Here’s a look at what Lake Michigan anglers can expect on their next visit to the big lake.
In 1966, Dr. Howard Tanner, then chief of the Fisheries Division of the Michigan Department of Natural Resources, looked at Lake Michigan and saw opportunity.
Everyone else living near the big lake’s shore saw, and smelled, disaster. The cause of both Tanner’s optimism and the public’s widespread disgust were the same: the hordes of invasive alewives.
The trouble all started in 1829 with the completion of the Welland Canal, a ship canal in Ontario, Canada, connecting Lake Ontario and Lake Erie. It forms a key section of the St. Lawrence Seaway. In addition to allowing free passage of ocean-going vessels into the Great Lakes, the canal facilitated the movement of various saltwater creatures into this freshwater inland sea.
Naturally, most saltwater plants and fishes could not survive in the freshwater, but some, termed anadromous, are able to make this transition successfully. Among them are lamprey eels and alewives. It took a long while for these newcomers to make their way through the St. Lawrence Seaway, then Lakes Ontario, Erie and Huron, but by the early 1940s both species had become firmly established in Lake Michigan.
The lamprey eels prospered in the big lake, quickly destroying a longstanding commercial lake trout fishery. The alewives did what they do best; they spawned, and spawned and spawned. By the early 1950s alewives constituted, by weight, over 95 percent of the fish in Lake Michigan.
The alewife schools were so vast that they were easily visible to pilots flying over the lake. Shoreline communities were bulldozing tons of dead alewives off their beaches, many of which would remain closed year ’round. The stench of rotting fish was ever present. This situation was unprecedented, intolerable and apparently insoluble.
Salmon Was the Answer
But Howard Tanner, with a scientist’s practical eye, viewed the lake as a big fish bowl full of food, lacking only a top of the line predator to take advantage of it. He needed a big fish that was used to eating alewives, (called menhaden in the ocean), that could live in fresh water. As we now know, the perfect answer was salmon.
In 1966, Tanner made the initial stocking of coho salmon into Michigan’s Platte River, and a few years later added Chinook and Atlantic salmon to the mix. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service was already stocking huge quantities of lake trout, hoping to re-establish natural reproduction of that depleted species. Alewife numbers dropped, beaches cleared and life was good.
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Almost overnight an amazing sport fishery developed all around Lake Michigan. Private boaters and charter boat operators abounded, and lakefront economies prospered. We thought the party would never end, but in all the giddy excitement, someone forgot to close the front door. The Welland Canal remained open, and the exotic critters continued to flow in.
In 1990 a little bivalve called a zebra mussel showed up and instantly spread all around the lake. Billions of “zeebs” began gobbling down the plankton, algae and other micro-organisms the alewives depended on, and soon the lake’s forage base began to shrink.
Then, in came the spiny water fleas, followed by the larger and hungrier quagga mussels, both of which feasted on the same food the alewives needed. Disaster loomed as alewife numbers crashed around the lake and once productive fisheries were reduced to memories.
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A Look Ahead
So, here is where we are today as the 2018 open water fishing season commences.
Along the shoreline of Wisconsin, north of Milwaukee, there are virtually no alewives. All along the shore of Michigan there are virtually no alewives, although some signs point to recovery in the extreme southern portion, where a 42.4 and 38.9 Chinook were brought in last year. However, Chinook salmon in particular almost exclusively eat alewives. You do the math.
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Lake trout have returned to their original diet of native baitfish and happily have begun to reproduce naturally in significant numbers lakewide. This unexpected event has encouraged fishery managers to begin cutting back on lake trout planting, and some even envision a complete end to that program.
Rainbow and brown trout, as well as coho salmon, have shown an adaptability to switch their diets to whatever is available, and are doing well on minnows, smelt, gobies and young perch, as well as alewives when available.
Of course, it is the fate of Lake Michigan’s most popular game fish, the Chinook salmon, that hangs in the balance. Without abundant alewives they will be few and far between and of smaller size than we have been used to.
In an effort to reduce pressure on an already stressed forge base, stocking numbers of Chinook have been cut to the bone. In 1988, about 8 million Chinook salmon were stocked into Lake Michigan. This spring that number, lakewide, has been cut to 690,000. When you recover from that shock, consider this: Jim Dexter, Michigan DNR’s Fishery Division Chief, noted, “The Michigan Department of Natural Resources is considering another reduction in the number of Chinook salmon being stocked in Lake Michigan, and fear the practice may be eliminated altogether if the population of the prized catch continues to decline. If we make one more cut, and then have to make another cut, it’ll be done.”
