It was mid-August and hot when I met Eric Haataja at the boat ramp in downtown Milwaukee. A stiff wind was blowing from the west; the same wind the area had enjoyed for over a week.
Loading the boat took but a few minutes. We each grabbed a couple long, light spinning rods rigged with reels spooled with 10-pound braid, as well as a small box filled with leadheads and a couple tubs of Gulp! Alive baits.
I idled us out to the mouth of the harbor, but instead of dropping the throttle when we hit the open water I shut down the big Yamaha and headed for the bowmount trolling motor instead.
It was at that moment it finally hit me that this was not going to be a typical Great Lakes salmon trip.
Haataja (wibigfish.com) is rapidly becoming known as one of the most innovative guides on the Great Lakes, and he is developing ways to catch salmon and trout that are both simple and deadly. Throwing jigs—as we were about to do that day—for fish usually targeted with trolled spoons, flies and plugs is a perfect case in point.
A Presentation Evolves Haajata is the first to admit that this technique grew simply out of a desire to stop trolling. As a small-boat guide, he knew he couldn’t compete with the topnotch charters in the area, which are equipped to troll 10 lines or more at a time. So, like the good businessman he is, Haajata looked for alternatives, eventually turning to jigs after frequently finding concentrations of salmon or trout in places where he could easily target them by casting from his 18-foot aluminum boat.
In early spring, there is an exciting jig fishery for lake trout (see sidebar below), but the main event is the summer salmon bite. Haataja targets them with a lightpower 7-foot, 6-inch spinning rod and an Abu Garcia Soron reel loaded with 10-pound Stren SuperBraid in low-vis green. He tips his main line with a 3-foot leader of 10-pound Stren 100% Fluoro, attached using a Uni-to-Uni knot (visit FishingClub.com for tying instructions).
The thin braid provides the strength required to land giant fish, plus it casts well and you can load a couple hundred yards on even mid-size spinning reels.
His favorite jighead is an unpainted 1/4- or 3/8-ounce Gamakatsu Darter 26, which features a sticky-sharp 3/0 hook and two tapered bait keeper rings behind the head. These are critical for holding his bait—a 4-inch Gulp! Alive Minnow or 5-inch Gulp! Alive Jerk Shad—in place. I suspect a variety of soft plastic baits would also work, but Haajata has yet to find a need to experiment.
His favorite color is Smelt (black back/white belly), but he fishes pearl white and chartreuse shad as well.
The Battle Begins
Before taking the first cast of the day I glanced down at the temp gauge and was stunned to see it read 44 degrees.
The west winds were pushing the warm surface water east toward Michigan, which allowed cold, mid-lake water to well up behind it. The kings we wanted were following the cold water right to shore and stacking up in big numbers at strategic locations like harbor mouths.
Haajata hooked the first king around 6 p.m. It nearly spooled him on the first run, so I fired up the outboard and charged the fish so he could recapture critical line. Twenty minutes later a broad-backed king in the high teens was in the net. The jig sticking out of the corner of his mouth looked out of place.
As dusk settled, the kings in the area began to feed aggressively, busting pods of alewives in an area spanning at least 300 yards across. Surface blow-ups were tempting targets, but frankly there were enough fish that a cast anywhere around the boat was good.
Haajata boated three fish before I caught my first, a 14 pounder that hit the jig on its initial fall. That bite told me the aggressive jig strokes I had been using were not the ticket. I noticed then that he used a subtle swimming action with a lot of pauses.
Most of the kings we spotted on sonar were 15 to 20 feet down in about 50 feet of water. And they were active—we didn’t spot hooks on the screen; the fish were represented by big, jagged lines.
Counting down about 10 seconds before beginning our retrieves improved success rates, and we landed several fish in the span of the next three hours, the biggest going 23 pounds!
The following morning’s bite was even better, as the fish were concentrated near bottom in just 35 feet of water. Long casts and slow swimming retrieves were often rewarded with a solid thump and a screaming drag.
