If you can't fill your cooler with lake trout using this information, consider taking up golf, tennis, spectator sports.'¦
An old oleo margarine TV commercial famously advised, "It's not nice to fool Mother Nature!" But that is exactly what occurred when we humans tried to improve on the old girl's designs by digging the Welland Canal (1817-1829), which connected Lake Ontario to Lake Erie, thus opening all the Great Lakes to the Atlantic Ocean via the St. Lawrence Seaway.
Prior to the opening of the canal the natural land barrier it breached acted to keep all species of ocean life out in the ocean, where they belonged. But, given the chance, many types of plants and aquatic creatures, termed "anadromous," are able to flourish in salt or fresh water. Many soon began to find their way into the five lakes of the huge "inland sea" known as the Great Lakes. That's when Mother Nature's basic plan for the Great Lakes went off track.
Although some of the exotic species that found their way into the lakes had been present for many years, their numbers were few and their impact on the overall fishery was minimal. The lake trout remained the top of the line predator in Lake Michigan and supported a robust commercial fishery right up until the US entered WWII in 1941. Then, while everyone's attention was absorbed by the deadly conflict, the invasive sea lamprey's population quietly ballooned to unanticipated heights. The toll they wreaked on their favorite prey, the lake trout, was devastating.
With the end of the war a new material, monofilament nylon, was released for civilian use and was soon adapted to replace the old weak, thick, commercial gill net. The lake trout population could not withstand the attack by this double-edged sword. Annual commercial harvests, once counted by the millions of pounds, now fell to just a few hundred. By 1956, the lake trout had been extirpated from Lake Michigan.
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Beginning in 1959 the US Fish & Wildlife Service began an annual stocking program of millions of lake trout in an effort to restore a naturally breeding population. Then, without a major predator, another invasive species, the alewife, exploded on the scene and within 10 years accounted for 95 percent, by weight, of all fishes in Lake Michigan. In 1966 the stage was set for the intentional stocking of other exotic species: coho salmon, Chinook salmon, rainbow trout, brown trout and Atlantic salmon, creating a world-class salmon and trout fishery.
By 1988 the four states whose lands lie on the shores of Lake Michigan, together with the USFWS were planting more than 16 million trout and salmon into the big lake each year. It appeared the party would go on forever.
In the face of all this human intervention, Mother Nature chose not to give up. Instead, she became riled up! In 1990 a cargo ship filled its ballast water tanks in a river in Eastern Europe, crossed the Atlantic Ocean, and dumped the ballast water after entering the St. Lawrence Seaway. An unnoticed, but tremendously important, stowaway in that ballast water was a thumbnail-sized creature called a zebra mussel. Mother Nature was exacting her revenge in, what many years later would be realized, a very nasty way.
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Within a few years the invasive Zebra mussels nearly covered the lake floor, where they ravenously fed upon the same micro-organisms the alewives depended upon. It wasn't long before the alewife population began to crash, and when the larger and more aggressively feeding quagga mussels displaced the zebra mussels, the problem reached critical mass.
Today, in most of the northern half of Lake Michigan the alewives have disappeared and, with them, nearly all of the Chinook salmon, their major predator. Chinook stocking programs have been cut to the bone in an effort to maintain the surviving alewife schools, and the principle source of Chinook is now wild fish spawned in some of Michigan's rivers. Coho salmon, along with rainbow and brown trout have adjusted to feed on other species of forage fish and are faring much better than the Chinooks.
But what about the lake trout, which, after more than 60 years of failed efforts to stimulate its natural reproduction, has become the star of the Lake Michigan fishery. And, who gets the credit for this amazing turn around in the lakers' fortunes? You guessed it. Mother Nature! How did she accomplish this feat that had eluded prominent fishery biologists for all those decades? The simple explanation is the round goby, an unglamorous little fish that arrived in the Great Lakes in the same manner as did the mussels — in the ballast waters of cargo ships.
The gobies possess several characteristics that assured their historic place in the Great Lakes fishery upon arrival. First, they were extremely prolific and could fill the nitch in the forage base left open by the demise of the alewife. Second, they didn't eat the same food as did the mussels, so they could coexist. And, most importantly, they were rich in thiamine, a vitamin lacking in the flesh of the alewife, and necessary for the successful development of lake-trout eggs.
When the alewives became scarce the lake trout began eating the thiamine-rich gobies. Prodigious natural reproduction followed instantly. Problem solved. Lake trout are now reproducing in nearly every portion of the lake and, especially, on Julian's Reef and the Midlake Reef in Illinois' waters, where surveys complete by the Illinois Department of Natural Resources found 50 percent of the lake trout are wild fish.
While Mother Nature deserves the credit for the lake trout's spectacular return to Lake Michigan's top-of-the-line predator position, IDNR fisheries biologist Steve Robillard helped me put this jig-saw puzzle together. In fact, the outlook for the future of the lake trout recovery is so optimistic, stocking on several of the larger spawning reefs has been discontinued, and the end to all lake trout stocking is being discussed.
So much for the history lesson. Let's go fishing!
GO DEEP '¦ AND SCORE!
First, remember that Illinois' daily lake trout legal creel limit is two fish per person. The same limit is three fish in Indiana and Michigan; and Wisconsin anglers can keep two fish in a day's fishing.
