Here's the latest on what to expect for salmon, trout, yellow perch and more on our slice of Lake Michigan. Will it be a good year? Read on! (May 2008)
Mike Schoonveld of Morocco admires a beautifully marked bonus brown trout, which was caught during the summer while targeting salmon.
Photo by Tom Berg.
Lake Michigan is famous for the quality of its salmon and trout fishing, and for good reason. Millions of fish are stocked by the Lake Michigan border states every year, and the lucky fishermen who pursue them catch huge numbers of those trout and salmon each season. And Hoosier anglers are always eager to get in on the action as well!
As good as the Lake Michigan fishery is, however, there has been some rough water recently. In 2005, the Mixsawbah State Fish Hatchery was closed for urgently needed repairs. The hatchery was closed from September 2005 until September 2006. Since it was a planned shutdown, the hatchery schedules were manipulated to minimize the loss of fish production.
According to Brian Breidert, a Lake Michigan fisheries biologist for the Department of Natural Resources (DNR), the revamped hatchery went back into production right on time. "Mixsawbah was back online by the end of September 2006, with the first stocking after construction taken place in April of 2007 (winter steelhead yearlings), followed by chinook salmon in May 2007."
That information was music to the ears of Lake Michigan anglers, who are always happy to hear that hatchery production is going well and that plenty of fish will be stocked in the lake for them to catch!
Coho salmon are one of the first species of fish that many anglers target in the spring. Winter fishermen often pursue brown trout, but spring cohos are the quarry for most anglers early in the boating season. In most years, when the cohos are in, limit catches are the norm -- not the exception.
Although coho fishing in the spring of 2007 started off a little slow, it picked up considerably in May. Captain Mike Schoonveld is one of Indiana's Lake Michigan charter captains. He reported that last year's early summer coho action was good on his boat Brother Nature.
"The spring fishing was slow because there was no bait around," he said. "But in the middle of May, the alewives showed up out on the Indiana shoals, and the cohos followed them. The bait stayed there the rest of the summer and we had excellent fishing for cohos."
Unfortunately, the typically good spring fishing in Indiana waters may start a bit slow this year, too. Because of the shutdown of the Mixsawbah Hatchery, the Indiana DNR was only able to stock coho salmon from the Bodine Hatchery in 2006. A total of just over 79,000 cohos were stocked that year, and 2008 is when the bulk of those fish will return to our spring fishery.
Luckily, spring coho fishing in Indiana is less dependent on Indiana's stocking numbers and more dependent on water temperature and the annual migration patterns of cohos in general. In the spring, Indiana hosts the warmest water in the lake, so all of the cohos stocked by Indiana, Illinois, Michigan and Wisconsin migrate to our shorelines to take advantage of the warm water. (Continued)
Once the fish arrive, they'll cruise around and search for schools of baitfish that are also attracted by the warm water. That's when most boaters target them. Trolling bright-colored crankbaits and dodger-and-fly combinations is the standard procedure, and limit catches are typical. Limits of cohos may be harder to come by this spring than usual, but they are still very possible.
Since the Mixsawbah Hatchery came back online in September of 2006, biologist Breidert reports that Indiana's coho stockings have returned to normal.
"Mixsawbah reared 150,000 cohos that were stocked in the fall of 2007," he said. "The remaining 90,000 cohos from our stocking goal came from Bodine Hatchery."
That bodes well for Indiana's coho fishing in the years to come.
Chinook (or king) salmon fishing in Indiana has been excellent during the last few years. Typically, the kings don't begin to appear in our nearshore waters until some time in April. Depending on how quickly the water temperature rises into the mid-to upper 40s, the first kings may show up in early April or they may wait until nearer the end of the month.
In any case, the chinook numbers just continue to increase as the year progresses. By June and July, salmon trollers should expect a solid mix of cohos and kings, with a few steelhead mixed in for good measure. By August, the catch will likely be predominantly kings, ranging in size from nearly 10 pounds to more than 20 pounds.
Even though the Mixsawbah Hatchery was offline for a full year, Indiana's chinook stockings did not miss a beat.
"We were fortunate enough to get chinook from the state of Michigan in 2006," Breidert said. "Mixsawbah produced all of the chinook for 2007 from eggs received in the fall of 2006."
