Chinook salmon are often called King Salmon and not without reason. Strong, hard-running fish that will spool a reel without adequate line, Chinooks, the largest of the Pacific salmon, have been stocked in the Great Lakes since the 1870s, but it wasn’t until Michigan planted them in 1967 that they became established. With a large alewife population in the Great Lakes, conditions were right for Chinooks to prosper. They have become the dominant species in the Great Lakes salmon fishery.
Preferring somewhat cooler water temperatures than coho, they are usually caught in deeper water. Somewhat photo-sensitive, Chinooks can be caught near the surface in low-light conditions, but are often targeted in deeper water once the sun has climbed into the sky, by anglers using downriggers and lead core or copper line to get spoons, dodgers, and flies or cut bait rigs down to the strike zone. It isn’t unusual to catch Chinooks 100 or more feet down, often in much deeper water.
Chinooks begin their upstream migration in late summer and are usually present in catchable numbers by mid-August. They are pursued by river anglers with all manner of artificial baits — spoons, spinners, and plugs – as well as with spawn, fished on the bottom in bags or in chunks of cut skein under a bobber.
Although they are present in all the upper Great Lakes, Lake Michigan provides the best fishing these days, though some important fisheries remain at some ports on Lakes Huron and Superior. Anglers catch them from Great Lakes piers in late summer and early fall casting with spoons or fishing spawn on the bottom. Significant stream fishes occur all along the Lake Michigan coast with some of the better inland stream fishing in the Manistee, Pere Marquette and St. Joseph Rivers.
Although significant reproduction has been documented — and in some places produces the bulk of the fishery — the DNR maintains a large King Salmon stocking program, though numbers have been cut in recent years because of concerns about alewife populations. The state record Chinook salmon weighed more than 46 pounds, but in excess of 20 pounds are considered to be fairly large specimens these days.