October 04, 2010
The Great Lakes differ greatly from each other when it comes to fishing. That's why we're helping you pick a port for chinooks, lakers, cohos and steelhead in 2005.
By Mike Gnatkowski
Fishing for spring chinooks was fantastic off several Lake Michigan ports last year.
Even though the Great Lakes are connected, the fishing on each is very different.
Lake Superior is known for its dependable lake trout fishing. Lake Erie is a shallow body of water that holds mainly walleyes and perch in its Michigan confines.
Lake Huron and Lake Michigan contain an abundance of salmonids, and their fisheries more closely mimic each other. But in 2004 it looked as though these two lake's fisheries were headed in opposite directions. Anglers on Lake Michigan enjoyed an exceptional year for chinook salmon -- some would say the best fishing in decades.
Although anglers didn't catch many of the trophy 30-pounders that the lake has routinely pumped out in the past, kings in the 15- to 18-pound range were very abundant. Limits of chinooks were the rule and not the exception.
Lake trout, on the other hand, were scarce on much of Lake Michigan. Fewer planted lake trout and the insistence, or persistence, by the feds to establish naturally occurring populations of trout has left Lake Michigan lake trout fans wanting. Lake Huron, on the other hand, produced fishing in 2004 that was just about the opposite of Lake Michigan. Lake trout numbers are booming. In fact, many charter captains and big-lake anglers were touting the lake trout fishing as the best in decades. Consistent plants, natural reproduction and better lamprey controls has Lake Huron's forktails flourishing. It's actually a good thing because salmon have fallen on hard times on the lake. With a forage base that has all but collapsed and alewives all but non-existent, Lake Huron chinooks last season were scarce, and when you did catch one, they were small. Many adult fish only ran from 6 to 10 pounds, and were skinny, emaciated and in serious trouble.
"Numbers of chinook salmon in Lake Huron remains very good," said Alpena Fisheries Research Station biologist Jim Johnson, "but size, quality and health of the chinook population may be in question."
The reason is a complex combination of factors. Alewife numbers in Lake Huron are very low, and chinooks have had to resort to feeding on gobies or starve, and most salmon are not adapting to the change in diet well. It is thought that a couple of very cold winters has knocked down alewife populations in the lake to the point that it might take several mild winters and good reproductive years for the alewife population to rebound.
With the forage base precipitously low in Lake Huron, the problem has been compounded by a glut of natural salmon that are being reproduced in Canadian Shield streams and rivers.
"It almost seems like there's a Lake Huron-strain of salmon evolving," said Johnson. "It's quite possible that Lake Huron may have the largest population of wild chinook salmon in the world." Problem is, there's nothing for them to eat.
While salmon fishing has been on the decline, lake trout fishing may have never been better.
"Lake trout have been doing well," said Johnson. "There is evidence of substantial natural reproduction taking place in the lake." Johnson said wild lake trout are making significant contributions to the creel.
Harbor Beach's fishery in 2004 mirrored the fishing on much of Lake Huron.
"We caught lots of nice lake trout," said Capt. Janice Deaton, who runs her 30-foot charter boat J-Lyn out of Harbor Beach. "The salmon were small, with a lot of them in the 4- to 8-pound range. The mature fish were only 8 or 10 pounds." The kings became increasingly scarce as the season went on.
"The lake tout fishing was phenomenal," claimed Deaton. "Most of the fish were in the 10- to 12-pound range and they were just packed with gobies and shiners." Deaton said that cowbells and spin-n-glows produced limits of trout nearly every day. Deaton said that steelhead were rare out of Harbor Beach last summer, but she did box one brute that tipped the scales at 19 pounds.
Reefs and humps slightly north or south out of the harbor are the main attraction for salmonids during the summer months. Locals refer to the locations as the "Old Dumping Grounds" and "The Humps." The 80- to 100-foot depths seem to hold fish year-round, especially if the temperature is right.
