October 04, 2010
Here is what's up with our Great Lake for salmon, trout, perch and more this season. (May 2007)
By Mike Schoonveld
Photo by Terry Rudnick
Indiana owns just a sliver of Lake Michigan -- about 3 percent of the entire immense lake. However, even a small wedge cut from a large pie can be an ample portion. Judging from the number of people who head to the big lake regularly, there are plenty of Hoosiers who partake from Indiana's small slice of Lake Michigan's large pie.
That's why each year this magazine offers up predictions about what Hoosier fans of Lake Michigan can expect. The predictions are based on science, history, and in part, just gut feelings from fishing experts and biologists. So, slap on your windbreaker. Let's take a quick overview of each species and how each is destined to be a major player for the 2007 season's action on the big lake.
If stocking numbers have anything to do with how good the coho fishing will be in 2007, this should be a bumper crop year. There were no shutdowns, budget crisis or hatchery accidents and each state planted cohos at their target levels of two years ago. That means more fish will be available than last year and even more cohos will be in the lake next year as well.
Understand, only 3-year-old cohos figure into Lake Michigan's harvest each year because cohos have only a three-year life cycle. The first year of their life is spent in a hatchery. During that year, they grow from tiny fry to about 7 inches in length and are usually stocked in the late fall. They don't grow much over the winter and by the time anglers start fishing the spring coho and brown trout run, they've only put on another few inches in length, at best -- and a 10-inch coho doesn't interest many people. By late summer and fall, they will have grown to 14 inches or larger, but in the fall, most anglers are after much bigger fare. So there's not much hope for getting any real action out of the 2-year-old cohos.
It's when Lake Michigan cohos are in their third and final year of life they become one of the staples of the southern lake fishery. That means all a "statistical" fisherman has to do is check back to 2005 to see how many coho were planted to learn how many are potentially in the lake to catch in 2007.
The good news is the stocking numbers in 2005 were normal. Hatchery problems and money problems have affected the number of cohos in the lake in years past and will be affecting the number of cohos planted in the lake in years to come. None of those shortcomings will be in play this year.
Luckily, many other factors besides the number of fish stocked team up to produce a fair, good or excellent coho fishery during any one particular season. There have been excellent years with relatively low stocking numbers, and only fair years with full stocking numbers. Given a choice, however, most anglers would opt for a full contingent of fish being stocked.
One of the predictors of how good the spring coho action will be along Indiana's shores is how soon in the fall the cohos stocked by the state of Michigan migrate down to the south end of the lake. In late October and November, as the northern reaches of the lake cool down below the temperature cohos find comfortable, the 2-year-old cohos (one year in the hatchery and one year in the lake) will migrate south.
Die-hard anglers from Indiana ports who have yet to winterize their boats can intercept these 2-year-old fish, now measuring about 18 inches in length, by using the same lures and tactics which pay off in the early spring. Small, rattling crankbaits get plenty of attention at this time.
Last fall, the fishing for "this year's coho" was the best it had been for many years. That's as solid a predictor on how good the 2007 coho season will likely be.
Decades ago, when Indiana first geared up to produce trout and salmon fingerlings to stock into Lake Michigan, a couple of "facts" reared up to cause the decision-makers to stop raising brown trout for the big lake. One fact is brown trout are more expensive to raise than the other species of trout and salmon. The extra expense comes from how long browns have to stay in the hatchery to grow to the size suitable for stocking. By dumping browns from the program, the money saved could be used to rear additional salmon or steelhead and the hatchery space freed up by eliminating browns meant extra room for the other fish as well.
When Lake Michigan trout and salmon fishing was in its infancy, no one knew what to expect when a batch of brown trout fingerlings were planted in the lake. Would they prosper? Would they die out? Would they stay in the vicinity of where they were stocked or scatter randomly from one end of the lake to another?
