Our local expert looks into his crystal ball to tell you what you can expect fishing-wise on Indiana's portion of Lake Michigan this season. Is a big trout or salmon in your future? Read on! (May 2009)
Ask me to tell you who is going to win the World Series in 2009. Now that's a tough request. Ask me to predict if the Indianapolis Colts are going to head for the Super Bowl. That's another tough request. How 'bout what the stock market will do? As you can see, these are all nearly impossible questions to answer.
So, what happens when the editor of Indiana Game and Fish contacts me to write up a prediction of how the fishing on Indiana's end of Lake Michigan is going to be in 2009? I tell him, sure thing!
Why is that? The first factor, though not always the most important detail, is examining stocking levels. After all, largely, Lake Michigan is a put-grow-take fishery. Ninety-nine percent of the trout and salmon in Lake Michigan are products of fish hatcheries. Each of the states (Wisconsin, Indiana, Michigan and Illinois) has one or more hatcheries dedicated to growing fingerling salmon and trout to plant into Lake Michigan or its tributary streams. The federal government has hatcheries growing fingerling lake trout to stock into the Great Lakes.
King salmon are the lone exception because, due to their life cycle, a good deal of natural reproduction does occur. Taken as a whole, perhaps half the kings (chinooks) in the lake are from hatcheries, while the other half are products of Lake Michigan tributary streams.
Since each of the five species of salmon and trout have different life spans, it's not so much flipping back the calendar a year to see how many fish were introduced. One has to go back two, three or more years and check the stocking records to see what fish will be available in 2009.
Mixsawbah, one of Indiana's two Lake Michigan hatcheries, was virtually rebuilt a few years ago. During the retrofit, no fish were produced. Did that have an effect on the subsequent years' success out on the lake? Of course it did! But that's history. The Mixsawbah rehabilitation is complete and 2009 will feature anglers tangling with fish produced in the new and improved facility.
Hoosier anglers don't just catch Hoosier fish. These fish don't respect the lines drawn on the map of Lake Michigan to delineate state boundaries. Our fish go to Wisconsin, Michigan fish migrate to Indiana, and Illinois fish . . . well, you get the picture. So one must not only look at the production from Indiana's Mixsawbah and Bodine hatcheries, but also look at the production from all the other states' facilities as well.
So, I've done that for you. If stocking numbers were the sole predictor of success or failure for any one fishing season, then 2009 will be a terrific year. Illinois met its quota for brown trout, cohos and kings during the production seasons most important for this year's class of fish. Wisconsin and Michigan had no problems, either.
Put-grow-take is a simple concept. The fish are put in the lake, swim around in it for two or more years, while growing to trophy sizes. So, based on previous stocking records, anglers are in for a great time this year.
As mentioned earlier, there are five species of trout and salmon in Lake Michigan, which make up the cold-water portion of the fishery. Let's examine each species and make specific prognostications for each.
I predict a new state-record brown trout will be caught in 2009 and it will weigh over 30 pounds! Am I nuts? Am I just spouting rhetoric? Absolutely not!
The weights of the state-record brown trout for each of the other Lake Michigan states are all well over 30 pounds and dozens or so 30-pound-plus browns are caught each year somewhere in the lake -- just not in Indiana so far. The Hoosier record brown is currently 29.3 pounds. In a lake with a proven capability of turning out 30-something-pound browns, an Indiana angler is just plain overdue to tangle with such a brute on our end of the lake.
If that proves to be a correct prediction, I'll also predict the fish is caught early in the open-water fishing season. Our part of the lake is the last to cool in the fall, the first to warm in the spring. Winter's cold pushes many of the lake's trout and salmon toward the southern basin, and one of these migrants will be that record fish. I'll not go so far as to predict exactly where, how or what lure will be used to hang the fish. That part will be up to you to figure out.
Okay, some lucky angler will catch the new state record . . . how about the rest of us? The rest of us are going to get in on some world-class brown trout fishing -- if not record setting.
