Author: Mike Gnatkowski
There was a time when I felt sorry for boat-less anglers who were restricted to fishing from piers and breakwalls. It seemed that they were at a major disadvantage. Rather than wait for the fish to come to them, anglers in boats could hunt for fish, searching them out wherever wind, baitfish, the spawning urge and current would take them. Pier anglers seemed to be too restricted.
But savvy pier anglers know that structure attracts fish. Breakwalls, piers and jetties and the structure they provide are natural attractions for predatory fish and the baitfish they consume. Piers funnel, eddy and direct currents and tepid water that concentrates baitfish and predators. Most piers and breakwalls are located at the mouth of rivers that pump warm water into the big lake at times when warm water is scarce. The lukewarm water is like a magnet to baitfish and hungry predators and places them within easy casting distance of pier anglers.
Seasonal movements of salmonids on spawning runs causes them to home in on breakwalls and piers that collect the scent and chemical make up of natal rivers that the fish seek out. Knowledgeable anglers are poised on the concrete slabs waiting in ambush then. There's been many a time when I've witnessed pier groupies with rods bent double as I trolled just outside their reach or observed anglers coming off the breakwalls struggling with a heavy stringer of trout and salmon slung over their backs. I don't feel sorry for pier anglers anymore. In fact, there are times when I'm writing out a check for my boat payment or sitting idly at the dock because of a mechanical malfunction that I'm actually envious.
One major advantage of pier fishing for trout and salmon is its simplicity. You don't need a ton of expensive equipment to take advantage of the great fishing piers and breakwalls offer. Access to most piers and breakwalls is easy. You can usually park close by and it's only a short walk to some good fishing. It doesn't get much simpler.
The most important piece of equipment you need for pier fishing is a quality rod and reel. Rod and reel combinations vary depending on the type of pier fishing you prefer. Generally, there are two fraternities of pier anglers- hardware tossers and bait aficionados. The equipment each uses is slightly different. Rods used for fishing with bait off breakwalls are generally longer than those used by anglers casting hardware. Rods stretching between 9 and 10 feet are preferred for bait fishing because the longer, lighter tip telegraphs the often-subtle bite of a cruising trout or salmon. Long, limber rods also act like a big shock absorber when fighting fish on the lighter leaders used when bait fishing. Long rods also facilitate longer casts so anglers can reach troughs, drop-offs and current breaks that salmonids funnel along when actively feeding.
There is nothing subtle about the way a trout or salmon smacks a spoon or lure that is being retrieved. The strike is arm wrenching. Because of this, graphite rods in the 7- to 8-foot range are perfect for flinging hardware. The shorter rods are ideal for casting heavier spoons and the lighter, shorter rods cause less arm fatigue.
Reels need a drag that operates smoothly and is capable of holding 150 to 200 yards of 8- to 12-pound premium monofilament. The brand of reel and line isn't as important as the fact that it function flawlessly when it comes time to do battle with a feisty trout or salmon.
Spoons are the choice of hardware fans. Spoons are very aerodynamic, which aids in casting distance and accuracy. Some of the old standbys are Krocodiles, Little Cleos, K.O. Wobblers and Kastmasters. There are plenty of others. Each has a unique wobble that helps trigger strikes. Colors run the gambit from silver/green, orange/gold, to pearl and glow-in the-dark colors. It pays to have a selection on hand as you never know which color is likely to trip a trout or salmon's trigger. As a general rule, smaller 1/4- to 2/3-ounce spoons are preferred for the trout species. Larger 2/3- to one- ounce spoons are more commonly used for kings and cohos. Be sure to attach them with a good, quality cross-lock-type swivel to prevent line twist.
Successfully casting spoons from breakwalls and piers requires more than a "chuck-and-chance-it" approach. There are times when a steady, uninterrupted retrieve is exactly what the fish want; other days you need to experiment. It often pays big dividends to vary the depth and speed of your retrieve. Many times trout and salmon will lambaste a spoon that is allowed to slowly flutter downward like a dying baitfish. Stop-and-go retrieves can also trigger reluctant salmonids.
When chucking spoons it pays to cover the water. Instead of casting perpendicular to the pier try fan casting to cover different water and offer different angles of retrieve. Casting parallel to the breakwall along the riprap along the pier will keep your lure in the strike zone for an extended period of time and often provoke jolting strikes. Concentration is important too when casting hardware. The monotonous, repetitious act of casting and retrieving can cause an angler to daydream. Try to keep yourself at the ready. You never know when a husky Chinook or kyped-jawed brown trout will try a rip the rod from your grasp.
