Lake Michigan Salmon - Charter Captains' Secrets Revealed

By Steve Ryan - May 1, 2005
The big pond - the name anglers affectionately give that enormous body of water more properly known as Lake Michigan. A great lake by any standards, Lake Michigan's borders stretch across four states and provide boundless fishing opportunities for thousands of anglers. World record size brown trout skirt its shorelines and harbors each spring. Huge schools of firecracker Coho salmon provide anglers with quick action before game fish season opens on most inland waters, and when the heat of summer makes inland lake fishing difficult, Lake Michigan sizzles with sky rocketing steelhead, enormous lake trout from the depths and drag screaming Chinook salmon. With some basic equipment and knowledge, small boat owners can take advantage of Lake Michigan's superb salmon and trout fishing throughout the year.

Captain Mike Veine, of Manistee Michigan, and Captain Eric Haataja, of Milwaukee Wisconsin, are two of the finest Lake Michigan charter captains fishing the lake today. If anyone absolutely has to get a limit of big summertime Chinook salmon, these are the guys to do it. Each day these captains share their years of fishing knowledge with small groups of anglers during their hands-on charter fishing trips.

First off, small, as in small Lake Michigan fishing boat, is a relative term. While a fourteen foot boat may be appropriate for inland lakes of respectable size, such a boat is generally not suitable for Lake Michigan salmon fishing. Yes, it is possible to fish the sheltered waters of Travers Bay, Port of Indiana or the Door County Peninsula in such a boat; however, more times than not such a boat does not offer the safety to fish offshore on Lake Michigan. Accordingly, to qualify as a small Lake Michigan boat, the boat should be at least seventeen feet in length, be fully coast guard equipped, contain a GPS unit and a kicker motor. So now that you have the boat and a bunch of salmon gear, why aren't you routinely catching big fish? What do the top charter captains know that you don't? How do they routinely return to the dock with limit catches of 10-30 pound salmon, while you troll all day for a few releases, some shakers and the occasional decent salmon?

For starters, both captains stress the need to fish where the fish are. Easy concept, you knew that already. For Captain Mike Veine this means July and August fishing for big four year old Chinook salmon that stack along 'The Shelf' at Manistee and Roger City on Lake Huron. Eric Haataja chooses the waters surrounding Milwaukee Wisconsin for its consistent salmon action from June through September. Once on the water, a good fish locator becomes a critical tool for locating bottom structure, thermoclines, bait fish and gamefish. With electronics, the old adage rings true - you get what you pay for. Invest in the best quality locator that you can afford - whether it is an entry level priced Lowrance X67c or the top end Lowrance LCX-111c - the unit needs to have the power to mark bait and gamefish in waters of 300 feet and more.

Both Captain Mike Veine and Eric Haataja are multi-species trophy fishing guide. They travel throughout the season to the hottest fishing available in the Midwest. Accordingly, these guides can relate to the weekend angler's plight of needing to find fish quickly and maximize their limited time on the water. To locate fish on his first day of pre-fishing a new location, Mike explains, "I typically talk to as many anglers as I can the night before, trying to eliminate water and identify hotspots for the next day. Visiting the fish cleaning station the evening before is a great place to do research for the following morning." On familiar waters, Mike suggests getting out early before the sun comes up. This is especially important when fishing crowded summer weekends and holidays.

For safety and productivity reasons, it is always best to fish with at least one other boat in the area. Stay in constant radio contact and exchange reports. In addition, monitor the marine radio for other angler's activity. As noted previously, Lake Michigan is a huge body of water. Be conscientious and respect other boaters' space. Eric notes that this can also pay huge dividends in the form of finding unmolested schools of active salmon that have not been driven down and scattered by heavy boat traffic.


With the general fish holding areas located, Mike typically sets up in shallow water, of fifty feet or less, prior to the sun coming up. Trolling the top thirty feet of 'The Shelf', Mike often catches multiple big Kings prior to the crowds making their presence felt to the fish. Mike notes that when the sun comes up and the crowds appear, it is time to leave for deeper water and more active fish.

