Fishing with cut bait for Great Lakes salmon

A while back, freighters entering the Great Lakes brought in a little friend in the bilge in the form of alewives, and they spread like wildfire. Soon beaches, especially on Lake Michigan were covered with tons of rotting fish as the alewives washed ashore. No reprieve was in sight. What were the state and provincial agencies to do? What they did was introduce a couple of species of pacific salmon and a great fishery was born.
Now these decades later, the fishery thrives, having the ups and downs the same as pacific species. King and coho salmon can be found throughout the Great Lakes along with pink salmon in the upper regions of Lake Huron and a few scattered kokanee in Lake Ontario. The Atlantic salmon can be found in Huron as well, thanks to the efforts of Lake Superior State University and Michigan’s DNR. In fact, the world-record coho salmon came from Lake Ontario, and it was caught on cut bait. But when you start talking about salmon fishing in the Great Lakes, most discussions will center on Lake Michigan and the hefty populations of king and coho salmon, with the king being the “king” as far as overall catch and weight goes.

Many folks who fish this mighty lake use the same tried and true techniques. The most popular technique is spoon fishing, and there are several companies that make quality spoons designed specifically for fishing Great Lakes salmon. Other popular techniques involve the use of flies and flashers. But one technique that is really catching on, no pun intended, is the use of cut bait. Cut bait, either herring, smelt or other, is exploding on the Great Lakes, and anglers are seeing limit catches. Is this a new thing though? Not at all. In fact, cut bait was the first real method for pulling in fish. If you go out to the pacific to catch salmon, you’ll end up using cut bait in many cases. So why is it considered the hot new thing on the Great Lakes?

Most anglers I know in Michigan say it revolves around time issues. Running spoons and flies takes less time to get the lines in the water, and there is less cost involved. So be forewarned, running cut bait isn’t the easiest or the cheapest method of fishing. Why do it? Good question. In the early fishing hours just after the sun rises, you don’t need to run cut bait. You can pull in fish with spoons and flies and catch a lot of fish. So what happens when that early bite ends? Do you want to fish for only an hour or so and go home? I know I wouldn’t, and I’m betting you wouldn’t either. Cut bait will target those neutral to negative fish during the times when others are picking up sporadic fish.

But why? It’s all in the meat and the presentation. Why do we eat meat? Because it is our food, right? Well salmon aren’t vegetarians. They eat meat and if they have a food source, they’ll eat it. It is a conditioned response. Smells like food. Looks like food. Must be food. Time to eat. BAM! You’ve got a fish on. It all boils down to two basic reasons, attraction and scent.

Attraction goes hand in hand with how you rig cut bait. You’ll need a flasher of some sort. A Kingfisher II is a staple and is popular and effective mostly due to the slow roll it gives the bait. The slow roll is the key according to many who successfully fish cut bait. Color choice varies and with practice you’ll see what colors work when. Many early summer kings fall to light colored flashers, such as green and chartreuse. Don’t rule out dark colors as well. I’ve seen many spring fish succumb to a dark colored flasher. Play around and vary your patterns until you find success. Follow your flasher with anywhere from two to five feet of leader line. Spaced on the leader should be additional teaser attractors. Mylar flies tied into the leader work well, as will spinner blades. Basically you want to add more attractors leading to the bait.

The bait will consist of some form of meat/bait head and either a herring or other baitfish cut into a strip or left whole. There’s going to be a hook or two also but I figured you knew that. Good hooks are the way to go too, such as a Gamakatsu, Cabela’s, Mustad, Daiichi, or Owner’s. You don’t want to run a treble hook. A standard octopus-style will work just fine. Some anglers are running circle hooks. One angler told me he ran circle hooks because each strike on one meant a perfect upper-lip hookset each time. Play around with hook color if you’d like. Many come in the ever-popular red color as well as blue or green. As far as sizes go, try between a 2/0 and a 5/0 hook. You’ll find as many opinions on hook size as you do about anything, so find what works best for you. I’d start with a 2/0, but that’s just me.

