Michigan's a great lake indeed
Written by Chicago Sun-Times   
Wednesday, 20 July 2005 09:51
As fishing charters jockeyed for position outside of Diversey Harbor, summer heat draped the downtown skyline in a gauzy haze.

Fishing aside, I was just happy to be sitting on water instead of slow-baking in a landscape that's beginning to resemble the arid Southwest. This summer, Lake Michigan is one great getaway.

It's the first real summer since 1995, first real drought since 1988. Inland fishing grows tougher. But fishing on Lake Michigan holds strong, especially for chinook off Chicago.

"The kings [chinook] we were catching at the beginning were so big, we had to fillet them to fit them in [a 94-quart] cooler,'' said Capt. Randy Schmidt, whose Fishing Clinic boated four of the five species in the Diversey Harbor Invitational this week.

He wasn't complaining.

"It's been an outstanding year after June 1,'' said Capt. Bob White, who has 26 years on the King Fisherman. "There's more chinook than other years.''

With chinook defining the summer of 2005 as much as the heat, the fall should be good for shore fishermen.

Tournament scoring was one point per ounce for the heaviest fish in five species -- coho, chinook, brown trout, lake trout and steelhead -- plus a bonus of 10 points for one species, 25 points for two, 50 for three, 100 for four and 250 for five.

As 10 boats bobbed, waiting for the start, despite all the business the captains gave each other over the radio, there was no mystery where everybody was headed. It's summer. The designation was the R4 to the northeast.

"That's what's good or bad, there's no secrets,'' said Capt. Mike Okoniewski of Sagittarius. I rode with him, his father, Frank, his son Justin and Dennis Minsky ("like the burlesque show'').

The red buoy off Glencoe marks a reef that comes up shallow, then drops off sharply to the east past 100 feet. The drop-off concentrates both the baitfish and game fish. The R4 is 12.2 miles, 10 degrees out of Diversey.

There weren't many secrets in what people were doing, either -- mainly spoons, Dreamweavers or North Port Nailers, on Leadcore line or downriggers for deep presentations.

With summer heat making water temperatures in the 70s lakewide, deep was the key, or as Schmidt put it, "No lure shallower than 80 feet.''

Most captains had at least one shallower presentation such as a Dodger and big fly like an aqua Howie on Yellow Bird planer boards or Dipsy Divers, but those were more for show than telling.

Capt. Lonny Wachsning and the crew on his Tracei-Ann -- his son Eric along with Jamie Kost, Alex Petrovic, Peter Krebs and Larry Karolawicz -- had the only boat to bring all five species to the hand-held scales hung on a metal tripod near the Diversey Harbor Yacht Club.

"There was a little bit of luck and following the good guys,'' said Wachsning, who has fished the lake for 30 years and chartered for five. By good guys, he meant captains White, Bill Kelly of Leprechaun and Dave Fors of Full Circle.

Wachsning had one secret. "We had more success with longer distances [50 to 80 feet] behind the cannonball,'' he said. Cannonballs are the heavy weight used to take presentations deep on downriggers. His fifth species came when a steelhead hit around 11 a.m.

On Sagittarius, we boated kings and coho. The lone steelhead came unhinged on its fourth jump. Fors landed the tournament's biggest king of 16.2 pounds.

What sticks even more than the fishing is the sheer joy of being on Lake Michigan. As we motored out, Minsky said, "This reminds me of the ocean, the color of it.'' When a cold front dropped through midmorning, we watched a kaleidoscope.

Even beyond the fish, there are wondrous moments on the big lake. But it was nice to have a mess of salmon to smoke, too.

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