Traverse City Record-Eagle

Archive: Thursday

November 1, 2012

Bob Gwizdz: Fishing for splake in U.P.

COPPER HARBOR — This little community on the tip of the Keweenaw Peninsula may not be the end of the world, but as the saying goes, you can see it from here.

Or, maybe we could have had there been any visibility. We had none. The rain was heavy and constant; the sky was as dark as a terrorist's heart. We couldn't even see out to Lake Superior from the launch ramp and we're talking, what, two miles?

But we'd waited all morning for the weather to ameliorate and when it didn't, we just went fishing.

Our timing couldn't have been better. As we motored away from the launch ramp, we saw a pair of guys fishing from a nearby anchored boat catch a fish. And after we assumed our position — just off a rocky point, a little more than a mile from the ramp, Larry Smith cast out a swim bait, let it fall for several seconds, turned the handle on his reel about once and declared: "Got one." It was a nice fish, about 17 inches and just what we'd come looking for: a splake.

Copper Harbor may be a long way from anywhere, but it's home to Michigan's best-know splake fishery.

I was fishing with Mark Martin, one of America's top walleye anglers, who owns a home on Lake Superior just down the shoreline. Martin has been fishing for splake for a dozen years and though he'd invited me up there handful of times, this was first occasion I could make it work. Sure didn't take long to show me what all the fuss is about.

"It was the cool fish everyone talked about," said Martin, who bought his home here so he could fish for walleyes on the inland lakes of the Keweenaw. "I walked out there off the launch ramp in the harbor and could see the splake swimming around, so I started fishing for them." I was with Martin, his boyhood pal Kurt Kossuth and Smith, a local guy, on a miserable day — 46 degrees, blowing and wet, wet, wet. Smith had tossed out the swim bait as a lark; the other three of us were outfitted with Rapala Husky Jerks.

Kossuth was fishing with a clown—colored bait, I had a fire tiger pattern and Martin — who was obviously getting in touch with his feminine side — was fishing a pink lure.

Martin positioned the boat in about 15 feet of water and we were fan casting the area. About 15 minutes into, Kossuth caught one about the same size as Smith's, casting out over deep water. Another 15 minutes and I nailed one. About 20 minutes later, Martin scored.

One hour and we had four splake in the boat. Zounds.

It soon became obvious that we'd either caught the easy ones or we'd hit the tail end of the bite. Over the next five hours we caught four more — three keepers and a throwback (they have to be 15 inches to keep) and an eight-pound-class lake trout that fell for Martin's pink Rapala.

Slow day, Martin said.

"We've had days when we've caught 30 or 40 fish," he said. "That's spectacular — when all the stars are aligned. But typically we'll catch three to five per angler." Splake, for the uninitiated, are hybrids, produced in the hatchery by crossing female lake trout with male brook trout. They were developed in Ontario in the 1950s, according to Department of Natural Resources fish production manager Gary Whelan, as an alternative to lake trout when the Great Lakes were practically devoid of the natives.

Martin said he first started fishing for splake by trolling for them, dragging spoons behind planer boards, but the uneven topography of the harbor — you can be in 20 feet of water one minute and in five feet the next — made it difficult to follow the structure elements without hanging up. They switched out to floating Rapalas, which presented a different problem — the splake were so frenetic they pulled off or jumped off by the time you got the planer boards off the line.

"You probably lost 30 percent of them," Martin said. "Casting is just more fun with fewer problems. And we caught more fish because you were actually feeling that tick and you'd slam it home." Indeed, these fish didn't annihilate it. It was more like a subtle walleye bite. Once hooked, though, they were explosive.

Martin said the key in fall is covering water while looking for suitable spawning habitat, which is what brings them into the harbor, he said.

"You want to find gravel to baseball-sized rock," he said. "When they're feeding they're on the rock outcroppings and the boulders, but when they get to spawning season, they want smaller rocks for their redds." The miserable weather actually played to our advantage, Martin said, as splake are spookier than CIA agents when the surface is glass.

"They're like a brook trout." Martin said. "You can't put too much pressure on them. You want a chop on the water and the worse it gets the better the fishing because they don't know you're there." Martin said there's no telling what sort of lures the splake will want on any given day. When Rapalas aren't producing, try Thundersticks. If those don't work, cast spoons (Mepps' Cyclops and Little Cleos are Martin's favorites).

The local guys generally fish for them with bait, Martin said, either with live minnows near bottom or spawn under slip bobbers. Martin said he's done well fishing for splake with jigs and minnows — just as he might if fishing for walleye — and sometimes, when he has fewer folks in the boat, he'll simply suspend a minnow on a hook about halfway down.

"We could have put dead rods out," he said. "I know we would have caught fish on them. When they grab a minnow, they engulf the whole thing." The theory, of course, is that casting brings fish in toward the boat and sometimes those fish will peel off and take a minnow. There's no doubt that there were fish around — all of us missed at least one bite and it wasn't unusual to see additional fish following in a hooked specimen or to have followers behind your lure that never struck.

By late afternoon, the rain finally stopped, but the bite continued to be just as slow as it had been after that first volley. When we called it a day — at around 5 p.m. — the sun finally poked out from the clouds.

And, you know, that saying is true. You can see the end of the world from here.

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