December 09, 2011
On the West Coast, it's called a tyee. In the Great Lakes, a 30-pound king salmon has no special designation, but it's probably destined to hang on a wall somewhere. A 30-pounder might look small on the Kenai, but it's a big salmon almost anywhere else.
With some species, it's possible to target the biggest specimens. Trophy bass, walleyes, and pike can be selected for with bigger baits, or targeted in predictable areas at predictable times of the year. But, with species like carp and sturgeon, it's more difficult to target the biggest specimens with traditional techniques. Most people feel king salmon belong to that group. Trolling for them is like rolling the dice. You might get all big ones, all small ones, or (most likely) a mix.
All salmon in the environment you're fishing, whether they weigh 10 pounds or 40 pounds, are after the same baitfish, which are all relatively the same size. Fishing bigger baits seldom works. In fact, outsize lures tend to be detrimental. Salmon, like their trouty relatives, are selective about things like size.
"It's tough to target the biggest kings in the system," said Tim Dawidiuk, charter captain on Lake Michigan. "But some captains believe that if they want to catch a really big king, something over 30 pounds, they can do it. It's hard to do when your clients want numbers, so I don't get many chances to test my theories on the subject. But I know some captains who do—Dan Keeting, Chip Porter, and Ernie Lantiegne."
So I called Keeting, who now lives in Colorado and is chaffing to get back on some kings. "You really can target kings in the upper 20- to 40-pound range," Keeting said. "Big kings are school fish. Big kings travel with big kings. Three things about giant kings: First, they like colder water than the other salmon or trout. A water temperature of 42°F is optimum. Ernie Lantiegne agrees with that.
"Second, kings are structure oriented. If some great structure intersects the right temperature band, that's the place to start. Third, you have to find concentrations of baitfish. Sometimes big kings are out in the middle of nowhere, too. Great structure and great temperature is nothing without the most important factor: bait. After that, it's a matter of sorting fish. If I'm catching shakers, I leave. The biggest kings will be somewhere else—with other big kings.
"Most salmon fishermen look for 50°F to 54°F water," Keeting continued. "They're missing most of the big fish. Another thing about big kings is that they're fussy, wary, and spooky. Less is more. Fewer lines in the water translates into more big kings coming to the boat.
"There are peak periods of the year, like from two months prior to spawning to the spawn. That's the best time. The rest of the year, if you're targeting cohos or steelhead early in the year, you can run a couple lines for kings and catch more kings than you would otherwise. Big kings are a perfect fish for the guy with a small boat who isn't going to run 15 to 20 lines. Perfect fish. And the best fishing is in the middle of the afternoon for big kings. They feed really hard early, slow down, then get hungry in the afternoon again."
Keeting runs only two downrigger lines, flanked with one widespread Dipsy Diver (#2 setting) on each side, carrying lures down and out to the side on Berkley FireLine or wire, each presenting a dodger-Howie Fly combo.
"These kings can see from a long distance," Keeting says. "Light line helps because the water is so clear, and keeping the spread sparse helps because they're wary. I catch most of my big kings on one of the two downriggers. I run a dodger and Howie Fly on one downrigger, and one spoon on 12-pound line, deeper and farther back than the dodger and fly. My two favorite spoons for big kings are the #5 Diamond King with a yellow edge and a green or blue-dolphin Silver Streak in the regular or magnum size. A silver Mauler in the blue Oz pattern is another good choice on light line. Light line gives better action."
Keeting uses white or silver glow, #0 Luhr Jensen dodgers in deep water, trailing white or pearl/blue Howie Flies on 40-pound mono leaders. "Leader length changes from day to day," Keeting says. "It's always somewhere between 16 and 34 inches. When kings are most aggressive, go shorter. Less aggressive, go longer."
Terms Of Agreement
Chip Porter, like Keeting, believes he can target big kings. "Bigger kings are colder-water fish than we once believed," Porter says. "Go into any lakeshore restaurant with 'salmon guidelines' on the placemats and they say kings prefer water in the 52°F to 55° range. But, for the last 5 or 6 years, we're finding the biggest kings in 42°F to 44°F water. They like it colder than lake trout prefer."
