Photo by Mike Schoonveld
It used to be said there were five major species of fish in Lake Michigan of interest to anglers: two species of salmon and three kinds of trout. The trout and salmon are all still present, but this year I’m going to add two more species to this Big Lake forecast because Indiana anglers consider them important: smallmouth bass and perch. The popularity of smallmouths has zoomed in the past few years, and perch, despite a long history, almost dropped out of the picture a few years ago.
Which came first, the chicken or the egg? Are smallmouth bass a recent addition to the game fish population in Indiana’s part of Lake Michigan or have they always been there? Some people side with the chicken theory, some with the egg theory, some with the recent arrival theory. Others will claim that smallmouths have been around for decades along Indiana’s part of Lake Michigan.
Regardless of who is correct, smallies are certainly here now, and the secret is out. Many days, from Hammond to Michigan City, there are as many bass boats slipped into the lake as there are boats equipped with downriggers, planer boards and anglers bent on trout and salmon. Luckily, Lake Michigan is huge and even with bass angler numbers doubled or tripled over the last few years, the lake is never crowded.
For the most part, finding the bass is easy. Smallmouths and rocks go hand in hand. Lake Michigan’s lakeshore teems with rocks put there to guard lakefront property from the lake’s sometimes oceanlike waves. In LaPorte County, the detached breakwall at the mouth of Trail Creek is prime territory; but don’t overlook the lighthouse pier, or the structure along the shore of the NIPSCO electricity plant.
In Porter County, the rocks at the mouth of Burns Waterway yield plenty of bass. Anglers will fish the entire outer wall of the Port of Indiana (no fishing inside the port since the 9-11 terror attack) and just to the east is a small rock “island” locally called “the donut,” which always produces.
There are almost too many places in Lake County to innumerate. Put it this way. From the Lake/Porter county line is a couple miles of sand beach. There are another few hundred yards of beach at East Chicago and about the same amount at Whiting. The rest of the shoreline is rocks and smallmouth territory.
Smallmouths feed on two things in Lake Michigan: gobies and crayfish. Brownish-colored tube jigs mimic both and are the top two presentations.
Modern bass boats are made to handle surprisingly rough waters. That doesn’t mean they can handle anything Lake Michigan can dish out. Watch the weather and choose carefully the days you go.
Lake Michigan’s perch stocks will probably never fully recover from the environmental problems and over-harvest by commercial nets, which collapsed the fishery in the early 1990s. By the time the commercials were curbed, the perch population was skewed about 97 to 3, males vs. females. The nets are gone, but the negative environmental influences, including invasive species, such as zebra mussels and gobies, won’t go away. Still, a couple of decent hatches have returned the perch to at least a shadow of their former abundance.
The exciting part about “perch-jerking” on Lake Michigan these days is that since the commercial nets have not been present for almost a decade, truly large specimens are now being caught on a regular basis. Yellow perch measuring in excess of 12 inches and weighing over 1 pound aren’t that hard to find these days.
During times of previous abundance, enough perch were always around that a decent catch could be made almost all summer long. Now limits (15 fish per person) are easy to come by on some days, while other days it’s hard to get the skunk out of the box. For the past few years, reliably good catches have occurred in May and then again in the fall in October and November. The water temperatures are normally midrange during this time and the fish are around for comfort if not for other reasons.
Live bait rules when perch fishing. Minnows and crayfish or crayfish tails are top choices, though more people are finding frozen shrimp and leeches will take fish as well. Favorite spots used to be tight to breakwaters and harbor walls. Now these structures are overrun by gobies, which will steal bait minnows off your hooks faster than you can scoop them out of your bait bucket. Larger minnows can slow the problem while helping to target larger-sized perch. Most anglers will search out schools of perch away from the rocks and gobies. Drifting these “flats” is becoming more popular than anchoring.
The five species of trout and salmon in Lake Michigan are: chinook salmon, brown trout, lake trout, steelhead and cohos. All of these figure in the catch of big-lake anglers at one time or another during the year. But for most anglers, most of the time, cohos are the most important.
