Posted on March 26, 2015 / By Jason Wright of Ultimate Outdoor Adventures TV
My crazed passion for chasing Salmon on Lake Sakakawea during the months of August, September and into October from the late 1980’s through the early 2000’s was caused by the indepth biological thinking of the ND Game & Fish Department. I would temporarily stow my walleye gear and become obsessed with “black jaw fever” towards the end of July each year.
It was the ND Game & Fish biologists that determined chinook salmon could thrive in the deep cold-water habitat found in Lake Sakakawea which was nearly void of sport fish. The first stocking efforts took place in the late 1970’s which were successful leading to salmon fisheries in both Fort Peck and Lake Oahe. This eventually caused “black jaw fever” to spread to both Montana and South Dakota. These stocking efforts would lead to a very prosperous salmon fishery providing another great opportunity for anglers. It was usually mid-July in North Dakota when a strange metamorphosis began to take place. Anglers, once satisfied with a freezer full of tasty walleye fillets, became obsessed with locating salmon in the deep water of Lake Sakakawea near Pick City and Riverdale.
The beauty of salmon fishing is that it was and still is an available option to almost anyone with or without a boat. Depending on the time of year, Chinook salmon – also known as “King” salmon – can be caught not only by trolling deep with downriggers and other means, but also by long lining spoons and crankbaits as well as by casting from shore.
Although my passion for locating and catching salmon from a boat or shore ran strong for many years it lessened as water levels began to drop in 2003 which eventually affected Saks cold-water habitat as well as the smelt population. Mother Nature dealt us very dry conditions with hot temperatures during the summer months creating a “not so ideal” environment for both salmon and smelt – the main forage base for Sakakawea salmon. The lack of water eventually ended after several harsh winters which instantly shot the lake level to an all-time high causing high levels of entrainment the spring/summer of 2011 – again negatively affecting the smelt and salmon population. As salmon fishing became more inconsistent from one year to the next I chose to spend more time chasing walleyes, fishing tournaments and additional time in treestands during September. Memories of seeing a rod pounding as a salmon ripped the line from the release attached to a downrigger ball 90 feet below the surface or the enjoyment of walking the shoreline casting for salmon throughout September always remained quite vivid.
It’s true that over the past decade my desire to chase salmon on Lake Sakakawea had diminished, but similar to glowing embers after an evening campfire, all I needed was a bit of fuel. It’s funny how things have a way of working out – those embers were about to ignite.
During the 2014 Bismarck Tribune Sports Show it just so happened that I began to come down with what would eventually be determined was a severe case of “black jaw fever” – only cured by the hammering of a rod and screaming of a drag after hooking up with a 4-year old salmon. The symptoms started after passing by the Kinn’s Sport Fishing booth and seeing photos of big king salmon caught from Lake Michigan. That sparked an instant conversation between Kurt Schirado and me as we reminisced about great catches of salmon from both boat and shore during many adventurous salmon outings on Lake Sakakawea, Fort Peck and Lake Oahe – one great fish story after another.
As you can imagine my symptoms were getting worse and the next time we passed by the Kinn’s Sport Fishing booth we greeted Troy Mattson (co-owner), grabbed one of the professional looking brochures and continued on our way. That evening I studied the brochure which looked more like a glossy magazine with high quality photos of great catches of king salmon, steelhead and coho. I was hooked, and it was obvious that my case of “black jaw fever” was severe, so I did what everyone living in the 21st Century would do – started my computer and typed www.kinnskatch.com. I also checked out their YouTube Channel and Facebook page which provided more information regarding them as a premiere charter fishing destination specializing in king salmon, steelhead, and coho on Lake Michigan.
The next morning after arriving a bit late to our booth, I found out that Kurt too was experiencing symptoms of “black jaw fever.” He had thought long and hard about possibly booking a king salmon trip with Kinn’s Sport Fishing. It didn’t take long for him to say, “I think we should book a trip and experience something new!” I immediately responded with a yes knowing that if the research I had done was accurate this could be an awesome adventure. Kurt took the initiative to hook up with Troy Mattson, co owner of Kinn’s Sport Fishing, and set up a time for the three of us to settle on dates for our trip. Later that afternoon we all agreed that early August would be the best time for all of us.