Porter surmises that bigger kings are, indeed, warier than the average salmon. "It takes a thinner spread at the depths big kings use. If you start putting all kinds of stuff down there, you won't catch 'em in that 90- to 130-foot range. It spooks 'em. Too much flutter. Those fish prefer a smaller, less aggressive spread. We call it deep stealth. But we also have a spread up high in the 50- to 75-foot range. Up there, you're catching browns, smaller kings, cohos, steelhead, and the occasional big king. But when I'm tournament fishing, I'm looking for big kings and I'm fishing deep. All the big kings in my last tournament, every king we caught, was over 20 pounds, and we were fishing bottom in 138 feet of water.
"Big kings use specific bands of water. If you find a band of big kings at 100 to 125, then take off to try a spot 10 miles away, chances are the big fish will be in that same depth band. They move along it like a road. And until there's a major weather change or the fall migration starts, kings will stay in that band of water. For that reason, 'down temp' on the cannonball is critical. If you don't have it, you have to get on the radio and ask, 'Where's the 42°F water?'"
Porter uses suspended wire line rigs, FireLine, or wire Dipsy Diver rigs and downriggers to probe deep. "It's key to run a dodger and Howie Fly 5 to 10 feet behind the cannonball and to place a spoon 5 to 10 feet deeper and about 10 to 15 feet farther back than the dodger rig. The dodger draws 'em in, and if they drop back, they tend to drop down, too. That's where the spoon kicks in. This sparse rigging can be accompanied by a suspended wire line also carrying a dodger-fly. It should be your deepest presentation, but sometimes they want it right in the set. But that's about it. Any more baits amount to clutter."
When fishing deep, Porter insists that color is a major factor. "At extreme depths, water filters out most frequencies of light," he says. "Down there, the best dodger colors are either white with silver tape or silver-glow (a flat matte finish). Most colors become gray at that depth, so white and glow colors seem to work. The number-one fly down there, bar none, is a pearl Howie Fly. Regular white is good, and so is 'little-boy blue.' My spoons for targeting outsize kings include the Silver Streak (green dolphin, Monkey Puke, or Sister Sludge patterns), and the Mauler (blue edge and baby Oz patterns)."
Ernie Lantiegne, a former biologist with the New York Department of Environmental Conservation and a charter captain for over 20 years, won the big-salmon award in a derby on Lake Ontario a few years back with a 39-pound specimen. Lantiegne, too, targets big kings. "Rigging, tuning, depth, and speed are critical aspects of targeting these fish," he says. "Around here, 25 pounds isn't considered big. To target kings over that size, you need to fine-tune lures, flashers, and dodgers at boatside and get them all dialed in and running perfectly together within the same range of speeds. With a sparse spread, it's critical to have everything running at peak efficiency."
Porter and Keeting like to target big kings deep in July and August. Lantiegne says September is one of his best months, as big kings begin to stage near the rivers they run, using cutbait tactics, which we detailed in our June issue.
Jason Gaurkee, a prolific troller out of Wisconsin ports, agrees with Lantiegne about timing. "You can target big kings, those 25 pounds or bigger, at certain times of the year. Last season, forexample, from mid-August until mid-September, we found 25- to 30-pound kings moving away from the majority of fish we worked for weeks. By mid-August, we lost contact with fish over 15 pounds. After searching the 80- to 150-foot depths, where we caught salmon for weeks, we decided to move to water in the 40- to 70-foot range.
"They were there, already showing signs of their fall colors. For the next 3 to 4 weeks, we followed them closer to the river mouths. We marked GPS points where we caught the last fish the day before as a starting point for the next day. Over the ensuing days, the waypoints showed a distinct movement toward shore.
In these pods of fish, we caught the occasional brown and steelhead, but no salmon under 15 pounds, many exceeding 25 pounds, and quite a few over 30. This is no isolated incident. This movement occurs every year on any salmon water.
"As far as targeting trophy salmon with bigger lures? I've tried trolling large baits like the Super Shad Rap. I've attached hooks to small dodgers in hopes of hooking a big fish, to no avail. The best advice I have for other times of the year is to follow a school of big salmon hour to hour, day to day, which isn't easy for a weekend angler."
Find 42°F water to put big kings on the bull's eye this summer. May your patterns run sparse and deep until the Red Moon, my son, when salmon begin to stage.
Company Contacts: Luhr Jensen, 541/386-3811; Howie Flies and Mauler Spoons, 920/746-9916; Wolverine Tackle (Silver Streak), 248/682-3388.