Wild Things: Angler Reels In Heaviest Salmon in Nearly 30 Years

44 inches, 40.40 pounds on Algoma charter

by KEVIN NAZE, [email protected]

Brian Sollars of East Bethel, Minnesota, found out why Lake Michigan is Wisconsin’s most-targeted body of water July 31 aboard Midnight, an Algoma-based charter-fishing boat.

Photo by Todd Phillips.

Sollars’ first fish that day escaped, but a second chance produced a 44-inch, 40.40-pound Chinook salmon – thought to be the heaviest on a state-certified scale since a Wisconsin-record 44.92-pounder was landed near Sturgeon Bay in 1994. Troy Mattson, co-owner of Kinn’s Sport Fishing, said it was the heaviest salmon ever caught in an operation that’ll be celebrating its 50th season in 2023. 

Photos of the massive fish went viral, racking up nearly 100,000 views on the combined Kewaunee/Door County Salmon Tournament; Algoma, Wisc. Fishing; and Kinn’s Sport Fishing Facebook pages within 48 hours.

“There’s no doubt that this was a spark,” Mattson said. “We’re getting calls from all over – even people who’ve probably never even thought of fishing Lake Michigan before. It almost seems like it’s rejuvenating the whole season.”

That includes a needed boost for sleep-deprived charter captains and first mates for the 10-boat, 12-condo operation that he and Bret Cook run.

Mattson said longtime captain Bill Classon and first mate Carter Zimmerman were in the right place at the right time for the catch, which came about 40 minutes after sunrise Sunday. The trophy – which had a massive, 28.5-inch girth – smacked a Moonshine spoon set about 50 feet down in about 160 feet of water.  

Photo by Todd Phillips.

“It was funny – I didn’t feel anything but weight at first,” Sollars said. “I told Bill and Carter it was weeds [canal grass that drifts down from Sturgeon Bay], but then it took off on a long run.”

A day and a half after the catch, Sollars said what he remembers most is how tired his arms were – and almost getting spooled.

“Just looking at that line disappear, it looked like it was going to be about gone,” Sollars said. “I was hoping the fish would stop running at some point, and it did, and I was able to make some progress.”

Unlike some trophies that fight for 30-60 minutes or longer, this one was about 15 minutes of pure fury. After Zimmerman netted the prize and hauled it aboard, the celebration began. 

Had it been a week earlier, Sollars’ “40.40” could have won $15,000 in the 40th annual Kewaunee/Door (K/D) County Salmon Tournament. Last July, a 38.56-pound Chinook was caught off Algoma one day prior to the start of the K/D. The same month, a 39.20-pounder was reeled in out of Muskegon, Michigan – the biggest in the 20-year history of the multi-state Tournament Trail series. And on Aug. 7, 2021, a 47.86-pounder was caught on a Ludington, Michigan, charter boat, breaking a state mark that had stood for 43 years. 

The Michigan record also set an all-time Great Lakes mark, narrowly surpassing a fish caught Sept. 7, 1991, in Lake Ontario’s Salmon River in New York. That one weighed 47 pounds, 13 ounces. The record from Lake Ontario itself is a 46.38-pounder caught off of Toronto, Canada, on Aug. 7, 2000. 

The increase in Lake Michigan salmon size is likely the result of fewer fish stocked from 2013 to 2019, which allowed the alewives to rebound. The cuts began after coded-wire-tag research showed that more than half of the salmon in the lake were naturally reproduced. Wisconsin has since increased salmon stocking 50%.

After failing to top 30 pounds during seven straight years (2004-10) in the K/D tournament, 10 of the last 12 winners have been 30-plus-pounders, including the past eight in a row.

The heaviest salmon in K/D history was a 40.07-pounder taken in 1993, a year prior to the 47.5-inch longer state record out of Sturgeon Bay. Prior to that, Algoma held the Wisconsin record with a 43-pound, 3-ouncer in 1983. The second-heaviest catch in K/D history was a 39.14-pounder in 1999; third-biggest, 37.31 in 1996; fourth, 36.70 in 2019; and fifth, 35.90 in 1995. Thirty-five-pounders also won the K/D in 2001 (35.07), 2016 (35.46) and 2021 (35.65).

Algoma charter captain Bill Classon (left) and first mate Carter Zimmerman (right) flank Minnesota angler Brian Sollars and his 44-inch, 40.40-pound Chinook salmon. Photo courtesy of Kinn’s Sport Fishing.

Kinn’s Sport Fishing is the largest charter-fishing operation on Lake Michigan. The late Howard Kinn of Sturgeon Bay, who first drove over from Wisconsin Rapids to fish in 1970, started the company and began running charters in 1974 from a small boat called the Trudy Lynn, named after his wife. Soon after, he left the family plumbing business and headed east to fish full time.

“We put all our savings into that one venture, and it paid off,” said his widow, Trudy Kinn, who lives in Seattle. Howard died in August 2011.

Shanty Days Tourney

Algoma’s Shanty Days Fishing Tournament runs Aug. 11-14, with youth and adult divisions. Tickets – $5 for youth and $10 for adults – are available at Algoma BP and Graf’s Mobil. Follow the leaders next weekend on the Shanty Days Fishing Tournament Facebook page. 

Weekly Water Levels

As of July 29, Lake Michigan water levels were down eight inches from last summer and 25 inches below the July 2020 record. Lake levels were still nine inches above the 100-year-average, and 41 inches above the record monthly low, set in 1964.