I was halfway out to my slot, just as the river disappears into the giant bay, when Einstein yelled out, “Some dude was here this mornin’ with one of them there fancy fly reels (referring to my centre-pin), and a big pole, and hooked into a silver that just blew him apart!”
Well—with the juices now flowing, realizing the possibility of a fresh run of chrome sitting off the mouth of this flow, I drifted a big, ugly, roe bag out, and the float dropped exactly where it was supposed to. Wham! This fish was a tank! It screamed out about a hundred yards, and didn’t look back. I had no idea what I’d hooked into, but was thinking, at first, it was a very rare spring chinook.
After re-spooling the hundred yards that the fish left floating in the water column, I sent out my next drift looking for a similar take. Wham! Another freight train! After a long fought battle of tail-walks and Tarpon-like aerial manoeuvres, my eyes opened and my jaw dropped only to see a glistening, black back, sterling silver wall of muscle and a tiny, bullet-shaped head…”Atlantic?”
Let’s rewind a little here…
In the summer of 1999, I had the incredible experience of hooking into my first, of what would become many, Lake Huron Atlantic Salmon of the fabled St. Mary’s Rapids in Sault Ste. Marie, Ontario. Since that first explosion of chrome, I have become somewhat obsessed with these creatures that are very aptly named, the KINGS of Chrome, due to their lightning-fast head shakes and power enough to summersault through the air a half-dozen times before you even know you’re hooked up.
The Atlantic salmon program, based out of Lake Superior State University (LSSU), can most definitely be considered a success. The LSSU aquatics research facility is based on the bank of the St. Mary’s River in Sault Ste. Marie, Michigan, where they began the Atlantic salmon stocking program in 1987. Since then, somewhere between forty and sixty thousand yearlings are released into the St. Mary’s River each year. The adult returns have already been the subject of many magazine articles, T.V. shows, websites, and have even made their way into hard cover books—but it’s not the St. Mary’s River Atlantics we’re exploring here, it’s every other Lake Huron tributary.
Now, fast forward to that early spring day where I was pumpin’ a 15 foot float rod to the breaking point, trying to beach a ten pound rocket at the mouth of a small tributary, with Einstein and Elmer Fudd watching in amazement! After I hooked up with Atlantic number twelve, and only putting number four on the beach, the action died, and I somewhat stumbled out of the water looking for a refreshment, which Einstein and Elmer were more than happy to share. During the ride home that afternoon I kept going over the events in my brain, contemplating what the heck just happened and how I could repeat it…
That night I sent off an e-mail to friend and colleague, Roger Greil who manages the LSSU Atlantic salmon program, explaining to him what had happened that day, hoping he could offer some explanation, and he did. It is believed that some of the stocked salmon will migrate around the entire Lake Huron basin, cruising the shoreline from Sault Ste. Marie, all the way down the coastline to Southern Lake Huron and back up to the Soo, feeding on smelt in preparation for that year-three spawn. The two year process feeding around the lake explains the appearance of LSSU Atlantic salmon in large tributaries in the southern basin, such as the Saugeen and Nottawasaga Rivers, as well as the phenomenon of my little flow in the North Channel—oh—did I say that out loud?
Needless to say, I returned to the scene of the previous day’s slaughter, with high hopes, and was met with complete disappointment when drift after drift, and hook up after hook up yielded nothing but hatchery-escapee rainbows. (But, that’s an entirely different article in itself).
During the following weeks, I heard tales of smelt fishermen dip-netting late at night, only to have the run disturbed by big, silver salmon running the creek and chomping on the smelt pods. I even caught wind of another steelheader who beached what he called a “chrome coho” while drifting off the very same river mouth.
Bound and determined to figure it out, I have spent the last six years studying the migration routes and feeding patterns of these royal descendants, and was asked by Kype Magazine to share a few secrets on ice-out Atlantic success. With Ontario’s new Atlantic salmon initiative, coupled with the program run out of Michigan and LSSU, and the species’ unrelenting need for movement and migration, Atlantic salmon are now showing up in good numbers across all five Great Lakes. Yes—even Lake Superior!
The diverse climates within the Great Lakes basin, means run times and feeding patterns will differ from region to region, but the keys to look for are all the same. Smelt, smelt, smelt! Once the ice blows out of the river mouths, the estuaries and bays of Great Lakes tributaries, watch for off-shore winds to pound the shoreline, triggering sediment suspension, which in turn, draws the smelt runs closer to shore. Smelt will actively feed along wind-swept shorelines directly out from the flow during the daylight hours of the spawning run, to ensure energy reserves are at peak, to navigate flowing water. It’s this feeding activity that also triggers big feeding machines like Atlantics to move in tight to shore to feed on smelt. The second you hear someone say “the smelt are running,” get your gear together, call in sick, and head out to that river or creek mouth…the Atlantics are awaiting you!
Another trigger and timing factor to consider, especially in the more northern reaches of the Great Lakes basin, is the sucker spawn. A couple of years ago, during a dismal showing of smelt, the Atlantics started popping up in the same locations, but were obviously chomping on sucker spawn instead of smelt. Regardless of the trigger, ice-out Atlantic salmon have one thing on their mind, and that’s food…Find the ice-out trigger and you’ll find a day full of break-offs and cartwheels, like you’ve never experienced before.
While I’m a die-hard float fisherman using a centre-pin to dead-drift bags and flies, friends and colleagues of mine have taken these aggressive, chrome tanks on both single-handed fly rods, as well as spey casting into the surf, then stripping back. Trolling smelt coloured spoons off the river mouth will also produce arm wrenching strikes and hard fought, offshore battles. Regardless of technique, the pattern is the same across the board…smelt, smelt and more smelt.