Pursuing the Rojo Coho

It’s 6:30 pm on a Friday night and my phone informs me that my buddy Drew has texted.

“Dude the fishing is prime over on Lake Michigan right now. Let’s do this!”

Knowing that this would be a 5+ hour drive and would take up most of my weekend, I glance across the restaurant table, giving my wife my sweetest smile and ask, “Do you care if I go fish some Lake Michigan tribs?” And because I have the chillest wife ever, she says she doesn’t care and has some things she wants to get done the next day anyway.

After working through the logistics, Drew, his buddy Nick and I determined that we would meet at 10:30 pm and would drive through the night to Lake Michigan. Crazy? Yes. But sometimes you just need to go for it.

We met at Drew’s at 10:30 pm, as planned, loaded Nick’s Ford Explorer with our gear and headed east on I-94. Nick is a champ and successfully drove us to our river destination by 4:00 am. Sunrise was scheduled for 7:30 am, so we took advantage of the last few hours of dark to get some much-needed sleep. Sleeping in a car in a parking lot isn’t the most comfortable, and the sleep was broken up with thoughts of constantly wondering who may be wandering by, but we did manage to get a little rest. We were all too quickly woken up by the sound of steady rain; not ideal, but it wasn’t going to stop us.

We started the day like every good, Driftless region fishermen should: a stop at Kwik Trip for some coffee, donuts, and snacks for the day ahead. It was still raining so we found a park with a shelter to get our gear situated and then made the hike down to the river. As anticipated, we weren’t the only ones who wanted in on the salmon action that morning, and we were greeted by dozens of other anglers. We struggled to find good, fishable water and we were not thrilled with the 20 ft boundary created by the anglers above and below us. Thankfully our buddies, Josh and Tavis, had fished the area the day before and were willing to give us some intel on another spot that was getting less pressure and had a strong number of lake run fish passing through.

After getting to our new location and meeting up with Josh and Tavis, we started to feel more optimistic about our chances. There were far fewer anglers here and the water just felt much “fishier.” There isn’t a set of criteria that makes water “fishier”—it’s just a 6th sense that fishermen learn. We started seeing fish almost instantly and it wasn’t long before Josh and Tavis had a double going! They each successfully landed their respective coho salmon and the mood of the day instantly changed. Not long after, Nick hooked into a coho of his own.

lake michigan coho salmon

Coho salmon (Oncorhynchus kisutch) are native to the North Pacific Ocean, but have been introduced to other waters including Great Lakes, beginning in the 19th century. In the 1960s they were successfully re-introduced to Lake Michigan in an effort to reduce the population of the invasive alewife while also creating a great sport fishing opportunity.

Still in search of my first coho, I carefully scanned the water looking for a moving shadow, signifying the presence my target. After swinging my bright blue streamer in front of a handful of fish with no takers, I finally got one to grab. I gave it a hard hook set and the battle was on! The big male coho on the end of my line was not as happy to see me as I was to see him. After making several hard runs, I was successfully able to net him thanks to the help of Drew. I managed to tame the angry fish long enough to snap a few pictures before he returned to the water—what a satisfying moment.

lake michigan salmon

Shortly after, Drew tangled into his first big male coho, which we were able to successfully land and get some cool shots of before he tore back into the stream that would be his home for only a few more remaining days of his life.

salmon fly fishing

Most salmon species, including the Coho, die after they spawn, ending their approximately 3 year life cycle. The trick when fishing for them is to find “fresh” fish that haven’t spent much time in the river/stream, and are still aggressive. After a period of time, the salmon enter a zombie-like state and slowly decay.

The last few hours were spent casting to the new fish passing through and taking an occasional rest on the bank. As afternoon came upon us, we were starting to feel the effects of fatigue that our short, shoreline naps couldn’t cure. Thankfully we decided to stick it out for a few more minutes, because Nick and I both caught our personal best cohos. Mine was on the last cast of the day and was the perfect way to cap off a great day of fishing—a big ol’ kyped-up coho showing off his red (rojo) spawning colors and marking my largest fish on the fly to date!

Salmon fishing observations:

  1. The salmon we found were in swift-moving water which was more conducive to spawning.
  2. Most of the fishing we did was by sight. We were casting directly to the fish –similar to how we fly fish for carp. Polarized sunglasses were a big help in locating fish.
  3. A majority of the salmon you present your fly to will not aggressively pursue or attack it. The key, we found, was to swing the fly in front of as many salmon as we could and always be ready for one to grab. When one did, we gave it a good hookset and prepared for a battle.
  4. There wasn’t a specific fly color or pattern that performed much better than others. We used different color egg sucking leeches—I used blue and had good success, but black and white also performed well.
  5. Although you may be able to get by with a smaller rod, we used 8 weights (I used my Walton 8/9 wt.) We were using floating line with about a 6 foot 10lb leader.
  6. Bring a big net. We caught several fish in the upper 20” to 30” inch range and nearing 10+lbs. We struggled to fit some of the fish in my net and one even bit/ripped right through it… I would recommend bringing a decent-sized net, if possible.

Our 5 hour journey home included a stop for a burger in Baraboo, WI and more fishing banter as we planned our next trips. It was an exhausting trip—10 hours of driving for 6 hours of fishing was a lot— but it was also totally worth it and will always be a fun fishing memory.

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