To answer these questions, many of the young fish were stocked with one or more of their fins clipped as a sort of "brand" that would allow fisheries biologists to identify the fish once they grew up. A coho missing a right pectoral fin might be from a certain year stocking from Michigan. A brown with a left ventral fin clip might ID that fish as a Wisconsin fish stocked off the Milwaukee shore.
Indiana hired a staff of creel clerks to check the catches made by Indiana's Great Lake anglers. They'd identify the species being caught, weigh them, measure them and check for fin clips. All of this information taken back then became baseline data used to develop management plans for the lake.
One of the things noticed back then was that most of the brown trout Indiana fishermen were catching originated in other states. In some of those early years, only 15 percent of the browns caught in Indiana came from Indiana hatcheries.
Indiana still doesn't rear brown trout in either of its hatcheries, but Indiana waters have been getting regular brown trout stockings for several years now. In return for allowing Illinois licensed anglers to fish in the Indiana waters of Calumet Harbor, the state of Illinois has been delivering a truck load of brown trout fingerlings to Indiana each year -- anywhere from 25,000 to 40,000 fingerlings per load. One year, the 5-inch hatchlings are planted at Michigan City; the next year, the plant goes into Lake County waters.
The results have been spectacular! Creel survey results have shown a marked increase in the number of browns being caught. Avid private boat skippers and charter boat skippers have noted a big jump in the numbers of brown trout caught from their boats, as well.
Captain Mike Evano of Lakeside Charters told me an interesting fact. "We only get stockings here in Lake County every other year. Most of the browns we catch are the ones stocked two years ago and they usually weigh abou
t 4 pounds. The next older year- class of browns, stocked four years ago, weighs twice as much or more. Call them 8- to 10-pound fish on average. The ones still in the lake from the stocking six years ago are brutes! You don't get one of those every day, but the ones you get are 18 to 20 pounds!"
Evano also said the browns have extended the "nearshore" season well into May and early June. Once the water warms past the middle 50-degree range, which happens in early to mid-May, cohos (the mainstay of the spring fishery) will vacate the shallows. Anglers wanting to stay on the salmon have to follow them offshore several miles.
That's not a problem on good weather days, but when the wind kicks up, there's no protection offshore. Close to shore, there are plenty of places where harbor walls and shoreline features make boating and fishing safe, even on windy days. Since brown trout prefer warmer water than cohos, they don't go by the same timetable as the salmon. They remain in the shallows. Offshore "blow" days can be transformed into a nearshore brown trout outing.
Anyone who can accurately and consistently predict how good a steelhead season is going to be is psychic and would be better off predicting winning lotto numbers or solving serious crimes. Stocking numbers have little to do with it, though stocking numbers from Indiana's hatcheries are stable, so if that factor counts, things should be fine.
The uncertainty is more weather related than anything else. Hot, dry summers produce one sort of run. Cool, wet summers produce another. Last summer was hot but with frequent rainstorms. That produced yet another result.
Indiana's summer-run strain of steelhead, called Skamania, want to move into the tributary streams where they will spawn during June, July and August. If the water nearshore is too hot, they'll stay out in the lake waiting for it to cool off. If the nearshore water is suitable in temperature, but the streams are running with warm water, they'll stack up just off the mouths of the tributaries and wait for the next rainstorm to push a cool load of water down the creeks. If both the lake and the stream are running with cool water, they'll head into the streams and a boat-fisherman has to be in the right place at the right time to intercept them.
The most consistent fishing for steelhead is during the summer months, far offshore where anglers are trolling over deep water for salmon and lake trout. Incidental catches are made almost every day and provide a welcome and wonderful surprise for the angler who lucks into one.
There were more lake trout taken last year than have been caught for a decade or more. Once the staple of the summer offshore fishery and easy to pattern and target, in the late 1990s, the lakers changed their habits and nearly dropped off the radar screen. Instead of easy limits of two per person almost on demand, some years, avid anglers only boated two fish per year.
