Shallow bands of silver thugs cruised the beaches for a month or more. It was common back in the day. We took small boats out between the pier heads to troll plugs along the mudlines. The action was so close to shore we could read the street signs in the neighborhoods on shore.
King salmon staged around the Great Lakes harbors for a month or more from late summer through early fall. No serious equipment was necessary, though inline trolling boards spread our lines out and allowed us to clamp more rods into Down East rod holders.
That dynamic changed. Fisheries change. Sometimes conditions cause it. Could be human activity, like physical alterations to the makeup of a waterway. Climates change and fish respond. Sometimes fish just change the way they relate to the world.
Captain John Oravec (Troutman Charters on Lake Ontario) has observed a few changes over the past 35 years since co-authoring his first articles with In-Fisherman on the nature of king salmon in the Great Lakes. Staging behavior, he says, has changed dramatically.
“The two biggest factors here are dry weather and decades of early egg taking,” Oravec says, indicating most of the eggs taken for stocking are from fish that return early, creating a genetic propensity. “Kings are staging earlier, often laying around in warm waters waiting for stream flow. But dry weather has kept rivers lower than historic averages for years. River runs of kings have been poor as a result.”
The classic lure for staging kings in the Great Lakes and elsewhere has been the Luhr Jensen J-Plug. Captains and weekend warriors run them in a spread across sandflats near river mouths with big boards, inline boards, and outriggers.
“J-Plugs irritate the heck out of kings,” Oravec says. “There’s a period every fall when the J-Plug rules, but it’s not as good as it used to be. We haven’t had the years where they come inshore and hang around for weeks. They’re staying out deeper. The J-Plug is at its best up on shallow flats. It’s part of the low-speed program involving muddy or tannic waters from high rivers that paint the flats brown in depths of 5 to 15 feet. The J-Plug season has been reduced from 6 weeks to a couple weeks now. We used to have a lot more stream flow, and that good inshore water just doesn’t set up like it used to.”
Climate change means prolonged summer heat, dry weather, and low, stagnant streams sending warmwater plumes into the Big Lakes. Those dynamics push staging kings farther from shore than in the past. “Poor river plumes have matures lolling around during late summer above deep thermoclines, refusing to stage in the warmer water near shore,” Oravec says. “The scent of river water excites them, so kings yo-yo in-andout. Some actually run up and back out of the rivers. If they come in, they sulk in those luke-warm waters, becoming difficult to entice. Most of the kings are in the depths now from late summer through September, waiting for conditions to change.”
One condition consistently draws kings to the old staging grounds in a mood to bite. “August upwellings create shallow bites,” Oravec says. “When deep, cold water is dragged up by heavy wind and pushed inshore, staging kings come right into the pier heads. The heaviest fishing pressure targets immature fish way off shore. Everybody’s following the fishing reports like sheep. The biggest fish of the year are closer to shore than they think, and that’s the value of this information.
“If you’re new to king fishing, stop following the fishing reports and start following inside information like this: Kings are staging earlier, so even a July upwelling brings them inshore. People are going out 10 miles when the biggest fish are a mile or even a half mile out. Charters are out for numbers and they’re catching 5- to 18-pounders. When I’m fishing in August, I can see the gas pumps on shore after a big blow.”
Riders of the New Stage
Under typical conditions, key depths are 50 to 150 feet from mid-summer well into September. “Without upwellings to draw them, kings are going 80 miles all at once, from deeper water right up the river,” Oravec says. “The low stream flows are just making them hang out there longer and longer, but river water remains the key. Intuitive anglers: 1) Pay attention to USGS and other sites that chart prevailing currents in the area, and 2) Note which way the wind’s been blowing for the past week or more. Come August I get excited about big king salmon—the biggest kings this side of the Pacific Coast. The first key to finding them is understanding that sexually mature kings split off the feeding grounds where the immatures remain, seeking the scent from the bottom sediment of their parental streams.”
