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Great Lakes, Great Mystery

Great Lakes, Great Mystery

What the fishing will be like on the Great Lakes this season is anyone's guess, but with any luck, Lake Michigan will be a can't-miss bet in 2008. (May 2008)

This big coho was caught on Lake Michigan near Ludington.
Photo by Mike Gnatkowski.

How all the Great Lakes can be connected and still produce such diverse fishing remains a mystery. Obviously, the differences in each lake's depths, nutrient levels, productivity, baitfish populations and composition dictate which species inhabit them.

Lake Erie's shallow depths are extremely fertile, but fishing success typically depends on boom-or-bust year-classes of walleyes because the lake flushes itself quickly and often.

Lake Superior, on the other hand, is a huge, cold, relatively stable and sterile body of water that produces consistent fishing year after year for naturally sustaining populations of lake trout, chinook and coho salmon and the odd steelhead.

The fortunes of lakes Michigan and Huron rest somewhere in between. Although each lake produced similar fisheries a decade ago, they have been going in opposite directions in recent years.

Lake Michigan's salmon fishery is booming to the point that fisheries biologists doubt the pace can be maintained much longer. Likewise, chinook fishing has never been better in the lake.

Salmon fishing on Lake Huron, however, has hit rock bottom and shows no signsof recovery. Fact is if you're looking for some great salmon and steelhead fishing this year, you had better head west, young man -- west to Lake Michigan.


"Fishing on Lake Michigan last year was absolutely ridiculous," basin coordinator and fisheries biologist Jim Dexter joked. "It was a little different than the previous year because the great fishing in May and June continued right through October."

In fact, catch rates and numbers for salmon and steelhead are likely to be much higher than 2007 because it's a year-round fishery.

"Last year was kind of a mixed year for coho salmon," Dexter said. "The cohos disappeared from the southern part of the lake early in the year. The bait seemed to be concentrated way offshore. Coho fishing was actually much better in the middle and upper portions of the lake, which made for a mixed bag. The cohos were good-sized, too."

Dexter said the cohos that returned last year to the Platte River hatchery numbered upward of 40,000 -- five times better than 2006. Because of budget reductions, fewer cohos will be planted in coming years -- 1.2 million in 2008 compared with 1.6 million last year. In 2009, the number will be cut even further to 800,000.

"The brown trout situation on Lake Michigan is not likely to change," lamented Dexter. "We're trying subtle changes in our planting strategies, but it doesn't seem to be helping."

Dexter said Wisconsin plants hundreds of thousands of brown trout in the lake each year and its fishery has met a similar fate.

"The Seeforellen strain of brown trout is being phased out because of interbreeding," he said.

According to Dexter, the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources has secured brown trout brood stock from the Sturgeon River in northern Michigan, but it will be years before the fish are available for planting.

Steelhead fishing remains very good on Lake Michigan and its tributaries.

"There were more steelhead caught throughout the lake last season," Dexter said, noting that the numbers were down due to extremely low water levels, but the steelhead's size was good, natural reproduction was successful and planted fish were doing well.

"Lake trout seem to be making a comeback. People caught more lake trout last year," he said. "More lake trout were caught incidentally by anglers fishing for steelhead and salmon. We're working on getting some plants near shore and closer to some of the ports."

"There's some concern because the chinooks were smaller last year," Dexter said. "But we know anglers generally prefer numbers of fish versus bigger fish. There's not a shortage of forage in the lake, but there are probably too many salmon."

Acoustic sampling done in the fall to estimate baitfish populations is tentative at this point.

"It doesn't look like it was a great year," Dexter said. "Alewife production was scattered. Production was good in some areas, just not lake wide."

Dexter said the MDNR wants to determine the role natural reproduction plays in the overall population of chinook salmon in the lake.

