MILWAUKEE -- Here in Milwaukee, folks take it on faith that -- as the former tourism slogan says -- "It's cooler near the lake."
The thermometer usually supports the sentiment, except when it's warmer, like most of the winter.
And by other measures, the lakefront can be the hottest place around, especially in summer.
Take a recent Thursday, for example. As the mercury hovered near 90 degrees, the crowds were festive on Bradford Beach and in Veteran's Park. Kites and music filled the air.
The congestion extended a few miles into the blue expanse to the east, as more than a hundred tiny, white triangles tacked across the horizon. In case you hadn't heard, the U.S. National Championship Laser Regatta was in town.
But with due respect to the musicians and sailors gathered in and around this fair city, the hottest spot might well have been in the Milwaukee harbor.
There, on a 19-foot sportfishing boat bobbing along the seawall, you would have seen dancing, singing, some comedy and enough skilled reading of the wind and water to make Buddy Melges envious.
And to top it off, the captain and crew brought home dinner in about the time it takes to go shopping.
"That's the one," said Eric Haataja of West Allis, Wis., nodding to the screaming rhythm of line peeling from my reel.
The fish was obviously strong and clearly intent on running east. What we didn't know yet was whether we should engage the engine to follow.
Or, out of consideration for our sailing neighbors, if we should ask the race authorities for passage.
After about a 100-yard run, the fish answered our questions and reversed course.
I reeled feverishly, trying to keep contact. The fish then sliced diagonally across the surface, its dorsal fin and tail protruding above water.
"Jaws!" said Cal Haataja, Eric's 9-year-old son.
After another 10 minutes of tackle-testing runs and dives, the silvery, thick-flanked fish came to net.
"Nice king," said Eric, hoisting 15 pounds of chinook salmon into the boat. The fish went immediately on ice.
The action was closer to a burn.
I joined the Haatajas for a couple hours of fishing on the Big Pond late Thursday afternoon. Properly speaking, we never left the harbor.
Haataja, who runs Big Fish Guide Service, was intent on showing me how to catch some of the sizable chinook salmon that frequent our shores with a simple jigging technique.
"This is the easiest, most productive way to catch salmon," Haataja said.
When we launched at McKinley Marina at 4 p.m. CDT, a 5 mph wind came from the southeast, soothing our sun-scorched limbs.
Haataja idled the boat out to the north gap, just off the point of Veteran's Park. The lake had a 1- to 2-foot chop; the "mud line" of water from the Milwaukee River was visible just outside the sea wall.
Using the bow-mount electric trolling motor, he then moved slowly in and around the gap, intently looking at his fish finder.
"Gotta have bait," he said. "And there it is."
Haataja pointed to the "fuzzy" screen; from the surface to about 20 feet, the water column was loaded with salmon food.
We baited 3/8-ounce lead head jigs with 4- or 5-inch white soft plastic tails. From there, it was a lot like jigging for walleyes -- let the bait fall to the bottom, reel up a couple cranks, and then "pop" the jig, watching and feeling carefully for hits on the drop.
Haataja said he began jigging for trout and salmon in nearshore waters about 10 years ago. First, he used jigging spoons for brown and lake trout in winter and spring.
He began experimenting with other baits and at other times of year. The summer bite for kings is now his favorite.
A mature king salmon has no match in freshwater, Haataja said, both in terms of sport or on the table.
Our first, second and third hook-ups came within 25 minutes. Two were kings in the 15-pound range, the other was a 4-pound brown trout.
If you think traffic is thick on the roads, you haven't seen the harbor gaps on a hot summer day.
The wake of one 45-foot cruiser prompted some spontaneous dance moves on our parts. Cal has an impressive moon walk for a 9-year-old.
Though we stayed close to the sea wall and out of traffic lanes, we decided to move to the main gap to avoid the incoming fleet of Lasers.
The action was even better. Within 5 minutes, I had another king on the line.
"Lots of people think you need to troll to catch salmon," Haataja said. "At times, it's this good from the piers. Other days, it helps to have a boat to get into the bait and the better action. But in July, August and September, there's no need to go far offshore."
We fished in about 30 feet of water; the surface temperature ranged from 75 to 80 degrees. Most of our hits came when we had our baits within 3 feet of the bottom.
Chinook salmon provide the most-caught and arguably most sought-after fish species on Lake Michigan.
The Department of Natural Resources stocked 995,804 chinook salmon in the Wisconsin waters of Lake Michigan in 2009, including 92,200 in Milwaukee.
Once in the lake, though, chinook are known to travel widely. The key is forage. Their favorite meal: the alewife.
Haataja keeps a close eye on exactly that.
The schools of alewife were so thick the fish often collided with our line. On a half-dozen occasions, we hooked one and brought it aboard.
"The key is the bait," Haataja said. "If there isn't enough around, the kings won't be here in good numbers."
Another key is the wind -- a few days of west wind is good to help push out warm surface water and allow cooler, more salmon-friendly water to upwell close to shore.
However, Thursday the wind was southeast and the water was warm. The salmon were still in the harbor.
Even better results
We ended the outing fishing the south gap. Cal got hooked up in short order.
"It feels like a speed boat is tied to my line," Cal said. "This is wild."
We fashioned a fighting chair for all 50 pounds and 4 1/2 feet of him. I held him by the back of his personal flotation device.
The salmon peeled line off the reel with ease.
A sign on the harbor entrance light says: "No wake, speed limit 5 mph."
The boats mostly obey. The chinook never do.
Haataja plans to enter the 2010 Brew City Salmon Tournament and try to win it -- by jigging.
The other boats will be trolling, running up to three lines per person.
"This is world-class fishing," Haataja said. "Tell me where else they are jigging for salmon with results like this?"
Shortly after 6 p.m., the Lake Express ferry pulled into the harbor and eased through the south gap. The captain was on the public address system, seemingly describing the sights.
We wondered if he pointed out the soon-to-be fourth-grader waging a battle with dinner.
The fish was landed and iced in due time. At 6:30 we were back at the landing with eight chinook salmon, seven of which weighed between 10 and 15 pounds; three brown trout were released, ranging from 3 to 10 pounds.
At least three of the salmon fillets would soon be sizzling on the grill.
It's probably a good thing they retired that tourism slogan, isn't it?