The Early Morning Shift
Lake Bite Picking Up
Do you realize when the sun rises this time of year? Unless you're a salmon angler or work in a coffee shop, probably not. Let me tell you it's freaking early, 5:08 this morning. That's over two hours earlier than in the dark days of winter. If you want lines in the water before sunrise, which is considered a must to give you the best shot at fish, it requires you to get out of bed pretty close to the time some of the wait staff and bartenders in the county are just getting to sleep. Now granted I have the advantage of living pretty close to the landing, so it only takes a few minutes to get the boat in the water, but I still need to be crawling out the rack by 4AM. I fished by myself this morning as I often do when I go early. It's not that I like fishing alone; I would enjoy some company and the advantage of putting out three more lines. However, I usually don't know for sure if I can get out on the lake until I wake up in the morning. The Pamela Ann is a 17-foot open boat so my weather window is quite a bit smaller than those thirty-foot vessels in the harbor. If I think I can get out a particular morning, I will get the boat set up the night before, all hitched up to the truck ready to go. When I wake up, I take a look at the winds and waves. If it looks good, I jump in the truck and go. If the wind is howling, I crawl back in bed. I really can't expect too many of my buddies to be waiting on me to give them a call at four in the morning go fishing. So solo it was for me this morning.
When I pulled up to the marina there were already a dozen vehicles parked in the lot. Two boats were in the process of launching and a couple of the charter boats, including The First Choice, were already on the lake out of sight. I felt I was going to be the last guy on the water and it was still forty minutes before sunrise. As I motored out of the marina a nice Grady-White cruiser was making its way just ahead of me. As we both powered up past the entrance buoys, I followed in the cruiser's wake out to the red nun buoy two miles out. Whenever I make my way out onto the big lake, particularly in the growing light of dawn, I am reminded of the scene from “The Perfect Storm" when the George Clooney character Captain Billy Tyne is pointing his fishing boat, The Andrea Gail, out onto the open waters of the Atlantic Ocean. Allow me to paraphrase Billy:
The fog's just lifting. Throw off your bowline, throw off your stern. You head out thru the marina channel, past The Florian II, Anclam Park. Past Frogtown where I walk the dog. Sound your horn as you pass the Old Baileys Harbor Lighthouse. Then the birds show up, cormorants, herring gulls, big dumb ducks and black capped terns. The sun hits ya, head East, open up to 20 knots, steamin' now. The gear is ready, you're in charge. Ya know what? You're a goddamn salmon fisherman. Is there anything better in the world?
Ok, that's a little over the top. What can I say: I'm a romantic. I eventually made it out to about 150FOW, the depth at which I was planning to start. A few other fishing boats were within sight lines already in the water. Others were just setting up. Off in the distant mist I could make out the silhouette of a bulk carrier steaming north against the lightening horizon. Time to fish. Setting downriggers and planner boards by one's self can be tricky, even in nice weather. Keeping the boat straight while lowering downrigger balls, stripping out lines and clipping them to boards requires some quick maneuvering. If the wind comes up you can find the boat veering sharply, requiring a quick grab of the wheel to get back on course. If there is another boat in the area, I am sure they get a good laugh viewing my antics. At any rate I had lines in the water in plenty of time to watch the sunrise.
Just as the sun broke over the bank of clouds above the northeast horizon, the downrigger rod started to throb in that all too familiar manner indicting a hard strike. The reel started to scream. Fish On! Now comes the real challenge, battling and landing a powerful Chinook salmon with assistance from only me, myself and I. I have been doing this for a lot of years and I have developed a definite procedure. One trick I have learned is that I use my electric trolling motor. I know, I have seen the snickers from the mates on the charter boats when they see a guy out in the middle of Lake Michigan with his trolling motor in the water. Here's how it works. After I grab the rod with the fish on, I engage my electric trolling motor and put it on autopilot. I then kill my ten-horse kicker motor. I can now keep the boat moving forward making steering adjustments using my hand-held control. This also has the added advantage of eliminating the noisy prop and cavitation of the motor that often spooks fish at the boat. Maneuver the fish past, over and around the other lines, I bring it boat side. The fish seldom cooperates at this point and it usually takes several passes before I am ready to employ the net. Grabbing the long-handled net in one hand and extending my rod arm backwards, with some luck, the fish slips into the bag of the waiting net. This time the process resulted in a sleek 29-inch, ten-pound Chinook salmon in the box.
I reset the lines and waited for another strike. And waited. And waited. I had two downrigger lines and a planner board in the water and I went almost an hour without any action. I then discovered that I had made a rookie mistake, one that I am loath to admit to in this space for fear of losing whatever credibility I have left. Any long line troller knows that it is critical to check your lines occasionally, particularly if you have been doing a lot of turning. But pulling the lines in is a pain in the butt, especially when you are by yourself. When I finally did check my lines, I discovered that one of the downrigger lines had got afoul of the planner board and both lines were tangled and twisted. Neither lure was in a position to entice a fish. I am not sure how long the lines were tangled, but it was lost fishing time. Once I got these lines reset, I decided to check the other downrigger only to find I was dragging baby salmon that had decided to take on my spoon. So I was driving around the lake for who knows how long with absolutely no chance of catching a fish, even if they were biting like mad. Note to self: Check the damn lines!!!!
Within minutes of getting all the lines set, the planer board went flying backwards and I spotted a frantic rainbow leaping out of the water 200 feet behind the boat. I initiated the process. Engage trolling motor; turn off kicker, clear lines. There was the additional complication of removing the planer board and drop weight but miraculously this fish too found its way into the net. Soon after another nice steelhead, this one about eight pounds, hit the same orange ladder spoon and joined the other two in the box. Who knows how many I could have gotten if I had not wasted all of that time earlier. Whoulda, coulda, shoulda.
Back at the marina I could see most boats had fish. It was a mixed bag of salmon, rainbows and a lake trout thrown in. Earlier this week Paul and I boated a couple of Lakers along with a nice King. We have had our best results over 180 to 280FOW in the top 50 feet. The rainbows are hitting on the surface. You can use any color spoon for the steelies as long as it's orange. We have had better luck with darker spoons, mostly purple, for the salmon on downriggers 40 to 50 feet down. But that just us. Other boats might be doing something different and doing just as good or better. The bottom line is that the fish are out there. Looks like the weather this weekend might keep most anglers off the big water, but next time the wind and waves allow, I'll be steering the Pamela Ann out the marina channel, past the Florian II, Anclam Park ........
Tight Lines, Bruce
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