An Autumn Sleigh Ride: A Guide to Trolling for Fall King Salmon Out of a Kayak

By Mark Rasmussen - September 6, 2017
Imagine a cool, fall evening as the sun starts to set on the horizon. You're paddling your kayak around a harbor, trolling a couple crankbaits. You glance over at some people who are pointing and wondering what you could possibly catch out of that plastic boat. Suddenly, you feel your kayak turn sharply to the right and the sound of drag starts peeling off your reel. FISH ON! This is what you had been waiting for as a mighty king salmon starts pulling you around the harbor. Those people who were pointing are now taking pictures on their cell phones as you enjoy your sleigh ride, desperately trying to clear your other line. Ten minutes later, you land the mature king salmon that is sporting a tan as it's ending its life cycle. You hold it up for the world to see, adrenaline pumping from a battle that no bass or walleye can deliver. You reset your lines, hoping to experience that rush again.

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 ΒΌ 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.

These mature kings have one thing on their mind this time of year, spawning. They are no longer actively feeding. They either bite out of instinct or out of aggression. A few years of actively feeding at sunrise and sunset out in the lake may lead to what generally turns out to be the best times to catch these kings in and around the harbor - sunrise and sunset. During daylight hours, bright and gaudy crankbaits seem to be the best bets to entice an aggression strike. Firetiger, clown, and wonderbread tend to be my favorite colors. Which crankbaits I use depends on what depth I am trying to target. In the top 15 feet of water, my favorite baits to use are Berkley Flicker Shads (size 9) and Rapala Jointed Minnows (size 13). If I'm trying to get deeper, I like using the Berkley Flicker Minnows (size 9 and 11) and Rapala Deep Tail Dancers (Size 11 - gets 30 feet deep). These baits also are the easiest to run as they tend to run true straight out of the box. However, it should be noted to change out the hooks on most of these walleye crankbaits to 2x strength treble hooks. I like using size 4 Gamakatsu treble hooks. If I'm fishing before sunrise or after sunset, my buddies and I have a saying - "Moons out, spoons out" along with "if it doesn't glow, it doesn't go". We like trolling glow spoons such as Moonshine spoons or Warrior spoons. I get my spoons down with 2 oz. keel weights or Torpedo Divers that that I clip onto my line. I like to start trolling around 2.0 mph and see how that works. I'll troll in the shape of an "S" to see if kings prefer a faster or slower speed that day. As usual with fishing, there are no set rules on what to use and when to use it. You'll have to experiment a bit and find out what works for you and your setup.

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!


Mark Rasmussen
Mark Rasmussen, Jr. is an avid kayak fisherman who mainly targets king salmon out of his kayak. He has caught more than 250 kings from his kayak since his first in July of 2014. He is sponsored by his loving wife and family, who've supported his salmon kayak fishing addiction ever since. He has placed in the top 5 of the multiple kayak and boat salmon tournaments and thoroughly enjoys competing against the "big boats" out of his plastic boat.