Kayak Fishing Michigan's Southern Basin E-mail
Tuesday, 13 October 2009 07:19

 

 

I am a child of the Great Lakes. Its wave pulse thrums through the sand and the soles of my feet. I step from my home and judge the day by the scent of the big lake in the air, and I cannot imagine a place not surrounded by water. Freighters slip through the nearby harbor. At night their lights shine as a city, and their deep horn blast sounds like the hail of a hardy traveler.

Salmon are king on Lake Michigan. The throttle of the big sportfish boats drone through my screened windows and wake me for my morning's angle. Salmon and trout fishing on the big lake involves deepwater trolling over offshore grounds. Exciting sport, pursuing chinook, coho, steelhead, lakers, and huge lake-browns. The bite grows electric during weather and the erratic storms. The lake can leap like an explosion, and it is good to hear the growl of a big motor when running wind and the sluice of chaotic-sharp waves. Boats are expensive, and it is no joke to say the the best bait for salmon is cash. I stepped back from the full-time use of my power boat when I started scratching my wallet. I picked up a kayak. Well, you know!

Salmon are king, but there are a host of other hard-fighting species available to the Great Lakes angler. While salmon and trout roam offshore in the summertime lake, a variety of cool and warm-water fish inhabit waters close to shore. These fish hold in the nearshore zone, its habitats including the Lake Michigan waters of the shoreline, natural and manmade structures along the beach, harbor lakes, and tributary rivers. Big lake conditions fluctuate within the nearshore zone. Both the season and weather affects opportunities, and the kayak angler learns the parade of active species that can be found along this shore.

Spring

Spring openwater angling begins when much of the ice leaves the shoreline. Brown trout, steelhead, coho, and chinook cruise along the beach, sandbars, and troughs. They range through the first warming water for the big lake's forage and the winterkill that collects in the wash. An angler searches for the ephemeral warm water, finding differences of just a degree or two near discharges, lakes and rivers, seeps, and shoreline bends. The kayaker trolls small spoons, minnowbaits, and crankbaits. Blow days on the big lake can be saved by trolling lower-rivers for marauding bands of lake-browns and steelhead. As the season progresses, cool to warm-water species join the bite. Smallmouth bass cruise the shoreline and are cheap for a chrome spoon, while walleye tag in on an evening bite and respond to deep minnowbaits. By May, freshwater drum pick at the baits. These monster drum signal the closing of the beach bite.

The offshore scattering of trout and salmon marks the start of the spring-peak nearshore fishery. I often divide my time between angling the nearby harbor lake for drum and white bass and an equally close river for smallmouth, walleye, and catfish. The harbor's white bass grow active as spring advances. They feed and spawn over mainlake shoals and in small tributary rivers. Anglers cast jig/grub combos in streams, while mainlake fish fall to small crankbaits, spoons, and blade baits. Freshwater drum are known as sheephead in the Great Lakes region, and they are considered a coarse fish. They invade harbors, rivermouths, and beaches, providing big fish opportunities for the kayak angler. Sheepies respond to trolled crankbaits, spoons, or blade baits. They often travel in pods of same-sized fish. When an angler identifies a group of large fish, they can switch to light gear and blade baits for sporting action!

Alewives spawn in mid-spring, and their migration sets off a feeding frenzy amongst the nearshore predators. Sheephead sport bellies as big as softballs, and the white bass blast their silvery dung all over the deck. Monster sheepies hold thick in the harbor and at the mouth of the river, where they are joined by walleye, bass, and catfish. The river's walleye hit trolled deep-diving minnowbaits and crankbaits. They are on the post-spawn feed at the rivermouth, while they scatter into the big lake. Catfish also take trolled baits. Large and active crankbaits spark both channel and flathead cats. The solitary flatheads are not often caught, but big channel cats swarm near forage and in the deep holes of the lower-river. Smallmouth bass haunt pilings, rap, and riverside snags. Soft jerks and tubes fished both jigworm and Texas-rigged take smallies. White/sparkle, blue/chrome, and goby-colored baits dominate color patterns during this time of year. A Hot n' Tot (blue herringbone/chrome) rarely leaves my trolling rod during spring-peak angling.