Most theorized when zebra mussels adapted and colonized the lake bottom in the prime summer lake trout depths of 100 to 125 feet, the lakers moved away. Or perhaps it was just that the lures being trolled right at the bottom where lakers lurk spent more time running fouled with zebra mussel clustered than running clean and tempting to a trout.
Perhaps the lakers came back; perhaps they were always there but wanted a change of tactics to lure them onto the hook. And that change is adding bait to your lure. These days, trolling lures dressed with strips of herring or other natural bait is the way to catch 'em. The usual setup involves putting a large 12- or 14-inch-long rotating flasher at the end of the line. A long leader often dressed with hookless tinsel flies trails behind the flasher and a hybrid combo of plastic and herring strip is the actual lure or bait the fish bites.
The plastic part is called a bait-head. It's specially designed to spin or flip as it trolls through the water, enhancing the action imparted to the rig by the flasher. The bait-head also holds the bait.
These rigs are normally run close to the bottom, but skippers strive to keep them from actually hitting the bottom where they might be fouled by mussels or other debris. It pays to check the baits often to make sure they are clean.
Evidently, the over-sized flasher has enough attraction to convince a bottom-hugging trout up off the bottom to investigate and then the combination of the flashy bait-head and the scent trail of the herring strip is enough to fire up their appetite.
The shining star on the Great Lakes for the past several years has been the bountiful numbers of king, aka chinook salmon, which have been caught. Once the water temperature spikes above the middle 40s in the spring, kings start figuring into the daily catch. Skippers hoping to mix some kings into their daily catch target the same locations where cohos are found, but while the cohos tend to stay close to the surface, the chinooks prefer to be deeper.
A good rule of thumb is to put lures into the bottom half of the water column to tempt kings. If you are in 30 feet of water, than place your lures 15 feet and deeper. If you are in 50 feet of water, expect the bites to come deeper than 25 feet.
Kings are suckers for bait rigs as described for lake trout. If there's a difference, it's that kings would rather belt a herring strip being pulled deep by a diving planer than one run off a downrigger -- though both systems work. It's probably the fact the planer pulls the rig wide and quite a way behind the stern of the boat, as well as down into the strike zone that turns the trick for divers.
Don't be disturbed by recent announcements that another 25 percent reduction in chinook plantings is slated for Lake Michigan. Those reduced stockings won't be evident for another year or more, if they are noticeable at all.
The diminished supply of chinooks from the hatcheries is the result of an almost over-abundant supply of wild-spawned kings coming from Lake Michigan's tributaries. Why use our license and stamp fees to produce fish that Mother Nature is supplying for free?
Declining numbers of alewives for the past few years have been "shrinking" Lake Michigan's kings. Two summers ago, a 20-pounder was a rare specimen. That trend seemed to reverse itself last summer with more 20-pounders than the year before and about a 2-pound increase on the average size of a mature chinook. If that trend continues into 2007, it will mean more fun for everyone.
Devastated by commercial nets in the early 1990s and plagued by poor spawns, some people predicted that yellow perch would never come back in Lake Michigan. While not back to historic population levels, perch stocks have rebounded. There are several year-classes evident, attesting to better spawns in recent years.
It's boom or bust, however. When they are schooled up and close to shore, it's easy limits. Otherwise, it can be a long day for a few fish at best. No one ke
eps up on the action as close as the staff at Mike Lurch tackle in Hammond. Give them a call a (219) 989-0575 for the latest info.
Which came first, the smallmouth or the goby? That's an easy question to answer. The smallmouth bass came first, but since the arrival of the round goby, smallmouth bass numbers have zoomed upward. It's an easy combination. Smallmouths like to hang in sheltered rock areas; gobies like to hang in sheltered rock areas. Fortunately, smallies love eating gobies.
It's hard to quantify the exact number of fishermen or numbers of bass being caught. What is known are bass boats zooming from one spot to the next, an increasingly common sight these days on our Great Lake. I figure they wouldn't keep coming back if there were better or easier places to fish.
Find more about Indiana fishing and hunting at: IndianaGameandFish.com