Early-Season Salmon & Trout Of Lake Michigan
October 04, 2010
Here's where you need to be on our Great Lake for fast-action fishing with cohos, steelhead and browns right now.
By Tom Berg
"Fish on! Fish on!" The yell rang out above the drone of the boat's engine as I finished setting a line on the starboard planer board. I quickly looked up, and to my surprise I saw two rods shaking violently instead of just one. "A double!" I yelled. Mike grabbed one rod and Ron took the other. I jumped out of the way and then picked up the landing net.
Mike's fish hit a shallow-running crankbait on the nearest planer board line, so it would come in first. I stepped to the back corner of the boat and watched as a 4-pound coho salmon splashed and twirled on the surface as Mike reeled it in. When it got within range at the stern, I reached out and slipped the net beneath it.
Ron's fish had attacked the lure on the planer board line right next to Mike's, and after a strong initial run, it turned around and swam straight toward the boat. I saw it coming just as I netted Mike's fish, and I knew there wouldn't be time to boat his fish and get it unhooked before the coho that Ron was fighting made it to the back of the boat, too.
I lifted Mike's coho out of the water and waited for a moment with the fish flopping around in the net. Within seconds, Ron's fish had reached the netting zone, and I told him to lift the fish to the surface. He did, and I scooped the second coho and swung both fish aboard. Now that's a real double-header!
Brown trout are common spring catches near some of Lake Michigan's steel mill warmwater discharge sites. Photo by Tom Berg
Mike unhooked the cohos and started resetting the lines while I opened the livewell and added these fish to our catch. Counting the latest additions, we had boated 12 cohos and two steelhead. One of the steelhead was coho-sized, about 3 pounds. The other one, however, would easily weigh 6 or 7 pounds. Both of the trout had hit a fluorescent red crankbait trolled along the Inland Steel breakwall, just minutes from the boat ramp at East Chicago's Pastrick Marina.
No sooner had I closed the lid on the livewell, than another fish slammed the lure on the rod right in front of me. I picked up the rod and felt the satisfying weight of a good fish, and wondered if it were another coho. That rod was rigged with a chartreuse/green stick bait, tied behind a directional diving disk that would pull it down and away from the side of the boat.
When the fish came up to the surface 15 feet behind the boat, I was happy to see that it was a hefty brown trout. Brown trout are not uncommon catches for springtime trollers, especially in certain nearshore areas like the waters around Inland Steel. After a short battle, Mike netted it for me, and fish No. 15 was dropped into the livewell. There were four anglers onboard, so we were well on our way to the Indiana limit of 20 fish (five trout or salmon per person).
SPRING COHO FISHING Spring salmon and trout fishing in the Indiana waters of Lake Michigan is traditionally very good, but for the past several years it has been downright fantastic. Limit catches of five fish per person are usually the average rather than the exception for most trollers, and those anglers who are still "learning the ropes" catch on fast. Oh, sure, there are days when the fishing slows down, like after a nasty spring storm or a sudden change in the weather; but in general, spring fishing on the big lake is predictably good.
On the best days, it is often hard to keep all of the rods set. Hordes of cohos seem to strike with abandon, and the cooler or livewell fills up fast. Although it is certainly possible to catch any of the five major trout and salmon species present in the lake at this time of the year (coho salmon, chinook salmon, steelhead trout, brown trout and lake trout), the catch is always dominated by coho salmon.
Cohos are stocked every year by each of the states bordering Lake Michigan, so there are always lots of them swimming around out in the lake. The good news for Hoosier anglers is that most of the cohos in the lake migrate through our waters in the springtime, basking in the relative warmth of our southern waters while chasing huge schools of baitfish. This concentration of salmon makes for some unbelievably good fishing, right in our own back yard.
