Slammin' Lake Salmonids

Last season was a pretty good one for catching salmon and trout on the big pond, but some anglers did better than others because they did their homework on the hotspots. Here's a quick lesson. (July 2006)

Wayne Scardino shows off a tasty rainbow trout that fell for a silver and orange spoon just off the Chicago waterfront. Nothing is quite as thrilling as the sight of a Lake Michigan 'bow flying out of the water.
Photo by Jerry Pabst.

Some articles are harder to write than others, especially those involving annual forecasts of fishing or hunting opportunities. Think about it. Crappies, for example, live in relatively small lakes, are influenced by well-documented weather events and they eat minnows, so their seasonal movements are going to be pretty predictable. Deer live in small habitat plots, are creatures of habit and are either scarce or abundant. These would be hard articles to write because there would be little, if any, change from year to year.

Then there are assignments such as this one. Salmon and trout swim in Lake Michigan, which is over 300 miles long and 50 miles wide. They have no knowledge of the state boundary lines, and roam at will over the entirety of this watery expanse. The big lake is over 1,000 feet at its deepest point, and its finny inhabitants utilize the top 200 feet of this water column -- depending on water temperature and the availability of baitfish, which are determining factors that are totally unpredictable, and constantly changing. Add to this equation the fact that the fishery is largely artificial, in that most of the trout and salmon are stocked fish, and planting rates vary each year.

For these reasons, this will be a very easy article to write because it will not duplicate anything written last year, nor will it conflict with whatever may appear in next summer's effort. So, with that in mind, let's get started, because we have a lot to talk about.

The 2005 fishing season was generally a pretty good one for Illinois' Lake Michigan anglers, but the action was not spread evenly along the entire shoreline. There were pockets of fish that produced steadily through most of the summer, but they were separated by long stretches of water that held few, if any, fish.

Spring coho fishing began well, then quickly tapered off as the fish scattered and moved deeper. This could have been due to a scarcity of spawning alewives. When that condition exists, the inshore fish soon flee to very deep water searching for schools of shiner minnows, and often slurping down insects off the surface.

The charter boat operators have become accustomed to fishing far offshore, even when conditions indicate the fish should be in 15 feet of water. Many sportfishermen, however, allow past memories to dictate their trolling plans, and relentlessly ply the shallows even when results are less than satisfying. Always remember the timeless advice: "Fish where the fish are."

Chinook fishing picked up steadily through the summer months, but again, only for those who concentrated on the few productive pockets that seem to have been located on a line within the 80- to 150-foot depths. While a great many chinooks were taken, the size of the fish was disappointing. Few fish exceeded the 15-pound mark, and anything over 20 pounds was a rarity. This size reduction was due entirely to a lack of abundant, nutritious baitfish. More about that as we go along.

Rainbow trout were in normal supply, but the outstanding steelhead fishing sometimes seen did not occur last season. Stocking rates for rainbows remains steady, and the numbers present in any area of the lake is just a matter of chance. They roam widely, and when they roam into your fishing area, life is indeed good. This is something we hope for every year, but their coming is not predictable.

Brown trout continue to take up more space in boat coolers. They are an especially nice surprise for spring coho anglers, and some eye-popping catches were reported in early May by boats trolling in 10 to 15 feet of water near Evanston. Brightly colored spoons, run "clean" without dodgers, were the lures of choice. Brown trout have been stocked in good numbers for over 30 years, but only in the past seven or eight years have they become an important part of the fishery.

You can now expect to encounter large brown trout ranging to 20 pounds in deep water during the summer months. Again, these big fish will attack predominately flashy spoons, but flies and plastic squids account for a good number, too.

When salmon fishing is good, the lake trout schools generally get a pass from both sportfishermen and charter fishermen. As a result, some former laker reefs that had been picked pretty clean over the years have started to produce again. If you are fishing out of the Chicago harbors, don't neglect to pull a "0" silver dodger and a white and green fly over the bottom in 100 to 110 feet of water from 90 degrees out of Diversey Harbor south for about two miles. Work this area back and forth, and keep an eye on the graph. The lake trout will show as distinct lumps on an otherwise flat bottom. Once you have marked their exact position on your GPS, stay on the meat, and keep those baits low and slow. These days, you will have to check the lures frequently for zebra mussels. Sadly, if you are not dredging up zeebs from time to time, you won't catch any lakers, either. That is just the way it is.

