Now's the time when Lake Michigan angling comes on strong for cohos, as well as the occasional chinook salmon. Read on for the latest news about these exciting fisheries. (April 2006)
Remember the old psychological test used to determine if a person is an optimist or a pessimist? Set a glass, half filled with water in front of a person and have them indicate how much water is in the glass. A pessimist would say the glass is half empty, while an optimistic person would say the glass is half full. There's a sizeable contingent of Lake Michigan anglers these days who are seeing the prospects for the 2006 season on the big lake as a glass half empty. There is another group who are much more optimistic.
Why would this be? For the past three decades, the prognosis for each season of fishing on Lake Michigan has been mostly stellar. Looking back at the end of each season has shown a share of ups, downs and surprises, but on the whole, the successes far outweighed the failures. Why then, the mixed guesses about the 2006 season?
Part of the gloom comes from a series of events that are shedding a dark cloud over the big lake. Last fall, a meeting was convened where biologists and fisheries managers from each of the Lake Michigan states announced a drastic decline in alewife numbers and the concern that most of the chinooks in the lake are undernourished. (Alewives are the most abundant and the most favored forage fish for chinooks.) The agreed-upon solution to the problem is to cut the lakewide stocking of chinooks by 25 percent.
Another part of the gloom comes from the state of Michigan's decision to save money by cutting back on the number of coho salmon they stock. The Michigan Department of Natural Resources (DNR) Platte River Hatchery usually cranks out about 1.5 million baby cohos each year to stock into Lake Michigan. Financial difficulties had DNR officials looking for places to cut spending and precipitated hard choices in several areas. One of those hard choices was to eliminate the production of a million coho smolts from their stocking program.
Though all four of the Lake Michigan states produce some number of cohos to stock in Lake Michigan, the total output from Wisconsin, Illinois and Indiana hatcheries collectively is about a million fish. Indiana's contribution is a paltry 225,000 fish compared with the other states. (Cont'd)
Though Michigan's fish are stocked in the Platte River, Michigan stocked fish are an important component of the catch recorded here in Indiana. To realize this, one must understand the life cycle of cohos in Lake Michigan.
Since all of Michigan's cohos are stocked in the Platte River, that's the only river in the state to host a fall run of spawning fish. Each October, some of the spawning fish are collected by fisheries biologists, stripped of eggs and milt and the fertilized eggs start a new generation of Great Lakes cohos. The eggs hatch in a few weeks and the tiny fry are nurtured for a year in the hatchery until they are old enough and large enough (usually around 7 inches in length) to be planted into the river.
These fingerlings quickly swim downstream and out into the cold waters of the open lake. By the time they escape the river, the temperature of Lake Michigan's water is bottomed out for the winter. The next summer these fish, called 1-plus year age fish by fish biologists because they are between 1 and 2 years of age, start to feed. Initially, insects make up a large part of their diet. It's not until they grow 12 inches or more in length that they gain the capacity to feast on alewives or other forage fish that are present in the lake.
Lake Michigan is 300 miles long, which is plenty big enough to ensure the climate at the north end to be much different than the weather on the Indiana end. Accordingly, as fall turns to winter, the water at the northern end of the lake cools off more quickly than the water in the southern basin. Cohos prefer water in the lower 50-degree range, so when the water offshore in the northern lake dumps down into the 40s, cohos start looking for warmer seas to swim.
Remember, cohos evolved in the Pacific Ocean. A swim down the length of Lake Michigan is a walk in the park. As the lake cools, the cohos head south -- all the way to Indiana. That's why hatchery cutbacks in Michigan can play a significant role to Indiana's famed spring coho action. A large percentage of the catch we reel in is off Michigan City, East Chicago and Portage in the spring. Many of these fish are the result of Michigan DNR stockings.
Last summer, the Indiana DNR, like Michigan, announced it, too, would be cutting back on the number of fish coming out of its hatchery system for the next couple of years. These cuts, however, weren't because of budget restraints, but to keep other more significant problems from cropping up in the future.
