Lake Michigan's Super Salmonids

Our trout and salmon expert says you can expect great fishing on the big lake this year. You better take advantage of it while you can! (July 2007)

Capt. Bill Kelly (center) is flanked by the Considine family after a memorable day of Lake Michigan salmon fishing. Sean Considine (second from left) plays for the Philadelphia Eagles. Their catch is typical of the midsummer action off the Chicago lakefront.
Photo by Jerry Pabst.

Based solely on the 2006 Lake Michigan salmon fishing season, this year should be great, too, and it probably will be. But as the late Gilda Radner's Saturday Night Live character Roseanne Roseannadanna cautioned many years ago, "It's always something." It seems like every year we hear about new threats to the Lake Michigan fishery, but somehow the salmon and trout manage to thrive. So, don't sell your boat just yet.

While the theme of this article focuses on salmon and trout fishing opportunities in the Illinois portion of Lake Michigan, we must recognize that this huge body of water is really just one ecosystem. Events occurring anywhere on the lake can -- and usually do -- materially affect fishing elsewhere, so we will be looking at how seemingly distant problems could relate to Illinois' waters.

But first, let's recap the 2006 fishing season on "The Big Pond." From the Wisconsin state line down to the Indiana border, salmon and trout fishing held up pretty well. Of course, there were high points and low points from area to area along the lakefront, as seems to happen every year. Fortunately, the dry spells without fish usually weren't very long ones, and the good times always returned.

Spring fishing started with a bang, because the cohos were open for business in April and kept rods jumping for most of May. Then, unexpectedly, they went somewhere else. But a suddenly resurgent chinook population replaced the silvers and produced some pretty good action during June. While the chinooks were not of trophy size, there were plenty of them. From my observations, the average size of these salmon ran from 8 to 15 pounds.

As summer progressed, reports of much larger chinooks began to come in, especially from Wisconsin where fish in the low-30-pound range were reported in some of the fishing contests held there. Tournament officials at Kenosha and Racine weighed in bigger chinooks than had been recorded in the last five years.

By late June, the cohos had returned to Illinois waters in decent numbers, and most boat catches were mixed with about even numbers of cohos and chinooks. The average size of the chinooks remained on the low side, but the cohos seemed to be growing fat and sassy, ranging from 4 to 8 pounds.

Salmon fishing has been holding up much later into the season over the past four or five years. In the past, the deep-water catches dried up by about the third week of August, and all that remained was to troll around the harbor mouths for returning 4-year-old chinooks. Once those fish swarmed into the harbors to "spawn," fishing from boats pretty much ended. But lately, determined anglers are motoring offshore into deeper water and finding big schools of young cohos and chinooks, along with the occasional brown trout or rainbow trout, which are really steelhead. Some charter boat operators are still plying their trade well into October, and even early November, weather permitting. And with our greatly moderated fall temperatures, this late-season fishing is not only productive, but it is comfortable.

Trout fishing in 2006 was just fair. Some years, rainbows/steelhead and brown trout seem to cluster into certain areas, and hold there for a month or more. When that happens, everyone becomes an instant "expert" on landing big trout. The secret to success under these circumstances is the same as in selling real estate: location, location, location. Just get in among those fish and put something shiny in the water.

While no special hotspots developed for steelies or browns in 2006, there were enough of these species scattered along the Illinois shore to provide some thrilling action. As with the salmon, not many wallhanger-sized trout were landed, but as we know, it is a big lake, and they are out there somewhere. They'll be back, and maybe this year.

The lake trout, or "beautiful gray fish" as one charter captain termed them, are still abundant and still doing their thing on the deep-water reefs. However, with all the trout and salmon around, very few trollers bother to chase lakers. For a long time, the lakers got a bad rap as being pollution magnets, storehouses for the chemical PCB. That scare is now officially laid to rest, and there is nothing to fear from eating a lake trout. However, because they require a completely different lure presentation than do salmon and trout, you really can't fish for both at the same time. However, remember, when all else fails, the "beautiful gray fish" are still down there, just thinking about what a Weber Grill looks like.