Don’t be too eager to set the hook either. When a rod goes off, reel up the slack line and set the hook hard when you feel the fish. It is a common mistake to think that a rod that has gone off will have an aggressive fish at the end of it, pulling hard. When I fished spoons, I’d quite often see a rod release from the downrigger and then bounce madly with pressure from the fish at the other end. With cut bait, most of the releases I see are soft. The fish is almost non-aggressive with the strike, perhaps swimming with the bait because it feels and tastes like a natural food source.

The other thing that will trigger the hit is smell. We, as anglers, have used scent for a long time. Think about bass or catfish and you’ll know what I mean. Heck, even that nightcrawler you used to catch bluegills from the local pond is all about scent. So why have we resisted using scent to catch salmon in the Great Lakes? I can’t really say. Maybe it was that spoons and flies came out and were the “hot new thing?” With cut bait being the “hot new thing” now, people are looking high and low for information. It is no secret that predatory fish key in on scent. If it were otherwise then sharks would just have to get lucky. If you run a bait rig, you’ll have both a visual attractant plus a scent attractant. You’ll want something that gives off a heavy, but fresh odor. Stale or old bait just will not work. Some anglers are treating their cut bait with a scent, almost like marinating it, to increase the scent trails.

One of the most effective ways to fish cut bait is to keep it near the bottom. Ideally, you will want to run it within 20 feet of the bottom, regardless of the temperature as long as there are fish there. Remember that the target fish here is the negative or neutral fish. You want the ones that aren’t actively feeding. You’ll catch those too, but you’ll also be hitting the fish that take the bait out of instinct. The scent and action of the bait triggers the genetic response that will put fish in your boat. Talk to guys that run cut bait now and they will tell you about picking up limits of fish on days when other report mediocre fishing.

Does it work? That is the question you really want answered, isn’t it? The first time I tried fishing with cut bait, I was with my friend Jay on his boat, the Strike Zone. We were fishing out of Manistee, Michigan in mid-spring in some not so nice weather. Jay is a charter captain and has all the toys on his boat. We had planned to run all five of his downriggers but that wasn’t going to happen. We set the first rod and started working on the next, when the first rod released. I looked at Jay, and he smiled back. We handed the rod to my unsuspecting girlfriend, and the fight was on. While she fought the first fish, we set another rod only to have it release within seconds. There was no real time that we didn’t have at least one fish on, and at one point there were three on. There is nothing like a triple at the back of the boat to make a day interesting. In moments we had a three-person limit of nice king salmon. Am I a believer in cut bait? You’d better believe it.

Some of the details to consider. Speed is a major factor. Try trolling at a slower speed to start and then work up from there. There is no set speed for running meat rigs. If they aren’t hitting at one speed, increase or decrease it as you wish. Remember, you’re re-creating a baitfish that is swimming in an erratic fashion to begin with; speed variances will increase the action and appeal of the bait to a predatory fish. I would suggest starting at 2.3 mph and increasing up to maybe 3.6 mph. You can fish as slow at 1.0 mph and still be effective under most conditions.

Good electronics are essential. You need to know the depth of water you’re in, the depth the fish are holding at, the depth the natural baitfish are holding at, and the temperature of the water. If possible, you should know the temperatures at different depths. These thermoclines hold fish and are an important thing to know and look for. We’ve actually watched fish on the fish finder come up through the thermals to hit the bait on more than one occasion. As Jay related to me, “It was a strange, yet comforting feeling to see a fish on the screen and know that I had a better than average chance to put that fish in the boat.”

The best advice I can give you is to try it and don’t be afraid to experiment. That is how all innovation happens; someone has to be willing to try. Seminars are available for those who want to see it in action before spending the money to rig bait. Just check around, as there are a few experienced guys willing to do seminars. If you’re ready to give it a try, you can find just about all the gear you’ll need with a quick trip to Cabela’s. Go for it and be willing to experiment. You won’t be disappointed and a cooler full of fish may just be your reward. Now, if you’ll excuse me, all this talk of fishing has made me eager to go hit the water.