Indiana has two fish hatcheries capable of producing trout and salmon fingerlings. The older of the two, the Mixsawbah Hatchery, was constructed 30 years ago using welded steel piping for the hatchery's water supply system. Since built, the hatchery has been in operation 12 months a year, all day, every day and as with anything mechanical, time takes a toll.
Structural engineers examined all of Indiana's state fish hatcheries to list upgrades, repairs and rehabilitation needed to keep them online and at peak efficiency. Mixsawbah's pipes popped up as the number one infrastructure concern in the state's hatchery system. Hatchery manager Tom Schwartz said, "Much of the steel piping has corroded. It's just a matter of time before a serious failure occurs. Temporary repairs have kept production going so far."
In short, we have been working on borrowed time and band-aids. Mixsawbah is expected to shut down for a year while the old steel pipes are replaced with modern plastic plumbing. It's a great investment for the future of Indiana's Lake Michigan fishing, but during the shutdown, there won't be any kings, cohos or steelhead reared at the facility to stock the lake.
A MATTER OF TIME
All the above negatives might make you think the "glass-half-empty" proponents are on the right track. How can the fishing be good in 2006 with all this working against it? It's a matter of timing.
The fish we will be hoping to catch this season are already in the lake. We commonly catch 2-year-old-plus cohos and 2-year-old-plus and 3-year-old-plus kings. Steelhead, lakers and brown trout don't die after spawning, so we can expect fish much older than this to be a part of the mix as well. In other words, though the cutbacks of chinooks and cohos and the elimination of fish from Mixsawbah hatchery for a year will eventually (potentially) affect our fishing, whatever results occur from these cutbacks won't be felt for several more years.
THE REAL DARK CLOUD
For many, the measure of success of a year's big lake season rests on having spectacular coho fishing in March and April. This is the period when all the Michigan fish, all the Indiana fish and all the Wisconsin and Illinois fish are squeezed against Indiana's shores and available to Hoosier fishermen. Limits can come quickly by simply dangling a night crawler under a bobber or trolling bass-sized crankbaits from hand-held rods.
These are fish that were spawned in late 2003, nurtured in the hatchery and stocked in 2004. They grew to size in the open lake in 2005 and migrated to our end of the lake last winter. As I said before, the bulk of these cohos originate from the Platte River Hatchery in Michigan.
Here's the last bit of gloom. In the spring of 2004, one of the pumps that keep oxygenated water flowing through the tanks of coho fingerlings broke down at the Platte River Hatchery. To make matters worse, the same power failure silenced the alarm, which was supposed to signal hatchery workers to the problem. The end of the story was almost one million cohos floating belly up by the time the problem was found and corrected.
"That's a million fewer fish," the pessimists say, and they are correct. But does that automatically mean the spring coho fishing will be in the dumpster? Not by a long shot.
This is not the first time Indiana anglers have faced a spring with less than normal coho numbers. In the early 1990s, a mysterious disease cropped up in all the hatcheries that supply cohos for the Great Lakes. Dubbed early mortality syndrome (EMS), the affliction caused a substantial portion of the cohos in the hatcheries to die shortly after hatching.
Eventually, biologists learned EMS was caused by a deficiency of the vitamin thiamine. Adding a dose of thiamin to the water curbed hatchery losses and things got back to normal. However, the cause and the cure weren't found immediately, and for a couple of years, the number of cohos stocked in Lake Michigan was similar to the number stocked in late 2004.
Was Indiana's spring fishing affected adversely from these stocking shortfalls? "No way!" said Tim Morris, owner of Just For Fun charters out of East Chicago. "We had spectacular March and April fishing during those lean years. I don't anticipate any dip in our catch rate next spring. Whether there are 2 1/2 million cohos in Indiana in March or 1 1/2 million cohos, that's still plenty of fish."
I've explained prospects for spring cohos already, but for the past decade or so (since the ready availability of GPS units), summer fishing for cohos has been terrific. With full stockings of Indiana and Illinois fish, the summer action should remain consistent with the last several years regardless of hatchery shortfalls in Michigan. During the summer months, Michigan's fish are headed back toward the Platte River.