Besides the chinook stockings from Indiana and the other Lake Michigan border states, natural reproduction has also begun to boost chinook numbers in the lake. Up until a few years ago, most experts agreed that natural reproduction of salmon in Lake Michigan tributaries was negligible. The majority of the lake's tributary streams had problems with warm water, pollution, silt buildup and lack of good spawning habitat.
The streams have been cleaned up considerably in recent years, and although there are still problems, the chinook have found a way to reproduce successfully. Most of the natural reproduction is occurring in Michigan and Wisconsin streams, but Indiana creeks also contribute. Since the kings don't usually appear off our shores in numbers until summer, anglers who only fish for spring cohos may not even realize that the number of chinook salmon has swelled!
Trollers who target spring and summer kings use a variety of methods to tempt them to strike. Thin trolling spoons are always productive, and color combinations of silver/green, silver/blue and silver/purple are often very effective. Large plugs are also traditional king-catchers, and the well-known J-Plug is still the most popular. Chrome is hard to beat, but other colors like chrome/chartreuse and green glow are also excellent choices. Dodger-and-fly combinations will also take plenty of summer kings, as do "meat rigs" -- strips of cut herring run behind large flashers or dodgers.Although many of the kings hanging around offshore in August are 3-year-old fish, a good
percentage of them will actually be mature 4-year-olds. At the end of August, those adults will move in close to shore to prepare for the fall spawning run. Breidert was optimistic when asked for a prediction for the fall king run this year. "The 2008 and 2009 chinook runs to the Little Calumet should be very good," he said.
Lake Michigan is home to two different strains of steelhead trout: summer-run Skamania strain steelhead and winter-run Michigan strain fish. In reality, steelhead are actually nothing more than rainbow trout. Rainbows are trout that live their entire lives in small lakes or rivers, while steelhead are rainbow trout that live out in the ocean and migrate into rivers and streams to spawn. Lake Michigan takes the place of the ocean for our steelhead, and they migrate into Lake Michigan's tributaries to spawn. Like their saltwater counter-parts, our steelhead get big!
According to biologist Breidert, the steelhead fishing this year should be excellent, too.
"In 2008, steelhead anglers should find very good fishing in the streams," he said. "More fish were released in the fall of 2005 to offset the year that Mixsawbah was under construction."
A quick look at the stocking numbers tells it all: In 2004, nearly 335,000 steelhead were stocked in Lake Michigan tributaries. In 2005, a whopping 645,576 steelhead were planted. That's an incredible number of steelies!
Boat anglers will catch a few steelhead in the spring, but most of the steelhead action out on the lake usually doesn't start in June. That's when the first summer-run Skamania begin to show up at the creek mouths in Michigan City (Trail Creek) and Portage (Little Calumet River). When they appear, the lake comes alive with leaping fish as fishermen hook up and yell, "Fish on!"
Skamania-strain steelhead are long and slender, and grow to larger sizes than their Michigan-strain cousins. They love to become airborne once hooked, and they are difficult to land successfully. The average-sized Skamania is about 10 pounds, and 15-pounders are definitely possible during the height of the run.
Summer-run Skamania arrive in June, but they may not enter the creeks until July or even August, especially if the water temperature in the streams is too high. If that's the case this year, they will mill around in near the creek mouth until conditions improve -- providing an extended period of exciting fishing for lucky anglers nearby. The first heavy rain, however, is usually enough to send them upstream in a flash.
While the steelhead are staging in front of the creek mouths, two types of lures are generally the most productive for trollers. The most popular is a thin trolling spoon, painted fluorescent red on both sides. Another favorite spoon color is silver with a splash of red or silver on one side and orange on the other. The other type of lure favored by Skamania hunters is the body-bait. Either slender jointed models or rattling crankbait types, as long as they are red or orange, they will catch fish!
Winter-run steelhead, as the name implies, do not appear for their spawning run until the cold weather of winter is upon us. They can still be caught out in the wide expanses of the lake, though, and they will hit many of the same baits that anglers use for Skamania-strain steelhead.
