During our outing, Bailey mentioned that he guides the Sheboygan River for king salmon in the fall and we talked about how those trips compare to trout fishing floats. He told me about the incredible strength displayed by the kings and promised me I would end the day with two sore arms, if we had a good day.
That discussion got my blood pumping. I told him I would definitely be in touch with him regarding a fall salmon trip at some point in the future.
I spent the following months hemming and hawing about calling Bailey and getting on the books. I knew I would eventually schedule a trip with him, but I wondered how much time I should give myself to set aside the cash needed for this adventure.
Don’t get me wrong, I knew this trip was going to be worth every penny. But I wanted to be sure I could make this investment responsibly.
As the run approached, Bailey began posting about his upcoming openings on Instagram using pictures from previous seasons. I couldn’t stop looking at those posts. Just seeing those massive fish made my mind race with excitement.
In late August, I decided to go for it. After speaking with my dad, I sent Bailey a text and we got a trip scheduled for late September.
Once we firmed up a date, the trip couldn’t come fast enough.
Like most things in life, attitude and outlook are everything. I’ve come to learn that those two factors dictate what kind of day you are going to have.
I always try to be even-keeled when approaching guided trips. Being reasonable with expectations is important. I feel as though that it is only fair to the guide, because no matter how good they are, there is always a chance for a slow day. Such is life when dealing with wild animals.
I am yet to encounter a guide who can make fish bite on command. And even if I were to find one, I doubt I could afford their services.
We met at the end point of our float about an hour before sunrise. Bailey gave my dad and I ride to a parking spot closer to where the raft was tied up. We got out of the car, turned on our headlamps and began the trek to our watercraft.
We quietly advanced through the grass at a steady pace. Bailey paused briefly to pick up a couple pieces of litter.
“Have to get that good karma going early,” I said.
“Exactly,” Bailey replied.
Shortly after, we arrived at the raft. We loaded our gear. I hopped in the front seat, my dad in the back with Bailey in the middle manning the oars. As we started our float, we chatted about Bailey’s summer on Lake Michigan working as a first mate for a local charter outfit.
With daylight starting to creep in, I noticed a fisherman assuming his position on the far bank. He organized his tackle as he awaited the start of legal fishing hours. This time of year, tributaries can only be fished from a half hour before sunrise until a half hour after sunset. That time was nearly upon us as we moved downriver.
As we settled-in to our first spot, it became abundantly clear that fish were present. The gentle flow of the river was frequently interrupted by explosions from jumping kings breaching the surface. It doesn’t matter how many times you’ve seen it, that sight never gets old.
The plan was to float a combination of skein and soft beads through the pockets of water that held fish. Skein is a cured pouch of fish eggs that is still wrapped in the membrane. The cure adds scent and color to the eggs and helps add toughness to the membrane, which helps it remain on the hook longer.
Given the sticky and slimy nature of the bait, Bailey opted for plastic gloves when putting the skein on our hooks. With how much of this stuff we went through, that choice proved to be the right one.
Within a matter of minutes, my dad had locked horns with one of the many large fish that were in the area. I excitedly reeled in my line to allow more space for the battle to play out. The splashes of the fish echoed off the river bank as the hooked fish thrashed about.
Then, without warning, I heard a sharp snap followed by the whistling of the float and hook setup flying toward us. Nothing was broken, the fish had simply popped off the hook.
While I was disappointed that we missed out on our first opportunity, I was energized by the quick action.
Before long, I was hooked up. Fortunately, my fish remained hooked long enough to end up in Bailey’s net. It was a nice fat female, one of the largest kings I had caught in my life. We estimated it to be somewhere over 22 pounds.
A few casts later, I had another fish on the line. This one was also a solid hen, nearly a carbon copy of the fish I landed earlier. After securing the creature in the net, we took a few pictures and sent the fish on its way, just as we had the first time.
As the sun rose in the sky, the fish continued to put on impressive displays of aerial acrobatics as we floated to our next spot.
This location featured a deep pocket, probably 40 yards long and about 10 yards wide. Bailey estimated that this hole could hold over 100 king salmon on a good day.
We exited the raft and stood in the shallow water near the opposite shore. It felt good to give our legs a stretch.
Almost immediately, my dad’s bobber disappeared under the surface. But, with a little too much slack in the line, my dad was unable to pull off the hookset.
Managing slack in the current with spinning tackle can be tricky, but it is the key to providing the natural presentation these fish can’t resist. It’s also a crucial part of giving yourself a chance at a quality hookset. Though these fish are large and powerful, their strikes don’t last long. It’s amazing how the bite of a 20-pound specimen can look much like the small nibbles of a bluegill, with the float subtly twitching as it slowly advances downward.
Even when the fish absolutely hammer a bait and bury the bobber, it usually doesn’t take long for them to realize they are hooked. Without a proper tug, they can masterfully evade the barb.
On the very next cast, my dad’s bobber vanished once again. This time, he connected. A series of splashes rang out and the fight was on. The fish began peeling line and the drag on my dad’s reel was singing. Eventually, he began making headway and pulled the fish closer to us.
Just as Bailey readied the net, we heard the dreaded pop. Another fish had managed to free itself from my dad’s hook.
I felt awful. We all did. It’s tough being so close, yet so far, from success.
