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The Long Way Home

The Long Way Home

When coho salmon smolts were released into Lake Michigan tributaries in 1966, their fate was unknown. A year and a half later thousands returned, and Illinois' salmon fishery was on its way. (July 2008)

This Illinois angler pulled in a nice coho while on a charter trip.
Photo by Jerry Pabst.

Forty-two years ago, a dream became reality when Dr. Howard Tanner, the fisheries chief of the Michigan DNR, successfully completed the initial stocking of Pacific coho salmon into Lake Michigan. The 850,000 cohos planted on a cold March day in 1966 were divided between the Platte River, Bear Creek and the Big Huron River in Lake Superior.

The newly arrived smolts were monitored daily by fisheries biologists, who reported the cohos released in the two Lake Michigan streams remained in the rivers until mid-April, then moved into the big lake in early May. This was important because it gave the young salmon time to imprint to the waters of their natal stream, assuring a strong spawning return the following year.

The Big Huron River cohos, for some reason, swam into Lake Superior almost immediately after release, resulting in weak and widely scattered returns. Since the fish had developed no chemical memory of their original stream, they simply swam up whatever river or creek was handy when the spawning urge hit, resulting in poor angling prospects and collection of mature fish for egg-taking purposes impractical. The Lake Superior salmon fishery has never matched the world-class quality of that found in Lake Michigan.

Once the coho smolts entered Lake Michigan, their fate was unknown, and all biologists could do was wait a year and a half to see if any returned.

At last, in August 1967, a Ludington fisherman hooked and landed the first adult coho near the mouth of the Manistee River. Before the fall run ended in November, thousands of cohos in the 20-pound range had been caught, and the Lake Michigan salmon fishery was on its way.

In following years, Illinois joined Wisconsin and Indiana and instituted its own salmonid stocking programs. By the mid-1970s, the three states were contributing more than 14 million fish annually. In addition to cohos and chinook salmon, lake, rainbow and brown trout were also included.


Ironically, the first signs of the program weakening appeared where it all started, in Michigan, where tightened DNR budgets dictated cuts in stocking. As a result, Michigan's 2007 coho contribution was reduced to 900,000 from its usual 1,600,000 -- a cut of 700,000 fish.

However, in 2008, help is on the way in the form of an additional 400,000 cohos financed by contributions primarily from the Salmon Unlimited chapters of Illinois and Wisconsin, individual contributions and the Wisconsin DNR.

But such help is only a temporary thing because a proposed increase in Michigan fishing license fees lost momentum and is unlikely to pass.

Denied the additional funds the fee increases would have provided, Michigan said they do not plan to return to former coho stocking levels.

The scary part of this budgetary shortfall is that the same thing could occur in any of the other states, including Illinois, wherever increasing government programs place great strain on available dollars for our fisheries. If you are a big-lake angler, it would be advantageous for you to join Salmon Unlimited of Illinois, if for no other reason than to add your name and swell the membership rolls, and fund the work of protecting the Lake Michigan programs now in place.D

While new exotic species and strange fish diseases seem to spring up every year, salmon and trout manage to survive in pretty good shape. The usual culprits, zebra mussels, water fleas, gobies and a few nasty, although rare diseases are still around.

A second electronic barrier has been activated in the Metropolitan Sanitary District canal with luck to prevent the big head and silver species of Asian carp from spreading from the Illinois River into Lake Michigan. Most biologists don't believe these well-intentioned barriers can do anything more than slow the migration if the carp are determined to move upstream. These huge (50-60 pounds), prolific carp are filter feeders that utilize the algae and microorganisms at the bottom of the food chain, and could cause the collapse of entire fisheries.

For some unexplained reason, while carp are thick throughout most of our major river systems, they seem to have halted their advance up the Illinois River toward Lake Michigan at the dam at Utica. No one knows whether the big trash fish will prosper in the lake's cold waters, or if they will remain downstream of the Utica dam, but for now, they are under control.

It's more important for your fish locator to show baitfish than pick out individual predator fish. Always concentrate your efforts in areas holding the most baitfish, because that is exactly what the salmon are doing.

While early spring traditionally sees some of the season's fastest fishing action along the Illinois shore, the fish are on the small side, with cohos running between 2 and 4 pounds and chinooks in the 4- to 8-pound class. Brown trout, rainbows and lakers are bonus fish then and really cannot be targeted.

Spring fishing usually is best in shallow water, from 10 to 20 feet deep, and begins in early April in the Calumet Harbor area on Chicago's far south side, then quickly spreads north to Burnham Harbor, the Navy Pier and the Horseshoe Pier at Montrose Avenue. All of these areas allow access for shore-fishermen, and along with the offshore trollers, they all have pretty good luck.

Farther north, spring salmon hotspots found every spring are the Evanston/Wilmet Harbor shallows around the R-2 marker buoy, the humps off Ft. Sheridan, the Great Lakes Naval Hospital shallows, and from the entrance to Waukegan Harbor in 10 to 30 feet of water all the way up the Wisconsin state line.