The hottest fishing area during the 2006 season for Chicago-area trollers was the area adjacent to the R-4 buoy four miles off Winnetka. The famous marker sits in roughly 35 feet of water on one of the most prominent underwater structures in Illinois waters. On the west side of the buoy, the water depth is in the 30-foot range, but north, south and east of the marker, the bottom falls off precipitously to over 100 feet. Newcomers to this area will do well to approach the R-4 marker gingerly while keeping a close eye on the depthfinder. If you drag your downriggers onto the rocky reef, kiss them goodbye.

Luckily, the best fishing is not on the reef, but in the deep water surrounding it on the east, north and south sides. It would be best when fishing the R-4 for the first time to simply cruise over the reef from several directions before setting lines -- just to get an idea of where not to go. There is no reason to try to pull lures along the edge of this structure, since the fish are chasing alewives out in the open water within a mile of R-4. Just work the outer edge of the reef area until you locate a concentration of salmonids, then stay on the meat.

Anglers coming out of the Chicago Harbor will take a 3-degree compass heading to reach the R-4. From Diversey Harbor, the run is 12 miles. Add about five miles to that if you leave from Burnham Harbor. Be certain the weather is going to be safe before you go.

If you don't want to burn up all that expensive fuel running out to the R-4, you should find enough fish to fill up the cooler right in front of Chicago in 60 to 120 feet of water. These fish will be in pockets, so good information is critical to finding them quickly. It can turn out to be a long, boring day if you pick the wrong starting point. Hint: Watch where the charter boats are going.

The stretch of the Illinois shore from Waukegan

north to the Wisconsin line always holds fish, sometimes more than others. As a rule, the humps in 60 to 100 feet of water off North Point Marina are reliable fish producers. Boaters coming out of Waukegan Harbor will find their quarry in about that same depth, but as off Chicago, the fish may be in tight pockets, so you will have to do some homework to get right on them. Talk to other anglers in the harbor, use the boat radio to listen for successful reports, and don't be afraid to call another boat for information. Most skippers don't mind helping another troller, as long as it doesn't lead to a daylong radio relationship. Find out where the fish are, what they are attacking, how deep they are hitting and then go do your own thing.

STOCKING NUMBERS

This will be the last year for a while that a full complement of salmonids will be stocked. This spring, Michigan significantly cut back on its coho stocking due to budgetary restrictions. As is the case with many other states, the Michigan Department of Natural Resources has experienced a shortfall in its appropriations. They are also faced with the need to upgrade some of their hatchery facilities. As a result, they decided to cut the 2007 and 2008 coho plantings by half, from the usual 1.6 million fish to 800,000.

Concerned Indiana sportsmen's organizations quickly acted to raise $8,000 to pay Michigan to add 100,000 more cohos to the 2007 planting, bringing that total to 900,000. Following that lead, Salmon Unlimited of Illinois and Wisconsin ($48,000), as well as the Wisconsin DNR ($20,000), sponsored 400,000 more cohos for the 2008 stocking when 1.2 million fish will be planted. The long-term average lakewide coho stocking has been 2.6 million fish.

This reduced coho planting will affect the 2008 and 2009 fishing seasons, but then things are scheduled to return to normal. It should be noted the other three states surrounding Lake Michigan are on target to hit their usual stocking goals for all species. Illinois was to stock 300,000 cohos, 250,000 chinooks, 100,000 rainbows, 100,000 browns and 60,000 lake trout this spring.

Chinook stocking has been reduced by 1.1 million lakewide (3.2 million total) to accommodate the greatly enhanced numbers of naturally occurring fish now entering the fishery, as well as migrants from Lake Huron where the alewife population has crashed. Releases this spring were Indiana with 220,000, Michigan, 1,593,000, Wisconsin, 1,144,000 and Illinois, 250,000.

ALEWIFE PROBLEMS

The U.S. Geodetic Survey conducts annual bottom trawls to assess the health of the alewife forage base. This little fish is the main nutrient for the salmonids, and their abundance level determines the health and survival of the big fish.

The alewife population has been shrinking steadily over a long period of time, and recent trawling results show this trend to be continuing. In fact, the number of alewives brought up in the nets was in the bottom five for as long as these surveys have been going on.

What was learned is that the large 1998 year-class of alewives is fading away, and while some younger fish are present to replace them, they are not numerous or large enough to make up for the loss. As Illinois DNR fishery biologist Dan Makauskas said, "Small alewives do not grow big fish."

