Going Crazy Over Great Lake Cohos

Going Crazy Over Great Lake Cohos

The heat of summer may drive you crazy, but so will the fast-action coho fishing on Lake Michigan. Here's what to expect and where to try right now! (August 2009)

Midsummer is probably the most enjoyable time of the entire season to probe the cool depths of Lake Michigan's waters off the Illinois shoreline. The entire spectrum of salmon and trout are available to sport fishermen in July and August, and none are more cooperative biters than the famed coho salmon, the fish that made the big lake famous.

Since 1966, when the initial and very experimental stockings of Pacific salmon were made by the state of Michigan, "coho fever" has gripped anglers from far and near. Although chinook salmon, as well as brown, rainbow and lake trout, have contributed importantly to the current fishery's mix, nearly everyone who ventures out into the vast blue waterscape will tell you they are going coho fishing.

This is because the bright silver cohos are on an almost nonstop feeding spree from ice-out to late fall when they surge up their natal rivers in response to the irresistible spawning urge. The end result of the spawning run is the final act of the coho's three-year life span.

In order to gather the strength and stamina to successfully carry out nature's plan, cohos need to pack a lot of nutrition into their constantly growing bodies. From the time the fish are stocked in the lake as 6-inch smolts in May, they have about 18 months to reach maturity as 5- to 15-pound adults.

To help these salmon accomplish this daunting task, nature has endowed cohos with nearly insatiable appetites, along with a digestive system that processes baitfish almost instantly. It is not uncommon to catch a coho that has already gobbled down a belly full of alewives, which still has a pair of fresh tails crisscrossed in the back of its throat. The amazing part of this is not so much that the fish was still feeding, but that if you were to slide those freshly swallowed bait fish out, you would discover the heads of the alewives are already nearly digested.

Is it any wonder that these eating machines frequently fill the coolers of boats trolling for them, or that those happy anglers return again and again to experience the thrills of smashing strikes and multiple attacks? Add in the very real probability of hooking a trophy-sized chinook salmon, or a lunker rainbow or lake trout while in the midst of a coho feeding frenzy and you can understand why the Lake Michigan salmonid fishery has been classified as "world class."

As with any fishery, the Lake Michigan salmonid fishery is described as dynamic, meaning that it changes from year to year in response to many variables, most of which are beyond the control of wildlife managers and biologists' ability to control. Some of the factors that influence current conditions are favorable, some are not, and others are downright scary.

When assessing these factors, it is important to bear in mind that that Lake Michigan is 300 miles long, 50 miles wide, and is bordered by four states: Wisconsin, Illinois, Indiana and Michigan. Most events, both positive and negative that affect the fishery may occur lake wide, or may be restricted to a specific portion of the lake, but still spread lake wide.

With four separate state agencies, and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS) attempting to manage this vast body of water, close cooperation among them all is imperative, but not always forthcoming. Because of many factors, such as budget re­strictions, on-going research projects, or just plain disagreements, management decisions can be slow in coming. In general, and considering the complexity of the problems encountered, the five agencies work amazingly well together.

One of the biggest shocks that hit the Lake Michigan coho program in recent years was the revelation two years ago that Michigan's Department of Natural Resources (DNR) experienced a budget shortfall; hence, it was being forced to cut its coho stockings back by 50 percent. Since Michigan's portion of the lake's shore is the longest of the four states, it annually contributes most of the cohos, which amounts to 1.6 million fish, or two-thirds of the total lake wide stocking of 2.4 million. The Michigan cutback of 800,000 cohos translates to a one-third reduction of the total yearly stocking.

Predictions said the coho shortfall would end in two years when an anticipated Michigan fishing license fee increase would restore the DNR's budget to normal. But when fishermen around the lake learned about the planned coho reduction, they immediately took action. Salmon Unlimited of Wisconsin, Illinois and Indiana, along with Wisconsin's DNR and individual contributors raised enough money to pay Michigan to raise an additional 100,000 cohos for the 2007 stocking, and 400,000 more for 2008. This, it was hoped, would take the sting out of the coho cutback until the program righted itself in 2009.