In all these places the fish will readily strike small spoons and crankbaits, but you couldn't go wrong if you laid out nothing but size "00" red dodgers and tinsel flies. As a rule, the fish will be in large, loosely structured schools, so when you catch one fish, work that area thoroughly and you may limit out right there.

By early June, the shallow water has begun to warm beyond the comfort level of salmon and trout. Also, alewives, their main food source, have completed their spawning chores and are moving into cooler, deeper water as well. Shore-fishing is over, and the boats will be moving out into the 30- to 50-foot dep

ths. Red dodgers and gaudy flies are still the best bet.

By the time you read this article, in early July, the very best part of the Lake Michigan fishing season has arrived. All the salmon have moved out into deep water and the lake trout are aligned on the bottom in their favorite haunts. Rainbow and brown trout are scattered in the same areas as the salmon but suspended above them in the water column.

After 25 years experience as a charter boat captain, I found a good rule of thumb when making a fishing plan to be -- lake trout on the bottom, chinook 10 to 15 feet above, cohos 10 to 20 feet above the chinook and rainbows and browns above the cohos all the way to the surface.

Depending on wind direction, you will find fish in 50 to 120 feet of water and always near schools of baitfish. It's more important for your fish locator to show baitfish than pick out individual predator fish. Always concentrate your efforts in areas holding the most baitfish, because that is exactly what the salmon are doing.

Lake Michigan is a very big lake, which of course, is why it is called a Great Lake. And salmon are constantly on the move as they trail the shifting patterns of alewife schools.

Last year's hotspots mean nothing this year, and even yesterday's fishing pattern may have been dramatically altered overnight. Any Lake Michigan fisherman, from the oldest pro to the newest rookie needs reliable, up-to-date information to get on the fish at the first stop and then stay on them. Blindly trolling and hoping something good will happen usually results in an empty cooler.

The only way to find reliable information is networking with other fishermen in the same areas you are working at launch ramps or in your harbor, by joining fishing clubs such as Salmon Unlimited and monitoring other fishermen and charter boats on your FM radio.

Don't hesitate to radio another fisherman, even if you don't know him. Most folks will be glad to help you out by telling you what lures, how deep, and even where they are fishing. Even charter captains will share some expertise if you ask nicely, then get off the radio. Remember, these guys have a boatload of clients to look after. They just don't have time for long-winded conversations with private boaters.

I wish I could tell you exactly where you will find salmon and trout off the Illinois shoreline this summer, but that's just not possible. I can assure you they will be out there, chasing alewives and they will be big and plentiful. Many believe the only time you can catch large numbers of salmon is in early spring, but that's untrue. If you get into the right area, and fish hard, 20 or 30 big salmon are quite possible.

Chicago's spring fishing begins in early April in the Calumet Harbor area on the far south side, then quickly spreads north to Burnham Harbor, the Navy Pier and the Horseshoe Pier at Montrose Avenue. These areas allow access for shore-fishermen, and along with the offshore rollers, they all have pretty good luck.

By now, you should be taking cohos between 5 and 10pounds and good numbers of chinooks in the 10- to 15-pound range, with an occasional specimen tipping the scales over 20 pounds. Rainbow trout will be there, too, usually weighing between 5 and 10 pounds, but I have a 20-pound beauty hanging in my home that reminds me there are some real trophies out there, too. The past few seasons have seen an increasing number of giant brown trout pushing 20 or more pounds. You just never know.

While there's no shortage of lake trout, they have become densely packed into just a few areas. Spots where I used to always be able to pick up a few lakers are now barren and not worth fishing. The main lake trout hangout in Illinois waters is Julian's Reef, about 14 miles southeast of the Waukegan Harbor. Because they aren't known for fierce fighting qualities, few fishermen are targeting the big lakers, especially since salmon fishing remains very good, and may be found much closer in, an important consideration given the $4 a gallon fuel costs.

Fishing regulations on Lake Michigan are simple. Three trolling rods are allowed per licensed fisherman, and you may use two lures per line. The daily limit is five fish per angler, only two of which may be lake trout.

All fishermen 16 and older must be licensed and possess a Lake Michigan salmon stamp. One-day Lake Michigan permits and non-resident licenses are available online at or at many license vendors around Illinois.

Many fishermen utilize the fleet of charter fishing boats located in most harbors. The Chicago Sportfishing Association operates at the city harbors along the lakefront. For information, call (312) 922-1100 or visit

In Waukegan, call the Waukegan Charter Boat Assn. at (815) BIG-FISH or Google "Illinois Lake Michigan Fishing." A charter boat captain should provide everything needed for an exciting day on the lake. Make sure the boat is U.S. Coast Guard licensed to carry passengers, fully insured and experienced. All necessary fishing gear should be provided, as well as electronics and safety equipment. At day's end, your catch will be cleaned, bagged and iced for the trip home. All you really need to provide is suitable clothing for the expected weather and a cooler to transport your fish. Oh, yeah, be sure to bring a camera to photograph the big one that didn't get away.

The Lake Michigan fishery is alive and well. And, yes, you can eat the fish.

For more information about Chicago fishing, call (312) 742-7529 or visit

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