Last year was the sixth year in a row that our state's biologists stocked brown trout into Indiana waters, which is a very good thing. Before 2002, it had been decades since Indiana had stocked browns in our own waters. Through a deal worked out with the Illinois DNR, however, Indiana's biologists have been able to stock anywhere from 35,000 to 46,000 brown trout per year right here in our own back
The 2002 stocking took place at Whiting Park near the western edge of Indiana waters. The following year, DNR biologists opted to stock the browns much farther east -- at the harbor in Michigan City. Each year, the stocking site is alternated so that the fish can be spread out among as many fishermen as possible. Last year, a total of 41,100 browns were stocked in Michigan City.
Although many of the browns move away from their initial stocking site, biologists believe that most will stay in the same general vicinity. That's good because these areas provide both shore-fishermen and boaters excellent opportunities to tangle with plenty of nice-sized brown trout.
Shore-fishermen get in on the brown trout action first because they get to fish all winter long, regardless of icebound harbors. The warmwater discharges at the Stateline generating plant in Hammond and the Amoco Oil refinery in Whiting attract scores of trout and provide enough open water for anglers to fish effectively. Cold-weather fishermen in Michigan City also catch plenty of brown trout along the Washington Park pier where Trail Creek hits the lake (at least until ice becomes a problem).
As soon as the harbors thaw in late winter or early spring, boaters get into the act and head for the nearest warmwater discharges to target a few brown trout of their own. Some of the most popular areas for trollers to pursue browns include the Stateline generating plant in Hammond, the Amoco Oil refinery in Whiting, the Inland Steel shipping canal in East Chicago, the U.S. Steel Gary Light in Gary and the mouth of Trail Creek in Michigan City.
Brown trout love to eat fish, so minnow- or shad-imitating lures work best. Crankbaits painted silver or gold are hard to beat. Other good colors include chartreuse, fire tiger and silver/green. Shore-fishermen use those lures, too, but they also use a variety of natural baits as well, including night crawlers, salmon eggs, dead alewives and cut squid.
Lake trout are a very coldwater fish, so for much of the year, they are out in deep water hugging the bottom. During the spring when the water is still cold, however, some anglers catch an incidental laker or two while fishing for other salmon and trout. For the most part, though, they are considered a bonus catch.
During the summer and fall, however, boaters have a chance to target lake trout specifically. In the heat of the summer, lakers head for the coolest water around. That means deep water offshore, and it also means fishing for them on or near the bottom. As the summer progresses, the fish will move deeper and deeper until they are out in Michigan or Illinois waters. Hoosier anglers can still catch them when fishing out of Indiana ports, but they must buy a fishing license for the state where they plan to fish.
Tactics for catching deep-water lakers include using downriggers to get baits all the way down to the bottom. Some anglers also use rods spooled with wire line and rigged with directional diving disks to pull lures deep. Large trolling spoons and large flasher/fly rigs are the standard laker baits, and productive colors include hammered silver and glow/ green.
When summer turns to fall, lake trout will enter the shallows to spawn. They usually spawn over rocky reefs and sandy shoals, and one of the best places to f
ish for them is just outside the Port of Indiana near Portage. They usually arrive by late October, but November is also a productive month.
At the end of November in 2007, Brian Breidert was out on the lake pulling lake trout nets to monitor the laker population.
"The population of spawning adults was similar to what we have seen in the past few years," he reported. "The largest fish that we saw was 20 pounds, with the average size being around 10 to 12 pounds. We did collect fish from many different age- classes, too."
Yellow perch fishing out on the big lake has been improving in recent years. Anglers are seeing perch of all sizes again, which indicates that there have been several successful spawns. It wasn't too many years ago that baby perch were almost nonexistent, and fishermen feared that perch would be gone forever.Overharvesting by commercial fishermen and competition from gobies and zebra mussels all took their toll on the beleaguered perch. Luckily, the perch have bounced back and are looking good.
"We should have a good year for perch as long as the weather cooperates," Breidert said. "A lot of 12- to 14-inch fish were taken last November near the Donut and Gary Light. These two areas should remain hotspots for 2008, as well as areas off Mt. Baldy and Kintzel Ditch near Michigan City."
Keep in mind that there is no size limit for perch on Lake Michigan, but there is a bag limit of 15 perch per fisherman, per day.
There you have it, a look at what you can expect this spring and throughout the season on our Great Lake. Hope to bump into you either on a rocky shoreline or over an offshore hotspot!