Almost anyone can catch a Great Lakes salmon in those soft, gray moments of an early morning in summer. With the sun still hiding behind the horizon, salmon go on a binge—so much so that even novice anglers have a hard time keeping all of their trolling spread in the water.
But after the sun climbs, the frantic morning bite usually crashes, and even the hottest fishery from Superior to Ontario can suddenly morph into the Dead Sea.
Not for Russell Gahagan. This lifelong Lake Michigan angler, former charter captain and salmon derby stalwart knows how to keep the bites coming all day. “If you waited for salmon to be hungry to get your bites, you’d have only two brief windows to catch fish all day—about 15 total minutes right at dawn and dusk,” he says.
Needless to say, Gahagan doesn’t wait. Instead he triggers strikes from inactive fish by incorporating more subtle actions into his presentations, and moving his baits deeper into the water column and farther from trolling aids like downrigger balls and diving planers.
DEEP AND SLOW
Speed and depth are Gahagan’s primary concerns when adjusting his presentation for day-shift salmon. In general, he places his baits at or above the thermocline at dawn, then puts them at or below it at midday, letting fish behavior dictate when he makes the change.
He also puts on the brakes, slowing his trolling speed from the usual 2.1 to 2.5 mph at dawn to 1.9 to 2.1 in midmorning.
SALMON ON THE SLIDE
To get his baits deeper and farther from the boat, while downsizing his presentation, Gahagan relies on Slide Divers in place of traditional diving planers like Dipsys. As their name suggests, Slide-Divers slide up and down the line, letting you adjust leader length instantly, which isn’t possible with fixed-position Dipsys.
They can also be unclipped and allowed to slide down the line once you’ve fought the fish up to the diver. This makes it possible to use ultra-long leaders, which are often necessary to avoid spooking moody midday fish.
“During tough midday bites, I sometimes put as much as 250 feet between the diver and flasher,” he says.
New Lite Bite Slide-Divers (www.slidediver.com) make such setups even more versatile, as their sensitive trigger can be adjusted for a wide range of tensions.
Copper line also plays a critical part in Gahagan’s midday arsenal.
“Years ago I’d hook 3- and 4-ounce weights on a line to get baits down farther for these midday fish,” Gahagan says. “Now I’m using copper line, getting baits deeper without those balls, downriggers or other hardware that spooks finicky late-morning salmon.”
The copper line certainly works—I can attest to that after fishing it with Gahagan one day last summer. The stuff is so heavy that simply reeling it in to change baits is physically exhausting, but it gets baits down in front of deep, negative fish, without the obtrusive profile of a downrigger ball, diving planer or supersize lead weights.
It caught fish, too, something that became apparent as the day wore on. The downrigger rods quickly went cold, and the copper lines took over.
GIVE FLIES A LONG LEASH
Flasher-and-fly combos are Gahagan’s bread-and-butter presentations regardless of the time. To maximize them at midday, however, he softens them a bit, lengthening the lead between the flasher and fly from his dawn-shift 18 inches to 24 inches.
This gives the fly a much lazier action because the longer leash absorbs more of the flasher’s kick. A shorter lead gives the fly an erratic, choppy action.
As a final touch, Gahagan helps draw strikes from negative salmon by using E-Chip equipped flashers and lures. The chips consist of a small metal tube that holds a stainless steel ball. The ball slides back and forth within the tube when rocked, striking a ceramic crystal on the end.
That impact creates a small electric pulse that mimics the nerve discharge of a wounded baitfish. Although the manufacturer says the tiny charge doesn’t “call in” salmon, it does serve as a deal-closer for following fish.
Sure, that frantic first-light bite--and the ensuing fire-drill of fighting fish, re-setting lines and controlling the boat, all against the backdrop of a brilliant summer sunrise—is what hooks most Great Lakes salmon anglers and keep us coming back for more.
But you’re missing out if you pack it in when the morning fades into midday. Not only can you still catch fish, but if you play your cards right like Gahagan, you can actually experience some of the day’s most consistent action.