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Our Lake Michigan Salmonid Outlook

Our Lake Michigan Salmonid Outlook

The salmon and trout fishery on our Great Lake faces some serious challenges in the near future. You had better get out there while the getting's still good!

Photo by Mike Gnatkowski

Some things never change. Some things always change. Rarely does something that never changes always change. Lake Michigan's amazing salmon and trout fishery is one of those things that starts each fishing season pretty much the same, then runs a different course as the summer progresses. Having fished the big lake as a professional chartaer captain for 25 years, I can truthfully say that while similarities occur, I have never seen one season that comes close to duplicating another.

Over the past 10 years, lakewide stocking rates of salmon and trout have remained consistent in terms of total fish released. However, five years ago, chinook planting was drastically cut back when it was thought the big predators were taking too big a bite out of the alewife forage base. When the food supply dwindled, the chinooks became stressed and developed bacterial kidney disease (BKD), a deadly malady that decimated their numbers in their second and third years of life.

To combat BKD, the biologists from the four states surrounding Lake Michigan determined a course of action that would reduce the number of chinooks in the lake to give the alewife population a chance to rebound. The hope was that those fish stocked would remain healthy, and in the end result in a larger proportion of adult chinooks avoiding BKD, and maturing to 4-year old adults.

Fishing results indicate more large chinooks being caught during the past few seasons, but the fishery managers are still studying the findings of test-netting and shocking surveys. The early indications are the number of adult chinooks returning to stocking points have been shrinking in each of the past five years. This may indicate that while more chinooks are growing to adult size, a significant percentage of each year's planting is still dying off at an earlier age.

However, this problem has not affected overall fishing success lakewide since increased planting of cohos and rainbow trout has made up the shortfall in chinook numbers. In like manner, planting additional rainbow trout and brown trout made up for a shortfall of cohos available for stocking in the spring of 2004.

Summarizing the recent plantings that affect the fishery each season is a bit complicated. Although Illinois annually stocks around 900,000 fish, this is not enough to assure good fishing in a pond the size of Lake Michigan, which is about 300 miles long, 50 miles wide and more than 1,000 feet deep in a few places. In order to assess the number of salmonids available on a yearly basis we also must take into consideration those fish stocked by Michigan, Indiana and Wisconsin. Since none of these fish stay in their home waters for long, they contribute heavily to the Illinois fishery.


Steve Robillard, an Illinois Department of Natural Resources fishery biologist assigned to the Lake Michigan Salmonid Task Group, provided us with an overview of the situation.

Since the cohos stocked by Michigan -- usually 1.5 million -- contribute the most to the overall fishery, it is significant that their stocking program was disrupted last year when 500,000 cohos were released earlier than usual due to renovations under way at the Platte River Hatchery. Last fall, a considerable number of small cohos showed up in test surveys of the Chicago harbors, and were probably part of that early Michigan release. If so, it means there will be less cohos in the lake this summer.

Adding to the problem was the die-off of another 500,000 cohos in a Michigan hatchery due to a pump failure. Without doubt, coho numbers will be down this summer, but with less pressure on the forage base, those fish that are present should be larger. Coho salmon annually comprise 80 percent of the total Lake Michigan sport catch.

Although chinook fishing has been good over the past years, Robillard cautions us against optimism for this season. Even though the numbers of chinook planted were cut back dramatically in 1999, the effect was softened by the fact that the alewife base increased significantly that year. As a result, the chinooks enjoyed exceptional survival and growth rates. Chinooks stocked in spring usually grow to 13 or 14 inches by fall. The 1999 class grew to 17 inches in the same time span. That batch of fish are now gone, and their replacements -- having to make do with a weaker forage base -- are fewer and smaller.

While we are addressing the strength, or lack of it, of the Lake Michigan forage base, let's take a look at the current assessment of the alewife population as surveyed by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS). This agency conducts annual trawls, which means they drag big nets around to collect samples of alewife density in certain areas of the lake. By analyzing the result of these trawls, USFWS fishery managers can estimate the lakewide population of the prey on which the salmon and trout are dependent. Their predictions of abundance are expressed in terms of biomass or weight.

Before the trawling data was available, a USFWS expert estimated the 2004 alewife biomass would have decreased 25 to 50 percent from the 2003 figure. Once the full data was in, it was apparent the biomass had indeed shrunk by 60 percent from the prior year. On the surface, this is surely not good news for the salmon and trout fishery.

If there is any encouragement to be had, it lies in the fact that trawl nets do not pick up very small young-of-the-year (YOY) alewives due to their large mesh size. The biologists feel there was a significant successful alewife spawn in the spring of 2004, and if those small fish survived the winter, they will assure the future of the young salmon and trout stocked in the spring of that same year. If the YOY alewives died off under the ice, the salmonids may be in serious trouble.

What can be said with reasonable certainty is, if the trawling assessment is accurate, and the abundance of larger alewives is truly down by 60 percent, the larger trout and salmon in the lake are going to have a hard time earning their daily bread.

As bad as that news is, there remains yet another crisis facing the trout and salmon. Studies of the alewives have revealed their nutritional value -- on which the salmon depend for growth -- has declined by 30 percent. This means that for a salmon to remain healthy, and grow normally, it now must find, catch and eat about one-third more alewives than before. As Robillard explained, a vicious cycle is created in which the predator expends more energy than usual to find food, then eats more food than usual to maintain energy, and when food becomes increasingly scarce, expends even more energy to find more food, and on and on.

Why is all this suddenly happening? Most scientists lay the blame squarely on an exotic species introduced in 1988, the zebra mussel, which filters massive amounts of the little critters the alewives eat from the lake's waters. While uninformed folks praise the way Lake Michigan's waters have "cleaned up" over the past 15 years, what has actually occurred is a sterilization process that is steadily removing vital nutrients.

