Lake Michigan's Brown Bombers
October 04, 2010
Big brown trout are on tap in the frosty waters of our state's Great Lake. Here's where to find 'em and catch 'em now!
Unlike salmon, brown trout don't die after spawning. So catching 10-plus-
pounders, like this one, is common on the big lake.
Photo by Mike Schoonveld.
Many years ago, I was heading out to go ice-fishing on a popular lake in northwest Indiana and ran into an acquaintance with a decent pile of bluegills on the ice near his hole. "Looks like you have them cornered," I said. "Mind if I drop in close by?" Ice-guys are much more communal than open-water fishermen and he was quick to accept my request.
In a short time, the subject changed from bluegills to brown trout. "My brother and I have been hammering the brown trout at the Dean Mitchell plant. Dozens of them, every time we go," my newfound friend, Ed, told me. "You ought to come with us some day."
Dozens of brown trout in a morning of fishing seemed like an offer too good to refuse, but there were some extenuating circumstances. The main problem was fishermen had to trespass to get to the fishing spot.
The Dean Mitchell plant was an electrical generating station located along the shores of Lake Michigan that pumped water from the lake, used it to cool the power-generators, and then allowed the warm water to flow back into Lake Michigan. Though the plant is still there, it's been shut down for many years. At the time of this story, however, the plant was up and running, but the union employees at the facility were on strike.
A skeleton crew of non-union workers, mostly administrative staff, were keeping the fires burning and the electricity flowing to nearby factories while the negotiators hammered out a contract between the management and workers. When the plant was fully staffed, fishermen were allowed to park outside the gate, check in with the security people, and then hike to the warmwater outflow to try their luck. It was a popular spot in the winter and early spring. In January, brown trout were the mainstay of the fishery and the browns were joined by 2 1/2-year-old cohos in increasing numbers from the beginning of February into early March.
With the plant on shutdown and with a minimal crew on hand, the administrators closed the area to visiting fishermen. That's why I was so surprised to learn Ed and Dave had been fishing there.
He made it sound like the ruse only added a bit more adventure to the sport and then told me again of the great catches of brown trout they made each time they went. To me, it was only a slight temptation, however. Not that I wouldn't enjoy a morning of landing numerous Lake Michigan browns; but I figured with my luck, the first time I decided to cross the line, it would be the day the guys in charge would decide the next trespassing fisherman they caught would be prosecuted to set an example for others. I pictured myself getting fingerprinted and having mug shot photos taken.
The point of the story isn't to show how law-abiding I am, but to spotlight what was happening with brown trout in Lake Michigan at the time. Looking back to history shows how some things never change and highlights changes that do occur.
THE WINTER COOLING
By January, most of the summer's heat stored in Lake Michigan has been lost and the water temperatures have dropped from the 40s to the 30s and most years bottoms out at 32 or 33 degrees -- just above the freezing mark. Salmon and trout are cool-water loving fish, but cool doesn't mean near frigid. Give them water temperatures in the upper 40s or low 50s and they are happy. Cooler water will slow down their metabolism, just as it does with bass, bluegills or other species; water much warmer than their preferred range can be lethal.
While perhaps 99 percent of the water in Lake Michigan drops to near freezing levels in winter, there are some areas where warmer temperatures can be found. There are more than a dozen power plants along the lakeshore (still three in Indiana) with warmwater discharges. In addition to electrical stations, Lake and Porter counties in Indiana are home to other industries that line the lakeshore and use the lake's water much as the power stations do, to cool the heavy equipment used to manufacture their products.
Steel mills, in particular, do this, but the mills have another motive as well. The open waters of the Great Lakes take a long time to freeze each year. Lake Michigan only freezes over completely one year in seven on average. So ore boats hauling taconite pellets from the iron ore mines of the Mesabi Range in northern Minnesota can continue to transport the raw product most of the year, unless the harbors where they offload the pellets are frozen.
Protected from the wind and wave action of the open lake, sheltered areas, such as harbors and marinas, freeze almost as quickly as any large inland lake would; once the harbor ice is more than a few inches thick, even the giant lake freighters can't safely navigate through the waterway. The steel mills at East Chicago, Gary and Portage all pump the "used" warm water into their harbors to keep them from freezing.
In addition to the artificially warmed areas along the lake, most tributary streams feeding into Lake Michigan contain water above the freezing point. Depending on the flow, this creates a warm zone where the stream water meets and mixes with the lake water. In Indiana, that takes place at Trail Creek at Michigan City and Burns Waterway at Portage.
Great Lakes salmon and trout are quite adept at locating the areas of the lake with either natural or artificially warmed water in the winter. Brown trout seem especially good at locating these warm zones.
In areas open to fishing, expect brown trout to be the mainstay of the fishery all winter long. More than a few steelhead are taken, cohos will home in on the warm areas, but later in the season rather than earlier. Mostly right now it's the browns.
Now that the Dean Mitchell plant is closed, there's one fewer place for shore-anglers to fish. That loss was recouped last winter when the Portage Park Department opened its new Lakefront Park. A mile or so north of state Route (SR) 249 and Interstate 94, follow the signs off SR 249 to the park. There are actually three fishing areas there.
The first one is a long pier constructed along the west bank of Burns Waterway. "This pier is my favorite when the wind is blowing," said George Toller, who fished there frequently last year. "The high bank offers shelter and I've developed a fishing technique that gives me plenty of exercise as well as the opportunity to cover a lot of water."
