Sep 10, 2014

Yak’n for Zombies

By Captain Greg Schoemer

Everyone in Wisconsin knows about the fall foliage and the beautiful changes in the colors of the leaves. What many are missing out on is the fall colors the chinook and coho salmon get as they embark on their reproductive journey. These salmon lose their summertime silver sides and turn into dark brown tinted zombies with teeth getting ready for Halloween! The best part is you can take in the sightseeing of the foliage while fighting these gnarly-dressed salmon in water as shallow as your ankles.

Let me tell you about the two ways I cross salmon eyes for the months of September and October using an assortment on Yakima Flatfish and Mag Lip lures.


As September rolls around, the mature year-four salmon of Lake Michigan flip their brains to pre-spawn feeding frenzy. Salmon swarm the harbors with major tributaries where they can run up and complete their spawn. I spend most my time in the Sheboygan harbor where I captain a charter vessel.

At this time of year they grow hard jaws and longer teeth – and the males grow a hooked jaw! Hormones cause these physical changes, and also spark major binge-feeding to energize their bodies for the 10 to 20 mile swim to spawning grounds.

This is the time I break out my boxes of Flatfish and Mag Lip lures for their aggressive action which irritates the hormone-enraged zombies. The nice thing about these baits is that I can troll them on a whole range of set-ups. When fishing in the harbor area I run downriggers, slide divers and some flat lines pulled behind inline planer boards. There are a range of sizes and colors to choose from. I prefer the X4 size; color patterns depend on the brightness of the day. Matching the lure with the water color and sun brightness is important, even with these extra-aggressive salmon. The harbor bite is always best when the water is stained and on the colder side in the mid 50 degree temperature range. 

Speed is one of the most critical aspects of trolling salmon and when running these baits it’s even more crucial. With the big-lipped bill on these lures, they dive three to eight feet depending on the speed at which they are pulled. They also have an erratic wobble to them. With these two characteristics, the trick is a slow troll. The slower troll speed will also prevent your baits from diving too deep while fishing shallow harbors. (Sheboygan’s harbor averages 12 to 18 foot depth.) How slow? I usually run my speed over ground at a steady 1.8 to 2.2. mph.To add some extra enticement to the presentation, I do throttle bursts for some extra wobble or neutral drops allowing the baits to float up a little before grabbing speed and wobbling to their normal presentation. Try this out in your fall presentation of combat fishing for zombie dogs!

Upstream Tactics

Sheboygan tributaries in fall – my favorite time and place to yak for zombies! I recommend a pair of lightweight chest waders as the weather can be unpredictably warm in the fall and your blood will be pumping with this once in a lifetime experience! For a fighting stick I grab an 8’6’’ medium action St. Croix spinning rod and a medium-sized spinning reel with good drag because it will be screaming bloody murder when you hook up! I prefer 20 pound braided line to withstand the rocks in the river and put a solid hookset deep into the hard tissues of the fall salmon’s jaws. The X4 lure size that works while trolling the harbor is my first choice for fishing in the river as well. Bright colors are my favorite in the river to help catch these zombies’ eyes.

There are two different river areas where this tactic is successful. The main thing you need is good current flow to keep the bait moving. This works in both shallow and deep areas as long as the current is present. In deeper water, I stand upstream of my chosen fishing hole and throw the bait in the pool allowing the current to grab it and send it wobbling for the gravel bottom. The heavy wobbling action stirs up the river bottom and trips the trigger of these salmon as they fight for spawn beds. Female salmon clean off the beds (which are referred to as a red) by flopping on their side to clear the sediment from the small stones. So it’s understandable that when the Flatfish and Mag Lips dive and stir up the bottom they attract a party of salmon. Hold on to that rod tight because out of nowhere these fish strike like a freight train!

The second target location is where salmon are piled up on the shallow gravel beds. This water can be as shallow as six inches. You usually encounter a female or two trailed by a few males fighting to lock in with a ready-to- drop female. These are the ones you want to target as they have the aggression to protect and show the females they are a stud. Again you want to work upstream from this pack of fish – stay about 40 feet above them so you don’t spook them. This is sight fishing at its best! I drop the lure right in front of me and let it float downstream on free spool until it gets one foot from the front of the pack. I start by just holding the wobbling bait in front of them to see if I can provoke one enough to grab it right away. Trust me, this set up sounds easier than it is. The fish can be very picky as they are not feeding on hunger, but only aggression. If the set hold presentation doesn’t irritate them enough, I drop the bait back until it’s literally bouncing off their noses. I continue to repeat the process. This time of year there are many gravel beds holding these salmon, so if one pod doesn’t show interest within ten minutes I move on to the next gravel bar. That’s another exciting part about sight fishing these monsters – you identify the ones you want to go after and can target a giant when you spot him.

I encourage all types of anglers to take part in this one-of-a-kind opportunity! Experience fishing in knee-deep water dodging salmon up to 30 pounds as they swim right between your legs, all while taking in the beautiful fall scenery! This happens annually in major Lake Michigan tributaries from the middle of September thru October. Celebrate Halloween with the zombie salmon this fall – hold on and enjoy!