Night Fishing King Salmon
December 20, 2011
We were coming off a miserable day of salmon fishing, Great Lakes style. I had only to look into the three long faces of my fishing partners to realize we had only one small chinook in the box for our combined efforts. To make matters worse, the sun was setting. Our running lights were the only ones visible out to the darkened, rolling horizon. Roughly five miles from shore, the sonar showing 100 feet less water beneath us than where we first dropped lines that day, our graph suddenly came alive.
Too shallow for kings in July? We idled down and dropped lines for one last shot as the sun dipped behind the western shoreline of Lake Michigan. I barely had time to set two lines in near darkness when I heard "Fish on!" By the time I stumbled to the rod, 100 yards of mono had peeled off the reel. The next 45 minutes were eerie and chaotic in the gathering gloom. Exhilarating, but eerie. Unfortunately, we lost the fish boatside. It's tough enough taming a 25-pound salmon in broad daylight, but it's a complete circus with the lights out.
More fish followed and for some time, we were puzzled with this after-dark salmon bonanza. It occurred nearly every summer night from June into September and continued several hours past dusk. Night after night, our boat created the only points of light on an empty sea. Were these isolated incidents? My father successfully fished these waters for salmon since their introduction to the Great Lakes in the late 1960s and never fished after dark.
Pier and shore fishermen have long known about the inshore movements of kings at night, but they usually score only in late summer and fall. From a vast fleet of salmon boats, we could garner only scarce rumor of night-biting kings. Fortunately, since that first episode years ago, we've learned a few things. Lighting and an organized boat are important. Glow-in-the-dark baits trigger lots of kings. Fewer rods and a sparse spread mean more fish. Overall, nighttime can be primetime for high-flying kings.
As with most top-of-the-line predators, king salmon become increasingly active when the sun is low in the sky. But where were these fish when the sun was high?
We know salmon can cover a lot of miles quickly. They're born to cruise. But is there a diurnal movement from deep to shallow and back again? Or do they rise from points deep in the water column to zones nearer the surface at night? A study conducted by Dr. John Jannsen, University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee, and Dr. Stephen Brandt, University of Wisconsin-Madison, offers answers. The study, "Feeding Ecology and Vertical Migration of Adult Alewives," discussed vertical migrations of adult alewives and the influence mysis shrimp have on the entire food chain in the Great Lakes.
Their research tracked adult alewife and mysis 24 hours a day, during June, July, September, and October, 16 miles northeast of Milwaukee. Both mysis and adult alewives concentrated on the lake bottom during the day and migrated to the thermocline at night. Plankton also migrate vertically on a diurnal basis. This may explain the "clutter" we see on the bottom of our graphs during daylight hours and at the top of the graph at night.
As the sun climbed during the morning, highly sensitive tracking equipment revealed the descent of mysis, alewives, and salmon into deeper water. Prior to dawn, fish were high in the water column, but by 7:05 a.m. most days, evidence of fish activity was gone.
The extent and timing of the mysis and alewife migration coincided. During moonlit nights, mysis concentrated at depths just below the thermocline, and larger adult alewives were found in these same areas. The thermocline, a zone of rapid temperature change between a warmer layer of water above, and a colder layer of water below, can be anywhere from 20 to 60 feet down—even deeper at times—depending on wind direction and force and several other factors. Generally, the thermocline was about 30 to 40 feet down.
An examination of the stomach contents of alewives indicated that these vertical migrations were linked to feeding. Adult alewives feed extensively on mysis at night. Occupied with feeding, and shrouded in darkness, alewives become easier targets. Salmon feed almost exclusively on alewives at night.
Upwellings can play a role in the mysis-alewife-salmon connection after dark. An upwelling is the rising of deeper, colder water into the upper warmer layer of water. Upwellings usually occur when strong winds blow. This cold, nutrient-rich water movement is responsible for shifting masses of zooplankton and supporting the large fish population commonly found in these areas. During upwellings, mysis and alewives may be positioned well above the thermocline—even on the surface in some cases. Pay attention to the wind and watch your temperature gauge. An offshore wind brings cooler water toward shore, meaning kings should be located closer to shore and shallower than normal.
The Fish Finder from Koch Measurement Devices, a digital thermometer and depthfinder that attaches to your downrigger weight, gives both depth and temperature readings at 5-foot intervals. This simplifies finding the magic 55°F to 58°F degree layer where kings hold at night most of the time.
The best strategy is to start at the warm-to-cold-water transition—a thermal edge—and across the cold water mass. Use sonar to find bait. That's where the salmon are.
THE GLOW CONNECTION
Jeff Lindner, one of the most resourceful Great Lakes anglers I know, suggests that chartreuse or "rotten banana" patterns produce fish during evenings void of moonlight, and that large chrome spoons or J-plugs have been best on moonlit nights. Phosphorescent and luminescent lures, on the other hand, are covered with paint or tape, which makes them glow. The glow tape rapidly absorbs light energy and then slowly releases the light. On any night, no matter how bright the moon shines, all colors turn some shade of gray, with the exception of phosphorescent colors.