Before I try to predict what Lake Michigan fishing will be like in July, we should review what we already know, and discuss how these factors could affect our summer action.

By now you probably know that salmon stocking will be scaled back significantly for some years to come. These reductions began in 2004, and will be felt most acutely this year. According to the fishery managers from the four Lake Michigan states, lakewide stocking levels dropped below 12 million fish for the first time since 1977.

Chinook salmon stocking levels remained within a normal range, as 4.3 million fish were planted in 2004. Normal stocking rates have averaged from 2.8 million in 1977 to 6.4 million in 1995. This figure will decline significantly next year.

Coho salmon stocking declined by 1.7 million fish in 2004, 1.5 million fewer than in 2003. This is accounted for by a 68 percent drop in the Michigan plant, induced by budgetary and hatchery problems. It is hoped that when the money returns, so, too, will the cohos.

Stocking levels for rainbow trout/steelhead dropped 21 percent from mean levels to 1.6 million in 2004.

As for brown trout, 1.6 million were stocked, which is normal.

The usual level of about 2.3 million lake trout was also stocked.

Brook trout stocking levels continued to decline, with the 2004 plant numbering just 1,000 as compared with the long-term average of 200,000.

Splake stocking remained steady at 122,000 fish.

The decline in coho stocking numbers is easy to explain. Michigan simply ran out of funds to continue the program at the high level to which it was accustomed. While they did not destroy any fish and planted everything they were currently raising, one million fewer cohos went into production in the fall of 2005. As noted, this represents a 68 percent cutback in the lakewide stocking program for that species. At such time that the budget crisis eases, the Michigan DNR plans call for restoring the coho program to its former glory. We'll see.

The 21 percent steelhead decline is somewhat misleading, since that figure is not based on long-term stocking levels, but on a comparison with 2003, which was an unusually high stocking year. Actually, while the 2004 plant is on the low side, it is not 21 percent off plants for the past 10 years, and is unlikely to greatly affect angler success rates.

Brown trout and lake trout stocking goes on apace, so fishing for those species should remain steady or slightly improved. It must be remembered that fingerling trout planted in 2004 will not enter the sportfishery for several years.

Brook trout and splake are planted more on an experimental basis than on a sportfishery basis, as their stocking numbers suggest.

Now, we come to the biggest cause for concern -- the mighty chinook salmon. The problem with this critter is threefold: It grows too large, it lives too long and it eats way too much. The world-record chinook salmon weighed well over 100 pounds, and was 5 years old. Lake Michigan chinooks normally live four years, and achieve a weight of between 15 and 25 pounds. Still, these big guys are pure and simple eating machines. I once cleaned a 21-pound fish that had 22 fresh alewives in its belly, and still tried to gobble down a J-Plug. And that was just its breakfast.

The Lake Michigan forage base can no longer support unlimited quantities of chinook salmon. Foreign invasive species, such as zebra mussels, two species of water fleas and round gobies, have devoured massive quantities of the plankton and micro-organisms the once abundant alewife feeds on. As a result, alewife numbers have declined steadily, and the nutritional value of each of the little fish has dropped by as much as half.

The scarcity of the baitfish, along with their reduced calorie content, has forced the chinooks to forage far and wide to find food, and then eat twice as much to gain proper nourishment. Since chinook salmon are not designed to feed in this way, they become susceptible to stress-induced disease, and do not grow to great size.

This was the situation the various fishery mangers faced recently, and here are some of the factors they considered in making their recommendations. Not all the chinooks paddling around in Lake Michigan are the result of stocking programs. In fact, this year's plant of 4.6 million may be nearly doubled by the natural reproduction of wild fish in many of Michigan's streams and rivers. It is pretty safe to say there will be seven million new chinooks added to the big lake's fishery this spring.

And, here is a real shocker: The Lake Huron forage base has totally collapsed, and it is estimated as much as 30 percent of that resource's chinook plant is migrating into Lake Michigan in search of food. Yes, they're making the big swim around Michigan Lower Peninsula and into The Big Pond. The future of Lake Huron's troubled fishery is another story, but it sure doesn't look good, and if we aren't careful, it may be a picture of what Lake Michigan could face some day soon.

