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The Lake Michigan Salmonid Outlook

The Lake Michigan Salmonid Outlook

If you like catching and eating salmon and trout, this is the year to go fishing on the big pond!

Photo by Mike Gnatkowski

By Jerry Pabst

Although Lake Michigan continues to uphold its well-deserved reputation as a world-class salmon and trout fishery, some years turn out to be better than others. This year could be a dandy. Since stocking programs for all four of the Lake Michigan states have remained consistent, weather is the variant that determines season-long success rates for Illinois anglers.

While air temperature is important, it concerns the comfort level of the anglers more than it affects the quality of fishing. The salmon and trout are concerned only with water temperatures, and since they thrive in 48- to 54-degree conditions, it doesn't take a heat wave to achieve these optimum temperatures, so anything near normal spring/early summer weather will make the fish happy.

What is important is the prevailing wind direction, which dictates where the right water conditions will be found on the big pond. For instance, if spring features prolonged periods of steady northeast winds, the warmer surface water of the lake will be pushed against the western shoreline. Since water temperatures in spring will be anywhere from the high 30s to low 40s, the fish - both prey and predator - will be found in the warmest areas. In spring then, northeast winds, although they can produce rough wave conditions, are favorable ones for trollers.

Once the lake warms up by mid-June, northeast winds are no longer helpful, and if they continue into July, the resulting buildup of warm water pushes the cooler water farther offshore, and the salmon and trout go right out with it.

Today, nearly all anglers plying Lake Michigan waters for salmon and trout do so from boats that can safely follow the roving schools well offshore, if necessary. The problem arises if the alewives - the food of choice for the big guys - decide to keep going across the lake or move north up the shoreline. Should that unhappy event occur, it will indeed be a long, slow summer for Illinois anglers. Last summer, we saw more northeast wind than we needed, but not the constant, day-after-day blows that sometimes happen. The result was decent, but there was spotty fishing for most areas throughout the season. On the other hand, if we are blessed with westerly breezes for most of the summer, the hot water will float across the pond, and the cooler water that replaces it will hold both baitfish and salmon in Illinois waters.

Before going further, let's take a look at just how many fish we are targeting for the 2004 season. According to Dan Makauskas of the Illinois Department of Natural Resources, our state's stocking program has remained very consistent over the past 10 years, as has the lake-wide planting by the other three states - Indiana, Michigan and Wisconsin. The five main species stocked are coho salmon, chinook salmon, lake trout, rainbow trout and brown trout.


Since most people identify with the Lake Michigan poster fish - the coho salmon - we'll start right there. The coho is surely the big lake's bread-and-butter fish, being available to shore- and boat-anglers alike from ice-out through most of the month of May when the salmon prowl the shallows gorging on spawning alewives. The cohos we will catch this summer are those planted in the spring of 2003, when 249,066 were stocked. While the DNR's aim is to plant 300,000 cohos each spring, they experienced a shortfall when many of the eggs in the state hatchery failed to survive. The missing 50,000 cohos were replaced by additional rainbow trout being released. Since Michigan and Wisconsin release many millions of cohos annually, and they met their stocking goals, there is no reason to expect any shortage of these popular game fish. Cohos were released in roughly equal numbers in Chicago's Diversey and Jackson harbors, as well as in Waukegan Harbor.

The chinook salmon remains the trophy fish of the big lake. For many anglers, landing even a midsized chinook represents the biggest fish they have ever caught. Each year a good number of chinook salmon - also called king salmon - weighing well over 30 pounds are boated, and most quickly find their way to local taxidermists. Thousands of fish in the 20-pound-class are brought in each season, and 10- to 20-pound 3-year-old fish are common. Unlike the cohos, which live only three years, the chinook has a 4-year life span, which accounts for its huge size at maturity.