August 2014 – Six Months Later…
Our Toyota Tundra HD was definitely loaded for “kings” on August 2nd as Kurt Schirado, Gerry Meissner, and I rolled into Algoma, Wisconsin, located approximately 30 miles east of Green Bay. We quickly realized that this town of approximately 3,000 was very clean, the people were extremely friendly and its location right on the shore of Lake Michigan created the ultimate sportsman’s atmosphere. Troy gave us directions to one of the condos we would stay in and to say the least it was amazing; it even had a double stall garage. Later that evening we had an opportunity to meet up with Troy as he explained what we could expect for the next few days. He then pointed us to the harbor so we could get an up close and personal look at the Kinn’s fleet of boats. By now it was becoming obvious that we had booked a trip with an extremely professional business committed to providing the ultimate salmon fishing experience, but when we checked out their fleet of 11 boats ranging in size from 32’ – 38’ we were in awe! They were tournament rigged with radar, extremely clean/organized, equipped with GPS, and the latest in marine electronics not to mention top notch rods/reels and tackle for Lake Michigan salmon and trout fishing. The next morning couldn’t come quickly enough!!
The alarm goes off early when you are targeting king salmon on Lake Michigan since the best fishing during early August usually takes place prior to and shortly after the sun rises; therefore, the plan was to meet at the harbor by 3:30 AM. We were assigned to Big Daddy II with Captain Bryan Wiesner along with two of the best first mates you could imagine; a truly well-organized team. As we walked down the ramp towards Kinn’s fleet of boats I was giddy with excitement as every boat was brightly lit up with crews preparing for another day of fishing for king salmon. Bryan greeted us with excitement and enthusiasm while telling us where to stow our camera equipment then pointed us to the freshly brewed coffee and fresh pastries.
It wasn’t long until all rods were secured in rod holders as Captain Bryan was searching for a huge school of king salmon. The tactics weren’t a whole lot different from what we use which included downriggers, dipsy divers, lead core line, planer boards and tackle including everything from spoons to flasher/fly combinations. Although the presentation and equipment was very similar it was amazing at how skilled this crew was at keeping 14 lines in the water at all times throughout the morning.
I think the best way to describe what was about to happen is “perfect chaos!” The king salmon action – which I will never forget – began as Captain Bryan shouted, “Fish On…Here We Go Boys!” I still get goose bumps just thinking about it. The first king salmon was on and nearing the net when another rod loaded up with the drag screaming and soon another king was netted. It was awesomeness as Kurt, Gerry and I handed off the video camera to Captain Bryan in order to keep up with the insane salmon fishing. During the next 3 hours we had constant fish on at all times with doubles and triples very common. Kings were being netted at an incredible rate, but like any other day, we lost quite a few salmon which may have been the only factor that kept us grounded. Gerry was the first to boat an awesome 4-year old which was in the mid 20# range not long after sunrise which made for a picture perfect moment. As the sun rose higher the fishing began to taper off, which to be honest, was ok because we all needed a moment to take in what we had just experienced. We boated over 20 king salmon as well as a few really nice steelhead during our first morning charter with Kinn’s Sport Fishing. As we leisurely made our way back to the harbor that morning the first mates filleted, washed and neatly bagged our catch with awe-inspiring skill and then scrubbed down the deck – another sign we were fishing with the best.
Our incredible first day with Kinn’s Sport Fishing ended with a trip to Bearcats Fish House where we dropped off 85 pounds of fresh salmon fillets to be smoked, vacuum sealed and frozen prior to our departure. During the next couple of days we experienced similar fishing on Lake Michigan aboard Big Daddy II with Captain Bryan Wiesner – salmon spectacular to say the least. I have appreciated many great days on the water in the upper Midwest and Canada, but I can honestly say this was the most incredible.
My first time trolling for king salmon on Lake Michigan during the early hours well before sunrise was revitalizing and successfully calmed my symptoms of “black jaw fever” – for now. The anticipation of waiting for the scream of a drag as a large king salmon slams your lure hoping this could be the big one creates a natural high. But most memorable might be the thrill and challenge of fighting multiple salmon at the same time in the dark of night with friends who share the same passion. Now I understand why so many have said that the Great Lakes salmon and trout bite is legendary. If you would like to find out more about Kinn’s Sport Fishing check them out online at www.kinnskatch.com or search for them on Facebook.
While writing this article I took the time to browse through photos from my experience fishing for king salmon on Lake Michigan last summer, but at the same time I am excited for the opportunities salmon anglers can expect right here in North Dakota. Lake Sakakawea has been experiencing very favorable and consistent water levels the past few years and 2015 is looking very promising. This consistency has allowed for a solid smelt population and an increase of salmon being stocked by the ND G&F compared to the past few years. In my opinion, if Mother Nature will continue to help keep Lake Sakakawea at an elevation necessary for a quality coldwater habitat, and with the increased stocking efforts of the ND Game & Fish, the future looks good for salmon anglers on Lake Sakakawea.