Salmon and trout are on the minds of most fishermen as another new season of big-lake fishing begins. Here's the latest! (May 2006)
Some people would say there are five species of salmon and trout in Lake Michigan. King salmon, also known as chinook salmon grow to the largest size. Cohos are the original Pacific salmon that were long ago stocked in the lake. Steelhead trout and brown trout now accompany lake trout, the only species of the five that has always been at home in the Great Lakes.
I say there are more kinds of trout and salmon than the above quintet. Sure, if you did DNA analysis of the fish, you'd come up with only five species, but if you base the count on behavior, location, size and other mannerisms, I can think of at least a half-dozen other kinds of salmon and trout swimming in the big lake.
A lake trout hugging the bottom in 120 feet of water in the summer is much different than the same trout in November when it's cuddling up to the rocky reef just outside the Port of Indiana to spawn. Brown trout are a different animal most of the year than they are in March when they swarm by the thousands into the few warmwater areas in the southern basin.
Hoosier big-lake fans have two kinds of cohos: spring cohos and summer cohos, and they have both Skamania steelhead and the "other" kinds. To top it all off, there are three kinds of chinooks based on when and where they are found.
So a Lake Michigan forecast article is more than just a compila8006424720tion of stocking information and other details on the five different species. It needs to touch all the behaviors of each species, especially as the seasons progress from winter to spring to summer and into the fall months.
The Lake Michigan season begins with brown trout. Of all the big lake's species (regardless of how you count them), browns are the ones with the highest water temperature comfort zone. Perhaps this is why they seem to be the fish most adept at finding the places in the lake with the warmest water when the winter cold plummets the water in the main lake down to the freezing mark.
Shore-anglers at the BP-Amoco discharge in Whiting brave ice-covered rocks to get at the fish in January and February. The public access site where shore-fishing is allowed inside the Port of Indiana coughs up browns for early-season anglers, as does the mouth of Trail Creek and Burns Waterway.
As soon as the ice leaves the lake and boat access opens (usually around early March), boaters will join in the early-season fun. In addition to this, brown trout fishing has never been better.
For decades, there were no brown trout stocked in Indiana. Four years ago, that changed when an agreement was arranged to get a truckload (25,000 to 30,000) of brown trout fingerlings from Illinois to stock into Indiana's part of Lake Michigan. The initial stocking was made at Whiting in Lake County. The next year, the browns were planted at Michigan City in LaPorte County. Porter County lies between these two locations and benefits from both stockings. Subsequent stockings continue to alternate between the two locations.
"Have you noticed any results from these stockings?" I asked Mike Orr who runs 5-Orrs Charter Service.
"Absolutely!" Captain Mike said. "We've always boxed a few browns in March and April, ones that strayed down from one of the other states. Last spring, we boxed numerous browns every trip. The ones from the initial stocking were in the 7- to 10-pound range and the ones from the most recent stocking were around 4 pounds each. It used to be extremely rare to hook a brown trout in the summer when we are fishing far offshore for steelhead and salmon. Now we catch them regularly out there, too."
Once the early-season concentration of browns evaporates with the warming waters, they become an incidental catch, at best. But brown trout are always a welcome incidental and with the increased stocking rate at our end of the lake, they are becoming a more frequent "incidental."
The next species to enter into the action is coho salmon. If there's a dark cloud over this year's big-lake forecast, it's for our traditionally super, great, wonderful, amazing spring coho fishing. It's likely to only be super and great, so we might have to drop a couple of the adjectives.
Many (not all) of the cohos we catch in the spring come from the Platte River Hatchery in Michigan. Two years ago, when that year-class of fish were tiny fingerlings, a power failure at the Platte hatchery caused about half of the Michigan fish to die. So the number stocked that year was about one million fewer fish than normal.
How that will impact our spring coho fishing is anyone's guess. On one hand, one million cohos is a large loss. On the other hand, Michigan, Indiana, Wisconsin and Illinois all produce cohos for the lake. Most of those cohos are in Indiana waters in March and April and the total number stocked is still over 1.5 million fish. That's still a large number of fish and optimists predict most anglers won't see much difference in catch rates in 2006.
