Species At This Location:
Salmon Chinook
Salmon Coho
Trout Rainbow

Sturgeon Bay Salmon, Door County, Wisconsin

Location: The Bank is located in Lake Michigan about five miles east of the Door County coast between Sturgeon Bay and Baileys Harbor in Wisconsin.  The Bank can be reached with a boat big enough to travel safely on this big water. Boat ramps and charter services are available in Sturgeon Bay and Baileys Harbor. If you go on your own, you will need a boat. The Sturgeon Bay boat launch is at Sawyer Park, GPS N44.82788, W87.37888.


Salmon on the "Bank" East off Door County

By Paul B Downing

The Door County peninsula, what a beautiful place! Tall limestone bluffs plunge into sparkling waters. Scenic bays filled with pleasure boats dot the peninsula.  Resort accommodations of every type nestle in those picturesque bays.  Lighthouses, eleven in total and still active, protect boating traffic. They are open to tour and are a fascinating glimpse into our past. The County is famous for its cherries, so you will find cherry pie, cherry wine, cherry?well, cherry anything offered in restaurants and roadside markets. Another tradition is the fish boil. White fish, onions, and potatoes are boiled outdoors in a big pot with special spices. At just the right moment, kerosene is added to the fire which flairs, bringing the pot to a rapid boil, whereupon it overflows. The meal is done. Restaurants of every kind, many featuring German or Scandinavian dishes brought to the peninsula by early settlers, dot the towns. The peninsula boasts two great live theaters and some wonderful golf courses. There is beautiful scenery everywhere you look.  Hiking or biking in the State Parks will give you a close-up view of this natural splendor. All this is packed into a peninsula that is 40 miles long and a few miles wide. No wonder Door County is one of the ten most popular vacation spots in the country. There is a lot to do.

 It would be a shame if you did not slip a mourning of fishing into your vacation in Door County.  There is outstanding fishing almost anywhere you turn. Salmon fishing in Lake Michigan is great. Walleyes of trophy size as well as muskie patrol Green Bay. Great smallmouth bass fishing spots dot both sides of the Door County peninsula. Trophy smallmouths of over 5 pounds are caught regularly. Check out our companion smallmouth article. Today we are going salmon fishing.

Heading east from the Sawyer Park Boat Ramp, we clear the cut that forms the Sturgeon Bay Ship Canal and head into the vast wilderness of Lake Michigan in search of Salmon. Five miles out are The Banks, a hump in the bottom of the lake that rises up to only 60 feet deep. JJ Malvitz, my charter captain (www.jjsguideservice.com), tells me we will be fishing the ledge of The Bank as the water drops off to over 130 feet deep. How, I wonder, did anyone ever find this place? Years ago commercial fishermen like JJ's grandfather, used a heavy weight on a line to plumb the depths and find spots like this. Now modern electronics make it much easier. This spot is well known to the charter captains and is marked on JJ's fish finder gps so he drove right to it.

We arrive, still in the middle of nowhere as far as I could see, land barely visible to the west.  JJ slowed the boat, preparing to deploy the lures. We are going to troll with a variety of lures. To get the lures down to the depth of the fish, JJ attaches the lines to a variety of mechanisms. Several lines are lowered with downriggers. Others use heavy copper line and dipsy divers to reach the depths. Boogie boards are used to spread the final lines to the sides. When he is done eight lines spread out behind the boat. The rods are light weight salt water rigs with star drag reels. On the end of the lines are big flashers to attract the salmon and a variety of lures; Howie flies, pro king and fish lander spoons in various colors. All these lures are intended to represent the alewife that is the salmon's main food source.

We are trolling the lures 60 feet deep in over 130 feet of water. The fish finder shows the depth and tells JJ that we are on the edge of The Bank. As we head north along The Bank, we mark fish but we have no takers. 

The fish are indeed at 60 feet but they don't seem to want our offerings. JJ shifts in closer to the ledge or out a bit, slows the boat a bit, searching for the right combination. I sit and wait, hopeful.

Suddenly, a rod jumps. Fish on! Now the battle begins. Unlike ocean trolling, you do not pump the rod. JJ tells me that this leaves a little slack in the line and the salmon will be off in an instant. So I crank in, keeping steady pressure on the fish as I gain line. The fish shakes its head, dodges left and right, but keeps losing ground to my relentless pressure. Then it decides it has had enough and heads back down to safety, gaining line as the drag sings. But that is its last hope and slowly it comes to net. A fine king salmon glistens in the net. A short time later a big steelhead takes a spoon. You never know what will hit next here.

Salmon were originally planted in the Great Lakes starting in the 1950s to control the alewife population. The alewife population exploded after the Lake Trout population crashed due to heavy predation from invasive lamprey eels. For years there has been an aggressive stocking program to build and preserve the salmon population. It has been wildly successful with an active sport fishery established throughout the Great Lakes. Natural reproduction has followed. Estimates vary but it now seems that as many as 70 percent of the salmon in Lake Michigan are naturally spawned. These transplanted Pacific Ocean dwellers have found a new home in Lake Michigan and the other Great Lakes. Studies are underway to more accurately determine the number of naturally spawning fish and the effective recruitment of young from the spawn. Fisheries biologists are attempting to learn if they can stop artificial plantings. If natural reproduction is as high as they suspect, stocking may not be necessary.

The salmon season is primarily in June and July but the fish are here from May until fall when they run up into the Sturgeon Bay Ship Channel to Strawberry Creek to spawn. Eggs are collected from the salmon running up the creek to grow smolts for release the next year. Coho salmon move up into The Bank over the summer and a few steelheads are always around. Trips start before sun up as the salmon feed early. Alternatively, you can leave in late afternoon to catch the evening bite. You will be better off with a guide, at least for the first day. They will teach you where the fish are and how to catch them. Contact JJ Malvitz at www. jjsguideservice.com

 A bag limit of 5 salmon and/or trout is generally the case but could vary with yearly population.  Kings are not as big here as their ocean going relatives even though they are the same fish. I have no idea why. A 30 pounder is considered a big fish here. Still they are great fighters and equally as good on the dinner table.

If you come to Door County in April or early May, you are too early for the salmon. But you are just in time for the walleye fishing. Spawning walleyes, many over 30 inches, roam the shallow rocky shore of Green Bay. JJ trolls at night in 5 to 15 feet of water using Rapallas. He says that this is a quality, not a quantity, fishery. You may not get many fish but you have the opportunity to catch the biggest walleye of your life.

The Bank is about five miles east off the Door County coast and runs roughly north from Sturgeon Bay to Baileys Harbor, a length of at least 20 miles.

Weather: May can be cold and windy. June through August are generally pleasant with highs in the 70s and 80s. September is unpredictable with great days followed by storms. Be careful, a storm can come up quickly any time of the year and can be dangerous so if the weather looks threatening, use discretion and get off the lake.

Fishing Season:
 May through September. A bag limit of 5 salmon is in effect.  Check with DNR

Fishing Methods & Tackle:   
This fishing requires deep trolling so you need heavy rods to control the heavy weight needed to get you lure down to where the salmon are found. Various spoons and flies that imitate alewife are the preferred lures.

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