Webster defines the word “progress” as “movement forward” or a “gradual betterment.” Since Lake Michigan’s fishery, as enormous as it may be, is a managed one, one would think that the word “progress” would apply to its development. Yet, despite the constant monitoring, planning, tweaking and TLC of expert fishery biologists, the more appropriate word for the big lake’s fishery is “chaotic.”
Before we immerse ourselves in the complexity of the Lake Michigan ecosystem, let me deal with the main purpose of this article, which I can confidently accomplish with one sentence. Fishing in the Indiana and Illinois waters of Lake Michigan during the 2017 season will be terrific.
While I have my crystal ball warmed up, I will further predict that fishing in Michigan waters will be terrible, and Wisconsin will enjoy good angling prospects in the southern ports, but diminished success the father north you go.
Let’s take a look at what exactly is going on out there.
The lake’s problems began in 1990, when incoming cargo ships emptying the water in their ballast tanks into the Great Lakes introduced critters from all around the world, many of which found a wonderful new home in the world’s largest freshwater system. To date, more than 185 exotic species now reside in the Great Lakes, compliments of the international shipping industry.
How, you may ask, was this allowed? Well, although we knew what was happening, getting anything done to stop it required congressional action. The simple answer was to require incoming freighters to dump their ballast water at sea, prior to entering U.S. freshwater ports, and refill them with salt water. That simple procedure would flush out any foreign organisms, and the salt water would kill any that remained. But, to do that, the ships would have to either stop or slow down, and since for them time is money, and money talks, it took more than 15 years for Congress to act.
In 1990, the zebra mussels arrived, and multiplied greatly. I don’t think they have invented a number that would adequately describe the zebra mussel population. Zebra mussels are filter feeders that ingest any and all microscopic organisms, zooplankton, and algae, the stuff baby fish need for their early survival. Ten years later their larger cousins, the quagga mussel arrived, displaced the zebras and ate even more of the nutrients at the base of the food chain.
While salmon and trout are stocked at a size that no longer depends on plankton and microbes, the baitfish they feed on do, and they were starving to death. Rainbow smelt have virtually disappeared, and the once overly abundant alewives have decreased by 90 percent, and are still in free fall. Likewise, yellow perch have fallen on hard times.
As this problem worsened, stocking rates that once were more than 15 million trout and salmon per year were reduced over time by half. The objective was to relieve the pressure on the shrinking forage base that could no longer support so many predators. This, perhaps, would solve the problem and salvage at least a semblance of the fishery that once was.
Alas, cutting back on stocking did not help. The forage base continued to decline, drastically. Something else was going on out there.
About five years ago, a creel census carried on in harbors around the lake began finding lake trout and chinook salmon without the identifying fin clips they receive before release. These were wild, naturally spawned fish, and they represented an entirely new dynamic for the fishery experts to deal with. In effect, they were almost back to square one.
To make a long story short, the chinook were found to be spawning prolifically in many of Michigan’s large rivers, and had reached a point where nearly 60 percent of the big salmon in the lake were now wild fish. Incredibly, the lake trout, which had resisted all efforts to encourage natural spawning, had been forced by the lack of alewives to return to feeding on native prey fishes. The chubs, smelt, sculpin and other native baitfish gave the lakers a thiamin boost that they were missing and, voila, baby lake trout all over the place.
The good news then was, the lake trout were back, and the chinooks were here to stay. The bad news was there was not enough food to sustain such a population surge.
Now, the biologists have a real dilemma on their hands. The forage base has shrunk dramatically, but they aren’t sure just how much, or if the decline will continue, or has it leveled off? Natural reproduction of chinook and lake trout is a fact, but they cannot account for the annual fluctuations in their spawning success rates. Year-to-year, how many of them are entering the fishery? In 2012, an estimated 5.5 million wild chinooks entered the lake. In 2013, only 1.5 million wild fish turned up. How can biologusts plan stocking quantities without that data?
The big question then becomes, how do you plan for the future if you don’t completely understand the present?
