An Autumn Sleigh Ride: A Guide to Trolling for Fall King Salmon Out of a KayakBy Mark Rasmussen - September 6, 2017
I caught my first kayak king (Chinook) salmon in the summer of 2014 and have been addicted to the fight that these fish can deliver ever since. The Wisconsin DNR stocks salmon every year in the harbors of Lake Michigan from Kenosha all the way up to Marinette. During the fall, mature king salmon return to where they were stocked 2-4 years ago to spawn and die. This gives small boats and kayaks that aren't equipped to fish "offshore" a chance to experience the punch these fish can pack. This bite usually peaks in the middle of September, but it can vary from year to year. My favorite harbors to fish are usually Port Washington or Milwaukee. However, I mainly fish these two harbors because they are the closest ones to where I live and work.
Finding these fish can be a challenge. Early in the run, they might orient outside the harbor gap, hanging out in the river plume. Trolling spoons or crankbaits on the edges of muddy and clear water gets the job done. If fish are hanging around the gap, a popular tactic to jig for these fish using a medium to medium heavy spinning reel with a 1 or 2 oz. jigging spoon or a ¼ oz. darter head with a 4" or 5" jerk minnow. Later, these fish will start moving up into the river, so focusing from the river to the gap will work better. A quality fish finder is very important to relay where the fish are and whether they're sitting on the bottom or suspended. These fish might make hourly moves from the river mouth back out to the lake, depending on water temperature, how much current is coming from the river, etc. Staying mobile by trolling in a kayak is an effective strategy to target these fish.
For setup, I recommend fishing out of a 12 foot or longer sit-on-top kayak. I fish out of a Hobie Revolution 13. I use Scotty rod holders in front of me, so I can keep an eye on the rod tips to make sure my baits aren't fouled. I like to use an 8'6 trolling rod (Cabela's Depthmaster rod with size 20 Okuma Convector) on my right side along with a 7'6 spinning rod on my left side (medium heavy Fenwick HMG with a size 35 Pflueger Supreme XT). This allows me to easily clear a line as I'm fighting a fish. I like to use rods that are strong enough to fight a king, but sensitive enough to see the wobble of the crankbait. It's important to use a rod that's long enough to reach around the front of your kayak in case a king runs under your kayak. A good drag on your reel is important and the spinning rod will double as a jigging or casting rod if I take a break from trolling. Both are rigged with 20 lb. braid and a 20 lb. fluorocarbon leader. I usually don't troll the harbors with a 3rd rod. I've learned the hard way that this is a recipe for a tangled mess and a loss of valuable fishing time.
When it comes to safety equipment, you should always have these items: life jacket (worn at all times), sound making device such as a horn or whistle, a flag to help make yourself visible, a white light for low light hours (I like the YakAttack Visicarbon Pro - it acts as a flag and a white light so boats can see you from behind), and a visual distress signals such as handheld flares. Other items I'd recommend always having are a compass, VHF radio, a knife, pliers, hook cutters, etc. I also follow the "120 rule". If the water temperature and air temperature add up to less than 120 degrees, I wear my drysuit. Also, you never know when a big king is going to decide to make a run outside the harbor and into the lake. Be prepared to be pulled out there. I've been pulled a half mile offshore by a feisty king salmon that hit while I was inside the harbor. Also keep an eye out for pleasure boats, sail boats, and other fishing boats. I like to take advantage of the stealth of a kayak and stay as far away from boat noise as possible and fish for unpressured kings.
As many people are packing up their fishing gear and getting ready for hunting and ice fishing, get out to your nearest harbor and experience your very own autumn sleigh ride! You'll be hooked!