Shallow or Deep, Up or Down
Three-Dimensional Hide and Seek
Local fishing guide Paul Delaney once described fishing to me as three-dimensional hunting where you can’t see the animal you are hunting. Imagine if a deer could be anywhere in the space at or below your feet and was invisible. Not only that, you have to somehow entice the deer to grab your gun and shoot itself. Ok, maybe that might be overstating the challenge a bit, but at times when I take into account all of the possible variables involved in finally getting a fish at the end of your line, the task seems almost impossible. Consider trying to catch a Chinook Salmon or Steelhead in the waters of Lake Michigan near Baileys Harbor. I regularly troll for salmonids in an area of about fifteen miles along the shore to about ten miles out into the lake. If you assume an average depth of, let’s say 200 feet, that comes out to almost six cubic miles of water. Visualize a box of water two miles by three miles in which you are trying to locate a moving object about three feet long at most. The task seems absolutely Sisyphean when you consider that the fish in question can move into and out of the box at its whim and is fully capable of swimming from the south end of Lake Michigan to the northern reaches of Lake Huron during its lifetime. Nothing guarantees that the fish will ever enter your box of water in the course of a fishing season, much less be at the identical particular location as you at the same point in time. So, it’s really a four-dimensional problem.
We, as human anglers, do have some advantages. One is, I’d like to think, greater intelligence. However, often the pure instinct of the prey cancels out any intellectual advantage. We also know what fish need. Food and sex. We can use these insatiable drives to our advantage. Fish, salmon and trout in particular, prefer certain water temperatures. Being cold blooded, fish can only control the temperature of their bodies, and therefore their metabolism, by surrounding themselves with water of a comfortable temperature. For Chinook Salmon this temperature is about 45°F to 50°F, more or less. Steelhead prefer water a little warmer, 55°F to 60°F. So, all you have to do is find water in the right range that contains accessible food (alewife, shad, etc.) and you might find salmon or trout. Maybe. The problem is there is a lot of water that fits this description off the shores of Door County right now. Take my fishing experiences this week as a case in point.
Earlier in the week I set out one morning by myself in the Maggie Leigh. I had lines set by 6AM, starting in 80FOW. The surface temperature was 53°F and my temperature probe indicated a temperature of 50°F at a depth of fifty feet. So, the water was essentially isothermal down to at least fifty feet. This being a good temperature range for salmon, they could be anywhere in the water column. I could only put out three lines so what’s a guy to do? Well, try to cover as much range as possible, so I set one downrigger at 50’ and another about 40’ and a line off the planer board down about 10-15’. I also noted that there were large batches of baitfish indicated on the sonar. Comfortable water temperature and available food. Sounds like the formula for success. Sure enough, a half hour later, one of the rods sprang upright as the line released from the downrigger. Grasping the rod from the holder and taking up the slack line, I felt the presence of a fish. Not a strong presence, but a fish was there. As I applied a bit more pressure to the line, the fish suddenly became aware of my presence at the other end of the line and panicked. The reel started screaming! This could be a nice salmon. I settled in for a fun battle. What ensued was a test of wills, stamina and equipment. One strong run after another was followed by me frantically recovering as much line as I could. My equipment held and eventually the fish tired and I moved it toward the boat. Now came the challenge of netting the fish solo with the rod in one hand, the net in the other all the while keeping the fish clear of the other lines and making sure I stayed in the boat. Important boating safety tip; always stay in the boat. After several nerve-racking moments, I slipped the net under a 33-inch, fourteen-pound King, my first decent salmon of the season. I had caught him in 85FOW, forty feet down.
Now, contrast that to my experience later in the week while fishing with good buddy Paul in his boat on a cloudless morning with light and variable winds. Again, the surface temperatures were in the mid-fifties. In fact, once we left the confines of Baileys Harbor, The surface temperature was 57°F, so we decided to head out into the lake until we could find an area where the water temperature started to cool significantly, a temperature break or what is called a “thermal front” in the lake. We drove east intently watching the temperature gauge waiting for the temperature to fall. It did not. In fact, we started to think the gauge was stuck. We drove for miles out into the lake and the temperature never wavered more than a tenth of a degree. Finally, at a depth of about 350FOW, the surface temperature started to drop, slowly at first eventually dropping to near 53°F. Not a dramatic change, but it may be enough to indicate the presence of a thermal front in the lake. We also noticed a change in the surface appearance of the water. It was “flatter” with small bits of floating debris. This might be the place to continue our game of hide and seek with the fish. The temperature probe showed 47°F at a depth of fifty feet, so we had a little bit more of a thermal gradient than earlier in the week. Paul set out six lines covering depths from fifty feet to near the surface as I steered the boat into still deeper and colder water. We picked up a smallish “eater” rainbow on a spoon about fifteen feet down. About twenty minutes later another planer board went flying backwards and we spotted a wildly leaping fish about a hundred feet behind the board. This was larger than an “eater”. After recovering the board and two colors of lead core line, Paul positioned the net under a beautiful 29-inch, seven and half pound Steelhead and lifted it into the boat. We were in 400’ of water over fourteen miles from the marina! To add a little more diversity to the trip, as Paul was pulling up the last downrigger in preparation to returning to port, we discovered a 18-inch Coho had grasped our lure forty feet down and was taken along for the ride. He joined the other two fish in the box.
During the extended ride home, I contemplated that over the last three days I had caught fish in water ranging from eighty-five feet just a mile or two out of the Baileys Harbor to a depth of four hundred feet more than fourteen miles out. We had caught fish as deep as fifty feet as well as near the surface. Sure, I was guided by previous experience, reports for other anglers and some rather sophisticated technology, but it still seems like a monumental undertaking to probe this vast body of water seeking a single fish. Of course, finding them only starts the process. You still need to come upon a fish in the right mood and then present it with a lure enticing enough for it to want to chase it and eat it. Then the battle ensues in earnest. A lot can go wrong.
I guess the takeaway from this is that perhaps I should not beat myself up too much when I occasionally, okay more than occasionally, get skunked. You have to enjoy the process, the thrill and frustration of the hunt. On those trips when you do bag a nice catch, relish the experience. Appreciate and perhaps be amazed that you managed to catch anything at all. You engaged in a complicated game of hide and seek with a wild animal on its home turf and won!
Stay safe and sane.
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