Our Top Ports for Salmon & Trout

Our Top Ports for Salmon & Trout

There are many variables that affect how our Great Lakes fishing will be this season, but if everything comes together just right, you'll want to be at these ports.

Salmon fishing started out slowly at ports like Grand Haven and Ludington in 2003, but the fishery exploded in August. Photo by Mike Gnatkowski

By Mike Gnatkowski

Predicting what the fishing is going to be like on the Great Lakes from one year to the next is like predicting the daily lottery number - darn near impossible. There are too many variables involved. Weather is probably the biggest factor, and we all know how unpredictable weather can be. Fish plants and their success have a big bearing on what the hot ports are going to be. A particularly large stocking effort or one that was very successful can make fishing better than usual in any given location.

Even something as simple as which way the wind blows can determine where the fish are. Strong east winds push warm water offshore during the spring and makes for poor fishing on Lake Michigan. Likewise, east winds on Lake Huron rile waters, and rough seas make it impossible to get on the water. The same wind during the summer might produce great fishing.

Weather, fish plants and other variables aside, there are still Great Lakes ports that seem to produce decent fishing year after year. Some ports might be hotter than others, but you can count on bending a rod at these ports this season.

LAKE HURON
"We had a better year on Lake Huron in 2003 than we did the previous year," claimed Great Lakes Fishery Research fisheries biologist Jim Johnson. "But fishing still wasn't great. However, were having some pretty good fishing right now (late fall). I'd have to rate the season as fair to midland, and we're not really looking for things to improve in 2004."

The infinite set of variables that anglers and fisheries biologists have to deal with are having a profound effect on the Lake Huron fishery. "We still have lots of cormorants, walleye numbers are high and alewife numbers are low," said Johnson. All of these variables impact trout and salmon numbers.

The downturn in the fishery has been particularly evident with Lake Huron brown trout. (Read more about the Lake Huron brown trout plight in the April 2004 edition of Michigan Sportsman). Fisheries managers have struggled for years trying to find a cure for Lake Huron's slumping brown trout numbers. Moving brown trout plants to Rogers City away from cormorant rookeries and hungry Thunder Bay walleyes is the latest solution. One bright spot is the brown trout's newfound affinity for round gobies.

Chinook salmon present a new set of variables for fisheries biologists. "Alewife numbers in Lake Huron are declining sharply and we are finding that there are a lot of chinooks being reproduced naturally," declared Johnson. Johnson said the super-cold winter of 2002-2003 hurt alewife numbers. "The combination of lots of predators and the hard winter was bad for alewives. It's hard to grow big salmon without big alewives."

Lake Huron anglers had no problem catching chinook salmon in 2003, but big fish were scarce. "A 20-pound king was a major fish in Lake Huron during 2003," said Johnson. "Catch rates were very good, but the fish were small. The lack of large alewives is really beginning to take its toll. Last year, the average adult king on Lake Huron was 10 or 12 pounds." Johnson said that both Lake Michigan and Lake Huron are getting dangerously close to the edge with regard to the delicate balance of predator and prey.

One thing that has thrown a monkey wrench into Lake Huron fisheries managers' plans is the huge number of naturally reproduced salmon that are now showing up in the catch. "In 2003, 20 percent of the chinooks harvested in Lake Huron were hatchery-produced fish," claimed Johnson. "Last time we checked, 15 percent of the chinook catch was natural fish."

Johnson said that Lake Huron is seeing a big influx of naturally reproduced salmon smolts from Canadian tributaries. Johnson said that Michigan has some 53 miles of Lake Huron tributaries while Canada has some 1,857 miles. He said that in a system like the Au Sable River that 97 percent of the returning chinooks are hatchery fish because the river gets too warm for good natural reproduction. But Ontario has a multitude cold, clear streams - like the Garden, Echo, Blind, Mississigi - that are major producers of chinook salmon smolts, and the number is increasing.

Johnson even theorizes that the process of natural selection may be at work and these naturally reproduced fish are adapting to their environment, utilizing the smaller baitfish and outcompeting the hatchery equivalents. Johnson said that the naturally reproducing chinooks are becoming so dominant that they are impacting the pink salmon numbers on Lake Huron and its tributaries. "Pink salmon numbers have been waning on Lake Huron," said Johnson. "The streams are just being dominated by the chinooks."

Coho salmon are becoming more common catches in Lake Huron. "Coho numbers are improving," said Johnson. "We had the best coho fishing in years. They seem to be more predominant in the southern part of the lake - Harbor Beach, Port Sanilac, Lexington - during May and into June.

Lake trout numbers continue to improve on Lake Huron, but the lack of large forage has also hurt lake trout. "Fishing was very good for lake trout off The Thumb last year," said Johnson. "The fish were smaller, but they are surviving longer due to lamprey controls. This year should be very good for lake trout. The fish are leaner too because of their diet."

