Red Sky at Night with JB Cornwell | Tom and the King of Lake Michigan

Summer of 1981. In those days Lake Michigan was stocked with both coho and chinook (king) salmon. One of the stocking points was in Sturgeon Bay, Wisconsin. After three or four years the mature fish returned to their stocking point to spawn.

For several years I had fished the 2 mile shipping channel from Sturgeon Bay to Lake Michigan, and both the bay and the lake at spawning time (around Labor Day, and a couple of weeks earlier), invited pretty good luck.

This Labor Day weekend I got former co-workers John Falatic and Tom Edwards to join me in a trip from the Twin Cities to Sturgeon Bay for another salmon fishing trip.

I had converted my 1971 Volkswagen Westfalia camper to use a Chevrolet Corvair engine and transmission and beefed up the chassis and brakes to tow Sunshine, my 1966 Boston Whaler Sakonnet 16 – my idea at the time of a perfect rig for a traveling fisherman.

We loaded up Saturday morning and headed east. Sturgeon Bay was about an 8-hour drive, so we arrived in late afternoon and checked in to the campground. The other camper/fishermen told us to forget it, the run was over and they had been skunked that day. We decided to try it anyway.

We traded fishing tales and good cheer with other fishermen around a campfire that evening and turned in fairly early with steaks and beer priming us for a good nights sleep.

I don’t think coffee ever smells better than in the outdoors in the predawn glow. Sausages, omelets and hash browns fortified us for the long day ahead.

We loaded up and started for the launch ramp about 2 miles away. After about a mile John yelled a bad word, followed by, “I have lost my wallet!!”. I recalled noticing something a ways back that could have been something falling off the top of the van, so I turned around and we crept back over our route. After about half way John let out a yelp. “There it is!!”. His wallet was lying at the edge of the road with all of its content intact. He had put it on the top while loading up and forgotten it. I would bet that hasn’t happened again in the last 28 years.

The line was short at the ramp, and boats loading up were sources of lots of ratzakratzas about the lousy fishing. We decided to at least go for a tour rather than head home.

There may be no finer boat for three guys to fish big water than a Boston Whaler Sakonnet 16 or Montauk 17. Sunshine was rigged to troll 4 lines and was powered by a sweet 1979 Johnson 70 that would idle all day at 700rpm and merely sip the gas. She had the optional forward casting deck so playing fish was easy from anywhere aboard.

We ran the few miles up the bay to the shipping channel, then rigged our lines. John and Tom had light freshwater gear. Bass rods loaded with 12-14lb mono. I had a salmon trolling rod with my trusty Ambassaduer 7000 and 20lb mono. I had my reservations about the light tackle, but you use what you bring.

We tied on Dipsy Diver planers and J-Plugs to troll at 22-24 feet. And deployed the works. Then we started trolling toward the big lake.

My primitive SONAR flasher showed us the bottom but very few fish. I was use to seeing a lot of big fish here.

We made two passes back and forth with no action. Other boats on the channel carried very disgruntled passengers.

John Falatic was one of my favorite fishing companions of all time. A very serious fisherman with a hilarious sense of humor and unbreakable optimism and good mood, just being in the boat with him was always fun. I had never fished with Tom before. He seemed quiet and studious, but was good company.

After the second pass it was mid-afternoon. John suggested that we go out into Lake Michigan to see if we might pick up a late spawner. So out we went into the big lake, still trolling our 4 J-Plugs.

Then we got a strike, on Tom’s little bass rod. His line went out very fast and he was in great danger of being “spooled”. John quickly reeled in the other three lines and I rushed Tom to the bow and started chasing the fish. For some reason I glanced at my watch: 1530 hours.

The fish liked to be on the bottom and to run long distances. She was in position to do exactly what she wanted. Tom calmly kept the pressure on her and I kept the boat as close as possible to right above her.

In time she slowly rose as Tom expertly manipulated his drag and pumped steadily. Eventually she was on the surface right by the boat. John made a tentative swipe at her with the net. She didn’t like that and went right back to the bottom.

After what seemed an eternity Tom wore her out and she came to the boat again. John swooped her into the net and brought her aboard. My watch read 1645 hours, one hour and fifteen minutes since she struck.

I have caught some big fish, including chinooks like her, in the 40 pound class, but I remember no fight, against huge odds, so expertly brought to a successful conclusion. That day is embarked in my memory of great fishing adventures.

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