Salmon fishing

Brian Mulherin file photo

Salmon give an even bigger fight on a smaller boat.

If spring is the time when a young man’s fancy turns to love, then July is certainly a time when anglers should be thinking salmon.

A great way to experience Lake Michigan salmon is aboard a charter boat. I highly encourage any new angler to get on a charter and learn the basics of what we’ll discuss here.

But what if you’re more of a do-it-yourselfer?

Well, you’re in luck. July brings with it some relatively calm seas (compared with August and September, anyway) and fish that are within reach for your 14-to-18-foot boat.

So what are we waiting for? Let’s get to planning how to take a small boat out for the big fish.


Listen, I know safety is a turn-off, but having written about friends who Lake Michigan claimed, I can tell you it’s important.

First, if you’re not familiar with Lake Michigan and how your boat might handle its waves, wear a lifejacket. I don’t care if it’s this style, that style or whatever, wear something. I opt for inflatables when temps are hot and I’m on a boat I haven’t fished from before.

Second, pick up the “Michigan Handbook of Boating Laws and Responsibilities” at Click on boating, then go down the left column and look for the PDF icon where it says “The Handbook of Michigan Boating Laws.” If you click you can download this booklet. It may also be available in print wherever tourism brochures and hunting and fishing digests are available.

Read this booklet and figure out what you need for your class of boat. In Michigan, boats under 16 and over 16 feet are in different categories.

Regardless of boat size and laws, you should have lifejackets for everyone on board (wear them until you know how your boat will handle the water), a throwable personal flotation device (PFD), a visual signaling device such as flares or an orange flag and an audible signaling device such as a whistle or air horn. You will also want to read up on what lighting is required for your boat and when it is required.

My best safety tip that you won’t find in that book? Get your small boat off the lake by 11 a.m. every day. The heating of the land masses causes wind. Whatever wind is coming will be at its worst at about 11 a.m., unless it’s a passing front or approaching storm.


The saddest thing I see are boats that are set up with no logical train of thought. If you’re going to be trolling for salmon, you’re going to have to have your gear arranged in a way so it won’t tangle. The old saying about “measure twice, cut once,” applies here. Don’t start drilling holes in your boat for rodholders until you’ve fished in a boat set-up for trolling.

Here are some rules of thumb:

First, any lines that will be on planer boards are, by definition, not in the way. Set them up that way. Your rodholders for planer board rods should be forward of all your other rods in the boat. That way, when you get those lines in the water, they are clear of your downrigger rods and your Dipsey Diver rods, should you choose to have all of those. The farthest lines from the boat, horizontally, should be the farthest forward in the boat.

Second, figure out how you will land those fish. My boat has an outboard motor. If I put up the old 2-inch by 10-inch board with downriggers across the back, I’m creating a problem. I will have to run every fish up the side of the boat to land it. So I didn’t do that. I kept downriggers only on the corners of the boat so that I have the back free for netting.

Third, you don’t have to spend a fortune on rodholders. I have personally had the cast-plastic holders break, but I have only broken two in 15 years of fishing and both of those were due to drags on reels locking up. If you are worried about losing gear, simply attach wire tethers to your rodholders. They are very inexpensive online.

Having said all of that, here’s how I recommend setting up the sides of your boat, from bow to stern, assuming you’ll start by running a two-person limit of six rods: First, you put a rodholder in for your planer boards. Then you can put in your diver rods, then, toward the back corners, put either deep-diver rods or downriggers. Doing things in this fashion will keep your spread from tangling as long as you remember which way a diver should go in the water (weight always to the inside).

Now that that’s out of the way, we’ll discuss what rods you might want and why.

Rod types

We run different kinds of rods because the fish stay so deep that we have to come up with several ways to get lines down to them. Each has its advantages and disadvantages. We’ll go through the three major types here.