On the subsequent float, my dad’s bobber went down again. The third time as the charm as this fish remained pinned until it was safely in the net. A sense of relief came over all of us. My dad informed us that this was his first ever lake run king, a significant milestone for someone who has been fishing for over four decades.
Now that my dad was on the board, I was confident we already got our money’s worth from the trip (and we still had over half a day left).
After watching my dad get three strikes on three casts, I was determined to get in on the action. It was clear this hole was hot.
I was just about to let another cast fly when Bailey excitedly said “dude, don’t move!”
“Do you see that fish by your feet? That’s a pink salmon. You can tell by the big hump on its back.”
I glanced down and, sure enough, here sat the fish just a couple yards from my boots. Bailey pulled off his polarized sunglasses and put one of the lenses over his phone’s camera and snapped a few pictures.
Pink salmon do not occur naturally in Lake Michigan. In fact, they aren’t planted here either. These fish are often found in other Great Lakes. But, like all sport fish, they are willing to follow the bait fish wherever they go and, on rare occasion, end up in places they wouldn’t be otherwise, all in pursuit of their next meal.
Bailey guessed this fish may have come all the way from Lake Huron. It’s an incredibly rare thing to encounter.
Before we departed this particular spot, I managed to land my third fish of the day and we missed a couple more. We then hopped back in the raft for a click float to the next hole.
This spot was considerably more condensed than our prior location. We would again fish while standing in the shallows on one side while depositing our floats into a pocket on the other. But this hole was only about 20 yards long and about five yards wide.
My dad was the first one to connect with a fish. Within his first few casts, he landed a “jack” king salmon.
Most kings make their spawning run in their fourth year of life and then die shortly after accomplishing what they set out to do. Jacks are male kings that have a genetic mutation that causes them to reach sexual maturity at the age of two. They are easily identified by their much smaller stature. They are often between 8-10 pounds compared to the fully mature fish that can reach weights of over 30.
It wasn’t long before my dad was once again battling a fish. And this one was no jack. As it splashed, its massive tail showed itself and gave us a good indication of the fish’s overall size. After a formidable skirmish, the fish was in the net. This female was likely our largest catch of the day, weighing somewhere in the mid-20-pound range.
Shortly thereafter, I was the one doing the heavy lifting. Upon realizing it was hooked, this fish made a lengthy run downstream. I had a difficult time making headway. That’s when Bailey instructed me to dip my rod tip in the water. The current would create a bow in the line, which provided a different feel for the fish. The change in sensation would confuse the fish about which direction in needed to go to gain leverage.
Sure enough, the trick worked. After a few more minutes, we were able to secure it in the landing net.
A few casts later, my bobber disappeared. I set the hook and the fish darted up river, 30 yards or more, like it had been shot out of a cannon.
“That fish is snagged,” Bailey said. “Put your hand on the reel and let the line snap.”
I was a little confused by this order. At the rate the reel was spinning, I was worried about losing a finger (I’m only half-joking about that).
But I did as instructed and the fish popped free.
As he was re-tying my line, Bailey explained his philosophy on snagged kings. While you could, in theory, fight the fish and hope to remove the hook after landing it, there wasn’t much of a point to that approach. These fish are all dying within a week or two. Straining the fish by fighting it just so you can remove the hook could fatigue the animal to the point of premature death. When you know one is snagged, it’s best to cut your losses.
I landed one more fish before we moved on to our next spot, which was roughly a 30-minute float away. Bailey rowed with a set of oars from his seat in the middle of the raft to help move us a long at a more favorable pace.
We came across two bald eagles along the way. While the fishing had been good, it was also hard to complain about the scenery.
It was nearly noon and this was likely to be our final hole of the day. But Bailey added that it was one that had been producing well for him over the course of the week.
I quickly landed a Jack of my own, to bring our total to eight.
My dad stood to my right as we took turns floating our baits through the pocket as Bailey coached us to make sure we were hitting our marks.
As my dad’s bobber crossed a few yards in front of me, it suddenly went missing. A tan mass emerged from the river bed as my dad set the hook. After a couple head shakes, the fish was gone.
While both my dad and I were happy with the fact he was able to land three fish that day, converting at rate of even 50 percent would have given him at least three more fish to his credit. He was simply the victim of bad luck at times throughout our trip. It happens to all of us, if we fish long enough.
Later on, I landed another big female. This was likely my largest fish of the day.
With our remaining time dripping away, the goal was to get to double-digit catches. We needed just one more fish to make it happen.
With about a half hour of fishing time left, my bobber was down once again. I pulled hard and immediately felt the force of new adversary. This was it, No. 10.
But shortly into our exchange, the fish came flying out of the water at a height that was over my head. This male was so dark that he was nearly black. As he went airborne it became clear that he was hooked in the back, just below the dorsal fin.
“Cut it,” Bailey said.
I promptly placed the palm of my hand on the reel and the fish was quickly freed.
Not long after that, we began the float to our end point. We enjoyed some nice conversation while snacking on venison summer sausage sandwiches on fresh-baked white bread from our local grocery store.
Once we arrived at our destination, my dad and I helped Bailey load up and we went our separate ways.
We weren’t even back in the truck before my dad had already started talking about next year.
As if the nine fish weren’t enough, I went home and wrote out a note detailing everything I had learned from Bailey that day. The final word count stood at over a thousand.
Between the steady action, quality time with my dad, and invaluable information gained, this was truly a trip fit for a king.