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Wisconsin angler prefers hooking salmon than prized Superior lake trout

Another coho salmon comes aboard Greg Massoglia's boat during a morning of trolling on Lake Superior near Saxon Harbor, Wis., on an early June morning. Sam Cook / Forum News Service1 / 6
A coho salmon that took a perch-colored lure puts a bow in the net of Greg Massoglia of Saxon, Wis. Massoglia likes catching cohos because they're excellent table fare. Sam Cook / Forum News Service2 / 6
Greg Massoglia of Saxon, Wis., sets up another rod for trolling on Lake Superior on June 2, 2017, near Saxon Harbor. Massoglia has been trolling the big lake for many years and often targets coho salmon. Sam Cook / Forum News Service3 / 6
Greg Massoglia (brown shirt) nets a coho salmon on a calm June morning on Lake Superior near Saxon Harbor in Wisconsin. His son, Tate Massoglia, reels the fish in. Sam Cook / Forum News Service4 / 6
Greg Massoglia of Saxon, Wis., prepares to release a steelhead -- or Lake Superior rainbow trout -- during a morning of trolling on Lake Superior near Saxon Harbor. Sam Cook / Forum News Service5 / 6
With an assist from his son, Tate Massoglia (left), Greg Massoglia of Saxon, Wis., gets ready to send out another trolling line during a morning of fishing on Lake Superior near Saxon Harbor on June 2, 2017. Sam Cook / Forum News Service6 / 6

SAXON, Wis. — Greg Massoglia's gaze swept across Lake Superior on this June morning, and he liked what he saw. Not another boat in sight.

"One thing about this new regulation," Massoglia said. "It gave me a private fishing area. Everyone goes to Michigan."

Massoglia and his son, Tate, 20, of Saxon, Wis., were headed out of Saxon Harbor near the Wisconsin-Michigan border to see if they could catch a few coho salmon in Wisconsin waters. For the Massoglia family, Lake Superior trolling is mostly about catching fish for dinner, and cohos are hard to beat for table fare.

Still, most trollers here target lake trout, which run larger than cohos. Anglers may keep three lake trout in Michigan waters, just two in Wisconsin, and only one of those Wisconsin lake trout may be over 25 inches. The emergency lake trout rule was changed in January for Wisconsin waters east of Bark Point to the Michigan border. Saxon Harbor lies just a half-mile from the Wisconsin-Michigan boundary.

Made for trolling

Lake Superior was almost flat calm as the Massoglias went about putting out the nine fishing lines we were allowed. Greg Massoglia's 18-foot Lund Alaskan is rigged specifically for big-lake trolling, and it has suited his needs since he bought it in 1991. Homemade planer boards deployed on either side of the boat allowed us to troll seven surface lines, and he ran two more lines on downriggers.

We were trolling a selection of crankbaits and spoons in both flashy and more subdued colors. We eased along under the power of Massoglia's 6-horsepower kicker motor a few miles out of the harbor in about 85 feet of water. On each lure that Massoglia clipped to a trolling line, he splashed a few drops of anise oil from a small brown bottle — a little scent attractant.

"We're targeting cohos and hoping to get a brown," Massoglia said. "We're hoping we can find a school of cohos."

The water temperature was just right — 51 to 52 degrees.

"Cold enough they can stay on top," Massoglia said.

He would be happy to latch onto one of the stocked Seeforellen brown trout that roam Wisconsin's waters of Lake Superior. The Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources stocked from 15,000 to 35,000 Seeforellen brown trout in Iron County waters of Lake Superior from 2012 through 2017. This spring, about 35,000 of those browns were stocked. They grow to large sizes and put up a vigorous fight when hooked.

Massoglia has nothing against catching an occasional lake trout, either. Last year, he caught and released a 19-pounder that was 37 inches long.

Welcome sighting

Like most anglers, Massoglia looks for good omens on the water. A gull resting on the water nearby fit the description.

"There's a good sign," he said. "That means there are baitfish around."

It wasn't long afterward that a port-side fishing rod began thrashing in its rod holder, signifying that something good and fishy was happening on the end of the line. Tate knew what to do. He grabbed the rod and started cranking. When he had the fish swimming just off the stern, his dad snared the frisky coho. It was wearing a perch-colored Rapala Fat Rap in its jaw.

"That's the first time I've gotten one on that color," Massoglia said.

When a second coho came aboard on the same lure, Massoglia decided he'd better put out another one.

"I figure if that's the one that wants to dance, let's dance with it," he said.

We putted along at precisely 2 miles per hour, Michigan's Porcupine Mountains rising from the wide blue of Lake Superior in one direction, the hills of Oak Island in the Apostle Islands in the other direction. A light chop began to freshen the surface of the big lake.

Two miles per hour is just right for cohos, Massoglia has determined. He fishes that speed most of the time, despite the objection of a cousin.

"He says, 'You have to slow it down to 1.5. The lake trout are too fat. They can't keep up,'" Massoglia said.

But lake trout are a low priority for Massoglia.

Harbor destruction

We were fortunate to be fishing out of Saxon Harbor at all after the damage the harbor suffered as a result of a July 11 flood last summer. Fourteen inches of rain in just a few hours turned Oronto Creek into a raging torrent that carried whole trees downstream. The flooding, which took the life of a local firefighter, tore out a bridge, chewed a new creek channel and carried boats out of the harbor into Lake Superior.

A temporary bridge now allows boaters access to the harbor. Boats up to 24 feet can be launched, but the ravages of the storm can still be seen in the harbor. Trees carried down the creek are littered near the mouth of nearby Parker Creek.

That storm and its resulting damage remain fresh in the minds of all those, like Massoglia, who use Saxon Harbor. As we fished, Massoglia would point up or down the shoreline at places where boats had been torn from docks and deposited during the flood.

The number of boaters using Saxon Harbor this summer is "just a fraction" of the number who used it previously, Massoglia said.

Between the storm stories, we picked up a couple more fish. The first was another coho — not on the perch Fat Rap this time. That one joined his kin in the cooler up front.

Several minutes later, a beautiful steelhead — rainbow trout — tried to snap up a frog-colored spoon. Tate hauled the rainbow in. Massoglia quickly removed the hooks from it and slipped it back into the water. It wouldn't have been legal to keep because it was under the size limit, but Massoglia would have let it go in any case.

"It's a fish worth saving," he said.

The light chop became a heavy chop, and soon a few whitecaps were visible out beyond us. We knew it was time to pull lines and head for the harbor.