Michigan stocked cohos play little, if any, role in how good the summer fishing for cohos is because those fish migrate back north as soon as the water warms. For the past several years, fishing for cohos in the summer has been great. Once the alewives finish spawning in early May, they move offshore and the salmon follow them out into the lake. This is the beginning of the summer coho season.
Summer cohos also differ from spring cohos by size. Cohos start the season weighing about 1 or 2 pounds, but by the time they finish their spring binge, they've doubled their weight. Look for them to gain up to a 1/2 pound on average each week once they move offshore. That means solid 5- and 6-pound fish by Memorial Day and 7- or 8-pounders by Independence Day.
Normal summer coho hotspots straddle Indiana's north border. Sometimes, the fish are in Indiana, at other times, they'll be in Michigan or Illinois. GPS units tell exactly where you are fishing, so most Great Lake regulars just buy licenses for all the states. Most charter captains sell one-day tags to keep their customers legal.
When it comes to steelhead trout, the favorite fish of many Hoosier anglers, Indiana controls its own destiny. Most of the steelies that end up in the creel at this end of the lake originate from Indiana's two hatcheries: Mixsawbah and Bodine. Steelies are stocked both in the spring and fall from each of these hatcheries. The hatcheries have been right on schedule for the past several years and right at target levels.
Indiana stocks both Michigan-strain fish and Skamania-strain fish. It's the Skamania that generate the most excitement. Look for significant numbers of these summer-run fish to show up in the shallow water just offshore of Michigan City and Portage in late June. They'll stick around all through July and into August most years.
The number of steelhead present hinges on water temperature. A hot, dry summer as we experienced last year means cool water nearshore and a longer Skamania run. Cold, wet weather makes for a shortened run, since the fish tend to ascend into the tributary streams (Trail Creek, Salt Creek and Little Calumet) whenever the stream outflows drop into the upper 60-degree range.
When steelhead aren't heading for their spawning streams, their preferred location is way out in the lake. Skippers from Michigan targeting steelies often cross paths with skippers from Wisconsin doing the same thing.
When Indiana fishermen follow the salmon out to Illinois or Michigan waters, they, too, are getting into the zone where significant numbers of steelhead are likely to be encountered. Usually a couple of fluorescent red spoons are run above other lures positioned deep for salmon. These are the ones that connect with the steelhead most often.
SUMMER LAKE TROUT
In the summer when the fishing fleets working out of Indiana's marinas target the deep, cold waters north of the border in Illinois or Michigan, lakers become an important part of the catch. With the abundance of summer cohos and kings, few skippers run the gear or use the tactics employed a decade or so ago when deep-water lakers were a summer staple. Now, most lakers are taken on the same spoons, flashers and flies used to tempt summer salmon.
The few hardy anglers who remain active late into the fall can get in on some great lake trout fishing when the fish desert their offshore haunts and move close to shore to spawn. November usually provides the top fishing action. The best two spots in Indiana are the submerged reef just north of the Port of Indiana at Portage and the shallow water off the beach at East Chicago. Spawning trout don't go on a hunger strike as salmon often do. When the trout are in, expect multiple hookups on fish up to 20 pounds.
Indiana has three distinct chinook salmon (aka king salmon) seasons. It's not any legal requirement or specific dates, rather it's the time of year and location of the fish. Spring kings appear in the shallow, nearshore waters in mid-April. No one knows for sure why, but it's probably one of two reasons -- or perhaps a combination of the two.
One reason is Lake Michigan waters cool down into the lower 30-degree range during the winter. Many fish, including chinook salmon, go nearly dormant when the water temperature drops below a certain mark. Usually by mid-April is when the nearshore temperatures climb into the middle 40s and the kings warm up enough to begin a spring and summer feeding spree.
