distance up ahead might use spoons, deep-running spinners, and crankbaits that can be launched long range by 10-foot medium-power spinning rods like the St. Croix Ben Doerr Surf System models, coupled with a large-spool spinning reel with a good drag like the Daiwa SS Tournament 2600. Fill the reel with a tough 10- to 12-pound line, like Ande Premium.
Top hardware choices include spoons in the 1/3- to 3/5-ounce range, such as Acme Little Cleos, EGB Blinkers, Mepps Syclops, or the K&O Wobbler; or spinners in blade sizes #2 up to #6, like the Blue Fox Vibrax, Terminator or Mepps Flying C, See Best, or Trophy Series.
Cast, let the bait sink to various levels before beginning each retrieve. Vary retrieves to determine the right trigger. Rip hardware fast on a straight retrieve, then slow it down, then try adding sweeps and pauses. Sweep the bait forward hard for 6 feet, then let it flutter as you pick up line, reel the lure forward a few feet, and repeat the process.
Banana baits like the Worden’s Flat Fish and Luhr Jensen Kwikfish work well at times, as do diving baits like the magnum Cotton Cordell Wiggle-O and suspending baits like the Rapala Husky Jerk. Sometimes a steady retrieve works best, but pumping the rod constantly while bringing the lure back usually works better. With suspending baits, twitch them in place and alternate pauses with long, dramatic sweeps of the rod.
With all lures, gold-green or silver-blue is a good starting point. Bright fluorescent chartreuse or orange on silver, gold, or copper backgrounds are basic colors, and a wide variety of other fluorescent or metallic colors work. Try black, coffee, or matte-finish spoons, spinners, and plugs, too—especially when fishing pressure is heavy. Salmonids can be picky about color. Change baits often until you find the right combination of action and hue.
As Reiger mentioned, bait fishing tends to work better during the day. A longer 14-foot surf rod (a Spey rod works great, too) acts like a shock absorber when big kings take off, and allows you to put more pressure on the fish with lighter line. On bright, clear, calm days, when drawing strikes with heavy line can be difficult, fluorocarbon leaders become important.
With spawn bags, use salmon eggs and mix colored styrofoam beads with the bait, or slide a leader float like a Beau Mac Cheater or Worden’s Lil’ Corky ahead of the hook to hold the bait off bottom. Use a #2 baitholder-style hook and a short 1- to 2-foot 10- to 15-pound leader tied to a barrel swivel.
On the main line, before tying on the swivel, slide a 1/4- to 2-ounce sinker (egg sinkers on calm days, pyramid-shaped sinkers on windy days) and a plastic bead to protect the knot from the sliding weight. The same rigging works with live emerald shiners or alewives, but with slightly larger hooks.
Wade out and cast, or cast from the pier, tighten the line, set the drag light, close the bail on the spinning reel, and set the rod in a holder. I like to throw spoons while waiting for strikes, and most Great Lakes states allow fishing with two rods. During the middle of the day, it’s critical to get way out there, so a dense, compact spoon like a 1‑ounce or larger Acme Kastmaster is the perfect tool from shore for double duty.
But stay within reach of the rod holder. Unless, of course, it’s the Fourth of July, in which case, you’re early. The peak time for plugging into lighting-bolt kings begins in August to the north (Lake Superior) and continues right through October in the south (Lake Ontario). Insider’s tip: If you do show up early, fish at night with bait. Big kings that stay out deep during the day sometimes cruise the beaches at night during late summer and early fall. Be certain to put cyalume lights on the rod. Launches are more spectacular that way.