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This week's Feature Blog

Summer Salmon Fundamentals

By: Mark Romanack

Big mature salmon like this one are caught every day on the Great Lakes by anglers who understand how to find preferred water temperatures and also how to get the most from rotator attractors.

Recently a friend went salmon fishing in Lake Michigan and blanked while other boats nearby were crushing the fish. After visiting with him for a few minutes it dawned on me he broke all the fundamental rules of summer salmon fishing. Then it dawned on me, I bet a lot of other anglers aren’t aware of the “do’s and don’ts” associated with catching summer salmon.


During the summer months Great Lakes salmon waters stratify, setting up with a layer of warmer water on the surface and colder water down deep. The hot summer sun pretty much forces temperature sensitive fish such as salmon to go deep.

Going deep is a relative statement because the water temperature that best suits salmon can be 80-100 feet down or as deep as 150-200 feet down! The magic number for finding summer salmon is finding water temperatures that range from 45-55 degrees. Find these temps and there is a pretty good likelihood you’ll find salmon.

A temperature and speed probe such as the Fish Hawk X4D is essential in finding sub-surface waters that are suitable for salmon. The X4D features a probe that is mounted to the downrigger ball (14-20 pounds) and lowered into the water. A transducer mounted to the back of the boat communicates with the probe, providing anglers a digital readout of water temperature at depth. Pinpointing the water depth that provides salmon with the ideal water temperature is critical to finding summer salmon.


When Great Lakes waters stratify, it sets up a rather unique situation. Because wind is constantly moving the water in different directions, the warmer surface water is being mixed with colder deeper water. As this occurs, sub-surface currents are created that can not be detected at the surface. It’s common for the surface wind driven water to be moving one direction and deeper/colder layers of sub-surface water to be moving a completely different direction.

A sub-surface probe such as the Fish Hawk not only provides water temperatures at depth, it provides critical trolling speed at depth. Because almost everything a salmon angler would troll during the summer time has a narrow range of productive trolling speeds, knowing how fast or slow gear is moving below the surface is “must know” information. Without the help of the Fish Hawk probe to guide trolling speeds, your gear could be literally dead in the water or moving well beyond optimum trolling speeds.

Most days salmon trollers will find that the best bite occurs at trolling speeds ranging from 2.0 to 2.5 MPH. Some days the fish favor a slightly slower speed and other days slightly faster, but rarely will it be necessary to fish outside of this narrow trolling speed range.

Attractors such as pictured here are especially deadly on summer salmon when fished with cut plugs such as the Yakima Bait SpinFish. These hollow plugs can be stuffed with cut bait and fish scent to create a natural scent stream in the water. Collectively this adds up to summer time salmon fishing success day in and day out.


When salmon are found in shallow water they will bite a wide variety of trolling gear. When salmon go deep, the most productive presentations all feature a rotator style attractor fished in combination with a handful of terminal presentations including meat rigs, flies and cut plugs.

Rotators (ranging in size from 8 to 11 inches) work especially well in deep water because they do an excellent job of capturing the limited amount of light available at depth. Rotators put out flashes of light that resemble schools of darting baitfish.

Rotators also add important action to meat rigs, cut plugs and flies that would otherwise have little or poor action in the water. A meat rig is essentially a leader with a plastic head that accepts a whole herring or strip of baitfish that spins in the water and does an excellent job of imitating an injured and disorientated baitfish.

Meat rigs are expensive, rotators are expensive and even the herring strips used in the meat rigs are expensive. As a result many anglers shy away from using this deadly effective summertime salmon trolling gear. Not using meat rigs for summer salmon would be like going to the Detroit River in April without any jigs in the boat!

Flies are another popular presentation fished in combination with a rotator. Salmon flies are three to four inches long and are rigged on an 18-24 inch leader. The rotator causes the fly to rotate and also dart in the water, closely imitating darting baitfish.

The third presentation fished in combination with a rotator are what are known as cut plugs such as the Yakima Bait SpinFish. A cut plug is threaded onto a leader and spins in the water, again in an effort to imitate a dying or injured baitfish. The SpinFish is however a little different because this plug is hollow and can be opened and stuffed with chunks of baitfish and fish attracting scent. Doing so sets up a fish attracting “scent stream” in the water, which further helps to trigger more salmon strikes.


When it comes to catching summer salmon, attractor and lure colors make a huge difference. Most seasoned salmon anglers will tell you, fish whatever color you want so long as it includes green, chrome, chartreuse and glow. Collectively, these colors dominate the summer salmon catch in the Great Lakes.

Certainly, salmon will bite other color patterns, but nothing beats these classic colors day in and day out.


In the summer time salmon trollers will catch the most fish if they stick close to the fundamentals. Find the most desirable water temperatures, fish deep, fish using rotators, fish consistently successful colors and keep that “down speed” in a range of 2.0 to 2.5 MPH. If you follow these fundamental rules, the salmon Gods will shine on you day in and day out.


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