Since chinooks are in the fishery for three years, it is best to look at planting rates for that time frame. Illinois' goal of 300,000 chinook being stocked annually has been met fully for each of the past three years, the fish being equally divided between Diversey, Jackson and Waukegan harbors. Chinook stocking by the other three Lake Michigan states has remained steady at about 3 million lakewide. Additionally, significant natural reproduction is occurring in some streams and rivers in the state of Michigan, which probably adds several million more chinooks to the total lake fishery. Over the past three years, over 15 million chinook salmon have entered the Lake Michigan fishery.

Although each state stocks them, lake trout are provided solely by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. As a result, stocking levels have fluctuated significantly depending on how many fish the federal hatcheries were able to turn out. With the exception of the 2000 plant, which never happened, Illinois' annual share of government fish has been 60,000 since 1998. The lakers are stocked offshore on known spawning reefs of previous years, but to date it has not been possible to induce the planted fish to spawn naturally. Still, there are plenty of the "beautiful gray fish" out there, and the state record is well above 30 pounds.

Rainbow trout are very popular among Illinois trollers, but it seems some years are better than others for hooking up with these high-flying battlers. The 'bows are constantly on the move, and when you cross paths with one of the traveling schools, it will be an experience you won't forget. Two species of rainbows are stocked annually, the thick-bodied Arlee strain and the long, rangy steelhead. The Arlee is a fish that originated in rivers, while the steelhead is a rainbow that comes from big open waters. In 2003, 50,886 Arlee-strain rainbows went into Jackson and Montrose harbors in Chicago, into Evanston's Dawes Park and offshore on Julian's Reef. At the same time, 75,968 steelhead were released in equal numbers in Diversey and Waukegan harbors.

Brown trout, once a mystery fish, have become a more reliable part of the Lake Michigan fishery. Only during the past five years or so have anglers taken these beautifully decorated trout on a regular basis. Their size, often well over 20 pounds, is impressive. Each of the past six years has seen 100,000 brown trout added to Illinois' Lake Michigan fishery. Each spring, 10,000 browns have gone into every Illinois harbor.

Now that we know Illinois and its sister Lake Michigan states have put plenty of trout and salmon into the lake, our challenge is to get a bunch of those fish out there to bite. Here is how we are going to do it.

In Illinois, there are two distinct Lake Michigan fishing areas, based solely on accessibility, and these are Chicago and Waukegan. Since two other areas are closely tied to these two major ports, for purposes of this article I will lump Evanston/Wilmet in with the Chicago area, and include Northpoint Marina in the Waukegan area. Lake Michigan anglers can be quite territorial, but since the fish don't respect any boundaries, this merging of their home fishing waters is unavoidable. Each area has its own distinctive natural structures, series of marker buoys and shoreline features.

By late June, just about all the trout and salmon will have departed the shallows and taken up summer residence in deeper water. Just how deep they may have gone will depend, as we have seen, on the prevailing wind direction of preceding months. What you must do is find the appropriate water temperature for the salmon, which will usually be 52 degrees, and then search for baitfish in that area. Without exception the big fish will be very near the little fish. A water temperature gauge is a big help since the preferred temperature you are looking for will not be on the surface but may be anywhere from 30 to 70 feet down. You need to find the temperature break between the warm upper water and cold water below it, and then troll that break until you encounter schools of alewives, as seen on your graph.

Once you are into the "baiters," you will surely find some predators, but keep in mind that some areas that hold baitfish will attract more salmon and trout than others. If you hit the mother lode, and fish are coming in regularly, stay on that spot. If you are just picking up a fish now and then, keep expanding your search of that area until you find the best spot.

Here is a tip when picking other anglers' brains via the boat radio. Always remember you cannot catch the fish they have already put into their coolers. In other words, their success has already happened, and it may be over, even though they are making you crazy with stories about how good it was. Find out when they had their action, and most importantly, if it is still going on. Also, unless you are just coming out on the lake, consider how long it will take you to pull your lines, run to the new spot and reset the tackle. Will the bite last that long? If you are completely out of the fish, you have nothing to lose by moving. But if you are catching some fish, perhaps you will do better to stick it out where you are, rather than invest productive fishing time in a time-consuming move.