Harbor Beach
The spring trolling season gets a jumpstart at Harbor Beach. "Depending on the weather, the fishing can get started as early as mid-March to early April," said charter skipper Janice Deaton, who runs her 31-foot Cherokee J-LYN out of Harbor Beach. "Usually right after ice-out things start happening."

Deaton said that the fishing usually begins in the southern part of the lake as the salmon disperse out of the St. Clair River. "When we first start fishing we may have to move south toward Port Huron or Lexington," said Deaton. "But as the lake warms, the fish gradually move north. Usually by early May we have good fishing right out of Harbor Beach."

Early-season fishing out of Harbor Beach is a shallow-water affair that boats big and small can take advantage of. "We're usually fishing shallow water from 7 to 8 feet out to 15 feet in May," said Deaton. A spread of body baits, like Long-A Bomber or Yo-Zuri Crystal Minnows in blue/silver or black/silver patterns combined with small spoons accounts for mixed-bag catches of kings, browns and the occasional coho. The baits are run off in-line boards, flatlines and divers.

As summer arrives the salmon move deeper, and Deaton said that Harbor Beach anglers head north and out to concentrate their efforts around the wrecks and near the excellent structure found around Lighthouse Park to the north. Chinooks and lake trout can be found in 100 feet of water nearly the entire summer. With deep water surprisingly close to shore, anglers in smaller boats can take advantage of the fabulous fishery on the right day. Dodgers or flashers and squid or fly combinations and spoons are the hot ticket during the summer months.

For information on chartering out of Harbor Beach, contact Capt. Janice Deaton at (989) 428-3130 or on the Web at www.jlyncharters.com. Information on lodging and accommodations in the Harbor Beach area is available by calling the Huron County Visitors Bureau at 1-800-358-4862 or online at www.huroncounty.com.

Port Austin
With the low water that has plagued the Great Lakes in recent years, anglers need to use caution when fishing out of Port Austin, but the rewards are worth it. Port Austin annually produces some of the hottest action for salmonids on Lake Huron.

Trollers usually enjoy great fishing out of Port Austin by May 1. The lake trout season opens then and anglers will find great sport in 30 to 40 feet of water all the way from Alaska and Eagle bays to Grindstone City and Lighthouse Park. Anglers routinely take limits of suspended trout then that will average 6 to 8 pounds. Mixed with the lakers is a hodgepodge of chinooks, brown trout and cohos. The fishing is easy because everything is acclimated toward the surface and anglers don't have to contend with the rocky substrate that the area is known for.

The focus switches to salmon when the kings begins showing up in quantity by mid-May. Last year, the kings were on the small side, averaging only 4 to 8 pounds, but bigger fish are common. Action focuses around the Port Austin light some 10 or 11 miles northwest of the harbor in 40 to 80 feet of water. Here, warming water and current concentrate baitfish and hungry kings. In-line boards with body baits, spoons and crankbaits, and shallow-set 'riggers and divers, produce limit of spring salmonids. By mid-June, savvy skippers point their rigs to the northeast to search out the 200-foot depths and spot downriggers and lead-core rigs near the thermocline 50 to 70 feet down. They are usually rewarded with a box full of kings and the occasional steelhead.

To book a charter out of the Port Austin/Grindstone City area, contact the Michigan Charter Boat Association at 1-800-MCBA-971 or online at info@micharterboats.com.

Rogers City
Rogers City is the destination for chinook salmon in Lake Huron. Massive plants at Swan Bay and straying fish ensure excellent fishing during July and August at this port. Mature salmon crowd into Swan Bay beginning in late August, and in between, pre-spawn kings can be caught between Adams Point and Forty Mile Point Light to the north of Rogers City. Flashers and flies, dodger/squids and J-Plugs trip the trigger of these moody salmon. Deep water close to shore makes this an ideal fishery for the small boater.

Even though the bulk of the fishery focuses on late-summer salmon, fishing can be good in May and June for a smorgasbord of brown trout, lakers and spring kings. Hot action can be found near Seagull Point just to the south of Rogers City. Body baits and in-line planer boards are standard fare. Lake trout can be taken with regularity all summer long with dodgers and flies or cowbells mated to P-Nuts or Spin-n-Glows. Trollers need to keep a watchful eye out for trap nets that a deployed in the area.

Rogers City has a state-of-the-art launch facility located within the municipal harbor. For more information on charters, accommodations and lodging, contact the Roger City Chamber of Commerce at (989) 734-2535 or online at www.rogerscity.com.

LAKE MICHIGAN
Fishing in southern Lake Michigan kind of followed the status quo in 2003.

"I would say we had our normal spring fishing for the cohos, although they were slightly bigger," said Southern Lake Michigan Management Unit fisheries biologist Jay Wesley. "The southern Lake Michigan chinook fishery was good early. I think ports like Grand Haven and St. Joe had good fishing, particularly early in the season. The kings just follow the alewives."

