LUDINGTON, Mich. -- As they like to say in the beer ads, it doesn't get much better than this. Catching brown trout on No. 16 dry flies in the morning and salmon on Rapalas in the evening is something you can do in few places outside Michigan.
The salmon were in the lower Pere Marquette River, and while there weren't a lot, many were as shiny as a new dime and pulled like a Mack truck.
While we were casting crank baits to salmon up the river, other anglers were trolling in the lake or the harbor at Ludington.
Jay Frolenko runs Strike Zone Charters, and during the fall run, fishes the Manistee River, where salmon also have started to show up in the lower stretches.
"We're still fishing the lake (Michigan), but we'll be fishing the river pretty soon," Frolenko said. "I think we'll see a lot of fish move into the Manistee in a couple of weeks, but we've got a hard cold front coming, and that could push them in as early as this weekend. A lot of the fish we're catching in the lake are already pretty dark. I think that when they do go, they're going to go in a mad rush.
"Our salmon fisheries are changing. Last year we were catching chinooks in the rivers in December, and I saw chinooks spawning in April," he said, adding that Michigan's salmon might be developing races like fish in Alaska, which spawn at different times from fall through spring.
Paul Kramer came from Michigan City, Ind., to the Pere Marquette to fish trout and said he hoped he'd find some early-run salmon.
"We got salmon, but we had to go way down below Custer," Kramer said. "They weren't interested in little flies, and we saw people catching them on those big Thundersticks lures, so we tied on big streamers and we each got a couple.
"We hooked them, but we only landed one out of six. You just couldn't stop them on the 8-pound tippets we were using. I finally landed a 15-pounder when I went up to 12-pound fluorocarbon."
I've used fly tackle to fish for salmon in rivers for more than 50 years, and it's still my primary technique. That's not because of the esthetics or some angling mystique, but simply because most of the time fly-fishing is the most effective method.
But in the past decade I've often fished for them with crank baits, and if the fish are in the mood to strike something that looks like a minnow, spinning or plugging rods are a lot of fun.
That's because the strike on a plug is usually a lot harder than the take on a fly. First, because you're retrieving the lures, there's a lot less slack between you and the fish than when using fly tackle, where you try to keep slack in the line to get a natural drift. When a salmon hits a crank bait on a spinning or plugging rod, you feel the shock from your wrist to your shoulder.
My experience is that plugs work best for salmon that haven't started to get serious about spawning. The most likely targets are fish in the lower reaches of a river, or those milling about in the bigger pools.
Once they enter the shallows where they will spawn, or are on reeds, crank baits not only have little interest for the fish but are detrimental because of the high probability of foul-hooking salmon with the gang hooks on such lures.
I like crank baits for the lower reaches of the Pere Marquette, Manistee and Muskegon and anyplace away from spawning gravel in deep rivers like the St. Marys.
Crank baits that mimic natural foods like smelt and emerald shiners work well when the fish first move into the rivers, but after a few days the salmon often show a penchant for brighter lures with a lot of pink or red on them.
You'll sometimes hear people argue that any salmon caught in a river must be foul hooked because salmon don't feed during the spawning run. But if you fish the St. Marys River at Sault Ste. Marie, where the water is so clear you can pick out markings on individual fish in 20 feet of water, you'll learn that's just another outdoors myth.
I've often stood on the concrete berm that separates the old canal from the main river channel, where I could see spawning and pre-spawn salmon holding in big pools, and cast lures to the fish.
I can't count the times I've let a crank bait sweep past a salmon and watched the fish turn and chase the plug 10-30 feet before nailing it. The salmon might not be feeding the way they do in big water, but the instinct to chase and catch prey still can be triggered.
I've also learned that if a lot of anglers toss hardware (or flies) at pods of fish, the salmon become skittish and move out of the way of the lures. That means plugging for salmon usually is best in the morning before they have had a lot of hardware dropped on their heads.
Something else that helps when fishing for salmon with plugs is braided line. There's virtually no stretch in it, and you can spool with 20-pound line that's the same diameter as 6-pound monofilament.
I like to add an 8- to 12-pound test, 6-foot fluorocarbon leader. If the fish don't seem to be leader-shy, I use 12-pound. If they spook, I go down to 8- or even 6-pound, although that usually means breaking off some expensive lures.