It’s a numbers game. Early in the spring, brown trout are crammed into hot-water areas and should be easy targets. However, mixed in with thousands of browns are millions of cohos. And most days, the cohos just beat the brown trout to the lures.
All of the cohos in Lake Michigan, regardless of where they are stocked, end up at the south end of the lake each winter. That creates a bonanza for Hoosier Great Lake fishermen. This bonanza starts at ice-out and continues all summer.
Indiana jumped its stocking rate for cohos by 50 percent a few years ago; the extra 75,000 fish has resulted in a terrific offshore fishery, which lasts even after the shallows warm and the fish stocked by the other states leave Indiana. A Global Positioning System (GPS) equipped angler with some hot “numbers” can make good catches all season long.
Though cohos will hit plugs and spoons, nothing has proven to be a better coho-killer than the dodger-and-fly combo. When the fish are close to the surface, fluorescent red-colored dodgers are hard to beat. Once the fish start going deeper in the summer, switch to white and chrome dodgers. Early-season flies tend to be small and dark and as the season progresses, larger sizes and lighter colors will catch more fish.
There’s a new word being heard on the marine radio channels popular with Lake Michigan salmon fishermen: chinook!
Okay, it’s not a new word, just one which hasn’t
been heard frequently in recent years. For the past decade, hooking up with a chinook salmon, also known as king salmon, was a thrill experienced only by a lucky few fishermen.
It wasn’t always that way. Chinooks used to be regular visitors both in the spring, when they followed spawning baitfish into the shallows, and in the fall, when they returned to their stocking sites on their own spawning run. Then bacterial kidney disease swept through Lake Michigan’s chinook stocks like a plague. Evidently Indiana was the last holdout of the infection because while chinook fishing rebounded in the northern regions, kings remained a rare commodity at our end of the lake.
Last spring that changed. Catches of chinooks in late April didn’t match those that occurred back in the early 1980s, but almost every trip resulted in a few of these brutes being hooked. Chinooks are stocked in the lake at an earlier age and live an additional year compared to cohos. That means they have more time to grow and when they show up as a 3-plus-year-old fish, they are often well into the middle teens, weight-wise.
Chinooks are strong game fish, too. Long, reel-screaming runs are their trademark. Most experts are cautiously optimistic that this spring, summer and fall will feature a good number of big chinooks in our state’s waters.
In the earliest spring (actually late winter) just after the ice leaves Lake Michigan, most of the browns in Indiana are huddled in just a few warmwater areas. In Lake County, the warmwater discharge at the BP Amoco Refinery at Whiting is one of those spots. The turning basin inside the Indiana Harbor Ship Canal is another. The hot effluent from the USX Steel Mill is just as accessible from Porter County marinas as from Pastrick Marina at East Chicago.
Portage-based brown trout seekers often pick up browns right at the mouth of Burns Waterway because the stream water is usually warmer than the lake water. A run to the east to where the cooling water from the Bailey Plant dumps into the lake will put you in a hotspot as well.
Over at Michigan City, in LaPorte County, browns can be caught at the mouth of Trail Creek and where the NIPSCO plant discharges water into the lake just west of the harbor.
Crankbaits are the hot ticket. Some anglers prefer long stick bait types –both jointed or straight models — but smaller versions of shad-shaped cranks often work just as well. Color matters, but best choices might vary from day to day, so experiment to see what clicks for you.
Browns are caught through the spring and summer months, but they are often surprises when they engulf lures set for other salmon or trout. Surprises like this are always fun and when it’s a bruiser brown, the prize is most welcome.
There was a time when lake trout, historically the top predator in Lake Michigan, figured prominently in the catch of fishermen leaving out of Indiana’s ports in the spring and summer. Most of the fishing was done just across our northern border in Michigan or Illinois, but given moderate seas and a stable weather forecast, accessing lake trout was a simple chore.