Anatomy Of The Bite
As we cleaned fish later that morning, Haajata explained that our trip was not a fluke of prime conditions, but one he runs into several times during a typical season. And it’s not a bite that’s limited to the Milwaukee area. Anecdotal reports from anglers in ports like Ludington, Sheboygan and others suggest the same opportunities exist in those areas.
The peak period spans July and August, and it’s best when a sustained off-shore wind moves warm surface water out and brings fish in shallow.
The biggest challenge in targeting salmon with jigs is finding fish in high enough numbers to justify the presentation.
Remember Ron Lindner’s old formula: Fish + Location = Presentation.
In other words, don’t waste your time targeting scattered kings chasing bait in open water. That’s the playground of trollers who can cover wide swaths of water quickly. No, to jig you need to find the spot-on-the-spot, the precise place where kings are stacking up.
In most cases, near-shore structure is the place to be. Haataja finds harbor mouths are great options when water temps are low enough (50 degrees or less) for these areas to hold fish.
He also finds kings in offshore areas, particularly around humps, banks and shipwrecks, all of which tend to concentrate bait and salmon.
For the first-time jig angler, it might seem like you are looking for a needle in a haystack, but it’s often not the case. Your GPS/map is the best place to get started, and your sonar will confirm if bait/fish are present.
Often, the toughest challenge is finding fish shallow enough to target (50 feet or less is ideal). Wind can make fishing these areas a challenge as well.
That’s why the near-shore bite is usually your best route, as the fish are easier to reach and often tightly schooled.
One of the best things about this technique is that it offers virtually anyone a legitimate shot at catching salmon, giant lake trout and big browns. While all of the Great Lakes can get ugly in a hurry, they can all be safely fished from a small boat under the right conditions. We saw boats as small as 16 feet safely fishing.
There’s also no need to invest in downriggers or other pricier items. All you need is a decent rod and a spinning reel with a good drag and enough capacity to hold at least 200 yards of 10- pound braid.
Even better, many of the fish Haajata and I caught were even within easy casting range of harbor breakwalls, which means shore-bound anglers have another effective option besides casting spoons.
Lake Trout, Browns: The Goby Connection
According to the latest data available from the U.S. Geological Survey, the invasive round goby, introduced into the Great Lakes as part of a ballastwater dump around 1990, is now found throughout lakes Michigan, Erie, Huron and Ontario, and has been found in scattered ports on Lake Superior.
The goby is classified as a harmful invasive species that reproduces rapidly, preys on native fish and eggs, and competes for available food. In some areas, goby densities are incredible—walleye anglers on Green Bay, for example, have learned not to drop a baited spinner rig anywhere near bottom on offshore reefs. Doing so will result in immediate hook-ups on gobies.
If there is any good news, it’s the fact that smallmouths and other native species actively feed on the invaders. In turn, imitation softbaits from a variety of companies, including Poor Boys, Berkley and Strike King, have become very popular with anglers throughout the region.
Haajata has discovered that lake trout also target gobies, and in early spring move shallow to feed on them. I fished near Milwaukee with him in late March when water temps as low as 33.4 degrees. The conditions allowed cold-loving lakers to slide up on shallow gravel reefs and against breakwaters to feed on abundant gobies.
Casting 3/8-ounce metallic silver or chartreuse Northland Eye-Ball jigs tipped with a 4-inch Gulp! Minnow on spinning rods, we hooked over a dozen lakers between 8 and 18 pounds before noon. The key was staying near or on bottom.
Great Lakes lakers have a reputation of not fighting well. I can assure you that is not the case when targeting them with a spinning rod and 10-pound test! Some battles last 15 minutes or more! We found lakers both tight to harbor areas, as well as holding on shallow gravel reefs—the very places gobies now call home.
I suspect this fishery is available in other areas across the Great Lakes. Try the pattern on the waters you fish, and let Club Headquarters know what you find out.—SP