Fishing Tips from the Pros
In my opinion, considering the minimal amount of Chinook to be stocked going forward, the fishery managers would prefer to end the program immediately, there being no discernible light at the end of this tunnel. It almost happened in Indiana last year. But, anticipating objections from businesses and angling constituents around the lake, they will simply let the Chinook fishery wither away quietly and hope that the coho and trout will fill the gap.
If there is any good news, it is documented evidence of significant natural Chinook reproduction in some of Michigan’s rivers, amounting to an estimated 2 to 3 million smolts each spring when water conditions are right. This means that there likely always will be some Chinook in the lake, some of them trophy fish, but the glory days are behind us.
OK, so much for the bad news. Now for some good news.
In spite of crashing alewife populations elsewhere, the little forage fish seem to be doing remarkably well in the lake’s southern basin from Milwaukee all the way around to southeastern Michigan, with Illinois waters holding the majority of this abundance. Additionally, Illinois’ yellow perch had a very successful spawning effort in 2017, which will, much to the dismay of perch anglers, provide significant forage for the larger game fish.
Let’s take a look, species by species, at what we can expect this summer.
>>Chinook salmon: While Illinois, Indiana and Michigan have made only token plants in the past few years, Wisconsin, in a political decision, has stubbornly and probably foolishly adhered to a more liberal stocking schedule in areas north of Milwaukee that cannot possibly provide adequate forge for these fish. Any of those Chinook that survive will have to migrate south to find the alewives they need, bringing many of them into Illinois waters
We can also expect a substantial presence of those Chinook naturally spawned in Michigan to show up here as well. Recent creel censes have determined that 70 percent of Chinook currently caught in Illinois/Indiana waters are wild fish. Spoons that resemble alewives are the perfect choice.
So yes, there will be Chinook out there this season. Most of them won’t be wall-hangers, but some will. Keep the faith.
>>Coho salmon: stocking levels have not been cut anywhere near the extent of Chinook and these aggressive battlers will eat anything that moves. Last season many coho were caught that weighed in over 10 pounds, and fish in the teens were not uncommon. Expect good coho fishing all summer. Red dodgers and tinsel flies will do the trick.
>>Rainbow trout: The abundance of forage fish in Illinois waters drew in an unprecedented number of big rainbows trout. Reports all summer told of numerous encounters with over-sized rainbows, about half of which wound up in the landing net. ’Bows will hit any color spoon, as long as it is orange.
>>Brown trout: 2017 was a slow year for browns, although their stocking numbers have not been cut appreciably. Nearly every brown I saw reported was taken incidentally, and those anglers who targeted them had little luck. Browns thrive in water that is warmer and shallower than other salmonids prefer, and they gorge on the gobies they find there. Small spoons trolled far behind the boat are the usual presentation and will work again, if you can find the fish.
>>Lake trout: I saved lakers for the last because they have developed into the biggest success story to date. As noted above, lake trout were nearly extirpated in the late 1940s by a combination of lamprey eels and commercial netting. Netting was ended, and the lampreys were brought under control, but the trout did not respond with natural reproduction. After 50 years of totally unsuccessful rehab stocking programs, the problem was solved recently when the alewives disappeared and the lake trout resumed their original diet of native fishes, and a thiamine deficiency that ruined their eggs was cured.
Now, the lake trout is well on the way to resuming its place as the big lake’s No. 1 predator. Seventy-two percent of lake trout caught in Indiana were wild fish. More than 50 percent of Illinois lakers were also wild fish. The percentage of wild fish drops farther north, but never goes below 20 percent. Fewer alewives means more lake trout. Go figure.
In April look for huge schools of lakers in 30 to 40 feet of water. As the water warms, they will move out into 100 to 110 feet. In mid-summer the trout will stack up on deep-water reefs such as Julian’s Reef, south of Waukegan, and around the R-4 buoy, due east of Winnetka. Indiana trollers should head out to “the wreck,” north of Burns Ditch.
To boat a limit of lake trout, two per person per day, just get a spoon or dodger and fly right on the bottom. Better yet, put a Spin ’N Glow lure behind a size 0 silver or smoke-colored dodger, and hang on.
The ice is gone, and the fish are biting. What are you waiting for? Go get ’em!