Bait fishing from piers and jetties is a more laid-back style of fishing. While hardware casters can walk the wall and work the water, bait-fishing advocates are committed to a waiting game. Most get on the wall way before daylight to secure the prime locations. Not only is this method one of the easiest and most enjoyable ways of catching Great Lakes trout and salmon, it can be equally productive.
Rigging is fairly simple. Most anglers use a sinker slider, which runs freely up and down their main line to hold a one- to six-ounce pyramid sinker. 1/2 ounce- to one-ounce eggs sinkers are popular too when the surf isn't too rough. A barrel sinker is tied to the main line to act as a stop. Because the sinker is allowed to slide freely up and down the line, a fish that picks up the bait can pull on the line without feeling any resistance. A six- to 10-pound test leader is then added to the other end of the barrel swivel. The length of the leader depends on surf conditions. Short, one- to two-foot leaders are used when the surf is rolling to prevent tangles; longer leaders are better when there is little wave action. A small split shot is often added a foot or so above the bait to keep it near bottom.
To complete the rig, add either a single or small treble hook depending on the type of bait you're using. Trebles or quick-strike rigs excel when using baitfish. Single hooks are preferred when using spawn or crawlers. The preferred type of bait depends on the season. Spawn from either steelhead, trout or salmon works throughout the year. Pier gurus swear that the fresher the spawn, the better. Most use spawn that is tied up in quarter-sized bags with some fluorescent colored floaters added to the bag to give it some added buoyancy and attraction and to keep it at eye level with cruising trout and salmon.
When using dead smelt it's a good idea to stuff some Styrofoam down the mouth of the smelt to help it float slightly off bottom, although browns in particular aren't above picking up baits lying right on the bottom. One of the deadliest baits for kings are live alewives that can be caught by cast netting or on small gold hooks right off the pier. When the alewives are thick around the pier heads using live alewives is like a fly fisherman matching the hatch. It's a deadly combination.
One bait that many pier anglers don't use, but is very effective is night crawlers. Both browns and kings will such up a crawler sometimes while turning their noses up at everything else. A good trick is to use a worm blower or syringe to add some air to the crawler and keep it just off bottom.
Many veteran pier anglers have devised unique ways to detect the subtle take of a trout or salmon. Some tape a bobby pin to their rod handle and slip a loop of line underneath it. When a fish pulls the line out they know they have a bite. Another method is to half hitch a piece of rubber band or yarn on your line. When the mark starts to move you know you have a fish mouthing your bait. When the fish are aggressive your rod just bends double though and you need to get to it in a hurry before it ends up in the drink. Most anglers fashion homemade rod holders from PVC pipe and threaded rod that they can stick in cracks and holes in the concrete to hold their rods.
Another necessary piece of equipment for pier anglers is a long, long handled net. On many piers it's quite a distance from the top of the pier to the water. Without a long handled net your chances of landing a big trout or salmon diminish substantially. Have the net close at hand too. It doesn't do you any good if it halfway down the pier when you need it most.
A few other pieces of equipment that are optional, but can make your pier fishing more comfortable, are a bucket to carry bait, lures, and lunch in that can also double as a seat. Some anglers also fashion handy carts that carry all their gear and provide a comfortable seat. Don't forget to bring a stringer to keep your catch fresh until you get home. It's not a bad idea either to wear one of the inflatable life vests. The vests are comfortable. You hardly know you have them on and should you need to use it, it could be a lifesaver.
Fish a particular pier or breakwall for a period of time you realize that certain spots are better than others. That's because wind, waves and gouging ice create holes, troughs, eddies and sand bars that concentrate fish. On most piers, anywhere the pier makes a bend or elbow is a good location because waves and current funneling along the wall changes direction there creating a slack area where baitfish, food and salmonids collect.
Prime locations on the pier change depending on the time of year, wind direction and the species of trout or salmon that are most prevalent. Onshore winds in the spring stack up warm water against the shore drawing baitfish and predators. Wind and waves stir up the bottom and diffuse light. Forging trout can often be found then in as little as a couple feet of water. Brown trout are one of the main shallow-water targets in the spring. Come fall it's often steelhead that will be cruising the skinny water.
Depending on the wind direction, the river current pouring between the pier heads can be trapped against the breakwall. When it does, especially in the spring and fall, fishing can be hot. Conversely, a strong offshore wind during the summer can push warm surface water offshore bringing unusually cool water in to replace it. When it does, baitfish and salmon often follow. Salmon can often be caught then right off the end of the pier in the deep water on alewives during the middle of summer while big lake boats sporting downriggers and a myriad of electronics head for the horizon. Anglers need to interpret the variables presented them just like other anglers to take advantage of the great fishing piers and breakwalls have to offer.