Each summer, the south-lake cohos school up from seven to 15 miles out in the lake, which is easily accessible from all of Indiana's marinas. Pull out of your favorite launch area and head for the "numbers." The numbers are the GPS coordinates where the charter skippers and sportfishermen have been pulling fish for the past several days. You can get the numbers off the Internet at a variety of sites. The reports from the Great Lakes Sport Fishing Council (www. great-lakes.org) are quite reliable.
Summer cohos are suckers for trolling flies run behind attractors. Metal dodgers are quite effective, and in the summer, the 8-inch versions are perfect. Chrome, pearl and dull silver (called smoke) are favorite colors along with the streamers in white, greens and pale blue colors. In the past couple of years, plastic flashers have become popular, too. These spin in a wider circle and give the flies a different action. The same color patterns do the work.
I reported earlier that the Lake Michigan states cut the number of king salmon (aka chinook salmon) stocked in the lake in 1999 and plan another 25 percent cut in the future. The reason for this is because there have never been more kings in the lake than there are now! Fish managers can adjust hatchery output, but they can't adjust the number of kings. These fish are being naturally spawned in Lake Michigan tributary streams. Conservative estimates put the "wild" stocks to be as large or larger than hatchery stocks.
It's certainly been noticeable in the past two summers when unprecedented numbers of 2-year-old-plus and 3-year-old-plus kings mixed into the same areas where both spring and summer cohos are caught. In fact, late last summer, far more kings were being boxed than cohos.
The action for kings heats up in late April when the rising water temperatures trigger huge schools of alewives to move into the shallows to spawn. When your sonar starts marking big globs of baitfish on the screen, it's time to target kings by deep trolling magnum spoons under your coho baits. The rule of thumb is to put the king lures in the bottom half of the water column. If you are fishing in 40 feet, set lures for chinooks at least 20 feet deep.
In the summer, expect the same flasher and fly combos set for cohos to tempt open-water chinooks, but if you really want to hammer summer kings, you have to "get the lead out." Lead-core line, that is.
Lead-core line is a thin, lead wire surrounded by a braided nylon sheath. The lead adds weight to the strand and the nylon adds strength. Depending on trolling speed, lead-core line sinks from 3 to 5 feet deep for each 10 yards of line let off your reel. In the summer, most skippers let out a "full core" meaning a full 100 yards. The lure isn't tied directly to the lead-core line, rather a 20- to 40-foot nylon or fluorocarbon monofilament leader is attached to the end of the core and the lure is tied on to that.
Any kind of lure can be used with lead core, but most skippers use the same magnum spoons they used in the spring. Glow-in-the-dark hues are great in the early morning and on cloudy days. Brighter colors do better once the sun gets high enough to penetrate down into the depths.
Lead core doesn't work just because it gets the lures down deep, though that's only a part of the equation. It's a stealth presentation. With the lures flitting along more than 100 yards behind the boat, the fish don't make any connection between the boat, motor noise, downrigger wires and weights and the lure they spot swimming all alone through the depths. A spooky salmon, too wary to come under the boat to nab what it thinks is "good eats" will attack a lone spoon, plug or fly without hesitation.
Lead core lovers often double or triple the number of cores they will troll by using large-sized, in-line planers to pull their cores out to the port and starboard sides, as well as running one (or two) straight behind the boat. When trolling multiple lead-core lines, be sure to only make wide sweeping turns or risk a tangle you don't even want to think about.
The real fun for king salmon lovers begins in the fall when the mature spawners appear back in the shallows near their sto
cking sites. These are the big, mature specimens, which will test and best all but the hardiest anglers and gear. The run usually starts the last week of August and continues right on into October. If there's a secret to hooking fall chinooks, it's to fish early and late. Not that a 30-pounder can't be hauled in at high noon, but the best action invariably occurs by "the dawn's early light" and again as sunset nears.
Therefore, when it comes to Indiana's kings and cohos, in 2006 my glass is half full. What about yours?