The future of the Lake Michigan fishery is, at this time, unpredictable. Will the zebra mussels wipe out the entire fishery? Will they eventually suffer a population crash, a frequent event in the case of newly established exotic species? Will it all go away, or will the situation, over time, stabilize? Who knows? Surely not biologist Steve Robillard, who says, "Some days I think we should just drain the whole thing and start over."

For now, the big lake's fishery is in decent shape, and fishing this summer should be good. Last spring Illinois planted a total of 875,772 salmonids, which break down this way: 300,076 cohos; 302,673 chinooks: 60,300 lake trout; 48,423 rainbow trout; 64,300 steelhead; and 100,000 brown trout. This is right on par with stocking figures over the past 12 years, and lakewide, the other states have been holding the line as well.

Fishing for salmon and trout in a big, cold waterbody like Lake Michigan is a sport unto itself. The best bass, muskie, walleye or catfish experts would be lost if they were thrust onto Lake Michigan's broad waters and told to catch salmon. The salmon and trout are nomads, relentlessly following the baitfish. They do not relate to the surface, the bottom or any structure in the lake. As a result, there is no such thing as a "Lake Michigan hotspot." Today's "hotspot" often becomes a "dry hole" because the schools may move many miles over night.

If there is anything that remotely resembles a consistent fish-producing area, it is the R-4 marker situated about four miles offshore directly east of the power plant in Winnetka. Here lies a huge reef that comes within 35 feet of the surface before dropping precipitously off into more than 100 feet of water. During the hot summer months the area often holds good-sized schools of baitfish, and naturally, they attract all sorts of large game fish. But, as good as the R-4 can be, it can also be completely empty if weather conditions force the alewife schools to move away.

As in the real estate-industry, the key to successful salmon fishing is "location, location, location." Probably the least successful anglers are those who venture out to some spot simply because they used to do well there. They are fishing memories, and that usually doesn't work on the big lake. You simply must fish where the fish are today, not where they were two days, two months or two years ago.

To get to the right spot requires very current information. There are two ways for the average angler to get this vital help. He or she can pick the brains of anglers on the lake via the marine radio, or they can join one of the salmon fishing clubs that maintain a telephone reporting system for their members. Or both.

If you have been around the lake for a while, you probably have salmon fishing friends. Stay in touch with them, especially if they fished the day before you plan to try your luck. Frankly, if they haven't fished within two days of your outing, they have no information that is useful anymore. Before leaving the harbor, try to talk to some of the other people preparing to sally forth. Learn what you can from them. If while trolling you hear of someone who is into fish, do not hesitate to "rip and run" to their location.

Another source of on-the-water help are the charter boats. The professionals are usually right up to speed on the best fishing locations of the day. Don't be afraid, or too proud, to follow a charter boat to where the action is. It is a big lake, with room for all, and the captain won't mind your tagging along if you don't crowd him.

Your marine radio is a vital source of on-the-water information. Learn which channels the local sport-anglers use and which channel the charter boats are on. Pay attention to these transmissions and put the information to good use. You will usually be received kindly if you call another boat and ask for some help. You can even call a charter captain, once or twice, and ask a question or two, but don't get chatty. Remember, he has six customers to take care of -- and 10 or 12 lines in the water -- and doesn't have time to listen to war stories. If the information he gives you puts a few fish in your cooler, make a quick call and thank him, then leave him to his work. Never call a charter captain to brag about how many fish you have caught. Sometimes they have bad days, too.

Salmon Unlimited is one of the lake's oldest and best fishing clubs, and works tirelessly to improve the fishery and cleanup of polluted areas. SU sponsors a schedule of interclub fishing tournaments that provide wonderful opportunities to learn techniques from fellow anglers. The club hosts monthly meetings featuring speakers on a wide variety of salmon fishing topics. The club also maintains a hotline on which members post up-to-date results of recent fishing trips, a big help when deciding on your next morning's starting point. Call Jean at (773) 736-5757, or check them out at

When this magazine hits the newsstands, Lake Michigan's trout and salmon will have moved offshore into waters 60 to 120 feet deep. There is no way to predict how deep they will be holding in advance, since a shift in the wind can cause dramatic changes in water temperature. Here is when a water temperature gauge is valuable. Stop the boat and simply lower the unit down into the water column, and be alert for a sudden 3- to 5-degree decrease in temperature. That's the thermocline. Concentrate your lures in a pattern reaching 10 to 15 feet above and below the temperature break. Watch your graph, pay attention to the depths that strikes are occurring, and adjust your presentation accordingly.

Since game fish will be clustered near baitfish, don't be in hurry to leave a productive area. Use your GPS to mark the spot, and troll back and forth over that waypoint until the action ceases.

You will still be using a goodly spread of dodgers and tinsel flies, but bright trolling spoons will now be very productive. Be sure your downriggers have plenty of cable on them, and check all the line on your reels for wear and tear. Are the reels full, and are the drags working properly? This is the time of year when the hawg chinooks and monster brown trout show up, so be well prepared.

If you need to find a charter boat to take you and your group out for an exciting day of big-lake action, simply do a search on the Internet for "Lake Michigan fishing." You will find more help than you can imagine. Lodgings around the Illinois shore are plentiful and will fit any price range.

When choosing a location from which to charter, simply pick a spot convenient for you, since the fish are distributed all along Illinois' shoreline. Sometimes there are more in one spot than another, but there is really no way to forecast that. North Point, Waukegan and Chicago all have exce

llent charter boat fleets with competitive rates. There is no reason to travel any farther than necessary.

So, while there are some dark clouds on the horizon, the fishing outlook for Lake Michigan in 2005 is a bright one. Get out there and have fun while you can!

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