Summer

Spring fishing usually lasts until the end of June, when summer heat slows the river and harbor bite. July brings enough sun, warmth, and seasonal advance, so that water temperatures begin to layer on Lake Michigan. Warm water stacks on cold, and a narrow zone of drastic temperature change known as the thermocline develops between the two. Species which have scattered since early-spring now concentrate in predictable locations. I am kayak fishing the inland rivers and cooler lakes during this time of the year, and I load family and friends on the power boat for perch fishing expeditions. These panfish could be easily accessible to the kayak angler. Perch concentrate in large schools on the big lake, where they roam between the beach and a 50' depth depending on wind, waves, and water temperature. Perchin' and perch parties are a great summer activity. The fish are mostly angled on two-hook bait rigs and minnows, and double-headers and limit catches are common.

The nearshore angler becomes a student of wind and water temperatures during the summer. The rise of strong offshore winds can push warmth from Lake Michigan's beach. Cold from below the thermocline rushes up, dropping the nearshore water temperatures twenty degrees overnight. The quickly changing temperatures spark an angling phenomena know as “turnover”. Nearshore predator species, having scattered during the warmth, now rush for the harbors and rivers. Walleye, smallmouth, drum, and white bass retreat inshore. Cold-water salmon and steelhead follow alewives into the shallows. Perch become stupid-easy, as the fish press onto the relative warmth of the swim beaches. Too many opportunities! An angler must forsake sleep, quit work, and leave their families during the turnover bonanza.

Fall and Winter

For reasons of season, climate, and the thermodynamics of large bodies of water, Lake Michigan becomes increasingly unsettled during the late-summer into fall. Wind and storms mix the finely layered temperature zones, and much of the summer fishery scatters. Chinook salmon do concentrate, first staging in waters close to shore and then running their natal streams. During the first half of September, Great Lakes anglers develop a case of “salmon fever”. The fish are hot on a predawn bite at rivermouths and in lower-rivers. Baits include cranks, cut-plugs, and large spoons. Glow, white, and blue/chrome top the color patterns.

Cooler weather reinvigorates the catfish and smallmouth bite in the lower-rivers. Channel cats feed in deep holes and runs. Everything is eating gizzard shad. Thick concentrations of shad splash on the misty morning skin of the river. Cats gorge, and big lake smallies rage over the river's shoals. Trophy smallmouth bass cut the surface, exposing dorsals during their predatory rush. Active crankbaits, poppers, and spoons hook early-autumn smallies. Walleye and pike slip into the mix as temperatures cool into October. Angling grows quiet. Calm.

Then on the rush of a whirring drag, steelhead announce their autumn run! These lake-run rainbows begin staging around the pierheads and in the lower-rivers during the first of November. Lake Michigan is nearly inaccessible at this time, though area rivers remain sheltered. Marshes and forests block wind, and the current's flow limits ice to the very depth of winter. Steelies slip from the big lake into the river, holding in runs, chutes, and holes. They fall to bait such as skein and spawnbags, and they hammer crankbaits, spoons, and spinners. The kayak angler performs a deadly presentation using cranks. They slow-troll or drop the baits back on the current. A kayak fishes circles around boats in the river.

Ice locks tributary streams for a few weeks to a month during the core of the cold weather. Early-spring mirrors autumn steelheading as season flows into season. I hike the shoreline dunes to check the big lake, watching as the wind-heaved ice slowly melts under the influences of waves, rain, and the turn of the sun. The river's tight waters effect me with a seasonal claustrophobia. I watch Lake Michigan's rounded horizon and listen to the wind, waves, and screaming gulls. It's good to be surrounded by the waters of the big lake, and again I anticipate the parade of my angler's season.

 

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