Outdoors With Mike

Pacific Salmon

Pacific Salmon on a Missouri Trout Budget

 By Michael Dixon


     There is an old saying:  “If something sounds too good to be true, it probably is.”  Most of the time the old saying is correct.  Recently, I was told there is great salmon fishing in Wisconsin.  I was more than a little skeptical.  Salmon?  In the Midwest?  That sounded too good to be true.
     When I’m not hunting or fishing, I like to spend my spare time riding my Harley.  Being a member of the local Harley Owners Group chapter, I have “contacts” all over the country.  So an email was sent to a fellow Harley rider in Racine Wisconsin.  Within 24 hours, I was speaking to one of the directors of the Racine chapter of Salmon Unlimited.  That was all the convincing I needed.  If Racine Wisconsin has a Salmon Unlimited chapter, they must have some good salmon fishing.
It turns out, Lake Michigan supports a variety of salmon and trout species.  And just like the salmon that live their lives in the ocean, mature salmon in the lake return to their home rivers to spawn each year.  One of those rivers is the Root.  The Root River flows through the middle of Racine, located halfway between Chicago and Milwaukee.
In the last issue of Driftwood Outdoors, I mentioned that I’m a fly fisherman.  It’s my favorite way to fish.  There are tons of charter boats that fish the deep water of Lake Michigan for salmon, but there are not a lot of opportunities to target salmon on the fly.  The Root River provides anglers that opportunity every fall.
I took a quick inventory of the fly boxes and leaders in my fishing vest, and realized I needed to order some new supplies.  I was hoping to do battle with a 15 to 30 pound fish, and size 16 hooks with a three pound test leader just wouldn’t do the trick. To make the trip even more fun, and cut the expenses, I recruited a friend to make the journey with me.
It’s common knowledge that much of the Midwest has been experiencing a drought this year.  Talking with my Racine contacts, I learned the drought has even affected the Great Lakes.  The water level in Lake Michigan is the lowest it has been in recorded history, and that effects the water levels in the tributaries. Increased flow due to rain triggers the salmon to swim upstream and spawn. 
“Watch the weather,” I was told.  “They’re in the harbor now, and after a couple of days of heavy rain the fishing in the river should be good.” 
Every day I watched the weather for Southeast Wisconsin, and every day was the same.  There was no rain in the forecast.  It was worse than waiting for Christmas when I was a child.  At least I knew when that day was going to arrive.  My ready bag was packed, and all I could do is wait.
 Finally, rain in Wisconsin.  I called my friend who was planning to accompany me, and two days later we were on our way.
After checking in at the motel, it didn’t take long to find a parking area near the Root.  A quick survey of the water revealed salmon.  A lot of salmon.  Big salmon.  We quickly assembled our rods, and put on our waders.  A short hike along the road, then across a bridge, and we were in the water.
The scene was just like the salmon runs I had watched on television, without the bears.  Salmon were swimming around in the pools, and fighting their way upstream through the shallows.  Dorsal fins above the surface reminded me of scenes from “Jaws.”  Armed with a red egg pattern fly on a size 1/0 hook and 20 pound test fluorocarbon leader, I began casting to a fish in one of the deeper pools.  It didn’t take long, and the battle was on.
The large salmon thrashed around on the surface trying to throw the hook from its mouth.  The noise it made in the water sounded like someone had fallen in.  With the thrashing failing to offer its freedom, the King took off on a run downstream.  My eight weight fly rod was bending as though it was an ultra-light while the fish stripped line off the reel.  I quickly realized why the rod came equipped with a fighting butt.  Suddenly, my line shot back at me like a rubber band, and the big fish was gone.  As I prepared to tie on another fly, I noticed half of my tippet was gone and the half still attached to the leader was frayed.  The fish had maneuvered itself around a rock in the shallow water, weakened the leader, and gained its freedom.
     A short time later, Jerry had one on the line.  He had witnessed what happened to me, and decided to end the fight as fast as possible.  Putting his faith in the 20 pound test leader, he quickly hauled his salmon to the gravel bank.  The big male weighed 18 pounds on the digital scale. By then, it was about dinner time and we needed to find the fish cleaning station.  We packed our equipment and called it a day.  That night, we were guests at the Salmon Unlimited meeting. 
Because the water level in Lake Michigan was so low, the level in the Root dropped fast.  The fishing the next day wasn’t as productive, but we did have an enjoyable day.  After spending the early morning in the river, we found Wilson’s Coffee and Tea about a mile from where we were fishing.  The folks didn’t mind that we wore our waders into their shop.  After more fishing, we went to The Yardarm near the harbor for a grilled salmon lunch. The owner greeted us at our table, and provided a map and directions to another popular fishing location. Unfortunately, the water was too low for the salmon to get that far upstream.
The fishing could have been better on this trip, but it could have been worse, too.  The locals we met were as friendly as anywhere I have ever traveled.  And, from a cost perspective, where else can a fisherman from Missouri catch King Salmon a few hours’ drive from home?  
     If there is such a thing as Salmon Fever, both Jerry and I caught it!  And to quote Arnold Schwarzenegger, “I’ll be back!”

This article was first published in Driftwood Outdoors, January/February, 2013 

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