Ah, but it was not to be! The proposed Michigan fishing license fee increase ran into opposition from other of the state's sportsmen's clubs, as well as from certain sectors of the business community. The license fee increase was dead, no new funding would go to the DNR, and the coho reduction would become permanent. The 2009 Michigan stockings would amount to only 672,000 cohos, due to hatchery diseases.

But when all seemed lost, it was discovered that millions of dollars that had been squirreled away in some obscure fund was discovered, and the budget crisis went away. As a result, the DNR now is rearing enough young cohos to stock its usual 1.6 million in the spring of 2010. The day had, indeed, been saved.

While the shortfall in the 2008 plant will be felt during the 2009 season, the additional 400,000 fish donated as mentioned above will help considerably. Next season, 2010, is when the full effect of the coho cutback will be felt since there will be no donated smolts to help fill the void. After that, things should return to normal.

The midsummer Lake Michigan salmon fishery is without exception a deep-water event. Unless some exceptionally strong and long-lasting (weeks) west winds draw cold water into the shallows, shore-fishermen should concentrate their efforts on the tasty yellow perch, while awaiting the salmon fall spawning runs.

With a lake as big, wild and unpredictable as Lake Michigan, there is no way to forecast where the fish will be at any time during July or August. But based on many years of experience, I would think they would be in depths between 60 to 120 feet. Their depth in the water column will be determined exclusively by water temperature.

Here are some basic rules to get you started on your search.

Stay in touch with other fishermen, and join a club. There is nothing more daunting than heading

out in the big lake with no idea of where the fish are. How in the world are you going to catch anything without at least having a starting point? You can get this vital information by coordinating with friends who have been fishing a few days before your trip, or from others anglers at the docks.

Charter boats captains are prime information sources, and most captains will help you out if you ask politely, and don't bug them thereafter while they are working for their customers. Salmon Unlimited maintains a Web hotline that is helpful, as well (www.salmonunlimitedinc.org).

Find the baitfish first. Predators are never far from their prey, so if you are fishing in water that is devoid of alewives, you are wasting your time. The bad news is there are no longer very many alewives in the lake; their numbers have been on a downward spiral for the last five years.

Alewives' total mass dropped 30 percent last year alone. Still, there are an estimated 8.27 kilotons of alewives swimming around out there, and the salmon will be keyed in on them.

Just to let you know how vital baitfish species are to your success, the USFWS uses trawl nets to judge the forage base. They found that in early June 2008, the alewives left the Waukegan area and migrated across to the eastern shore of the lake. Predictably, the salmon went right with them, and for the balance of the summer, Waukegan and North Point anglers were left to scratch the bottom for lake trout.

Such a massive depletion of game fish had never been seen before, and may never occur again, but it did highlight the importance of a healthy forage base. While salmon and trout will leave their preferred water temperatures to feed on bait schools, they will quickly return to cooler water after feeding. The first rule of fishing is, "fish where the fish are," and to do this you must know where their preferred temperatures are.

Here are generally accepted preferred water temperatures you should be looking for with a good water temperature gauge: Lake trout prefer 44 to 48 degrees; coho salmon like 52 to 54 degrees; brown trout prefer 60 degrees; chinook salmon are comfortable in 46 to 50 degrees, while rainbow trout like 54 to 60 degrees.

In midsummer, you can search all these water temperatures when fishing deep water. You can easily fish for chinook, coho and rainbows at the same time, simply by presenting lures at the various depths in their preferred temperature ranges. Just remember, these are general guidelines, and one or the other of these species may show up unexpectedly anywhere in the water column.

When setting lines for summer cohos, you will want to employ more hot-colored spoons than you used in spring, but by no means should you put away the dodgers and flies that performed so well earlier in the season.

No one has ever seen a coho that wouldn't fall all over itself to get at a sparkling tinsel fly wiggling behind a brightly colored dodger. In deep water, most trolling anglers will also add a few slides to their downrigger lines, and deploy one or two lead-core lines, as well. Your trolling speed can vary from 2 to 3 miles per hour. If you have reason to believe rainbow trout are around, don't hesitate to send out your trolling boards or side planers with large wobbling body baits or spoons. Any color will do as long as it is orange.