Even though that sounds good, the fishing is likely to get even better in the coming years. Up until recently, the Indiana Department of Natural Resources (DNR) had stocked about 150,000 cohos into Lake Michigan every year. Last summer, DNR biologists announced that they were changing the mix of trout and salmon they would stock in our Great Lake. The plan was to increase the coho salmon stocking (from 150,000 fish to 220,000) and to reduce the number of chinook salmon.
Brian Breidert, Indiana's Lake Michigan fisheries biologist, reported that the DNR did increase the coho stocking in 2002. "We stocked 224,797 cohos in November of 2002," he said. "Our goal went from 150,000 annually to nearly 240,000 annually." That number is even higher than the original target, so coho fishermen will have a lot to smile about in the years to come. As a matter of fact, last year's stocking was the second largest coho stocking ever in Indiana, behind the huge stocking of 266,549 cohos in 1996.
Since the cohos stocked in the fall are only about 1 year old when released, those stocked in 2002 will not make much of an impact on the fishing this spring. "They will return in 2004, with some returning early in the fall of 2003," predicted biologist Breidert. The lion's share of the cohos migrating through Indiana waters this spring will be from the year-class of cohos stocked in 2001. Indiana alone stocked 157,048 cohos that year, exceeding its target by a few percentage points.
According to these numbers, coho fishing in the spring of 2004 will be especially good, but the fishing this year should be great, too. Right now there is a very good forage base in the lake for the cohos to feed on (mostly alewives), so they should grow quickly. Breidert confirmed that the alewives are doing well. "The alewife population is up, and it has been up for the last four years or so," he said. "Unfortunately, the smelts are way down."
By early May, the schools of cohos are usually spread out a bit and a little farther offshore than they were in March and April. But they are not out of reach for the small-boat troller. At this time of the year, they are still often within a couple of miles of the harbor entrances.
One of the traditional late-April and early-May coho hotspots is the end of the Inland Steel breakwall, or "The Corner," as local salmon fishermen know it. This spot marks the end of the breakwall that extends nearly three miles out into the lake, almost straight northe
ast from the Pastrick Marina. From there the wall runs in a westerly direction until it eventually stops at the mouth of the Indiana Harbor ship canal. Schools of salmon cruise the waters around this corner because baitfish relate to it and to the currents that ebb and flow around it due to wind and wave action.
A few hundred yards inland (or southwest) of the corner is another landmark that draws fish and fishermen alike. "The Hole in the Wall" is its name, and once you see it, you'll know why. The long, featureless breakwall on the east side of the Inland Steel plant is broken here, and the wall juts in and back around before continuing on in a straight line. It really does look like a hole in the breakwall.
"The Hole" provides just enough structure to attract salmon, and this is one place where you'll also have a good chance at catching a chinook salmon or a steelhead. Brown trout are often caught here, as well. When the fish are out toward the end of the Inland Steel wall, a good game plan includes trolling back and forth between "The Hole" and "The Corner."
If we have a spring that is warmer than normal, the cohos will very likely move slightly offshore to an area known as "The Shoals." The Shoals are a series of underwater sandbars and humps extending a few miles out into the lake off Inland Steel's north wall. These submerged humps attract fish from all directions over the otherwise featureless bottom. Occasionally, trophy-sized chinook salmon or steelhead are caught over the shoals along with the usual cohos.
Several miles east of Inland Steel, there is another steel mill with a strong warmwater discharge. This is the U.S. Steel property in Gary. Although the discharge here attracts cohos and brown trout during the early spring, the majority of the action in May is out at the end of the U.S. Steel breakwall at the Gary Light. The waters anywhere within two or three miles of this spot often produce excellent coho catches.
Calumet Park near the Indiana/ Illinois border is another spring hotspot for cohos. The protected harbor features warm water and protection from north winds, and cohos and brown trout are common there. As April turns to May, the coho schools tend to move out to the lakeside of the breakwall, and often congregate around the gap between the two main breakwall sections.
Cohos are not particularly hard to catch, once you find them. Shallow-running lures take the majority of the fish, and red or orange lures are usually the most productive. Surface lines that are spread out on planer board rigs are always a good bet, but as the spring progresses, rods set with directional diving disks really come into their own.