As for lures, the hottest thing going on each side of Lake Michigan last season were lighted J-Plugs and glow spoons. Sure dodgers-n-flies and hoochies, along with cut herring(a relative secret among several charter captains) caught plenty of fish; however, the most consistent salmon and steelhead lures were lighted and glow baits. Diamond King spoons in glow in the dark colors produced big Chinooks for Eric and Mike throughout the summer. Eric favors flashy colors on sunny days and uses bright colors and glow in the dark lures during low light and cloudy conditions. Glow in the dark lures were equally effective for Mike on monster Manistee Chinooks topping the thirty-pound mark.

To more effectively fish glow lures, properly charge the entire bait with an intense light source. A flashlight or running light on the boat is not sufficient. Good camera flashes work, but they are expensive and slow to recharge. Instead, use one of the new ultra compact lure chargers such as Custom Jigs & Spins' Nuclear Flash Micro Charger. This Micro Charger is smaller than a book of matches and comes on a convenient key chain ring that can be attached to any number of items for quick use. Once properly charged, lures will continue to glow and produce fish for much longer.

My own salmon fishing this summer attests to the effectiveness of lighted J-Plugs. These large size Luhr-Jensen J-Plugs have a built in light which is water activated. The light pulses from the tail of the J-Plug from the moment it hits the water to the time it is put back into the tackle box. There were times when you could not keep these lighted

"the hottest thing going on each side of Lake Michigan last season were lighted J-Plugs and glow spoons..."
J-Plugs from getting clobbered by big kings. No matter where they were put in the trolling spread, they got hammered, repeatedly.

Eric notes to "never sit idly if you're not catching fish". Vary the boat speed, watch the locator and continually monitor the speed and temperature at the ball. Change the direction of your trolling passes and determine if one particular trolling direction is more effective than others.

As a small boat owner, one needs to maximize one's room in the boat. Keep the boat neat and orderly. Good charter captains always have a proper place for everything and quickly put items back in their place. By maximizing ones space, one can spread out lines more effectively. With proper rod holder and downrigger placement, nine rods can be fished efficiently on an eighteen-foot boat.

While most anglers understand the need to use downriggers for summertime salmon, small boat owners often miss out on an opportunity to increase their catch by failing to run dipsy divers. Captain Mike Veine, in examining his salmon success last season, notes "I caught more salmon on dipsy divers than on riggers, so two heavy action dipsyrods should be in the spread at all times." Dipsy divers are an inexpensive way to spread lures down and away from the boat. Most successful charter captains have gone to running dipsys on braided lines, such as PowerPro line, in the 30-50 pound test category. The ultra thin diameter, low stretch and superior strength of PowerPro line allows one to gain better depth and control when fishing dipsys.

As a final aid, use a long powerful rod in the nine-foot range to spread dipsy lines away from the downriggers, and use a quality line counter reel to quickly and easily note where each dipsy is set. Lamiglas makes an extraordinary Certified Pro Fiberglass (XCF 864) rod for dipsy diver fishing. Match this Lamiglas rod with Shamino's new top quality Tekota line counter reel.

Both Captains Eric and Mike stress the need to use quality equipment when targeting Chinooks on Lake Michigan. These fish test every aspect of one's gear and skill. Keep reels spooled with fresh fishing line, inspect guides on rods, sharpen hooks, tie good knots and use top quality Sampo swivels. Where appropriate, replace treble hooks with single Mustad Siwash hooks for greater hooking and holding power.

By using the proper equipment and implementing the techniques shared by two of Lake Michigan's finest charter captains, one's salmon catch will improve dramatically this year. To have the great pleasure of fishing with Captain Mike Veine or Eric Haataja, contact them as follows: Mike Veine of Trophy Specialists Fishing Charters can be reached at 1-734-475-9146, via email at mikeveine@trophyspecialists.com or on the web at http://www.trophyspcialists.com; for Eric Haataja, of Wisconsin Big Fish Charters, call 1-414-546-4627, or go to http://www.wibigfish.com.

Author Steve Ryan
Steve Ryan
Steve Ryan is an outdoor writer and avid angler who enjoys targeting trophy fish throughout the Midwest and beyond.