Several years ago, the Illinois and Indiana DNRs came to an agreement about creating a zone at the farthest northwest corner of Indiana, where either an Illinois or Indiana fishing license is legal. Almost that entire zone is in Indiana; so to square the deal, Illinois agreed to furnish a truckload of brown trout fingerlings (approximately 25,000) from its hatchery system to stock in Indiana waters annually.
The first stocking was planted at Whiting in Lake County; the following year's allotment went into the lake at Michigan City in LaPorte County. The every-other-year stocking site arrangement has been followed ever since.
Don't think that leaves out Porter County anglers at Portage. Sandwiched between Lake and LaPorte counties, plenty of the browns from both stockings take up residence in and around the mouth of Burns Waterway, the Port of Indiana and the Bailey-Nipsco Plant.
Indiana hatcheries never produced any browns for the lake. Fishermen caught browns that strayed to the southern end of the lake from other states, but they were strictly incidental. Now that's changed. With several year-classes of browns available from past Illinois stockings, browns have become the most reliable species of fish to catch at the beginning of the season.
As soon as access points become clear of ice (usually late February or early March), Lake Michigan fans with smaller, trailerable boats will head out for specific areas they know will hold browns. Those are the warmwater zones created where Indiana's two tributary streams Trail Creek (Michigan City) and Burns Waterway flow into the lake, at power plant outflows (Hammond, Portage and Michigan City), near and inside industrial harbors (East Chicago, Hammond, Gary and Portage), and from warmwater discharges of other industries at Whiting and Gary.
Most of the browns are taken using full-bodied plugs fished on flat lines (lines simply trailed out behind the boat) or on either in-line or ski and m
ast system planer boards. No weight is required, just let the lures dive to whatever depth they are programmed to run. Some days the long, slender minnow-type plugs in either jointed or straight versions seem to work the best; on other days, stubbier crankbaits shaped more like shad or alewives conjure up more bites.
Many of the warmwater areas are very shallow (less than 10 feet deep), so presenting lures on diver-disks or downriggers is impractical. Other areas are much deeper, so don't neglect these other presentations. Often the larger browns sulk lower in the water column. Most of the action may come on the surface lines -- the trophy fish are likely to come deep. Perhaps that trophy will be the new state record with your name on it.
Coho salmon will continue to deliver the lion's share of "fish-on!" calls aboard Hoosier boats this season. Though brown trout have stolen the show for the early-season stalwarts the past several years, by April and on into May, cohos offer the most dependable bite on the lake.
Especially early in the season, anglers should think nearshore as in "very nearshore." No one's ever done it, to my knowledge, but I'd bet a boat could start fishing at the Illinois/Indiana state line with a game plan of trolling no more than 100 yards from the beach or break wall all the way to the Michigan line a few miles northeast of Michigan City. It would take a few days to cover the 43 miles, but it's likely the anglers onboard would never run out of fish.
When north lake cohos feel winter's chill approaching, they migrate to the south end of Lake Michigan. In the spring, when these migrants feel Indiana's shallow waters at the southern end of the 300-mile-long "inland sea" begin to warm, the fish scoot into these shallows all along our shores. It's been that way since cohos were first introduced into the lake more than 30 years ago, and it will continue to be that way.
Cohos have become one of the fish that plug coolers into the summer months, as well. That's not always been that way. Once the shallow waters warm out of the comfort zone in the spring, schools of cohos form up into wolf packs several miles offshore and start a summer feeding binge that lasts right into August.
Initially, offshore, the fish are surface oriented, as they are in the shallows. Lures pulled along in the uppermost layer of water get the most attention. Remember the rule, warm water floats on cooler water. As the surface water warms, the fish head deeper. One week, you might find all the action from the surface to 20 feet down. A couple of weeks later, lures positioned between 20 and 30 feet will receive the hits.
The beauty of cohos is they usually make up in numbers what they lack in size. Early on, figure them to weigh 2 pounds or so. By the end of the nearshore period, some of the 2-pounders have doubled in weight. By Independence Day, most of the fish are over 5 pounds, and by the end of the summer, they'll double their heft once again.
The past several years have shown a lake trout resurgence at our end of the lake. Or perhaps fishermen have adapted to presentations that put more lake trout on their hooks more frequently.
