Friday, September 16, 2011

A Wednesday book-ended with salmon fishing

Morning on Lake Michigan

Part One: Morning

Tuesday night I got a text from my WCF buddy Alex, asking if I wanted to go salmon fishing early in the morning. Of course I did! Claire and I had just started an episode of Mad Men, so after that was over I put together my gear and did my best to fall asleep quickly.

Did what is now my normal fishing routine- wake up, coffee, clothes, gear; biked in darkness to the train, got to Union around 5:30am, Alex was generous enough to pick me up from the station. A few minutes later we were at Diversey Harbor, trying to figure out the parking situation. A short walk from the car, and we were standing on Lake Michigan, fishing for salmon.

At this point, I'd still never seen anybody catch a salmon in person, only YouTube videos and stuff. They were still mythical to me- huge powerful animals swimming around the lake, filled with delicious meat. I was really hoping to see some today!

Alex and I talked about salmon as we rigged up our gear; he put shrimp under a bobber on one rod, and had a spoon on the other. (If I remember right, it was pretty early.) I just had my 6'6" rod, and rigged it with a silver and green Mr. Cleo. A few days earlier- I think when I went out to the Fox- Alex made the hike to Waukegan to go salmon fishing. He said the pier was lined with fishermen, and he did in fact see them being caught (not many). One guy caught a trout and gave it to Alex- this guy was fishing for perch and was annoyed all he was catching was trout. (I hope I'm recounting this story right; I was very tired and hadn't had much coffee.)

We began casting, and noticed the other fisherman around us. Alex talked to one guy who had been there since 2am I think, and only got a few bites. I thought of a WCF post, where someone gave salmon fishing advice: "KFC: Keep f'ing casting."

I was having a lot of problems with my line; it kept twisting up into birds' nests and I couldn't figure out why. As I tried to untie the knots, I heard a splash and Alex said "Did you see that!!??" It was a salmon. I looked up, and of course missed it. I have terrible vision, and can really only see things in certain parts of my glasses. They are progressive lenses, like bifocals; I have to look through the right part of the lens to see things the right way.

At one point I snagged (I think that's the right term) a tiny goby on my 3/4oz spoon. Well at least we weren't skunked..? Alex admired my ability to catch gobies- I wasn't sure if it was an ability or a curse.

does this count?
I cast some more, we continued talking about salmon. I kept getting knots like crazy, and kept missing salmon jumping. Alex couldn't believe I kept missing them! I changed out the spoon for a chrome rat-L-trap I had. Another fisherman showed up around that time, and set up a few yards from us.

All of the sudden there was some activity across the mouth of the harbor- a guy had a fish on! His rod doubled over, his buddies brought up their lines, apparently to give him some wiggle room. There were splashes, this fish wasn't coming in easy.

Then, maybe 50' from the wall where we were standing, a salmon comes flying out of the water, accompanied by a rattling sound. I was startled and quickly cast in that direction; as soon as my rat-L-trap was airborne, I heard the guy next to us shout "Mine! Mine!"

Oh crap! He had a salmon on and I was about to tangle up in his line! That would be a major party foul. I did my best to quickly reel in and get out of his way. Thankfully I was successful.

The fish attached to the end of his line was amazing. I stood there, literally with my mouth open in disbelief, a huge smile across my face. This was salmon fishing. This was why guys came out, casting for hours upon hours. For the chance at this.

Earlier in the week, I had my first real tangle with smallies. Although they weren't huge, they fought very hard, jumping out of the water like surface to air missiles. It was great fun to fight them, definitely a change from your average largemouth bass.

But this salmon made those smallies look like amateurs.

The fish must have made it at least 5' clear out of the water. Its tail swimming through air, I got the sense it was pure muscle. From what I understand about fish anatomy, that is pretty accurate... Every time it leapt from the water I heard the sound of rattling. I realized it was the sound of a rattling lure, just like the one I had been casting. Aha!

Alex dropped his rod, and ran over to the guy. I was catatonic, my mind blank, unable to speak, in awe of what I was seeing. Then I came to my senses, and went over to help.

As the fish came closer, I was no less impressed. Alex grabbed the guy's net, trying to reach down to the water, but it wasn't long enough. He ran back to our stuff, got his monstrously-long net, and used that to try and capture the salmon-beast, still thrashing like a berserk drowning viking in the water.

The guy took over the netting duties himself, and after a few tries was able to successfully net the beast while holding his rod in his other hand. He brought the fish up, and set it on the ground.

What a fish. King Salmon? I'm told it's a Coho
To me, this was a MONSTER huge fish. Even my biggest, fattest toad of a largemouth would have looked tiny next to this salmon. If I had caught and landed this fish, I would have literally $&%# my pants out of excitement and fear. I'm glad I hadn't caught it!

Not really. I was super jealous.

I stood there, admiring the fish, as the man unhooked his lure. It looked familiar to me, but I couldn't identify it. It didn't have a lip, it had 2 treble hooks, was bright red/orange/yellow and black, and had rattles in it. I took some pictures, mostly to document this amazing fish, but also to remember the lure so I could buy the same one at the first opportunity. 

The man said it was probably about 10 pounds. A baby. Not anywhere close to full size. He told us of one four times that size he hooked a few days ago, that broke his line.

As soon as I thought it polite, I walk/jogged back to my rod, and cast as quickly as possible, hoping that this catch was an indication the bite was on. Alex came back over, and did the same.

We fished for a while longer, seeing many of the beasts jumping, falling back into the water with forceful explosions. It was like some unseen boat out in the lake was firing 20 pound cannonballs at us.