Throughout the winter months and well into spring, Lake Michigan water temperatures remain in the 38- to 43-degree range, which is preferred by lake trout. The fish will scatter in shallow water and be difficult to target. In fact, during March and April shore fishermen are catching lake trout where waterways and fishing seasons are open. Random trolling with standard body-baits, spoons and dodger-fly combos is the only way to locate concentrations of fish. As the water warms, the trout move deeper and farther offshore, until by mid- to late June they congregate on the deep-water reefs. There, they will stay for the balance of the summer and early fall.
To consistently score on mid-summer lake trout, it is essential to locate these deep-water reefs and present lures exactly described below.
Brian Gentile, a Chicago-based charter captain, has put together a series of charts — Brian's Hot Spot Maps — detailing the location of the most reliable fishing areas along the Illinois coast. These can be found on the Chitown-angler.com website. Once you access these maps, print them out. Study them. They are invaluable when fishing for all of the big lake's species, but especially so for the tightly schooled lake trout. In fact, you will have to be familiar with these charts to benefit from the rest of this article.
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Over the years lake trout fishing techniques have evolved in some ways and remained steady in others. To get the most up-to-date information I called on three of the most successful charter captains in Illinois.
"There are more LTs in the shallow water in the early season than there are salmon, and they hit the same lures- 00 dodger/fly and body baits," says Capt. Dave Fors of Full Circle Charters in Diversey Harbor (phone: 630-215-880; online at FullCircleCharters.com). "As the season progresses and the water warms, when I fish mainly for trout, I start in 90 or 95 feet and work to 100 or 110. There is a good spot in July and August about 2 miles southeast of the wreck (see chart). Work along the drop side of the Evanston Reef at depths of 100 to 130 trolling north as the water warms.
When the water really heats up," Fors continues, "I keep going east and deeper. There is also a nice slot in between Gumby's Reef and Julian's Reef that is about 190 feet and can be good. It is about a 10-mile-long slot that is 10 to 20 miles off shore.
"As far as bait, #3 Spin-n-Glo is best by far! Some days they want a tail (inch and a half or 2-inch fly over the hook). Some days bare," Fors reveals. "Really hot on some days are two little spinnies together; again some days with a tail and some without. These are about the size of your little finger nail, just put one in front of the hook and a bead and another spinnie. We just started that this fall and it's deadly."
Fors says he also modifies green Fuzzy Bear spoons in regular and magnum sizes and Sutton Spoons #88 as flashers, set a couple feet above the Spin-n-Glo.
"The Spin-n-Glos are 21 inches behind a 0 chrome dodger, and the little double spinnies are about 35 inches behind a 0 chrome," he explains. "Some days the dull dodgers work better and yellow and green have their days. White plastic flashers with white, green or Little Boy Blue flies on wire with magnum Dipsies work."
Trolling speeds for lake trout are 1.5 kts to 1.9 kts and can be critical, Fors explains. "Slow is the name of the game, and just tap the bottom with the balls," he says. "I usually use 13 pounds and go to 16-pound weights when we get deeper. Last but not least is good sonar. If I can see them; I can find how to catch them."
Capt. Scott Wolfe of School of Fish Charters in Winthrop Harbor (phone: 630-215-8801 or online at SchoolOfFishCharters.com), points out some of the better fishing sites on Lake Michigan.
He first reveals Lake Bluff Reef, (42.16.000), a hill that primarily runs east to west. The best fish holding sites are usually just off the hill, to the north or the south of it. "The Hill is about 20-30 feet higher than surrounding areas and runs a long distance," he says. "The west end is about 75 feet and goes east a long way. Lakers are usually deeper than 90 feet.
"Waukegan South Reef (42.20.132) has been the best area most years and runs south for over a mile. Depth ," Wolfe continues, "and goes from 150 (feet) up to 125, then drops very quickly to 200. The northeast corner has the steepest drop, but also gets crowded with boat traffic.
Julian's Reef, (42.13.300), off Highland Park is an underwater hill, Wolfe says he also likes to fish over. The deeper water, 120-200 feet off the Hill, he adds, "usually holds lakers."
Wolfe's lure recommendations begin with a Spin-n-Glo in front of a small fly.
"Jimmy Fly brand makes Laker Taker skirts specifically for this. Our best is a huge pink Spin-n-Glo," he reveals, "and a blue-skirt run behind 8-inch Luhr Jensen Dodgers in smoke or mystery (green and white), or behind 11-inch plastic flashers with Bechhold Fish Catchers and Luhr Jensen Coyotes. Again, white is the go-to usually.
"Wire line — I use standard trolling wire and a Magnum Dipsey Diver on a 1 or 1.5 setting," Wolfe says. "Add a clear, Warrior snubber, and behind that about 8 feet of leader, and then the Spin-n-Glo. Let it out until it starts hitting bottom, then reel up a few cranks so it's not dragging on the sharp shells."
Capt. Wolfe adds, he holds the boat speed between 1.8 and 2.2 mph, but can take lake trout while trolling as high as 2.8 mph.
What more can I tell you? If you can't fill your cooler with lake trout using this information, consider taking up golf, tennis, spectator sports or '¦ Oh, heck. Just just go out and load up on Lake Michigan lakers!