One general region, northwest of Michigan City, nearly due north from Portage or northeast of the Lake County marinas was even given a name: the “Pigpen” because of the number and size of “hog” forktails that were easy pickings there. That place is still there, but the Pigpen is empty of lakers for the most part these days. No one knows for sure what happened, but a likely theory has to do with the zebra mussels, which invaded the Great Lakes over a decade ago.
When the zebras first arrived, experts said they would only attach to a hard substrate: rocks, pilings, wood, anything hard underwater. Another assumption was they would only colonize in shallow water, unable to live in depths greater than 50 or 60 feet.
Initially, that information seemed to be correct. Harbor walls and intake pipes in the shallows quickly grew a crust of mussel colonies. Out in the Pigpen, the standard tactic was to drag or bounce lures right on the floor of the lake in 90 to 130 feet of water where belly-to-the-bottom lakers laid in wait. You could drag a big spoon with a treble hook for miles and never pick up any debris bigger than a speck of mud.
Either the experts were wrong or the Lake Michigan zebras have adapted because if you try that same tactic today at the Pigpen, your trebles will come up with clumps of deep-water zebra mussels clinging to each point. These aren’t colonies glued to rocks, either. Divers have taken photos of the bottom in this area and instead of a vast, empty plain as it used to look, it’s now a vast patchwork of zebra mussel colonies ranging from a few feet across to dozens of yards in diameter.
In short, the lakers are no longer there and it would be difficult to fish for them in the traditional fashion, even if they were. Lakers are still around, but anglers trolling the offshore areas for salmon and steelhead take most of them incidentally. There is one exception to this rule.
Each fall, some of Lake Michigan’s lake trout make spawning runs into shallow water. Beginning in late October and on through the month of November, late-season laker lovers can nab easy limits (two per person) and do it within spitting distance from shore.
There are two “best areas.” One is at East Chicago’s Pastrick Marina. Start at the mouth of the harbor and head southeast paralleling the shore along the beach toward the casino boats at Buffington Harbor. Work spoons and crankbaits in 10 to 20 feet of water and hang on. Shallow-water lakers seem to be a breed apart from the lazy fighting specimens that are pulled from the depths in the summer.
At Portage, head for the northwest corner of the Port of Indiana. About 20 yards north of the corner is a manmade reef, which parallels the north wall of the port. Lakers swarm this reef. Make a couple of passes along the top to gauge the highest spots and then set spoons to flutter along just above the sunken rocks. The closer you can come to scraping the reef with your baits the better, but be careful because the underwater chunks will gobble lures, divers and downrigger weights if you misjudge the depth.
In Indiana, steelhead means Skamania. Regular-strain steelhead, even Skamania-strain fish, are caught incidentally all year long by Lake Michigan anglers targeting the other species of salmon and trout, but there’s no predicting which strike is going to yield one of the lake-run rainbows. The Skamania-strain are more predictable.
Skamania are a summer-run variety, which means the fish home in on the streams where they were stocked in the summer months. In Indiana, both Trail Creek and the Little Calumet River (through Burns Waterway) are stocked with Skamania.
The only way to predict how this summer’s Skamania action will be is to consult the Farmer’s Almanac. If the almanac predicts a hot, dry summer, prospects are good for a terrific summer of Skamania fishing. A cold and wet summe
r will put the damper on the big-lake action, though it does bode well for those who prefer to fish in the streams.
Skamania, like the other species of trout and salmon, are temperature sensitive and prefer water decidedly on the cool side. Even with spawning urges prompting their actions, they won’t head into a stream once the water flows more than 75 degrees. A hot summer easily pushes the water temperature above that level.
At the same time, hot weather often means winds blowing predominantly from the south. South winds push the warmest surface water offshore, pulling cooler water from the depths close to shore. The end result of this perfect scenario is a group of steelhead staging just off Portage and Michigan City waiting for the stream temperatures to drop enough so they can finish their journey.
Stocking numbers for steelhead have been consistent for the past several years, so the hatcheries have done their job. We’ll just have to wait to see what kind of summer weather patterns develop during the June through mid-August time frame when our Skamania come home.