Another thing to note is that by May, the hottest baits start to change. Dodger-and-fly combinations are suddenly outperforming the crankbaits and plugs that were unbeatable in March and April. Fluorescent orange dodgers are usually the best, but clown dodgers (chartreuse with red spots) are also good. Small tinsel flies in various colors produce, but green mixed with silver/gold, or blue mixed with silver/gold are hard to beat.
The dodger-and-fly combination can be run very effectively on surface (planer board) lines, but they should be weighted with a small keel sinker to keep the dodger from riding up too high in the water column and skipping along the surface. Experiment with different sized weights to see what works best on any given day.
HOOSIER BROWN TROUT Coho and chinook salmon were not the only species that were affected by the recent fish stocking changes. Last July, Indiana stocked brown trout in Lake Michigan for the first time in some 20 years. Through a cooperative effort with Illinois, biologists were able to obtain 35,000 brown trout fingerlings (averaging 5.2 inches each) for stocking in Hoosier waters.
Many Indiana anglers had hoped that the DNR would stock brown trout again in our own waters, but there was never room for them at our Lake Michigan hatcheries. This problem was solved when Indiana biologists decided to obtain fingerling brown trout that could simply be stocked in the lake without requiring any hatchery space.
In this case, 35,000 surplus brown trout were available from the Illinois DNR. "It took us two years to get these trout," said Brian Breidert. "Since we don't have any extra room in our hatcheries right now, we would have to give up something else if we were to grow them."
Although the browns stocked last summer were little more than 5 inches long when released, it is possible that they will reach the minimum legal size of 14 inches sometime this spring. Their growth rate will depend a great deal on forage availability. The good news is that they were stocked at Whiting Park in midsummer, when nearshore food concentrations are at their highest. Minnows, crayfish and insects seem to be everywhere, so the young brown trout should have gotten enough to eat.
One of the most abundant forage species that the hungry browns are likely to encounter is actually a non-native fish that is a relative newcomer to Lake Michigan. It is a small, bottom-dwelling fish called the round goby. Like zebra mussels, the goby was a ballast-water stowaway on ocean-going ships that entered the Great Lakes, and they have adapted well to their new environment.
Gobies are usually brown or black in color, but they lack the sharp fin spines that predator fish avoid. The brown trout will undoubtedly find them to be the perfect prey.
The shoreline rocks around Whiting are literally infested with gobies, too, so the browns won't have to go far to find a meal. As a matter of fact, the entire western side of our shoreline has become home to the gobies in recent years, from Calumet Park to the Port of Indiana. Gobies of all sizes are available, from bite-size 1-inch-long specimens to large 7- or 8-inch individuals.
When asked if he thought the brown trout would take advantage of the resident goby population, Breidert assented. "Yes, they will eat a lot of gobies," he said. "We have even caught lake trout with gobies in their stomachs." Other fishermen report similar findings. Mike Schoonveld from Morocco runs a Lake Michigan charter fishing service, and he agreed with Breidert's assessment. "I have caught plenty of brown trout with gobies crammed in their bellies," he said.
Once these brown trout grow to a catchable size, local fishermen may notice that goby-imitating baits or colors will be quite productive. Brown grubs or jigs hopped along the bottom will likely be one of the hot baits, and brown or gold minnow-imitating plugs should be good, too.
One of the nice things about brown trout is that they tend to be homebodies. They have a habit of staying fairly close to their home waters, or to the area where they were stocked. This should equate to more brown trout in the creels of Indiana fishermen, especially in the western Indiana ports near Whiting.
Now is the time to get your boat in the water and cash in on some of the hottest fishing action of the season. Coho salmon will make up the bulk of your catch in the springtime, but you just
never know when you'll hook up with something else - something big! Steelhead, brown trout, lake trout and chinook salmon are all present in Indiana waters at this time of the year, so be ready for action!
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