Now's the time when boating anglers can enjoy the bounty of Lake Michigan's nearshore fishing for cohos, brown trout and more. Here are the places you should try now!
By Mike Schoonveld
Many years ago, I was the starting center on my high school football team. Lining up just to my left on the offensive line was Bill Mead from Raub. We became good enough friends that even though it had been decades since we'd talked, I still recognized his voice on the phone when he called me.
I don't remember the exact conversation, but the gist of it was, "Can you take my son and me on a fishing trip on Lake Michigan?"
Plans were made and a few weeks later we met at Pastrick Marina in East Chicago for an afternoon session with what we hoped would be more than a few of Lake Michigan's cohos and perhaps a bonus brown, steelhead or chinook. Cohos are always the mainstay of the catch in Indiana's Lake County portion of the big lake in the spring months, but the other species are lurking there in enough abundance that there's a real chance of a mixed bag of trout and salmon species on each outing.
There are always enough fish around that the presence of fish is one of the least worrisome aspects of a Lake Michigan fishing trip for springtime anglers. There's more need to worry about equipment. There's more need to worry about how many sandwiches to bring along. There's more need to worry about keeping enough ice in the cooler. So if these and others are all minor things to ponder before heading out on the lake, what "worry" would be No. 1?
That's easy. It's wind. Wind is the movement of air and it has two components that Lake Michigan fishermen need to consider: speed and direction. There's an old adage that goes, "Wind from the east, fish bite the least. Wind from the west, fish bite the best . . ." and it goes on from there. Though the adage seems to have some merit when it comes to fishing bass or bluegills on an inland lake, it means nothing when it comes to Lake Michigan salmon.
Though cohos are the mainstay of the fishery in May, expect a mix of browns, steelheads and kings in each day's catch as well. Photo by Mike Schoonveld
Salmon can't afford to be finicky about wind direction and feeding slumps. A Lake Michigan coho that lives out its full life ends up being a fish weighing about 8 pounds. A Lake Monroe largemouth bass or a Brookville Lake walleye that lives a long time will be about the same size. Sure there are bigger bass, sure there are bigger walleyes, and most certainly there are bigger cohos, but I'm referring to "normal" fish, not exceptions.
The point, however, is while an 8-pound Brookville walleye will be close to 10 years old and an 8-pound Monroe bass will probably be older than that, an 8-pound coho will be less than 3 years old. Three years is the "normal" life span of coho salmon. As they approach their third birthday, they become mature, head into the stream in which they were stocked (the Little Calumet River or Trail Creek, here in Indiana), complete the one spawning run they will make and then die. So there are no 6- or 10-year-old cohos, but by mid-summer there are plenty of 8-pounders.
So how do they grow to that size so quickly? One factor is their bodies are very efficient in converting baitfish into salmon flesh, but the main reason is they don't swim around the lake worrying about which way the wind is blowing, if that means they should bite wantonly, sporadically or not at all. The passage of a cold front that might put a bass off its feed for two days makes a salmon stop feeding for maybe 20 minutes. An abrupt wind switch that may make a walleye bury its head under a rock doesn't affect hungry salmon in the least.
If that's all true, then why do salmon anglers worry so much about the wind? It's a one-word answer: waves. Want some more words? Can you say rollers, whitecaps, breakers, swells or chop.
Lake Michigan is huge and with the right wind conditions can produce ocean-like waves, rollers, whitecaps, breakers and swells - all big enough to make boating and fishing uncomfortable, at best, or extremely hazardous, at worst. That's why Lake Michigan fishermen always put wind worries at the top of their list.
That's also why many anglers choose to center most of their spring fishing activities in Indiana's most northwesterly county. It's not that it's less windy there, but it certainly is developed. And as the area was developed, the natural shoreline features, dunes and beaches gave way to industry and shipping, manmade harbors, breakwaters and jetties, constructed to tame the lake's fury. Those features give nearshore anglers plenty of options.
On the day that Bill Mead and I were to fish, the wind report called for moderate conditions, blowing mostly from the south. That was terrific since there are plenty of places to fish with a southerly breeze. We'd probably be able to exit Pastrick Marina and simply follow the "wall" on out into the lake.
The wall is the southeast side of the steel mill. Back when environmental laws were lax and big steel was king in northwest Indiana, the steel industry had no problems getting permits (if permits were even required) to dump the cinders and slag from the iron-ore furnaces into the lake. Over time, enough waste was dumped that it created "new" acreage and the mill expanded out onto the filled-in area. More time passed and more fill was added until now, most of the ISPAT/Inland Mill is located on a manmade peninsula.
This peninsula juts out almost three miles into the lake in a generally northeast direction. I'm not arguing that was a "good thing" environmentally, but it sure has been a boon to thousands of Lake Michigan fishermen who use the mill as a landmark and the Inland wall as a sheltered place to fish when the wind is blowing from the north, northwest or west.
By the time I set up my trolling array of downriggers and planer boards, it became apparent the weatherman missed his wind speed and direction predictions by a small margin. Small margins can be very important on Lake Michigan and instead of the steady push of 1- to 2-foot waves I expected to be running down the wall, the easterly component drove the waves almost directly at the wall; and the southeast wind meant the waves, instead of only having a chance to grow over the short distance back to the shore, had several miles of fetch and were rolling at 2 to 3 feet in height. These waves were quite steep.
Fishing in choppy 3-footers is never comfortable, but an added problem made the lake completely unfishable. The last mile or so of the Inland wall is constructed of sheet piling driven into the lakebed. Waves that crash in on the piling don't just dissipate as they do when they splash onto a rock-lined shore. They bounce back - so not only does a boater have to contend with the oncoming, wind-dri
ven waves, but also the reflected waves coming from the other direction.
