Sarley: Fighting the big fish on Lake Michigan

Jeff Wolff of Crystal Lake was fishing at Trapper’s Point Camp on Sturgeon Lake in Ontario, Canada, when he caught this fish of a lifetime on a white Buchertail. This northern pike was 50 inches long and weighed 40 pounds.
Jeff Wolff of Crystal Lake was fishing at Trapper’s Point Camp on Sturgeon Lake in Ontario, Canada, when he caught this fish of a lifetime on a white Buchertail. This northern pike was 50 inches long and weighed 40 pounds.

As I was relating last week, I was fortunate to be invited to fish with Caleb Weiner on his Migrator recently for the last event in a Salmon Unlimited Tournament series on Lake Michigan. Weiner was sitting in third place and was hoping for a strong finish.

The weather was horrible. Thank God for today’s electronics. It was so foggy on our departure you could only navigate using instruments before the sun came up, and we were totally enveloped in fog. We luckily avoided the thunderstorms that were predicted, but the winds were brisk, consistently causing 4- to 5-foot waves.

The waves forced us to stay closer to shore than Weiner would have preferred, but I have to give him credit for putting safety over catching fish.

We caught two small king salmon while we still were in the midst of trying to put all of our lines out. Wow, a doubleheader 20 minutes into the outing made me think we’d be done with our limit in short order. A nicer fish landed 15 minutes later reinforced my feeling. That was not the case. It was a struggle to find fish after that.

We were joined on the Migrator by two young gentlemen who have served as first mates on the boat over this season. Pleasant Prairie’s Billy Gore, 17, and Bo Helmantoler, 26, proved to be exemplary crewmen and excellent fishermen who both deserve to be operating their own charters someday.

I reeled in the first two fish. Weiner reeled in the next two. Gore reeled in the next. I turned down the chance to reel in another and said that Helmantoler should have the chance to bring one in. He lost the hook-up with the next strike. It wasn’t his fault. He did nothing wrong.

“I’ve got a feeling that we are going to get hit by a 25-pound king,” Helmantoler said. “I really do.”

Weiner laughed. A fish that size would have been one of the biggest fish ever caught by the Migrator.

Suddenly, a rod went off.

“Grab it, Bo,” we all said. “Make up for that last one.”

Helmantoler picked up the rod. As soon as he grasped it, the fish began to run. Run? Not exactly. I mean really, really run. The fish was pulling line off the reel like it had the intent of making a trip across the lake to the Michigan side.

Helmantoler tried cranking the reel, but he made no headway. After a short time, the fish stopped running, and Helmantoler began to pick up line as he cranked. That didn’t last because the fish started running again, and this time it was harder and faster. The sound of a reel whirring that loud raised goosebumps on my arms and made my stomach feel tight. I could not imagine the size a fish would have to be to run like this one was doing.

Sadly, the fish separated itself from the hook and was off. We were all stunned. Weiner guessed that the fish had to be either a 30-pound king or possibly an even larger lake trout. He couldn’t remember ever seeing a fish perform like this one did.

Helmantoler was devastated, but he had done nothing wrong. I was glad that it was him rather than me, to be totally honest, but I truly felt bad for the young man.

We got a few more fish and ended our day with seven in our box. Heading in after stowing or rods was quite the challenge, as the thick fog had returned. You couldn’t see the harbor walls from 75 feet away. I was glad that Weiner was such a good captain.

We went to the weigh-in and learned that our seven fish weighed a total of 45.4 pounds. The winning boat, the Fish N’ Crew, found out where all of the huge 4-year-old kings were swimming and hauled in 10 of them that weighed an amazing total of 145.6-pounds. They easily were the big winners for the day.

The Migrator’s third-place finish for the day cemented Weiner’s spot as the fourth-place finisher for the year. The Do Jigger was the winner of the tournament series and now holds bragging rights until next season.

The tournament was a lot of fun for me. I enjoyed spending time with Caleb, Bo and Billy. Salmon Unlimited is a first-class operation, and I look forward to telling you about it in the near future.

I tell you, a day on Lake Michigan is definitely worth the time and expense. If you’ve never done it, I implore you to do so. I look forward to spending a day on the water with Weiner on the Migrator again next year. I also look forward to the many meals that the freezer full of king salmon in my kitchen will be providing me for the winter.


Northern Illinois: Dave Kranz from Dave’s Bait, Tackle and Taxidermy in Crystal Lake reports: “The dams at McHenry, Algonquin and Carpentersville are flooded and dangerous with debris floating in the current. Give it a few days to calm down.

“McHenry County Conservation District has Lake Atwood in the Hollows. Bluegill, bass and catfish can be caught here on night crawlers. No minnows are allowed here.

“Crystal Lake has Vulcan Lake at the Three Oaks Recreation Area. Shore fishing is available this time of year and boat rentals are available on the weekend. This no-minnow area is loaded with bass. I like a Defender jig with craw trailer or try to dropshot a 3- or 4-inch plastic minnow or worm.

“For more info on Northern Illinois fishing, call 815-455-2040 for an updated report.”

Fox Chain O’ Lakes: Chris Taurisano of T-Bone Guide Service ( – 630-330-9090) sends word, “The panfish bite has been very good. We are seeing a lot of crappie and white bass. Muskie fishing has been very good. The shallow water bite is good. Walleye fishing has been very tough but should turn on next month.”

Lake Michigan: The Lake Michigan Fishing Report is provided by Caleb Weiner of Migrator Charters. “Fishing over the last week has been good. The one trip we were able to make it out on this past weekend was very good. Unfortunately, heavy winds and big waves have kept us off the lake for the most part. However, the chances we have had to get offshore showed an abundance of lake trout, and steelhead could be found and also the occasional coho. The best rods for the lake trout have been the smoke color dodger with a yellow Spin-N-Glo and a big white hotspot paddle down near the bottom. The best rods for the rainbows have been the 150-foot copper with a RV Moonshine Happy Meal and a 200-foot copper with an Orange Flounder. There may only be a few weeks of warm weather left, so don’t miss the boat. Come out and enjoy a day of fishing. For information about charters, give us a call at 224-234-3704 or check out our website at”

• Steve Sarley writes about the outdoors for Shaw Media. Write to him at Steve does a weekly podcast about fishing called “WeFishASA.” You can find it at

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