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
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.