RACINE, Wis. -- Reefpoint Marina is cloaked in the purple light of predawn, its flotilla of sail and power vessels gently swaying in a warm, light breeze.
Pick your prescription for sleep--a shady hammock on a summer day, the rocking arms of a mother--but it has nothing on this place.
At least not for many anglers.
Fresh air. Natural, ambient noise. And perhaps most importantly, location.
"Always ready for action," says Jim Mueller, extending his hand as we meet at 4:15 a.m. "Stay any place else and it cuts into fishing time."
Ah yes, time. In the southern Lake Michigan fishing year, spring is marked by one of the best times of all--the coho salmon bite.
May typically sees schools of coho appear off Kenosha, Racine and even Milwaukee. It's part of an annual, northerly movement of the fish from the most southerly reaches of the lake.
But tarry too long and you might miss the peak fishing.
Since anglers had enjoyed some excellent action, primarily for coho but also for chinook salmon, lake trout and steelhead, off Racine over the last couple weeks, I arranged to sample some of it with Mueller aboard "Stormtrooper," his 30-foot fishing craft.
We are joined by Bradley, Mueller's 12-year-old son, as well as Craig Bender and Tom Pietila. Bender is past president and Pietila is current president of Salmon Unlimited of Wisconsin.
Mueller and Bradley spent the night below deck on Stormtropper.
The boat's twin engines rumble to life at 4:30 a.m.; Bradley and the rest of the marina guests are still asleep.
We motor out of the harbor gap into a mild south wind and 1-foot waves. Late May has offered up a plate of summer weather--the air is 70 degrees even before the sun touches the horizon.
The water, though, is a salmon-pleasing 51 degrees at the surface.
The day before had seen the lakefront from Kenosha to Sheboygan locked in thick fog. This morning stars peek out from a veil of cirrus clouds.
"We've been having good action just a few miles from the harbor," says Mueller, setting a southeasterly course. "Sometimes it's best early, other days it doesn't matter."
Time is only half of the equation for successful fishing, though. There is the matter of location.
Pietila won a Salmon Unlimited club outing the day before by trolling in about 60 feet of water southeast of the harbor. Mueller programs "the numbers" in his GPS and soon we are setting lines.
Coho salmon are part of the fisheries management prescription to the invasion of alewives to Lake Michigan. Along with chinook salmon, brown trout and steelhead (rainbow trout), these non-native fish not only have helped control alewife numbers but created a world-class sport fishery.
Coho were first stocked in the lake in the 1960s; they are prized for their sport and for their table fare.
According to a DNR survey, coho were the second most-caught trout or salmon species in the Wisconsin waters of Lake Michigan in 2009. The Big Pond totals were: Chinook, 5.4 million; coho, 1.9 million; steelhead (rainbow trout), 1.7 million; lake trout, 1.2 million; and brown trout, 1 million.
The DNR stocked 344,471 coho in the Wisconsin waters of Lake Michigan in 2009, about 105,000 short of the goal. Charter captains and recreational anglers have learned to anticipate the spring coho fishery as it develops. Reports of catches begin as soon as the ice is out from Indiana, then Illinois, then Wisconsin waters.
Mueller, who holds a U.S. Coast Guard captain's license, lives in Bartlett, Ill., and could keep his boat anywhere.
But he chooses Racine.
"Racine is second to no other port in my opinion," says Mueller, attaching a planer board to a line. "From here, we've got access to the best and most consistent fishing from May through September."
We endeavor to set out a dozen lines, utilizing planer boards, Dipsy Divers and downriggers to spread the presentations and covering depths from about 10 to 45 feet.
Most of the lines end with an orange dodger and small tinsel fly, a staple of coho fishing. Mueller puts spoons on a few lines, too.
Before we can deploy all 12 lines, we get two hits. One stays connected and I reel in the first catch of the day, a 3-pound coho. The sun has yet to hit the horizon.
Cohos are notoriously aggressive; the next 2 hours could serve as Exhibit A.
"Fish on!," says Bender. "Center downrigger!"
Pietila grabs the rod, but before he can reel that fish in, three more rods are hit.
Maybe it's time to wake Bradley?
In the next 30 minutes, we land eight more fish, all cohos from about 2 to 6 pounds. Bradley saunters above deck and his father puts him right to work.
"You want to mark that school, Brad?" says Mueller.
A downrigger rod with wire line is the next to get hit. Bender hands the rod to me and the fish runs long and hard. It takes nearly 10 minutes to bring to net: It's a 12-pound chinook.
After a relatively quiet 10 minutes, Mueller turns the boat around and heads back toward the area of best action.
We soon find the school again. The fish are not merely hitting baits--they are voraciously feeding. When we land the fish, many have the flies deep inside their mouths.
Several coho regurgitate their intended prey -- alewives--on the back deck of the boat.
The pass also produces a 9-pound lake trout and a 10-pound steelhead. One more turn of the boat and we have the last flurry of the morning.
At 7:23 a.m. Pietila reels in a 5-pound coho, the 25th and final fish of the day.
In less than three hours, we have a five-person limit: The cooler tally shows 22 coho along with the single chinook, laker and steelhead.
We set course for the marina and reel in lines.
"Careful you don't catch another one," says Mueller, smiling.
A foreign concept for an angler, made palatable by the thought of fresh salmon on the grill -- for breakfast.