Spring Tactics on Lake Michigan

By: Captain Rick Bentley
The waters at the south end of Lake Michigan begin to warm first due to the fact that they are indeed just that, furthest south and because it is shallower. After a long winter in the upper midwest , Coho Salmon are migrating to the south end of the lake in search of this ‘warmer water’ (39-50 degrees) and are ready to go on a massive feed. The shores off of Indiana will see the first schools of Coho and they do so sometimes as early as February. From there, as the waters along the east and west shorelines begin to also warm, the schools of Coho will begin to move north and in my home port of Waukegan, the Coho run will be in full swing by April or May.


While all spreads vary from port to port, the standard Waukegan spread for springtime Coho Salmon consists of a small orange or red Luhr Jensen dodger with a ‘peanut’ fly trailing 16-20 inches behind. The flies are also referred to in some regions as “Coho Candy’. Peanut flies are flies where the tinsel or hair is tied directly to the treble hook. We run these setups on dipsy divers, yellow birds, and downriggers. I will typically run 2 or 3 dispies per side along with 4 yellow birds a side along with either 2-3-4 downriggers. Some captains (like me) will also run red or orange ‘action flashers’ with trailing flies as well as the difference in action can sometimes be a better producer than the standard dodger. Let the fish tell you what they want by observing which gets more strikes but I will often have a few of these in my spread as well but sometimes both varieties will see an equal amount of action. 

When the Coho bite is really on, fly color often does not matter either but most days you will see a hot color pattern or two emerge. Favorite color patterns of mine are lime green hair and aqua tinsel otherwise called ‘two-tone’, aqua and mirage tinsel or called ‘improved two-tone’, blue green and gold tinsel, black hair along with variations of blue, green and/or purple tinsel. These are the standard flies that you can expect to catch fish with but there are other color patterns that will produce as well. Most of these dodgers and flies are run in the top 10 feet of water on yellow birds and dipsy divers. Even of you can see your dipsies in the water, they will usually take fish.

On yellow bird setups run a 3/8 – 5/8 ounce sinker about 6 feet ahead of your dodger to prevent the board from sliding all the way down. Run leads of anywhere from 10 feet to 75 feet behind the yellow bird with an average of about 30 feet being standard. On dipsy divers, I run about 6 feet of line between the diver and the dodger along with a snubber which you may or may not wish to run. I personally prefer a snubber to lessen then shock of the very aggressive strikes that dipsy baits tend to sustain. You may also run dodgers and flies on downriggers as well but it’s these presentation where you can experiment a little more with to catch other species as they won’t take as many coho as the other delivery devices when the bite is primarily on the surface. On the riggers, especially if you are fishing deeper, run spoons or larger dodger/flashers and flies to catch Chinook, Brown Trout, and Lake Trout. You can also catch Coho on these baits as well but large Chinook Salmon will often accompany the big Coho Schools in May and usually prefer a spoon over a red dodger and fly. A big Chinook is a very nice bonus along with a limit of Coho in May!

Body baits such as hot n tots, rebels, and Thin Fins work as well but have bigger fan base in other ports. However, I will often experiment with a body bait on an outside yellow bird when the Coho aren’t here in full rage and they will sometimes outproduce when the dodger and flies aren’t hot yet. Body baits are generally thought of as good baits when the water temp is in the high 30’s or low 40’s as is the case when the more scattered schools are just starting to arrive. Don’t be afraid to run them bdy baits when the reports indicate the fishing isn’t in hot yet however you will likely do better with primarily dodgers and flies once the big schools of fish arrive. Another alternative setup is the spoon on a yellow bird. Again, this is run more on an experimental basis and on the outside yellow birds where you will stretch the lead length further back behind about 80-100′. If I find myself in a situation where the Coho bite is decent or just ok, I will often run spoons on the outside boards to encourage strikes from other species of fish to make up the lack of Coho bite. This is especially effective for early season and usually shy Brown Trout when fishing shallow and also for Rainbow and Lake Trout when fishing further offshore and it certainly will catch Chinook as well as the Coho that you are primarily fishing for anyway! This changeup tactic is a favorite of mine when the Coho bite is isn’t hot and you have the chance to catch Brown, Rainbow, or Lake Trout.


Most people associate the Spring Coho run with shallow water fishing especially since your baits are running shallow. While this is often the case as we mentioned that these fish are seeking relatively warmer waters, it is not the rule. We will often find large schools of Coho well offshore and just this past season, many of us found ourselves fishing in as deep of water as 180-230 feet (and still catching them mostly on the surface). So be flexible in that regard (as well as cautious in regard to wind and waves) if there are reports of good deep water action. As with bonus Brown Trout in shallow water, the deepwater will often yield many bonus Rainbows as well as Lake Trout and Chinook and will you give you the flexibility of running more than just a couple baits down deeper. Funny enough, you may (and we did last season) catch Coho on some deepwater water setups 100 feet down at the same time as when you are cleaning up on them on the surface! 

“I will also touch briefly on the Spring/Summer transition here before our next installment “Summer Setups”. At some point every Spring our quantity of Coho we catch begins to diminish. While the decline in actual numbers can be a setback, the size of the Coho we catch during this transition makes up for it and in many cases the fish are really packing on weight. It should also be noted here that when Coho reach weights of about 7lbs and larger, they are usually very worthy adversaries, especially near the boat! They can be very rough on the tackle so we are constantly checking our lines and leaders for nicks and scrapes that I can assure you will be exploited by growing Coho! We will also begin to catch many other species during this transition and in that regard we will begin to adjust our bait selection as well as delivery apparatus.”

In my experience and perhaps it’s region specific, Coho are far more likely to be caught on dodgers/flashers and flies than any other bait. While they may not be hitting the small dodgers and peanut flies as much into this transition, they may be caught with more frequency on small dodgers and medium size flies in blue, green, and gold tinsel or blue/pearl or green/pearl tinsel but also on larger dodgers in chrome, white, yellow, and in red still but in large red sizes (we call it big red here). Marry those larger flashers and dodgers up with larger, or full-size flies flies in patterns known as mirage, blue boy (or little boy blue), green tinsel, white, pearl or combinations of those colors and you will likely catch MORE of these larger Coho as we move into June and even into July. Chinook may also take these baits as well. Bear in mind that these larger dodgers and flies are delivered primarily with dipsy divers and downriggers as yellow bird surface water baits are geared still with the smaller dodgers but in general the top 10 feet of water has become too warm for the Coho to feed. It’s this time of year where yes, we will still have some yellow birds working up top with small dodgers and flies (and spoons) but we will also start to deploy our leadcore lines on larger planer boards such as Walleye Boards with spoons.

There is no rule that says you can’t run large dodgers on leadcore but usually you will have enough of those on the riggers and dipsies that you will want spoons to run on the cores to take advantage of that ‘stealth’ delivery that it is often needed in order to catch wary Chinook. This transition will have you catching a variety of fish and you will want to orient yourself to hybrid spreads for all species to see what the ‘flavor of the day is’. Still, the larger dodgers/flashers and flies will catch most of your Coho and in that regard Coho – up to a ‘un’certain point – will usually comprise the bulk of your catch.

Captain Rick Bentley is a full-time U.S. Coast Guard Licensed charter boat Captain out of the Port of Waukegan in Illinois and is owner/operator of the vessel *Independence* and *Windycitysalmon.com*. He is one of the younger Captains in the harbor and on the Lake, originally getting his start in the industry as a Deckhand/First Mate. For more information or to read Capt Rick’s fishing reports please visit WindyCitySalmon.Com

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