Soon it was time to go- I had to be to work, and Alex again was nice enough to give me a lift - so we packed up. As we headed back to his car, I couldn't help but feel very satisfied. Although I didn't get so much as a single hit the whole morning, I saw a ton of salmon, and saw a guy hook, fight, and land a salmon. I understood the appeal. This was not bass fishing, this was the closest thing to big-game fishing I'd ever seen. Big, powerful, angry-looking fish.

I had to catch one for myself.

Sunrise on Lake Michigan
Part two: Evening

I had to stay at work late, so I figured I might as well stay downtown a little later and try my luck at some more salmon. I had my rod and gear with me, so it would have been silly not to.. right?

Headed to Burnham, since that was so close and easy to get to from work. I got to Shedd and the Water Taxi stop, and assembled my rod. I started casting my rat-L-trap- the same type of lure that landed that 10 pounder in the morning- working my way along the shoreline. As I made my way, I noticed TONS of weeds, two dead birds, and what looked like a dead and decomposing salmon. A guy walked past me, carrying a big net and gear. He said was salmon fishing. I looked toward the pipe on the lake side, and saw 4-5 people, already there fishing for salmon.

It didn't occur to me I might not get a spot! Most times I'd fished Burnham I was the only one, sometimes there were one or two other anglers there... But the salmon were in, and things were different now.

I stopped casting and made a bee-line for the pipe on the marina side. Maybe there would be more space, and I could set up shop right at the pipe. Maybe I would see some salmon. Maybe I would hook into some salmon. Maybe I would even land a salmon.

Well, really that was doubtful, as I didn't have a net. I imagined my 20 pound test snapping as I brought up a 20 pound salmon. Maybe there would be some way I could maneuver it to land.

When I got to the marina side, I saw a guy by the pipe. I asked him how it was going, he said he hadn't been there long. He introduced himself as Rick (I think) and proceeded to give me TONS of tips and tricks about salmon. He explained all the lures on the myriad of rods he had leaning against the railing; he explained the action of the pipe, and told me the salmon were stacking up when the water was flowing; he told me he often fishes the fox, and showed me tons of pictures of him holding huge fish.

Not only was he incredibly knowledgable, but he was incredibly nice. I was clearly a newbie, and yet he was friendly and gave me all these tips. It's great to meet folks like that; I really appreciated the help.

He even told me where I should cast, which was effectively where he was casting. I'd never fished with anybody who encouraged me to fish in their spot. This was a good guy! How generous.

As I cast my rat-L-trap, and he cast his Thunderstick, he told me tons of fishing stories. He had fished all 50 states, except Alaska and Hawaii (so I guess that's 48). Saltwater, freshwater, lakes, rivers, reservoirs, surf, deepwater, brackish water; he'd fished it all. And been successful! I'm sure the few pictures on his phone were just a tiny sample of the monsters he'd caught.

Soon the water began to flow out of the pipe. He pointed to the water and said he could see them, swimming around. I leaned over, struggling to see. Where were they? I looked and looked, trying to focus my eyes..

And then I saw them. Tons of them. It seemed like hundreds, but it was probably 30 or so. A group of 30, what he said were 20 pound kings cohos (I think kings... maybe coho? Still new to this.) I'd seen plenty of masses of fish like this; always bluegill though, mostly 4" babies, swimming around together eating tiny particles floating in the water.

These were not babies. These were the biggest fish I'd ever seen (except for some big carp). They way the swam suggested the insane amount of power contained in those muscles. I was giddy. I couldn't believe what I was seeing!

Following the lead of my new mentor Rick, I tied on my one and only glow spoon. Before I tied it, I asked him if you were supposed to use a swivel or not... He said yeah, you HAVE to, otherwise it will twist your line like crazy!

I realized why I was having so much trouble with my line earlier- I tied a spoon directly on my line! Somehow, in all the internet scouring, message boards, and research, I missed that key piece of information. I knew it was a good idea on inline spinners, but hadn't been using swivels with spoons.

I cast, Rick cast; soon more guys showed up, and they began casting. This salmon thing seems to be a lot about luck- even if the salmon are there, which they were, you have to figure out what will tick them off enough to attack your lure. And even if you have the right lure, with just the right action, they may be in a different part of the water column. And even if your lure smacks them- which kept happening to Rick - they may just ignore it.

These are some interesting fish.

It was dark, and getting cold. I used my iPhone flash to charge my glow spoon, but it wasn't very effective and didn't last very long. I saw the other guys using special flashes- if I'm going to get serious into salmon fishing, I should look into that. It was very instructive watching these guys fish. Obviously they'd done this before. I tweaked my retrieve speed to match theirs, holding my rod just the same way they did, catching weeds just like they did.

When I'm not catching fish, it's good to know that what isn't working for me is also not working for others... It's not me. They all had glow spoons, so I stuck with a glow spoon.

After a while, tired of the weeds, energized from seeing these fish but deflated from the lack of action, I decided to call it a night. I bid the anglers farewell, and headed back toward the city.

I got on a bus at Shedd, which was filled completely with Shedd Aquarium employees. They all had their sea-colored shirts on, talking about their days; I was sitting there with my fishing gear and my rod. I wondered what they thought of me. Some of them might be responsible for taking care of fish- I made a sport out of catching them.

Got to my train, collapsed into a set, and immediately fell asleep. It had been a long day, but I had experienced salmon fishing second hand.... I had to return as soon as possible and hook into one of those beasts for myself.

Burnham after sunset


  1. An entertaining account Chris. Put in the time and numbers grow incrementally. Start checking out your local's a whole different experience.

  2. Thanks John! I've been checking out rivers around me- the Fox, Desplaines, and Chicago... I'm still learning how to fish them. But pretty soon.. watch out fish!


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