For now, the fishery managers have agreed on a lakewide cutback of 25 percent on chinook planting. It is hoped this will reduce the pressure on the forage base, while still providing a decent fishery, both for boat-anglers and fall shore-anglers. Additionally, if the big salmon can find their daily bread with less effort, they could grow larger than we have seen recently.

The reduction in the chinook plant will be scaled to match the percentage of fish each state now stocks. Michigan stocks the most chinooks and will reduce planting by 39 percent. Wisconsin will pull back 25 percent, Illinois 17 percent and Indiana 12 percent. While the total of these percentages do not amount to 100 percent, the total fish actually planted will be 25 percent lower than last year's stocking.

This reduction will not be immediately apparent to anglers, because the 2-, 3- and 4-year-old chinooks now in the lake represent years of normal stocking numbers. Together with the multitude of naturally reproduced salmon present, chinook fishing should be very good this season. Because of the shortfall in the forage base, the fish will be hungry, easy to catch, but not very big. Do your part to help the alewives: Get a lot of those chinooks out of the water.

An interesting sidelight to all this is that some day the naturally reproducing chinooks may make further hatchery stocking unnecessary. Now that would be big news, wouldn't it?

This may the last year in some time for big coho catches, so get out in spring and get your share of these delicious fish. As noted earlier in this article, don't get set on finding the cohos in their usual early-season haunts. They may be in 15 feet of water or 115 feet, and though I hate to even remember it, one spring they were in 215 feet!

Wherever they are, the chances are they will be swimming in the top 10 feet, so get those side-planers out and set your Dipsey Divers shallow. If there is a better coho lure than a red 00 dodger and a tinsel fly, I surely don't know what it is. If you are running dodgers behind side-planers, be sure to add an ounce of lead about 4 feet before the dodger to keep it just under the water.

The following is what happened last year, so use it only as a rough guide to this year's action. Conditions change dramatically each summer, and you have to be ready to adapt your game plans accordingly.

All season long, Chicago-based salmon fishermen headed northeast toward Evanston and beyond. This was a disaster for the fuel tank, with gas dock prices exceeding $4 per gallon. But if you want fish, you must fish where the fish are. Let's hope the salmon stay home this season.

Last season, the R-4 buoy due east of the Winnetka power plant's smoke stack was hot all summer. This marker is 12 miles at 12 degrees from Diversey Harbor, and much farther from the rest of Chicago's ports. Many Windy City anglers declined to burn the gas needed to go there, but Capt. Bill Kelly of the charter boat Leprechaun (773/445-6262) convinced his customers to add a little bit to cover the cost of extra fuel and actually knocked the socks off salmon and trout all summer. Almost daily, Kelly brought in eye-popping catches of huge fish, and among them were a goodly number of trophy brown trout.

If you are fishing the R-4

for the first time -- beware. That marker is there for a reason, since a 33-foot reef pops up on the west side of the can, while the water on the east side drops to 75 feet and then quickly to 120 feet and more. Stay outside the red marker.

Up at Waukegan, the fishing was best in deep water about 100 to 240 feet east and a bit south of the harbor. The fish were scattered, but skippers who developed a wide pattern across the area did well.

At Northpoint Marina on the Wisconsin state line, fishing was tough, with boats running south to Waukegan or crossing the state line toward Racine. (Be sure everyone on board is properly licensed for each state in which you drop lines.)

If you are looking for a great day of Great Lakes fishing, there are many qualified charter skippers who can provide everything you need. The boats are available for half-day or full-day trips, and provide all the tackle as well as fish-cleaning and packaging services. Be sure to bring a cooler to keep your catch fresh on the way home and, of course, bring a camera! For full information, contact the Chicago Sportfishing Association at (312) 922-1100, the Waukegan Charter Boat Association at 1-847-BIG-FISH or www.wcba.info, and the Northpoint Charter Association at 1-800-247-6727 or www.Salmonid. com.

* * *

And so, that's all the news and tips on fishing Lake Michigan for 2006. All the news isn't good, but all of it isn't bad, either. It looks like another great year if you do your homework, so enjoy as much of it as you can.

Find more about Illinois

fishing and hunting at:

IllinoisGameandFish.com

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