Lake Michigan's forage base seems to be in better shape than Lake Huron, but the trend toward smaller fish is similar. "The age structure is increasing on kings," said Wesley. "The size of the fish is going down and the catch rates are going up. That's because the fish are hungry. We're seeing similar signs to what we saw when we had the BKD (bacterial kidney disease) outbreak back in the late 1980s." Wesley said that biologists are keeping a watchful eye on the situation and may have to cut back further on chinook plants to protect the delicate forage base.

Like Lake Huron, natural reproduction is contributing more and more fish to the chinook population on Lake Michigan. "Natural reproduction is definitely on the increase," said Wesley. "The last study we did in 1993 showed about 30 percent of the chinook were naturally reproduced fish. That figure may be even higher now."

St. Joseph
Regardless of the weather, hot fishing in Lake Michigan begins at St. Joe. "Last year it was cold in April and things started off kind of slow," said Capt. Dave Ellis who runs his charter boat Salmon Slayer out of St. Joe during April, May and June. "It took quite a while for things to warm up, but when it did, fishing was fantastic."

Pier-anglers and small boaters get a jumpstart on the St. Joe fishery in late March or early April. Salmonids are attracted to the tepid outflow of the St. Joe River and water discharged at the Cook Plant near Bridgman. Pier-anglers tempt spring cohos and browns with chunks of fresh steelhead spawn or spoons. Trollers pull a selection of body baits, crankbaits and small spoons in hot colors to fool the cohos. Concentrate on the 5- to 15-foot depths.

By late April, spring kings arrive on the scene at St. Joe and the chinook fishing remains hot into June. Savvy skippers switch to magnum-sized spoons then to mimic the adult alewives that are drawn to the harbor mouth and to discourage the cohos from intercepting their offerings. Limits of silvery spring kings to 20 pounds are common.

Fishing moves offshore during June where steelhead and lake trout can be caught over 200 to 300 feet of water using downriggers, in-line boards and lead-core rigs. Kings become increasingly scarce until they return to the river mouth in August. Warming water and migrating alewife schools beckon them northward.

To sample St. Joe's hot spring salmonid action, contact Capt. Dave Ellis at (269) 383-4481. Information on lodging, accommodations and bait shops in the area can be had by contacting the Four Flags Area Tourism Council at (269) 684-7444 or on the Web at www.fourflagsarea.org.

Grand

Haven

Like at St, Joe, the attraction for spring salmon at Grand Haven is the warm, stained outflow of the Grand River. Kings show up in mid-May to shadow schools alewives that collect near the mud line. Savvy skippers do the same.

Capt. Chip Klein is a self-described "mudder" and there are none better at working the color line at Grand Haven. "The key," said Klein, "is to play the wind and then stitch the edge right where the dark-stained water and the clearer lake water meets. Sometimes, the kings will be in the clear water, sometimes in the dark- stained water. Either way, they won't be far."

Klein deploys a spread of in-line planers, downriggers and divers off his 31-Tiara Hit Man when targeting Grand Haven's spring salmon. Lures run the gambit from magnum spoons and body baits to little Atomic plugs that Klein swears by. Limits are common. The kings hang around the pierheads well into June before heading to deeper water and points north.

For information on accommodations and things to do in Grand Haven, contact the Grand Haven-Spring Lake Visitors Bureau at 1-800-303-4092 or online at www.grandhavenchamber.org. To book a charter with Capt. Chip Klein, call (616) 638-7226 or contact him online at fishjam2@attbi.com.

Ludington
Micro tags show that Ludington is where many Lake Michigan chinook salmon end up, regardless of where they were planted or naturally reproduced. The structure, natal river mouths and proximity to deep water off this port is a combination that king salmon can't resist.

"It took a long time for the fish to show up last spring," said veteran charter captain George Freeman. "We were having to run way south past Little Point Sable for almost the entire month of May to find any fish. Things improved a little during June, but it really wasn't until August that the kings showed up. Fishing was incredible then."

August finds schools of maturing kings relating to structure found both north and south of the Ludington. A focal point of the fishery is Big Point Sable Lighthouse where "The Ledge" concentrates husky kings and boats. Anglers will find more elbowroom, and nearly as many fish, five miles straight out of the harbor where the bottom drops from 100 to 150 feet and south to the Consumer's Energy Project.

August kings at Ludington can be caught on a variety of baits, but you'd be hard pressed to find a better combination than a white Spin Doctor flasher mated to a green fly. The rig accounts for plenty of big kings during August. Like Lake Huron, the size of chinook salmon seems to be decreasing on Lake Michigan, but there were plenty of 30-pound-plus behemoths taken from the lake last year. A good portion of those came from the waters off Ludington during August.

Ludington has one of the busiest charter fleets on the Great Lakes, especially in August. To find a reputable captain, contact the Ludington Area Charter Boat Association at 1-800-927-3470 or online at www.LudingtonCharterBoats.org, and book early.

* * *
Great Lakes fishing is subject to the whims of Mother Nature. That's the one thing you can count on in 2004.



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