Rivers dump water into the Great Lakes all day and all year. Volumes of that water collect in certain spots. Oravec hunts for “bowls” (depressions on flats) or cupshaped formations on ledges and breaks where river water eddies and collects. “To find the big sharks on stage, you have to hunt structure,” Oravec says. “Let the pack go deep over thermoclines. Slow down and scan the inside turns, the humps, and the ledges on the breaks closest to shore in depths of 50 to 150 feet, looking for any bowl or cup that fills up with river-scented water. Stagers sulk on bottom a lot, but they also suspend. Matures start riding high in warmer water temps even way offshore. Mark those depths when you find them, and work the entire water column right down to bottom in those depths, but key on the high riders and bottom huggers. August chinook move vertically, dropping back to bottom right there where you marked them and becoming barely viewable. My Furuno FCV 588 has a bottom discrimination mode that is invaluable for this technique.”
Oravec follows natural cues to determine the normal course of a river after it enters a lake. “The classic duckweed line in the estuaries is a tell-tale sign,” he says. “That’s the side of the harbor or river mouth where lake currents direct the incoming flow, depositing rich sediments lush with life. Kings also set up downwind of where the river water comes out.
“In the past, in a wetter climate, it was easier to follow mudlines way out there,” he says. “Kings gather in the scent of the stream flow. They get ‘pink belly’ from laying around on zebra mussels, smelling the bottom sediment that’s been deposited there over the years. I have no way of proving it, but 35 years of finding kings on the down-wind side tells me it’s the bottom sediment from the river that provides that scent, and I think they can discern it down to at least 150 feet because that’s where the giant pink bellies come from a lot during the staging period—and from 50 feet on the shallow side or anywhere between those depths.”
Oravec says “slow down” because the biggest kings are lollygaggers on the stage. “I keep them honest with a high downrigger ball carrying a slider way up in the 60°F water temps,” he says. “I also run a higher, shorter leadcore or copper line. If you really want to get crushed by an active monster, run a high Dipsy Diver on a 3 setting with heavy mono. You may not mark high-riding, river scenting sharks, so you just have to fish for them. Finding fish high indicates structures directly below that collect river sediment, where we have downrigger balls ’scuffing’ sediment.
“Slower trolling speeds and checking holding areas twice daily for suspended activity is ‘bite hunting.’ Where we get bit we go vertical—bottom scratching with downriggers, leadcore on Dipsies, or long, deep copperline rigs when kings sink back to structure. Low flows stagnate kings on the ledges. The warmer water makes them lethargic. Slowing down between 1.8 to 2.2 knots and going with bright fluorescent colors triggers these off-feed monsters. Glow-frog, silverorange—the brighter the better.”
The best lures? “Big, zig-zaggy, flip-floppy mag spoons like the Eppinger Evil Eye and the Dreamweaver Magnum,” he says. “Cutbait pegged to a Dreamweaver Meat Head behind a multipleAction Fly ‘twinkie rig’ and a Spin Doctor flasher triggers those bottom huggers, too. Go bright with wide wobble or meat on a ‘school of somethings’ rig. Those are the things that trigger lethargic kings. Fishing slow with mags and cutbait is what it’s all about.”
Last year, while a lot of captains chased numbers in the 5- to 18-pound range, Oravec stalked faint traces of river water to boat a 42-pounder. “The biggest ones have an adipose fin (not clipped),” Oravec says. “Those fish are born in the wild. We saw a lot of unclipped salmon weighing 29 to 31 pounds last year. Kings going 25 to 27 pounds were typical on the stage when hunting river traces on near-shore structure.”
Throughout the year, Oravec chases giant muskies, huge walleyes, steelhead, and pot-belly browns, but seeing kings climb back on stage gets his motor running like nothing else. “August is the time to hunt for sharks,” he says. “We may not catch 10 per day, but they’re 30 pounds.” Which is a rare accomplishment on the Great Lakes stage these days.