Downriggers are fantastic for getting lines down in a hurry. Let out a short leader, attach the line to the cannonball via a rubber band or a specialized release clip, then send it down to a known depth. No math, no delays in setting them. Just hook them up and you’re fishing. The disadvantage comes when you start to add more lines and when you start to turn too sharp. You can’t make a sharper than 90-degree turn with downriggers out or you risk your line catching the other downrigger cable and causing a mess. It happens, you learn.

Dipsey Divers are keeled, weighted discs that attach in-line to your lines. You can dial how far you want them horizontally away from the boat and then you can make them go deeper by letting out more line. There is some math involved, but they give you a cheat sheet so you can figure out how deep your lines are running. The disadvantages to Dipsey Divers are that getting the release set just right can be challenging. Storing the divers and associated snubbers and leaders can also be a pain. Also, reeling in fish requires a little help if you’re running long leaders.

Planer boards don’t make your lines go deeper alone, but they can move weighted lines like leadcore or copper wire out to the sides of your boat so that those lines can get deep without bothering your other lines. Always remember that your highest lines, or shallowest lines, go farthest forward in your rodholders and farthest outside in your board spread. Disadvantages to these are that they take a long time to set and reel in and if something’s not right, you may have to clear additional lines to fix the problem.

Getting deep

So, if I were to set up a 16-foot boat for trolling Lake Michigan, I would have downriggers on the back corners, divers ahead of them and then planer board rods forward. In fact, my 17-foot boat has just this, although I added triple rod holders referred to as “trees” or “rocket launchers” so that I can run six or eight planer boards with relative ease (assuming I have enough people on board).

My planer board trees are right at the backs of the two seats so that anyone on the boat can grab them without people having to vacate those seats.

Let’s say the salmon are 70-80 feet down in about 120 feet of water and it’s a flat day. How do I set my spread?

First, I want my downriggers fishing. Downriggers are the fastest to set, so get them out there. I would run one down to 65 and one down to 75. That gives me two rods in range of the fish. I want to target that 70-foot range, so I’ll also run two Dipsey Divers out long distances to get them in front of fish. The charts are written for 20-pound monofilament, but you’ll have much more success with superline. I figure with 50-pound superline, I can easily reach 70 feet with 180 feet of line out. So I’ll put one diver (setting of “1”) at 180 out and one at 165 out.

Now we’ve got four lines out and if no fish have hit yet, we’re looking good. Now if it’s just two of us, we don’t have to run planer boards. We could just put some divers out set on “3” and cover some more water, higher in the column but farther horizontally from the boat. I’ve done that, and I have to say in a small boat I prefer planer boards. I’d much rather deal with a planer board tangle than a diver tangle.

If there are only two of us, we can put one planer board out on each side. You may want to start with leadcore because it’s cheaper and easier to learn. You can put a full core out to each side, or, if you have more money, you can put a copper line out on each side. Copper runs deeper for its length, but it kinks and takes more time and care to run out behind the boat. However, it’s a shorter length to reel in when you’re fighting a fish. Figure a full spool of leadcore runs around 50-60 feet deep at 2.5 mph, while a 200 copper will do about the same. To me, this is a reasonable “keep them honest” depth to run above all your other lines. Research has shown that salmon will move up and down the water column drastically throughout the day. So having lines set between 55 down and 75 down really gives us a nice deep area of coverage and with our boards, it’s nice and wide, too.

Now, what if it’s three people in the boat instead of two? Well, then you’re going to add more boards and higher lines. High lines will surprise you sometimes. You’ll hear the fish are all 80 down and then you’ll catch them on a three-color leadcore. Makes no sense but it works, right?


Lure selection is a whole different ballgame. I tend to run larger baits deeper, so my rotators and flies and meat rigs will be on one of my downriggers, one of my divers and one of my full cores. I like to run spoons (consider mags this year) more than many anglers. They still work, still fool the fish. If you’re just starting out, I would say to start with just one rotator/fly rig and add more and some meat rigs as you get accustomed to setting lines. The more stuff you have in the water, the more stuff you have to tangle. As for colors, stick with blues and greens for your deeper lines and go with the mixed vegetables, chartreuses and neons for your higher lines. And remember to use glow lures early and late.