Big Lake, Big Fish

Does size matter? You bet it does, particularly to anyone who angles for any species of fish you'd care to name.

Sure, there are those pipe smoking, beard growing, Hemingway-capped in the group who will say that even the most diminutive trout is a trophy. Just take a look, or listen, to those patch bedecked TV talking heads and you'll hear them say that size doesn't matter, until they catch their 30th bass and then listen to them wondering where the big fish are.

Showing off the catch of the day on a charter fishing excursionSize matters folks. Its that simple. So, with no apologies to anyone or anywhere its time to head for the Lake Michigan port of Manistee in order to catch big fish. Truth be told, I could have chosen just about any one of dozens of charter boat ports and had a ball. Why Manistee then? Why not?

The risk is in losing the fish of a lifetime. Something like a king or chinook salmon reaching towards 30 pounds and sometimes more. Steelhead that press the 20-pound barrier. Lake trout and brown trout that make 15 pounds look sort of puny. These fish, particularly the hard charging and aerial steelhead, and the bull-dogging, reel-screaming chinooks are the reward. Lakers and browns are a big bonus

Can you tell I like this? This is summer big lake fishing.

To get into this big lake, big fish game you could go out and buy a boat in the 20-foot or above size. Add a 100-horse or better motor. Then come the downriggers, electronics, rods, reels, lines, lures, nets, gas, and insurance. Add in a decade or better of education on how and where to fish these behemoths and you're all set. Besides the time you'll only be looking at a $25,000 or better investment, if you go for used and cheap equipment.

Been there, done that. After a sharp slap up beside the head by the CEO of the house, my wife Kris, I found religion, or at least a better way to do it.

Now when the big lake beacons I hire a charter boat with a group of three or four buddies and leave the buying and the education to the professionals. Me, heck, I just want to catch some fish and have a little fun.

Charter fishing crew setting the linesImagine how many charter trips I could go on out of Manistee, or anywhere for that matter, at around $350 a pop that's for the whole boat folks. Adding in a generous tip, and assuming four of us are on that trip, each chartered trip comes to roughly $100 a person. Even on the cheap side, and forgetting about gas, that's 250 fishing trips for the same low-ball price of a boat rigged for the lake.

Mike Cnudde, formerly of Decoy Charters, fishes out of Manistee. Cnudde ran a tidy operation and is well known as one of the top charter skippers in the area. In fact, when the talking heads from those TV shows want big lake adventure along Michigan's coast Cnudde was their go-to guy.

July is a wonderful time for a mixed bag fishery of trout and salmon. August is the major transition time for kings, says Cnudde. They are getting ready for the spawn. In most places on the Great Lakes, and definitely in northern Lake Michigan that means that the adult kings will be moving into the near shore shallow water in the evenings and then move back out to deeper water, say 120 to 140 feet, when the sun comes back up. The kings don't like making that long swim any more than the anglers like running the boats that far so if you can find these two styles of water in close proximity to one another then you've got a leg up on the salmon. And, as Manistee has exactly that, along with a number of great spawning rivers where the kings will head to spawn, we get a lot of fish stacked up here.

In August, king salmon are the main target. These heavy weights are dependable on most days and it is a rare trip when the fish box isn't filled with huge, flopping silvery salmon. But, weather being what it is, which is variable, sometimes you'll make the run farther off shore to the deep water where the steelhead play.

Steelies like the deep water when the weather is hot. The lake forms a thermocline, a temperature barrier, and we can see it by finding something called a scum line. This line is formed by the meeting of two different water temperatures, water of two different densities. The scum line is filled with bugs and small debris blown into the lake. The bugs and debris draw baitfish up to the surface which, in turn draws the steelies. These open lake steelhead can really put on a show. Its common for a fish to jump a half dozen or more times.

Now, before you start counting your chickens before the eggs hatch, there are no guarantees. Fishing is fishing, even in a trout pond. But, Cnudde, along with his fellow captains, do their best each and every time they go. Think about it. Its their job. Word of mouth is the best advertising there is.

There is one other thing I like about going out on a charter fishing boat. The folks that run the boat also clean your fish. Which means you don't have to worry about smelling like a cannery when you head for the tables.

Hot Spots
Up and down all four of Michigan's Great Lakes shorelines (Michigan, Erie, Huron and Superior) you are going to find a wide range of ports and qualified, knowledgeable Charter Boat Captains.

Written by Dan Donarski, a noted professional outdoor and travel journalist, July 2010. 

Dan Donarski