"There have been some studies done that estimate that half the chinooks returning to the Big Manistee River were naturally reproduced. Estimates are that the number in the Grand River is somewhere around 90 percent planted versus 10 percent natural," claimed Dexter. "Studies that we plan on doing this year should give us a better idea of the number of planted versus natural fish and should shed some light on the overall picture and changes we might need to make. One thing we're considering is changes in the bag limits."

Ideally, half the harvest would be made up of chinook salmon, but Dexter estimates that currently 90 percent of the lake's salmonids are chinooks. Dexter said that's too many salmon.

The catch rate in Lake Michigan in recent years has approached 20 fish per 100 hours for all species. Of that, chinooks account for 10 to 14 of the catch. The catch rate is extremely high, he said, and probably can't be maintained, so he hopes to see lower catch rates in the future. He also said he's a little worried about the reaction of anglers when the catch rate drops.

"Anglers shouldn't be alarmed," he cautioned. "Eventually, the catch rate is going to decline to more normal levels."

Meanwhile, Lake Michigan anglers might want to get while the gettin's good.

Ludington has always been a focal point of Great Lakes fishing, but its prominence might be even greater now. The port was busier than it has ever been in 2007, partly due to the great fishing it offers and partly due to the decline of Lake Huron fisheries. Tri-City anglers with trailerable boats that used to frequent venues like Presque Isle and Rogers City are

heading west to Ludington.

"Ludington was busier than I've ever seen it last season," said Bill Warner, who runs his charter boat Willie Wonka from the Ludington Municipal Marina. "I know a lot of people who used to fish Lake Huron are now coming over here."

Even with the increase in traffic at Ludington, there were still plenty of fish to goaround.

"The fishing was incredible last year," Warner said. "Most days we'd get out before first light and the first two or three rods would have fish on them. By the time the sun got up, we'd be close to a limit of kings."

The kings were not as big as in past years.

"A lot of the adult kings were in the 12- to 18-pound range," Warner said. "We saw very few fish that were over 20 pounds."

Warner said most anglers prefer catching plenty of fish versus a few big ones. There was also a nice mix of steelhead, coho and lake trout that added variety to the catch.

The focal point of the Ludington fishery is Big Point Sable. Structure stretching north to Manistee and south almost to the harbor attracts schools of naturally spawned kings and salmon to "the Shelf," a dropoff that plunges from 60 to 120 feet. The problem is, boats collect there, too, resulting in horrendous traffic in July and August.

Fishermen are faced with making a choice -- either leave very early and deal with the crowds or head in the opposite direction to an area near the Consumer's Energy Project.

The saying at Ludington about kings is "If it don't glow, it don't go."

The hottest fishing for kings occurs in low-light conditions and glow lures excel then. Hot baits include Dreamweaver glow-in-the-dark spoons, Pro King, Moonshine, Fishlander and Silver Streak. Glow flashers mated to mirage, blue bubble and pearl flies took limits of kings all season. Plugs were productive later in the season.

To sample Ludington's fantastic salmon fishing, contact Capt. Bill Warner at (810) 730-3818 or at his Web site, . For information on lodging, camping and other amenities, contact the Ludington Area Convention & Visitors Bureau at (800) 542-4600 or online at .

Muskegon doesn't receive much notoriety for its excellent big-lake fishing, but it should. Muskegon offers great boat launch facilities, easy access to the lake and few anglers.

"I'd say overall last year was better than 2006," claimed charter captain Scott Shelagowski who runs his 35-foot Viking Wound Up out of Muskegon. "We didn't get as many fish over 20 pounds as we did the previous year, but the fishing was tremendous, especially for kings. July was really hot. August slowed down a hair, but we still had great fishing."

Shelagowski said that the kings ran smaller, with most in the 5- to 15-pound range, but there was no shortage of spunky salmon.

Like most Lake Michigan ports, Shelagowski said the great fishing started early.

"The end of May was good and June was solid," he said. "The spring fishing was mainly for kings and lake trout. I don't ever target lakers, but they were there."

When the fishing really turned on in July, Shelagowski said they were catching a nice mixed bag.

"There were lots of nice cohos around in July along with a few browns and steelheads," he said.

