Points North: Puzzled by Superior's Summer Salmon

A juvenile Coho Salmon
A juvenile Coho Salmon

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Last Sunday morning I got up early and really wasn't sure what to do with myself. Mechanical issues with my primary outboard motor dry-docked my Lake Superior fishing plans. My fishing itch needed to be scratched, but I wasn't sure how to do so. The walleyes in a favorite lake were in a nonbiting funk and it was too hot to don a pair of chest waders to fly-fish for brook trout. Plus, I knew the fish were biting on Lake Superior.

Instead of fishing, I went mushroom hunting. It wasn't a bad trade-off, if for no other reason than I don't often spend a summer morning in the woods. It was cool in the shade of the forest. Mosquitoes were barely noticeable. And the birds were singing. All of the tunes were familiar, but sadly I can't identify birds by their songs. Walking home with enough chanterelles for dinner, a coyote crossed the road just a stone's throw ahead of me, capping off an enjoyable morning.

Still, I kept thinking about fishing. It was interesting to me that, in the middle of summer, I was hard-pressed to come up with an alternative fishing plan. Lake Superior has been my midsummer fishing hole for so long I've pretty well forgotten about everything else. My fishing routine is pretty simple. I fish for walleyes during June, switch over to fly-fishing for trout in lakes when the mayfly hatch begins and then head out on Lake Superior when the hatch winds down in early July. Around mid-August I start fishing for walleyes again.

While trolling for trout and salmon isn't everyone's cup of tea, I find it fun. Some of my snootier fly-fishing friends ask me how I can find trolling interesting. I always reply that all trout fishing offers the same challenge. Whether you are casting a Royal Coachman or pulling a flutter spoon, trout behavior is the same. Triggering trout to strike is usually a matter of skill, alchemy and luck, no matter where or how you fish for them. Some days it's easy. Most often, it's not.

So far this summer, either luck or alchemy hasn't been with me, because whatever skill I possess isn't likely to change much from one year to the next. For many anglers, this has been a salmon summer--a rare year when both Coho and Chinook salmon are abundant. A friend of mine caught so many salmon by the middle of July he declared he was tired of eating them. Reports from other trollers along the North Shore verify the salmon fishing is as good as it gets. Unfortunately, salmon fishing seems to be good everywhere but in my boat. Although my first fish of the season was a fat Coho, as of this writing it's my only salmon.

I went out several times with Vikki's grandson Joe, who stayed with us through most of July. This is the first year that Joe, now 15, showed much enthusiasm for fishing. He got up early so we could get out for a couple of hours before I went to work in the morning. He also learned enough about launching and operating the boat that we began working together as a team. We caught a lake trout here and a steelhead there--enough fish to keep him interested in the fishing, but not enough to say we had them dialed in.

Last Saturday was my first time out since Joe went home. Hoping to change my luck, I headed for a stretch of shoreline where I rarely see other trollers, but often catch fish. I dropped one line to 60 feet with a downrigger and then ran a lead core line at about 30 feet, using a planing device to pull the line away from the boat. Often, the lead core line is deadly on salmon, but this year the surface water seems to be too warm for them. For weeks, the surface water temperature has been about 66 degrees, which is 10 to 15 degrees warmer than the fish prefer. While I have no way of checking the temperatures beneath the surface, on Lake Superior the sun-warmed water floats like a plate over much colder depths. I hoped the spoon trailing the downrigger was in the chill.

Apparently it was, because I soon caught a three-pound lake trout. Hardly a trophy, but a small lean lake trout is as tasty as any salmon. Hopeful there were more lakers where the first one came from, I again lowered the spoon to 60 feet. It didn't take long to catch a three lake trout limit. I quit then, even though I could have continued fishing for salmon. Tomorrow would be another day.

Or so I thought. The motor was sluggish on the run back to the launch. The repair, while simple, required buying sparkplugs I couldn't find on a Saturday afternoon. So I spent Sunday morning's fishing time picking mushrooms. Hopefully, only a day or two will pass before I'm back on the water again.

After all, when it comes to salmon, I'm still down on my luck. While lake trout are always welcome in my boat, they are much easier to catch than their silvery kin. Beyond that, there's something about salmon that attracts me. Even though they are not native to the Great Lakes, salmon have found a niche in Superior, where they successfully spawn in many tributary streams. Although they do not grow as large in Superior's icy waters, the Cohoes and Chinooks here are every bit as wild as the ones I've caught in their native Pacific Ocean.

Out there, fishing with excellent charter captains, I've learned catching salmon isn't a sure thing. Once again, you need that mix of skill, alchemy and luck to make it happen. Always, it seems, you have to figure out a puzzle in order to catch fish. And right now, Lake Superior has me puzzled. The only way I can solve the puzzle is to go fishing.

Airdate: August 3, 2012

Photo courtesy of USFWS Pacific via Flickr.

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