As you well know !
The salmon are back! And they’re big!Although the fishery on Lake Michigan has shifted somewhat over the last decade to favor lake trout, there have been catches of kings pushing 40 pounds on the lake already this year. As you read this, I would not be a bit surprised to find out that some 30s were weighed in Ludington this week as part of the Offshore Classic.While it’s great to see those boats coming in with good catches and it’s a great idea to book a charter now and then, maybe you want more than vicarious thrills and occasional fishing trips. If that statement fits you, then outfitting a small boat for salmon might be a good idea.My personal boat is a 1995 17-foot Lund Pro Sport, which I have outfitted to comfortably run 10 rods for salmon fishing. In the past, I’ve walked people through the various types of rods and then discussed how you might find room for them. This time, instead, I’ll walk you through how I arrived at my setup and then suggest updates based on newer equipment available and the trends in the fishery.A word about Lake Michigan when I set up my boat, though: It was not the same fishery as it is today. Back then, in the mid-2000s, you had more numerous Chinooks and 30-pounders were exceedingly rare. You also had many more steelhead in the lake. There was plenty of bait and the schools were often high in the water column, outside of preferred temperatures for salmon. It was not uncommon for me to catch more fish on 5-color leadcore lines than I did any other line on an after-work trip. Lakers were not part of my thought process, they were just happy accidents. For a stretch back then, many tournament anglers went after steelhead as their “others” instead of lakers. Keep all this in mind as you read through today’s article.My boatMy dad and I purchased my boat used in 2002, I believe. It came with electric downriggers and was outfitted with in-gunwale sockets for 8 Attwood rodholders. I bought the boat to fish bass, but I liked the idea of being able to fish salmon, too.Like many people, I started salmon fishing in Pere Marquette Lake. This was back before jigging was popular, so I started with a pair of downrigger rods and a pile of J-plugs. Electric downriggers are great, but not necessary for this type of trolling. Hand-crank downriggers still catch a ton of fish on our local rivermouth lakes.I was able to find fish by trolling two downrigger rods five to 10 feet of off bottom. When I was feeling confident with that, I started to expand my spread by adding some “sliders” to my setup. A slider is just a short length of line with snap-swivels on each end. One end gets a lure — often a spoon — and the other end gets clipped to the monofilament of your downrigger rod. As you troll, your downrigger line gets a belly in it and the slider works its way down to that belly. So if you’re trolling 25 feet down in 30 feet of water, your slider will work down 12 to 15 feet, theoretically.Working up to four rodsAfter I felt like I had downrigger fishing figured out (just a period of a few trips), I decided I would add some lines. The easiest way to add two lines to your spread is to go with a couple of superline divers. Why superline? It dives deeper than monofilament and it’s cheaper and more versatile than wire line. I picked up standard-sized Dipsey Divers in green and yellow with green and yellow snubbers and I tied up a bunch of leaders in manageable lengths of about 6 feet. These days, you would tie them much longer because we’ve found that in the clear water and chasing lake trout, having those long leaders helps your catch rate. The downside is you have to bring fish in hand-over-hand. If you’re fishing solo — or netting solo — you probably want shorter leaders on your divers.Divers are a weighted disc that you can adjust to run tight to the boat (deeper) or far from the boat (shallower). If you let out enough line, though, you can run a diver pretty deep on a shallow setting. The depth is dependent on both the setting and the amount of line out. There’s a printed chart with most divers and if you’re just getting started, you should tape it somewhere in the boat. Or just keep the little charts stashed all over the boat.
More rodsWhen I set up my boat, leadcore was the technology. Copper line wasn’t in wide use yet. So the logical addition to start with was a full core. How deep these actually run is dependent upon your speed. I always considered my full core to be a 50- to 60-foot line, my half-core to be a 25- to 30-foot line and my three-color to be a 15-foot line. If you’re going 3 mph or more trying for kings, you are probably making them run on the shallow side of that. If you’re closer to 2.5 mph, you’re probably on the deep side of that. In the end, does it matter if it’s 50 feet down or 60 feet down? Some days yes. Other days, like when you’re marking them 200 feet down, no, it does not.I was just fine running a full-core on a planer board on one side of my boat and a full-core on a planer board on the opposite side of my boat. Two planer boards makes for six total rods, everything is easy, no special gear needed. Although I eventually had one of those hard-plastic rod-holders break, it was when the reel seized up, so I didn’t need to do much special to my boat. Today I would tell you to look into track systems and aluminum rodholders, which is eventually what I did.When I had to add rods 7 and 8 is when I really decided that I needed more than just the plastic rodholders mounted on my gunwales. The gunwales get pretty crowded when you have four rodholders on each side aft of the windshield in a 17-foot boat. For one thing, it forces you to do all of your netting of fish back by the outboard. I still do net most of them there, but once in a while it’s convenient or necessary to take a stab at a fish alongside the boat. After all, you can’t have those angry ones that run right at the boat getting into the motor.So my 7th and 8th rods were half-cores and that was really the impetus to seek out “trees” or “rocket launchers.” I got mine from Capt. Chuck’s and they were made at Great Lakes Holders right in Free Soil.This opened things up quite a bit. I could run 10 rods if I had four anglers aboard. Now if I had a hot fish, I would only have to clear either the diver or the downrigger. I set my trees just even with the seatbacks on my two chairs. This let me or a passenger grab the rod without bothering whoever was sitting in the chair — or alternately, grab the rod from the chair if we were fishing in heavy waves or hiding from rain under the canvas top that I rarely use.My trees were not part of a track system, as those came along later. Today I would recommend researching the various track systems and the solutions that can be mounted on those instead of direct-mounting trees to your gunwales.And of course, today, I would recommend going with copper line rods. What line lengths, you ask? I’m honestly not an expert on those, so I’m going to refer you to your local tackle shop for advice on that. I still catch fish on lead core the couple times a year I go out, so I have not upgraded to copper.A dozen?Here’s how you can get to a dozen rods on a small boat — first, instead of running three planer boards per side, run four. That top hole on your trees doesn’t have to be for a net, you can use it for rods. I’ve done it very rarely when we had four anglers in my boat.But honestly, the more productive thing to do would be to bite the bullet and go with a low-diver setup to go along with the superline divers. Some people, maybe most, would actually recommend going to four divers before you added anything to handle planer boards. This would mean using a heavier diver, set to run tighter to the boat on a wire rod setup.If you poll most anglers over the course of a season, you’d find that their divers are their most productive setup. Downriggers have their moments, as do weighted lines like copper or leadcore, but it’s far more common to hear “We didn’t have a rigger bite today,” than it is “We didn’t have a diver bite today.”
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