Another thing to ask is, "Is everyone around you catching fish?" It is possible your buddy is having the luckiest day of his life and you couldn't duplicate his catch if you got in the boat with him. Don't discount information from other anglers, but be sure it is going to benefit you before you "rip and run." Honestly, unless you know where the fish are, follow the charter boats out. They do know the best place to start, and you can bet they are going right to it.

I wish I could tell you where to find the fish, but that is impossible, and actually would be misleading. Since salmon and trout - lake trout being the exception - live their entire lives suspended between the surface and the bottom of the lake, their day-to-day habitat is determined by water temperature and the availability of baitfish. It is a work constantly in progress, and it is very unproductive to simply start at a given spot just because you once caught fish there. You must have current, reliable information.

To do this you can rely on friends who have fished within the past day or two, at most, or cultivate a friendship with a busy charter captain who will tip you off to what is happening. Maybe the easiest way is to belong to a fishing club that maintains a hotline that is updated regularly based on reports by members. The most noted of these is Salmon Unlimited at (773) 736-5757. This organization promotes the fishery and related conservation causes, helps DNR biologists fin-clip salmon, sponsors a series of Lake Michigan fishing tournaments, holds monthly meetings featuring instructive speakers and publishes a monthly newsletter. Better yet, new members are greeted with a free fishing trip on an experienced member's boat. It is a good deal.

The basic lures for midsummer fishing are going to be dodgers in size 0 and 00, as well as various flies. Tinsel flies in green, blue, gold and black will produce, as will fluorescent white. Brightly colored trolling spoons with Mylar tape are good choices. Solid silver- or gold-colored spoons are also good producers. The once-hallowed, now-forgotten J-Plug still catches fish, even though very few people use it. When all else fails, show them something different, like one of many lures languishing in your tackle box that used to catch fish but now is out of style. Chances are a lure that once worked still will - if you give it a try.

Has all this Lake Michigan information convinced you to get out there and give it a go? Only one problem, huh? You don't have a boat or any friends with a fishing boat? Don't despair, because there is a way to overcome that handicap that will put you on the fish effectively, and at no great expense. The thing to do is simply book a trip on a charter boat. This will put you aboard a fully equipped Lake Michigan fishing boat with a professional captain and mate who know where the fish are and know how to catch them. You will have an enjoyable, safe, big-lake fishing adventure, catch some of the finest-eating fish around, and do it for less than the cost of the rod and reel you used to make your catch.

There are any number of good captains operating out of the Chicago harbors, Waukegan and Northpoint Marina. To get lined up with one, call the Chicago Sportfishing Association at (312) 922-1100, or call 847-BIG-FISH, for the Waukegan Charter Association.

If you are coming from out of town, you will find motels handy to any of the harbors. Restaurants are plentiful, as are just about any other services you may require. One-day fishing licenses cost just $5 and are available on the boats.

Charter customers should bring a cooler in which to transport their catch. Don't forget your camera and/or video recorder to prove your fish was really as big as you claim it was! Lake Michigan can be a little on the cool side, so figure the air temperature to be about 10 degrees colder than on shore. Always bring a jacket, and don't be too quick to wear shorts, sandals and sleeveless shirts. You may troll into an insect hatch, and those little critters won't have had much to eat before you showed up. Work on your tan on the beach.

If you plan to launch your own boat, call the Marine Division at the Chicago Park District or the Waukegan Park District for full details on procedures and permit costs. In Chicago, there are launch ramps and parking available in Diversey and Burnham harbors, and Waukegan Harbor offers ample launching and parking.

* * *

This year promises to be another great season of salmon and trout fishing on Lake Michigan, and as we have seen, there are plenty of opportunities for everyone to

get in on the fun. Whether piloting your own boat, as a guest on a friend's craft or with friends on a charter boat, make sure you experience the thrills of fishing the big pond this year.

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