Toller's tactic doesn't work when the pier has many othe
r fishermen on it, but most of the time, there's not much competition. What he does is start at the south end of the pier and cast a baited hook into the waterway. The bait is suspended just off the bottom by a float, and he follows the bobber as it flows along downstream in the current. The pier is over 100 yards long, so each "float" along with the return hike to begin the next trip downstream covers about 1/8th of a mile.
Closest to the lakefront parking lot is a high fishing pier, which is wheelchair accessible. A very long-handled landing net is required to scoop up the fish at this location. Jutting out from the beach, at the very mouth of the waterway is a long breakwall that separates the open lake from the water in the stream. This pier isn't so high above the water level, but a long-handled net is still in order.
The winter cold quickly entombs the rocks and concrete here in a thick layer of ice. The long net allows the hooked fish to be netted without having to venture too close to the edge of the ice. Regulars to this and other similar shoreline access areas include ice-fishing cleats that clamp onto their boots as part of their normal gear to ensure good footing on the icy surfaces.
In Lake County, shore-fishermen can access the warmwater discharges at the Commonwealth Edison plant and at the BP-Amoco plant in Whiting. Again, ice cleats are mandatory to be safe in walking on the ice-covered surfaces.
Besides the lakefront park in Porter County, winter shore-anglers can gain access to warmwater discharge effluents at the shore-fishing area inside the Port of Indiana and at the Bailey Power plant. Getting to the DNR's fishing site inside the port is simple. Just check in with the gate attendant, and drive right to the park. It's a different story getting to the Bailey plant.
It's a hike! There's no access to the warmwater area through the Nipsco facility, and though some anglers hike around the perimeter fence, up and down dunes and through thick woodlands on National Lakeshore land, then down to the beach, it's not a hike for the timid.
Others start walking from Dunes State Park. "It's several miles to the discharge from the Dunes and mostly hard walking because of ice and snow," said Bob Messleton. "When things are just right, a couple of friends and I make the hike maybe once each winter. We tote waders with us and once we get to the discharge, we actually wade out into the water to do our fishing. It's a strange feeling having the water temperature on one's legs being 20 or 30 degrees warmer than the air temperature."
In LaPorte County, winter shore-fishing anglers will line up along the shoreline owned by the Indiana DNR where their Lake Michigan headquarters is located on Water Street. Here anglers can fish the mouth of Trail Creek from the pier at Washington Park or hike to the warmwater discharge at the Michigan City Nipsco station.
No one knows for sure how many brown trout are at these locations, when they arrive or how long they stay there before they are caught. But the story I told at the beginning, as well as other clues learned from inaccessible warmwater discharge areas, points to some answers.
Brown trout aren't schooling fish. Sometimes bunches of browns can be located in the same vicinity, but each of them is acting independently of the others. The likely scenario is brown trout living out in Lake Michigan wander somewhat aimlessly until they detect a warm zone. Once they find one, they stay there the rest of the winter or until it gets caught and kept.
So, as the winter progresses, these areas never get "fished out," since new fish are finding the area to replace the fish that are caught and removed. However, the constant fishing pressure (at least at the easily accessible areas) means there are never a huge number of willing brown trout in the area at any one time.
That had always been the case at the Dean Mitchell discharge when it was open to the public. Some fish were caught almost daily, some days more than others. The fishing never got as good as is was by my "trespassing acquaintances" because the number of browns finding the warmwater zone was never allowed to peak, until the plant went on strike and fishermen were excluded from fishing there.
Early-season boaters are well aware of this. Several of the warmwater discharge areas are inaccessible to shore-bound anglers, and in these areas, huge numbers of browns accumulate over the winter. It's access to the lake that is the problem. Launch sites are mostly in secluded harbors at Hammond, Whiting, East Chicago, Portage and Michigan City. Once the water at the boat ramps freeze solid, boating is over for the season.
Most years, some time in February, the ice will melt in the marinas; this event opens them up to boat traffic. Once the ramps are clear, anxious anglers with trailerable boats are quick to suit up with warm clothes and head for the warmwater zones, which have been collecting brown trout all winter long.
From the marinas at Hammond, Whiting and East Chicago, boaters head for the Indiana Harbor Ship canal. This harbor is huge with plenty of warm water and enough room for dozens of boats to troll. Probably no one spot in Indiana gives up so many browns to early-season fishermen.
If there's a close second, it's the discharge area at the "Gary Light" where U.S. Steel puts out a strong flow to keep the harbor open. The Gary Light area is equidistant from the marina at East Chicago or boaters accessing the lake via Burns Waterway.
The mouth of Burns Waterway produces plenty of browns for boaters, and if that doesn't suit your fancy and the weather is good, it's possible to head east, around the Port of Indiana to the Bailey Discharge. Sure, it's a shore access site, but the number of fishermen trying that spot on foot is negligible.
At Michigan City, the mouth of Trail Creek and the shallow water by the Nipsco plant discharge offer solid opportunities for early-season trollers, as well. Dress warmly, watch the weather and be quick to call it a day if conditions change.
Both trolling with artificial lures and fishing from a non-moving boat is effective. Trollers choose small spoons and plugs with vivid paint jobs. The water at these sites is often turbid and the bright colors show up well and trigger the browns to strike.
Fishermen in boats moored or anchored at the discharge sites often use a double-barreled approach. One or two rods are cast out with bait either weighted to the bottom or suspended under a bobber. While waiting for a fish to pick up the bait, another rod is used to cast and retrieve either a spoon or crankbait.
A variety of bait will work. From the supermarket, try shrimp, squid or smelt. From the bait shop, try night crawlers or golden shiners.
Ed and Dave may have cornered the market on brown trout that one long-ago winter, but there are plenty of opportunities for browns these days that don't require bending the rules a bit to participate.