Chinook salmon may show up anywhere in the summer months, but your chances of hooking into one of these brutes will increase if you set a couple of lines below your coho spread, and try them with large spoons (black or silver, my favorites) or size "O" silver dodgers pulling large, gaudy flies. The old reliable but seemingly forgotten J-Plug still works, too. Lead-core lines also seem to produce well for chinooks. Rig the lead core with a 20-foot mono leader, and put all 10 colors in the water.

In July and August, most brown trout will be hunting for gobies in warmer, shallower water. You may want to spend the first half hour of your fishing day trolling bright-colored spoons in 30 to 40 feet of water, over gravel and rocks. Your reward may be a huge brown trout. Remember, the Illinois state-record brown is over 37 pounds. Be sure to keep the phone number of your taxidermist handy.

Warm summer water will send lake trout deep, as in all the way to the bottom. You can send a lure down there while trolling for salmon above them, but if you really want to tangle with some of Illinois' lakers, you should fish for them exclusively. Lake Michigan lake trout grow large, and have taken to eating a diet made up almost exclusively of the invasive species round gobies. The gobies are plentiful, and seemingly enjoy the cold depths the lakers prefer.

Lake trout, in midsummer, don't like to chase for their food. As a result, fishermen must slow down their presentations to a meager 1.4 to 1.8 mph. This is a magic speed, and you will need to factor in current and wind when setting your boat's throttle.

As a rule, you will find your quarry lying right in the mud about 105 to 120 feet below the keel. These big trout live a long and leisurely life, and don't need to feed as ravenously as do the silvery Pacific salmon, so patience is the name of the game. Find the fish, then "stay on the meat," until they get hungry.

Large streamer flies behind "O" size silver dodgers, and small black and green or silver spoons behind "OO" dodgers are standard laker takers, but various spoons run without any extra bells or whistles also produce well, as do Spin 'N Glows and Peanuts.

This Lake Michigan report would not be complete without touching on invasive species, which have affected the resource both positively and negatively. Let's look at the problems first, and then wind up with some good news.

There are two main threats now present in Lake Michigan to the fishery. First are the invasive mussels, brought over in the bilge water of trans-Atlantic freighters from Eastern Europe. The populations of these freshwater mussels have exploded since their inadvertent introduction into the lake in 1988. Both the zebra and quagga mussels are filter feeders that prey on the microorganisms at the very bottom of the food chain.

Each mussel can filter about 2 quarts of water a day, and there are untold billions of the critters covering the lake floor at depths up to 150 feet. Higher in the water column are two species of European water fleas that arrived here the same way as did the mussels. The water fleas, which are about 1 1⁄2 inches long, also feed on zooplankton. These fleas rise in the water to feed late in the afternoon, and often are noticed by trollers when they collect on the downrigger cables, resembling cottonwood seeds seen in late spring.

Both of these species are rapidly depleting the bottom of the food chain in the lake upon which small fish depend. As the small fish diminish, or starve to death, the predators at the top of food chain go hungry.

This effect can currently be seen in reduced yellow perch and alewife populations, and smaller and thinner salmon, which fed mainly on the alewives. Th

e filtering effect of the mussels and water fleas, coupled with new laws prohibiting phosphate and fertilizer discharges into the lake, may well produce a very sterile Lake Michigan environment.

The good news is that round gobies, another invasive species, and one that was originally feared to become a serious threat to the spawning efforts of yellow perch and alewives, has turned out to be a potential savior for some predatory species. Fishery biologists from all around the lake report they are finding the prolific gobies have become the food of choice for lake trout, bass, brown trout and yellow perch. I guess you just never know about these things.

So, here we are in the middle of the 2009 Lake Michigan fishing season, and we might as well put all the problems aside and enjoy what we have, which is a fine fishery, wonderful weather, and calm seas. It just doesn't get much better than that. Enjoy!

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