Light emanation gives feeding salmon a visible target, but there may be a bit more to this. Have you ever been in a boat at night on the ocean and noticed a glow in the wake behind you? Some marine organisms glow. It has even been suggested that alewives give off a faint glow. Maybe this glow phenomenon occurs in the Great Lakes, maybe not, but it does take place in the sea. Perhaps this is one of those things stamped into a salmon's genetic memory from their Pacific Ocean ancestors.
My penchant for a cluttered rod spread runs into all kinds of obstacles at night. Confusion about which rod is hot, salmon crossing other lines, too many lines to clear—it's a zoo. Simplicity is right at night.
My typical setup consists of four 8 1/2-foot St. Croix Pro Glass rods with Okuma line-counter reels filled with 20-pound Berkley Big Game. Or we use 80-pound Power Pro superline, which is a little thinner than 20-pound mono and somewhat more difficult to work with in the dark, but has the capability to really horse a fish into the net when necessary. Line-counter reels help to stagger lines properly. The complete lack of vision outside your boat makes it almost impossible to track a king at night. We always know how far a fish is from the boat with a line-counter reel.
Set Up #1—I set up from starboard to port. One cannonball is set slightly below "hooks" we're marking on sonar, one just above. The other two are in the prime fish zone. Each line is set progressively farther back—15, 20, 25, then 30 feet behind each cannonball. This staggers the lines enough to avoid tangles on sharp turns but keeps them close enough together to represent a school of baitfish.
I rig "cheaters" on the farthest port and starboard rods. A cheater is a 3- to 4-foot leader with a 100-pound Berkley Cross-Lok snap on one end and tied to a ball bearing snap on the opposite end. You attach a spoon to the ball bearing snap, and then snap the Cross-Lok to the main cannonball line that's already down. A cheater rig gradually lowers itself via gravity to the midpoint of the bow in the line between the surface of the water and the cannonball. These rigs have produced dozens of kings for us at night over the years.
Set Up #2—Another setup that works at night utilizes two downriggers and two rods rigged with leadcore line. Lead lines are run back 6 to 9 colors, depending on the depth of the fish. The two cannonballs are in the fish zone, with leaders set 15 to 25 feet back. Cheaters are optional. Glow baits are mandatory. This setup works best when kings hold in depths less than 40 feet during an upwelling situation, or when fish seem to be spooky.
The rule for lure selection is big and bright. Spoons have been our favorites. We run them more than plugs or dodger-and-fly combinations due to simplicity, not catch rates. Spoons tangle less, require less finesse, and troll at a range of speeds, making them easy to work in the dark.
Spoons by Silver Horde, Michigan Stinger, Mauler, and Scotty's Fly Lures offer the most versatile glow-color combinations and patterns on the market. A recent discovery: Renosky's Fire Glo Spoons hold a charge three to four times longer than most other lures and glow in a variety of colors, including blue and pink.
We use dodger-fly and dodger-squid combinations when the bite gets tough. Michigan Stinger's new Slasher dodger is the hottest ticket on the Great Lakes and it glows. Sliver Horde's BB is the brightest dodger on the market. Team these dodgers with a glow fly like a Michigan Stinger, Scotty Fly, Howie Fly, or Mustad's Salmon Hoochie.
Salmon plugs like the Silver Horde, J-Plug, or Grizzly in glow patterns also produce salmon at night. And don't forget traditional minnowbaits. The Challenger Minnow in a "glow frog" pattern has been hot. Other choices include Storm Thundersticks, Matzuo Zander Shads, jointed Rapalas with a spot of glow tape, or any of Renosky's Fire Glo Minnow plugs.
We add scent to our presentations as well. Salmon can smell like bloodhounds. I think scent can be the difference between a follow and a strike at night. Scents like Dr. Juice Trout-Salmon extracts, Jack's Juice in shad, Top Secret's line of amino gels, Land O' Lakes Predator scents, or McCormick's anise oil make any presentation more effective.
Personal floatation devices are the most important pieces of equipment on the boat, especially at night. Ring or throw buoys must be handy. It's the law in most states. Waves can appear out of nowhere in the darkness, sometimes from the passing of a distant freighter or a sudden change in conditions.
Proper lighting is crucial. All members of the team should wear headlamps. You need to see where the dangers lie and the exact location of a fish when net time arrives. Permanent spotlights should be mounted where they can light up the back of the boat. Hand-held or portable spotlights should always be handy.
Another critical item that save lives is a chemical light. Omni Glow makes a clip-on version that easily attaches to a life jacket. On our boat the guys setting lines wear chemical lights on their vests at all times. These things allow the quick location of a victim in a man-overboard drill.
We also use a marine radio with Digital Selective Calling. DSC is a new service that allows you to instantly send a distress call with GPS position to the U.S. Coast Guard and other vessels within the range of the transmission. DSC is semi-automated. Once the distress button is engaged, the radio sends out your exact position, which allows you to focus on the problem at hand.
Salmon at night is a wild ride—among the most exciting freshwater fishing experiences. Senses heighten. The sound of a screaming drag or clicker pawl is accentuated. The pull of a king feels like a nuclear sub. In the excitement, if everything isn't secure and in its place on a dark, rolling deck, accidents happen. Remember lighting, organization, fewer rods, and glow baits, but foremost is safety.