Another theory is the water temperature bouncing into the mid and upper 40s is what signals alewives, the most important prey fish in the lake, to swarm in the shallows on their spawning run. Kings are hungry fish and regardless of the time of year, the old maxim, "find the bait, you'll find the kings" is always true. When millions of alewives group up in spawning schools near beaches, piers and breakwalls, the kings follow.
Spring kings can be taken on both spoons and plugs. The old standby, the J-Plug is an excellent choice --choose a chrome or bright green color in the No. 3 size. Standard and magnum-sized spoons take a fair share of the spring kings, too. Alewife-imitating colors and patterns work very well. If it's a cloudy day or if you are fishing early in the morning, spoons with glow-in-the-dark paint will produce.
Spring kings occur at the time of year when there are still plenty of cohos and brown trout around. Target them by fishing deeper than you would for the other fish. Don't be surprised if one occasionally seizes a flasher and fly or a small orange crankbait that you are trolling at the surface for cohos.
There are more chinook salmon in the lake right now than at any time in history. Though the Lake Michigan states agreed to a 27 percent reduction in stockings in 1999, Mother Nature stepped in to produce some kings of her own.
Natural reproduction -- mostly in Michigan streams but some from Wisconsin and Indiana tributaries (Illinois has no tributaries) -- has been outstanding for the past several years. Biologists suggest for every hatchery-reared chinook salmon in the lake, there's another that was naturally spawned in a tributary stream.
This abundance of chinooks is most apparent in the summer months when king salmon from our hatcheries and those from other states set up their summer feeding stations within range of Indiana shores. Last year, mixed catches of cohos and kings were common most of the summer, but by August, kings were the "cake," while cohos, browns, lakers and steelhead were just the icing to great fishing.
Summer kings will smack trolling flies positioned behind attractors -- most anglers use large, "O"-sized dodgers and large flies. Kings will also chow down on spoons, and for the past couple of years, the magnum models outdid the standard-sized spoons. More and more anglers are employing whole herring or herring filets run behind extra-large flashers to target summer kings.
King salmon are most active at dawn and dusk any time of the year. The artificial lures are hot at these times. The herring seem to keep the bite going on through the late morning and in the mid-afternoon for those fishing the late shift.
Chinook salmon turn into a different fish all together come fall. They are a fall spawning species and move into the shallows to do so. No longer do they seem to give a hoot about water temperatures. You can catch them in 75-degree water. But they are no longer on a feeding binge, either.
They'll bite a lure, but the strikes are reactive and out of aggression, not because they are hungry. Use magnum spoons and large No. 4 and 5 J-Plugs as well as the 13-centimeter jointed minnows. Start before dawn and fish until after the sun sets in the evening. A fall king might bite at any time of day, but peak activity always occurs in the dim light or at dark. When fishing in the low-light or no-light times, use glow-in-the-dark baits. Once it becomes light, choose bright chrome and silver models and those with bright, fluorescent paint jobs.
PERCH AND BASS
Many people look to Lake Michigan for salmon and trout fishing, but before these exotics were introduced, yellow perch were the main reason fishermen headed down to the lakeshore. There are still hundreds of perch fans and many salmon trollers who will gladly stow their big-fish gear at the words, "the perch are in."
There have been hard times, because of overharvesting by commercial netters; but now that the netters have been sidelined, the lake's perch have struggled
back. Numbers are still fewer than what would be ideal, but there are now several year-classes in the lake and when they are "in," 15-fish limits of dandy-sized perch can be taken quickly.
Think of Lake Michigan and you instantly think of cabin cruisers, sailboats and sturdy, high-sided trailerable craft. There's another type of boat being seen regularly, these days: bass boats. Whether smallmouth bass have always been there but not discovered, or the population is something that has popped up in the last decade, makes no difference. There are smallmouths aplenty and more and more bass fishermen who are willing to have at them.
Though Indiana owns only a tiny portion of Lake Michigan, it's our greatest treasure. Make plans to sample that treasure at least once or twice this season.