Was that the end of our "class reunion" fishing trip? No, indeed! Lake County offers options and the nearest "option" was to simply pull up the lines and move over to the other side of the peninsula. Once we got there, the chop died to nothing and we were able to comfortably reminisce about our days at South Newton High - other than when cohos interrupted our musings.
BUFFINGTON HARBOR Had I been closer to Pastrick Marina when I realized the true direction and scope of the wind, I could also have chosen Buffington Harbor as a likely retreat from the southeast breeze. Buffington Harbor is best known these days as the mooring place for two of Lake County's four casino boats, the Trump and Majestic Star.
There is a limited area to fish in front of the gambling boats inside the harbor, but the outside of the harbor features more than a mile of sheltered fishing when the wind blows from the east or southeast. The outer breakwater is rock with a bottom depth of about 30 feet. Trolling toward shore, once you get to where the rocks are replaced by sheet piling, expect the bottom to slope up as you approach the beach.
CALUMET HARBOR Though Buffington can serve as a retreat on an east wind, Calumet Harbor serves that purpose even better. Calumet Harbor is best accessed from the Hammond Marina just off Indianapolis Boulevard. Hammond is the mooring for the Horseshoe Casino, so just follow the signs to it and you'll get to the right spot.
If you are heading for Calumet Harbor because of the wind, realize there may be up to a mile of open lake that has to be traversed before you get to where the harbor walls offer shelter. Seaworthy boats that can splash through the waves initially are rewarded with comfortable lake conditions once they reach the outer breakwall.
I like fishing Calumet Harbor more than Buffington because it offers more options of places to fish. The harbor itself is formed by a rock breakwater, which juts out from the shore in a northeasterly direction. About a mile out in the lake the wall makes a bend and continues due east for another half mile. Then there's a break in the wall called "the gap." On the other side of the gap, the jetty heads southeast for another mile or so.
The first place I always head is to the gap. Wind-driven currents and currents from the opening and closing of the locks in the Grand Calumet River cause water to flow in and out of the gap. These currents make the area a fishing hotspot. I've had many days when every pass across the gap resulted in one or more hookups.
If the fish aren't there, you don't have to go far to look in other places. Sometimes salmon and trout scatter along either the detached breakwall or the rock wall that leads back toward the shore from the gap. The mouth of the Grand Calumet River is often a hotspot, as well. If you find color breaks, where the silt-laden river water butts up against the clear lake water, be sure to troll the break.
Still can't find fish? Head for the far southeast end of the detached breakwall. Fish school up there just out of the rough water rolling on the other side of the jetty. Don't overlook the middle of the harbor, either. By May, the harbor is full of spawning alewives, and if the alewife schools move into the middle of the harbor, the cohos, browns and steelhead will follow them.
Calumet Harbor is good on an east wind and even better when the wind is from the northeast. Anglers can comfortably fish the north breakwall at Calumet on a due north wind. If the wind switches completely and comes from the west or south, no problem - just fish on the outside of the wall!
INLAND WALL When faced with a strong west, northwest or even due north wind, many anglers will choose to fish the ISPAT/Inland Steel breakwater, mentioned earlier. The first portion of the wall starts at the outer harbor wall of Pastrick Marina and goes nearly due east for almost a mile. Then it takes a quick bend to the north and continues on at a northeast direction.
At that corner is a lighthouse constructed of angle iron (more like a windmill scaffold). This lighthouse is known locally as the "first light." The second light is another windmill-like structure at the far end of "the wall" and the third light is on the northwest corner of the Inland peninsula.
Between the first and second lights is another notable landmark. There's a tiny cove where the rock wall ends and the sheet-piling wall begins with a square-shaped building right at the water's edge in the cove. Salmon fishermen know this area as the "hole-in-the-wall." It's famous in the spring because cohos by the thousands stack up off this "hole." In the fall, it's a target area for chinook salmon, since that's the stocking site for the bulk of the chinooks the Indiana DNR stocks in Lake County.
Cruise on past the hole-in-the-wall to the second light. Just as smallmouth bass are attracted by current breaks in a stream, this area causes the natural lake currents to swirl and mingle like no other place in Indiana's portion of Lake Michigan; this, in turn, attracts salmon and trout like no other place.
When the wind is strong from the south or southwest, the wall can get plenty lumpy out toward the second light. Just go on around the corner and fish the north wall toward the third light and you'll be back in calm seas.
THE GARY LIGHT The north wall can be productive, but when faced with strong south or southwest winds, many anglers head east from Pastrick Marina (it's just as close from Portage and one of the access spots on Burns Waterway) to the Gary Light. The Gary Light is a more traditional, cylindrical concrete structure that marks the end of a half-mile-long breakwater, which stretches out from the shoreline occupied by the USX steel mill.
The area around the lighthouse itself is often a good place to fish for the same reason, as is the second light corner at Inland Steel. Early in the season, the warmwater discharge tucked up in the corner where the breakwater and land meet is the place to fish, but by May, there are more fish away from the heated discharge.
Just east of the discharge is the entrance to a shipping channel where ore ships and barges dock to do their business at USX. There's a dredged channel leading to the canal and at times the fish relate to this channel area. From the ship channel to the east is a steel breakwall that extends for almost two miles. Many trolling anglers will simply trade back and forth from one end of the jetty to the other, picking away at fish scattered the entire length until their five-fish-per-man limits have been caught.
Whether you are taking an old school chum out on a day's excursion, heading out with your family or just venturing to Lake Michigan with your regular fishing partners, at this time of year you may wish to target one of the Lake County marinas. These areas offer all the options available for comfortable
conditions and plenty of fish.
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