Boat full of 11B’s, Dipsies, and Big Fishy’s - An AFI Salmon Trip

August on the Lake Michigan side of Wisconsin is a tricky time of year. The big lake can’t quite decide if it's ready for Fall or if the boiling windless Summer days will prevail. The complexity of August is compounded by the coming Fall salmon runs. First the Chinook Salmon come into port and run the Milwaukee, Sauk and Sheboygan rivers. They are followed closely by the Cohos and up north the Pinks before winter ice up. All these events are determined by water temperature and weather.


A cold wind whipped my face blowing hard from offshore. I took it as a sign the big lake was pressing hard for Autumn to take its western shore and that I would not look foolish for telling the 22 veterans to pack sweatshirts and long pants in August for the first Armed Forces Initiative Salmon tournament.


In the four a.m. mist we boarded our respective boats in Port Washington harbor. Armed only with a thermos of coffee per boat and a sack full of gas station burritos I sent our new veteran members onto the big water watching each boat clear the lighthouse before hopping on the last boat.


As the late summer drives the salmon a little crazy, forcing them up stream into 70 degree water it does the same to people. The harbor was over crowded with boats, each trying to traverse the narrow boulder lined channel past the lighthouse as quickly as possible so they could start fishing. As is inevitable with too many boats going too fast in the dark, we passed two capsized boats in the harbor on our way out. We passed the wreckage quickly leaving the harbor patrol and coastguard to their work as the captain opened the throttle through the lighthouse channel before turning North to join the rest of our small armada.


The radio chatter of the busy harbor and rescue boats died away just after we heard the harbormaster say all entry and exit was stalled until the wreckage could be towed from the channel. More fish for us the captain said aloud as he tuned the trim to slide across the glass still water in the pre-morning stillness. As the sun broke over the horizon the captain put us to work setting the down riggers and adjusting the planner boards to start our trolling run up the coast.


We throttled down to just under three miles per hour with a dozen rods out at depths from 30 ft to 180ft sporting lures called spoons, fly's, dipsies, divers, flashers, and black barts. Combine these with half, quarter, and full boards, down riggers, goat chasers, and sand kicker type rigs designed to attract any number of resident salmonids. It was enough to make our boat full of Army Infantry veterans heads spin.


Fortunately for us I was able to find enough veterans in Eastern Wisconsin who could by all accounts be considered lake men. Men who have taken solace in the water and who make their living as a boat drivers chasing the silver scaled, pink fleshed kings that call the icy depths of Lake Michigan home. These men take pride in their work and went great lengths to ensure we understood the strategies and tactics we would be employing to reach out limit of five fish per man today. As the captain spoke I heard the respect for the water in his voice. It was evident that becoming a salmon boat captain was not a choice for him after service. In his words the water was the only place that brought him back to the world. I thought it was interesting that though it was in the deep regulation and strenuous scheduling of the military these men and women found their place it is the unpredictability and wildness of the big lake that they have learned to find peace as a civilian.



I am not ashamed to say that we had immediate success. As the captain walked the other veterans through the rigging of rods I took over the helm and set a course 3 miles offshore holding a 5 degree bearing. Before the captain could finish rigging the second rod we had a hit on the first diver with a full planer board. A few minutes later the captain was netting a fine, bright silver, 22 inch Coho Salmon. The captain quickly finished rigging the other poles while hurriedly instructing us as to his methods and shouting bearing and speed changes over his shoulder to me. The whole activity made quite a spectacle and if anyone on board had any doubts as to the mans skill in port there was nothing but complete confidence in our captain now.


We kept up a consistent bite every 15 or 20 minutes for the next hour and a half on the same northern course. We had three species in the boat, Coho Salmon, Chinook Salmon, and Lake trout. We didn’t set any kind of species goal for the day but it would have been great to hook into more of the great lakes species of steelhead, brown trout, pink salmon, and brook trout. At 8:30 a.m. the bite turned off and we ran for 45 minuets with 12 lines in the water and no fish.


Occasionally on the great lakes you see what I would describe as a mirage. It’s a phenomenon that occurs when two drastically different water temperatures meet. The warm waters from the southern end of the lake can collide with the cooler waters on the north and result in what looks like a strange shimmer above the lake. From a mile or so away it looks like there is a long island in the middle of the lake made of black sand. Of course our captain immediately recognized what it was and its significance to the day. The rest of us stood behind the Captain in the cabin as the strange island disappeared as we got closer and became a long grease stain on the top of the water full of floating wood and other debris. As we approached the grease stain rods started straining against their holder and line started peeling off two reals at once. Quickly we had two more Coho salmon in the boat but before we could get them in the fish box three more rods had hits. Two Steelhead and another King Salmon in the boat. The pace kept up at this rate for another hour and a half before we headed back into port.


Upon our return we learned the harbor wreckage had been towed out and no injuries were reported. We also learned the other veterans boats had been just as successful as us that morning for a total of 67 salmon taken by our group. As we cleaned fish and divided up the spoils of the day it was great to see the camaraderie formed over just a few short hours between the participants. Recipes were being planned, phone numbers exchanged, and future fishing trips scheduled. This is what the Armed Forces Initiative is for, connecting veterans, and introducing them to hunting and fishing on public lands and waters. In four hours we created 22 new BHA members, helped feed 22 families, and created 22 advocates for the great lakes salmon fishery. In 2022 we have 18 captains signed up to put on a veterans salmon tournament capable of taking 90 veterans out onto the big lake and generating funds for the Armed Forces Initiatives future events.


P.S. I referred to Great Lakes Steelhead a few times in this article. I realize there is some contention to that vernacular particularly in the pacific north west.

About Trevor Hubbs

I grew up running hounds on coyotes and raccoons, spent a fair amount of time public land waterfowl hunting, and have hunted upland birds behind my setters across the midwest.

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