The alarm didn't stand a chance of going off-through blurry eyes, I reached over and canceled it before the annoying buzzer could jolt me from bed. I'd been staring at the barely focused digital numbers for 20 minutes and I may as well roll out-there wouldn't be any more sleep. Besides, getting on the road earlier (by 2:15 a.m.) would put me downstate that much sooner-4 hours in the truck, Neillsville to Kenosha, was long enough. The sun would be up at the harbor for a good hour by the time I set foot on the boat.
Coho salmon, one of my favorite fish, are not early risers anyway, or should I say early biters unlike their big Chinook brothers. No need to slip out of the marina in predawn darkness. Many of the charter captains in south east Wisconsin enjoy this little extra zzzz time as well in the spring. A more leisurely start allowed me to make the cross state drive and still get a full day of fishing in-”banker hours fishing” captain Kris would say.
The Corkscrew, owned by good friend Kris Davis, would be the vessel of choice to hunt down cohos, steelhead (rainbow trout), lakers or maybe even a king or brown-a mixed bag sometimes in late spring. Kris runs Northfork Sportfishing Charters and has quickly become one of the more respected captains departing the Simmons Island Marina in Kenosha Wisconsin.
I try to join Kris whenever I can on Lake Michigan, especially in the spring- cohos are arguably the best table fare to be pulled from the big lake in my opinion. The small silver fish, usually 3-5 pounds by their third year , seemed to be running bigger this year, which brought no complaints from us! They'd been aggressive for the past week or so and I had high expectations of bringing a few home for the grill. Steelhead would also be willing to hit, as Kris had put a good number of them in the cooler the previous day.
Usually, coho are somewhat predicable-they start biting in the southern waters near Indiana and Illinois and the season progresses northward following the warming temperature of the lake water. Find the preferred water temp and you'll find fish. That's the usual scenario. This year? Not so much.
I met Kris, his dad Ed and friend Wayne at the dock and quickly stowed gear, untied and no-waked out through the harbor-a clear and sunny day with just a little chop on the lake greeting us. A few lakeside fisherman were set up along the wall plying their luck in shallow water for browns, steelies and maybe a few cohos as we slowly motored past. Entering the wide expanse of “mishigami “ the boat quickened it's pace. The Corkscrew is powered by two 350 marine engines and there is a satisfying deep roar from them as they throttle up leaving the shore quickly behind. I love that part.
As Kris set a course for”the fence” (Wisconsin Illinois border 8 miles south) the boat seemed to be heading much further ofshore than our usual coho fishing grounds. Watching the fish locator screen, the bottom was dropping away-50', 100, 250+ deep. Curious, I asked Kris and it seemed the fish had no rhyme or reason this year for where they were hitting. Normally, there is a parade of hopeful boats patrolling up and down across “the bubbler” (Kenosha's warm water discharge) in 40-50 feet of water or the same near Racine's Root River estuary, but not 10 to 15 miles out! It seemed they were staging in very deep water and hitting lures anywhere from the surface to 100 feet down. Kris was hedging all bets, using planer boards, dipsey divers and down-riggers to test all depths and see what they preferred. The added bonus of such a range is other species like lake trout and king salmon could end up in the tub.
You go where the fish are and although this was unconventional coho fishing, the word was out and we had plenty of company. Kris kept the 350's churning and we set up closer to 300' of water, further out from the other boats. With four of us onboard, we'd put out a spread of six high planers, three mid level dipseys and three deep 'riggers to cover all bases. It didn't take long.
“Fish on!” ...and there was an excited hustle to grab a rod and net and boat the first fish of the day-a steelhead. Before it could be scooped up, another planer board was jerked backwards-”fish, FISH!, bottom pole!” and all four of us scrambled to somehow not get tangled up, yet land the trout. We did, and the steelies were stowed on ice and poles re-deployed. “FISH!”-another bait is hit-this time on a deep line, pulling hard- most likely not a rainbow. This is how to start a trip and as Wayne brought the fish in close, we could see it was a nice lake trout.
As quickly as it all started, there was a lull, but that's fishing. This scene would repeat itself all day, we'd hit one or doubles or even three in a row in a spot and then they would shut down. Kris would swing by the same spot and sometimes another salmon would be added to our catch, sometimes not. None of us minded all that much-it was a beautiful day on the lake, but then again, catching fish is better than not our captain would remind us-yeah, it is.
Eventually, most of the other boats cleared out, chatter on the radio indicated they were not having the same slow-but-steady luck as the Corkscrew was. If the fish wanted high placement, Kris would move some of the lures higher-if they were finicky about color or pattern (even if it was a guess), spoons and flies would be swapped out to maybe antagonize a few more hits.
Afternoon fishing hadn't been all that good of late, but we continued on. Finally, after a threat of “we'll give it 15 more minutes,” things restarted-so much so, that we counted and re-counted the number of fish in the tank to be on the good side of a limit. It was a final flurry of action ending with a near triple like we started the day-perfect.
All of us had long drives back home after a day on the water, so Kris turned the boat north west and we let some lines drag while pulling one set of gear after another-you never know about last chance fish. After everything was stowed and tucked away, the boat roared forward for the 10 mile trip back to the “candlestick” (breakwall light) of the Kenosha harbor.
Most of the other charters were already nestled into their slips by the time we returned-the Corkscrew had stayed later, but it paid off with the extra fish on board. In short order, the Corkscrew too was buttoned up and ready for the next trip. The fish were divided and iced in coolers-mine would have to be cleaned later in the night. Already I had plans for cedar grilled and smoked salmon and trout-I couldn't wait. Although not a crazy fish-jumping-in-the-boat kind of day, it was great and all of us happy and appreciative with the action and bouts of fun frenzy when rods start bending back on themselves. My alarm is already set for the next trip.