Shelagowski said wherever you fish around Muskegon you must deal with nets. Anglers have the option of running south to fish near Mona Lake or north to Duck Lake, but in either direction, you must deal with nets.

"There's more physical structure to the north, so many times we'll head that way," Shelagowski said.

Many of the same baits that produce at Grand Haven or Ludington work at Muskegon.

"I've got to say that one of the hottest baits for me last year was Yeck Lure's new holographic colors in the blue and green Dolphin in the magnum-sized spoon," Shelagowski said. "Day in and day out, those were my bread and butter."

For more information, contact Captain Scott Shelagowski at (616) 890-3468 or online at .

"Last year was the best July fishing that I've ever seen in Grand Haven," said Captain Willis Kerridge, who runs his 36-foot Tiara charter boat Thunder Duck Too out of the port. "We had prevailing winds that kept the water cool and the fish stayed around. Usually, fishing slows from mid-June through mid-July, but we took limits of kings."

King fishing overall was probably a little slower than the previous year, but they seemed to be bigger.

"There weren't a lot of big fish," Kerridge said. "There were lots of 18-pounders, but we didn't see any of the 22- to 24-pounders we saw just a few years ago."

Kerridge said other species are plentiful off Grand Haven.

"The lake trout fishing was unbelievable," he said. "They were definitely there if you wanted them. There were a few more cohos around and fair numbers of steelhead."

Which direction you head when fishing out of Grand Haven depends on the wind and the time of year.

"Later in the season, you kind of follow the river current," Kerridge said. "There's a hole just south of the harbor that goes from 40 to 60 feet that's very good in the spring and fall when the fish are close."

Grand Haven is especially known for its lack of fish-holding structure.

"In the summer, we generally go north because that's where the nets are. Nets are structure here, so you really need to learn how to fish the nets at Grand Haven," Kerridge said.

A hodge-podge of lures work on Grand Haven's salmonids. Spoons excel in the spring and early summer, while flashers, like Dreamweaver's Spin Doctor, are preferred in late July and August. Plugs goad pre-spawn kings into lashing out as they key in on the Grand River outflow.

To sample Grand Haven's brand of big-water angling, contact Captain Willis Kerridge at (616) 292-4113 or

For more information on marinas, bait shops and lodging, contact the Grand Haven-Spring Lake Visitors B

ureau at (800) 303-4092 or online at .

St. Joseph usually starts off the big-lake season like gangbusters, but last year that wasn't the case.

"The fishing was really slow getting started," said Captain Jerry Lee who fishes out of St. Joe in the spring before moving to Ludington in July and August. "The coho fishing wasn't there like it normally is. They caught some fish early on the beach in April along with a few browns, but then they disappeared and it never did fire up at St. Joe. The cohos ended up moving out to deeper water to feed."

Fortunately, there were plenty of kings around to keep spring anglers happy.

"The king fishing wasn't as fast as it has been in the past, but there were enough fish around to keep people happy," Lee said. "The majority of the kings were 8- to 15-pound scrappers, but they didn't school near the pierheads in the stained water like they usually do. We found most of the spring kings in 80 to 150 feet of water. The surface water there starts out in the mid-40s, and by late May, it's up to the mid-50s. The fish left about the time I did in the third week in May and didn't show up again until later in June. Then they were out in 150 to 350 feet. That's a long run and a lot of gas when you're fishing out of St. Joe.

"It was almost all spoons early in the season. We caught a few fish on Rattlin' Thin Fins and plugs, but for the most part it was spoons."

He said steady producers were Silver Streaks in the Chilly Willy Mongoose and the SOG Froggie.

"It was a lot of green and chartreuse last year," Lee said.

To sample St. Joe's hot spring fishing, contact Captain Jerry Lee at (734) 421-8559. For information on marinas, bait shops and amenities in the St. Joe/Benton Harbor area, contact the Southwest Michigan Tourist Council at (269) 925-6301 or online at .

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