Historically, most of the season, lake trout were bottom dwellers and when targeting lake trout, lures fluttered along right at the bottom or scarcely above it did the trick. With the introduction of the quagga mussel and its close cousin, the zebra mussel, both alien invasive species, bouncing bottom for lakers has become a thing of the past.
Quagga mussels now blanket the lake bottom in the depths where most of the lakers were known to lurk, so a lure run close to the bottom will quickly spear gobs of the tiny clams and become worthless. The alien mussels have strained enough of the algae and other plankton from the water to allow sunlight penetration deeper into the depths. And just as a layer of bottom growth occurs in inland lakes wherever the sun penetrates, barren sand and mud flats now sprout a thin layer of green growing weeds and filamentous algae, usually called "green slime," by fishermen. Lures tracking and occasionally bumping the bottom can gob up with the slime in addition to quagga mussels.
Anglers are now finding significant numbers of lakers suspending up off the bottom, perhaps to get away from the mussels or filamentous algae. These suspended forktails are suckers for lures pulled far behind the boat on lead-core or copper wire line rigs, as well as for "meat-rig" offerings -- big lake slang for trolling with cut bait (usually herring strips).
In Indiana, steelhead and Skamania are almost interchangeable words. Most of the steelhead stocked by the DNR are Skamania-strain fish, a strain developed to be "summer-run" in that they home in on their natal streams in the summer months instead of during the fall or winter, as other strains of steelhead do.
Indiana's team of biologists who plan and implement the DNR's Lake Michigan strategies take a lot of pride in the Skamania program. All of the Skamania in Indiana's program are "home-grown," that is, the eggs are collected from Indiana fish, reared in Indiana hatcheries and the fingerlings are stocked into Indiana tributaries of Lake Michigan. Almost all the Skamanias used by other states around the Great Lakes are Indiana fish, as well. Indiana biologists collect enough broodstock each year to supply our program and have a surplus to sell or barter to other states.
The original Skamania strain was "invented" by selecting the earliest returning fish, breeding them, then selecting the earliest returning offspring from these pairings for multiple generations. These original Skamanias produced a boom-and-bust fishery in June and July. Almost all the fish would return at once to stage off Trail Creek or Burns Waterway, and almost all the fish would head up the tributary streams at once when the conditions were right.
Indiana's strategy now is to select some of the breeders from early in the run, others from July, August and September. The result is offspring that "filter" in all summer long. There's seldom a big swarm of steelhead off the tributary streams or huge numbers upstream.
At Michigan City and Portage, summer anglers often devote a prime-time hour or two fishing nearshore at dawn or dusk and then head offshore where they expect to hook up with salmon, lakers and, quite likely, another Skamania or two on most trips. Nearshore, fishermen rely on large, fluorescent red spoons and plugs to get the attention of the fish. Offshore, most of the steelies will hit all of the same spoons and flies set to attract the lake's other game fish species.
In the wild, king salmon eggs hatch and go from fry to fingerling to smolt (the stage when they leave their natal stream) in six or seven months. Other trout and salmon take a year or more to go through the process. The speed at which kings develop make them much more likely to spawn successfully in the wild; and, in fact, while the majority of steelhead, cohos, browns and laker
s are the result of hatchery stocks, 50 percent or more of the king salmon in Lake Michigan are born and raised in the wild.
That's why, though hatchery stockings continue to be cut in all the states, the number of kings being caught each year is stable or increasing. Certainly, for the past few years, the summer action for "feeder" kings has been phenomenal. Feeders are actively feeding kings aged 2 years (about 3 pounds), 3 years (about 8 pounds) and 4-year-olds weighing in the teens.
The king fishing usually starts by late April, nearshore, then continues offshore the rest of the summer. By August, kings become the predominant fish in the cooler. In September, the spawning run provides one last shot at the mature kings for boat fishermen as they stage in the area they were stocked.
I still can't predict what the stock market will do, which teams will be in the World Series, Super Bowl or the leader at the end of the 2009 Brickyard 400. But when I need a "sure-thing" fishing trip this year, I'll be heading to the northwest corner of our state and put my trust on Lake Michigan. You should, too!