ALIEN INVASION

Of continuing concern in Lake Michigan, and indeed all of the Great Lakes, is the ongoing invasion of exotic species brought to our shores by foreign shipping. To stabilize their load, cargo ships flood the bottom of the hull with fresh water in their homeports. When these ships enter freshwater ports here in the U.S., they discharge this ballast water to reduce their draft and enable them to navigate shallow rivers and lakes. Any exotic species of plants or animals that may have been sucked into the ship's bilge is now dumped into American waters, where in far too many cases, they thrive and compete with native species for food and breeding habitat.

Recently, yet another invasive species of freshwater shrimp has been found in the Great Lakes (Hemimysis anomala) in the ship canal at Muskegon, Michigan. This new addition brings to 183 the number of invasive species to have been transplanted into a body of water that comprises 95 percent of all the fresh water in North America. Exotic aquatic species are being introduced into the Great Lakes at an average rate of one species every 6 1/2 months.

Some of the most problematic of these critters are the zebra and quagga mussels, spiny water fleas, river ruffe, gobies and Asian carp. Since this new invader is a meaty and nutritious tidbit, perhaps it will complement the food chain and to some extent offset the damage being done by many of the others. But whether we like it or not, the Great Lakes are fast becoming duplicates of Eastern Europe's Caspian Sea and Baltic Sea. That's not a good thing.

Our legislators have been dragging their feet for years over effective legislation designed to prevent ballast water discharges into our freshwater systems. The simplest answer would be to require all incoming ships to discharge their freshwater ballast at sea and replace it with salt water. If that were done, any freshwater organisms would die when pumped into the salty sea, and any oceangoing critters taken in would similarly perish when expelled into fresh water. Problem solved.

However, while such legislation is in effect, it exempts ships that claim they are carrying cargo but have no ballast. The U.S. Coast Guard is charged with enforcement of this requirement, but they are also overloaded with Homeland Security assignments, and any ship wishing to avoid the time-consuming hassle of exchanging ballast water at sea simply claims that exemption and carries on. Ninety percent of incoming freighters do this, effectively frustrating the intent of the law. Several states have enacted more restrictive measures in an attempt to stem the flood of exotics, but it is unclear if they have the authority to so regulate international commerce.

As the matter now stands, hearings are under way, proposed legislation languishes in committees, speeches and promises uselessly fill the air, and the stream of exotic creatures flows on -- unabated. Like Jerry Seinfeld would say, "Yada-yada-yada!"

LET'S GO FISHIN!

Now in midsummer, nearly all the Lake Michigan salmon and trout will be found well offshore. Let's go find them.

Lake trout are conveniently schooled on the bottom in 100 to 120 feet of water. Small brightly colored spoons or large flies behind size O silver dodgers will take them. Keep your baits on the bottom and your boat speed below 1.6 knots.

Brown trout often come into 30 to 35 feet of water over rocky bottoms to feed early and late in the day. If you can pinpoint such a feeding area, you could make very good hauls using shiny spoons trolled far behind downriggers. I would try the Lake Forest pumping station south of Waukegan or the rocky reefs near Winnetka Harbor.

Cohos, chinooks and rainbow trout will be congregated in 90 to 130 feet of water from Chicago to the Wisconsin state line. You must realize these fish are relating to the presence of baitfish and they will move on a nearly daily bas

is with the food. You will need to accumulate all the current information you can in order to go right to the fish each morning. On-the-water contacts are great. Another source of contacts and information is Salmon Unlimited of Illinois at www.salmonunlimited.com, or call them at (773) 736-5757.

If you don't have your own boat but want to try this exciting fishery, charter boats are available up and down the Illinois coast. Do an Internet search with "Lake Michigan fishing" and you will find more help than you could ever imagine.

Lodging around the Illinois shoreline is plentiful and will fit any budget. Again, going online is your best bet to secure just the right crib.

In my opinion, North Point, Waukegan and Chicago all have excellent charter boat fleets with competitive rates. There is no reason to travel any farther than necessary.

The 2007 forecast for Lake Michigan salmon and trout fishing is indeed a great one. As with any fishery, there are problems, but none that will keep the fish from biting. Just remember, the fish don't bite until you get out there!

Find more about Illinois fishing and hunting at: IllinoisGameandFish.com

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