Catching salmon in open water

Great Lakes anglers have developed a variety of specialized tackle and techniques for targeting salmon. Choosing the right lure is only part of the puzzle. The correct speed is also critical to providing the right action to trigger a strike.

Michigan Sea Grant's YouTube channel offers a number of videos for anglers, like Salmon in the Great Lakes! - Photo courtesy: Michigan Sea Grant
Michigan Sea Grant's YouTube channel offers a number of videos for anglers, like Salmon in the Great Lakes! - Photo courtesy: Michigan Sea Grant

Anglers use a variety of lures when targeting salmon in open water, but spoons are the lure of choice for many big lake anglers. As with all lures, spoons have a narrow range of speed that provides the best action. At the high end of this range, the spoon wobbles and flashes like a wounded baitfish. At lower speeds, the spoon barely wiggles.

Salmon are often most active during low light conditions at dawn and dusk. This can be a good time to try plugs or stick baits. Plugs, with an erratic action, are trolled at relatively high speeds late in summer to provoke strikes from passing salmon. This can work even when salmon are not actively feeding because the erratic action triggers a predatory response even after mature salmon stop feeding on baitfish in late summer.

Regardless of lure choice and action, Great Lakes trollers face the challenge of presenting lures in deep water. Sinking lines made of steel, lead, or copper can accomplish this, but Great Lakes anglers made great strides in developing downriggers that allow the use of a heavy weight. The weight (or cannonball) is lowered on a cable with fishing line attached to a release that lets the line to slip free when a fish strikes. This allows anglers of all sizes a chance to reel in the big one without the added weight of a 10 to 16 pound cannonball.

Other tackle that helps big lake anglers cover water more efficiently includes planer boards that carry lines to either side of the boat and divers that can be adjusted to dive straight behind the boat or out to either side. 

Specialized tackle, large boats, and the latest electronics are not always needed to catch salmon, but it is necessary to have a seaworthy vessel if you plan to fish offshore waters safely. On some days, you may cover many miles of rough water before finding salmon willing to bite.

Due to the expense required to own, outfit, and operate a big lake salmon vessel, many anglers opt, instead, to hire a charter boat for a day’s fishing. The Michigan Charter Boat Association website provides information on species and boats available at each port.

For those who prefer to wait for the fish to come to them, piers can provide great fishing in late summer and early spring, while rivers provide a unique opportunity to witness one of the most impressive migrations in nature each fall—the salmon run.

For more on finding salmon in open water see “Finding salmon in open water” from Michigan State University Extension.

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