Before we go on to discuss what the current plan is, and bear in mind that the lakewide plan has changed three times between July and October, 2016, it would be a good idea to review where the fishery was when the open-water season closed last fall.
Anglers on the Michigan shoreline were describing the season as the worst ever. The charter boats were bringing in paltry catches of two or three fish, mostly lake trout.
Even the fall chinook return was disappointing. The DNR weirs barely captured enough spawning fish to cover their own hatchery needs and were unable to supply Indiana and Illinois, who have no egg-taking capability.
Wisconsin, from Sheboygan on north, also had tough fishing, until late summer when some large chinook showed up. Their egg taking facilities were able to supply their own needs, as well as those of Indiana and Illinois.
In spite of all the doom and gloom listed here, the exact opposite was true in the southern basin of Lake Michigan. I have been fishing the big lake since 1970, and I have never seen fishing as spectacular as we experienced last season. From Racine, Wis., down to Chicago, trollers took more fish than ever without a letup.
Lake trout were everywhere, and they were enormous, many in the 20-pound class. Big cohos were caught every day. Chinooks, though not trophies, were of respectable size, and provided steady action throughout the summer. More brown trout were reported than usual, but the real eye-opener was the nonstop steelhead fishing. I ran a charter boat for 25 years out of Chicago, and if I caught a dozen or so steelhead all summer that was normal. This year the boats were coming in with five or six beautiful steelhead each time, and it kept up from spring to fall.
While the official lake fishery surveys haven’t been announced yet, it appears that most of the remaining baitfish accumulated in the southwestern basin and all the big fish came with them. If the conditions that attracted the forage fish continue, 2017 promises to be a rerun of last summer’s unprecedented fishing action.
Getting back to solving the problem of balancing the forage base with the predatory fish that feed upon it, the Lake Michigan Fisheries Committee, which is comprised of representatives from the DNRs of four states, has that responsibility.
Originally, they proposed to cut chinook stocking by 62 percent, with the thought in mind that chinooks spend four years of their lives eating nothing but alewives, and taking into consideration the large influx of naturally produced fish. While that made sense, the plan went over like a lead balloon with the fishermen in Wisconsin and Michigan who had just endured a season without any chinooks.
Of course, the charter fishermen, motels, restaurants, saloons, and tackle shop owners also were upset because the local economy depended on visiting fishermen, who wouldn’t be coming. This naturally got the politicians involved, and the DNR officials went back to the drawing boards.
Further study revealed that a chinook eats about twice as many alewives as a lake trout. So if they cut back on lake trout, they could plant more chinooks, so a new proposal raised the chinook cut to 50 percent, while cutting lake trout stocking accordingly. Nice try, but no cigar.
The charter fishermen in northern Wisconsin and most of Michigan feel their customers want chinooks, and they don’t see how cutting chinook planting is going to help them catch more chinooks. In fact, it isn’t. But in reality, if the salmon planted in their area get hungry, they are going to swim away to wherever more forage is available.
So, the fishery experts went back to work and came up with a plan to cut even more lake trout, and cut only 42 percent of the previous stocking of chinooks. Now they were down to stocking 800,000 chinooks in 2017. Lakewide, in 1988, 8,000,000 chinooks were stocked.
Next, the Wisconsin DNR was pressured to go its own way and now will not cut chinooks at all, but will make up for it by cutting back on brown trout, lake trout and cohos, while adding more steelhead. The other three states will absorb the chinook cuts Wisconsin spurned, and also make substantial cuts in lake trout numbers. Keep in mind that these stocking cuts will not be felt for two or three years, while the fish are growing.
For us fishermen here in the southwestern basin, the key is where the alewives choose to spend their summer. If they stay here, we are in tall grass, indeed.
Here are some hot tips on catching all those fish: Get some copper wire line and learn how to use it.
Use large Spin-N-Glow lures for lake trout. Keep them on or near the bottom. Use brightly colored spoons for steelhead; any color will do as long as it is orange. Dodgers and tinsel flies always work. If all goes well, we will have a great summer of catching on the big lake. Get out and get your share of it.