Boasting the world's largest freshwater harbor, Harbor Beach has excellent facilities for the big-lake angler towing his own boat or those looking for a charter. You can book a charter with Capt. Janice Deaton by calling (989) 428-3130, or at fish@j-lyncharters. More information on lodging and amenities in the area can be had by contacting the Harbor Beach Chamber of Commerce at (989) 479-6477 or online at
Veteran charter skipper Larry Lienczewski was very blunt when asked about the fishing at Oscoda last season.
"Unbelievably terrible!" was his reply. "We had great lake trout fishing. Big trout, too. There were lots of fish in the 10- to 11-pound range. We still had some good days where we caught 12 to 14 fish, but only four or five of those would be salmon. I probably only caught four or five kings the whole year that were 17 or 18 pounds." Lienczewski did say that he caught more big walleyes last season out of Oscoda than ever before.
Wind, like at any port, plays a critical role at Oscoda.
"You want a southwest to west wind," said Lienczewski. "The last couple of years we haven't had any really good winds." Lienczewski said that nine out of 10 times he'll head north out of Oscoda, but last season he fished more straight out of the harbor in the 80- to 120-foot depths. Lake trout fishing was very good there and it only a short distance to 140 to 160 feet, and summer salmon and steelhead. "There always seems to be some steelhead around," he said. Kings tend to show up in mid-July and their numbers build until they head upriver in late September and October. Some of the most consistent chinook fishing is off the pierheads in early fall.
To book a charter with Lienczewski aboard his 27-footer, call (989) 684-5539, or at email@example.com. For information on slips, bait shops and lodging in the Oscoda area, contact the Oscoda Area Convention & Visitors Bureau
at 1-800-235-4625 or online at
Northern Lake Huron's Presque Isle is as picturesque a fishing venue as you'd want to see. Combine this with the fact that deep water is only a stone's throw away from the beach, that the area features a proliferation of points, reefs and other salmon-holding structure, and the knowledge that staging chinooks home in on the area and you have the makings of a salmon mecca. Presque Isle may very well be the best of what's left for salmon fishing in Lake Huron right now.
Presque Isle is ideal for the angler with a smaller, trailerable craft. Although one of the attractions of Presque Isle is often the lack of competition, there is a modern launch facility capable of handling plenty of vehicles and trailers. August usually finds the port fairly busy.
Anglers will find a hodgepodge of brown trout, lakers and salmon available shortly after ice-out, although the real fishing at Presque Isle doesn't get started until mid-July when chinooks bound for Swan Bay, Rogers City, Oscoda and Harbor Beach cluster there prior to spawning. Good places to search for pre-spawn kings are off structure like Observatory Point, Black Point, North Point, and North and South Albany points.
The ultraclear water often makes kings super skittish, and anglers who work at getting lures away from the boat using lead-core line, divers and planers will have the best success. Mate these to flasher/fly combinations, magnum spoons and plugs when the kings show up. Mature fish are usually available until mid-September when they disappear in search of natal streams and planting sites. Immature fish can provide great sport for those hardy souls willing to brave the cold well into the fall. Like other Lake Huron ports, the kings ran on the small side at Presque Isle in 2004, but the port is one of the most dependable for numbers.
For information on charter boats, bait shops and motels in the Presque Isle area, contact the Alpena Convention & Visitors Bureau at 1-800-425-7362 or online at
Lake Michigan basin coordinator Jim Dexter said that unlike Lake Huron, Lake Michigan's forage base is in pretty good shape, and barring a severe winter that could decimate alewife numbers, anglers can expect another banner year on the lake.
"The forage base is quite good on Lake Michigan," claimed Dexter. "We had a very big year-class in 1998 that we've kind of been surviving on and another good year-class in 2002. Acoustical surveys indicated that there was a very large year-class of alewives produced in 2004. They found those in the middle portion of the south end of the lake. So it looks like that we're going to have very good numbers of alewives, and things look positive for the 2005 season."
Stocking rates for most species continue to be constant on Lake Michigan.
"Stocking rates haven't changed much since we made the cuts a few years ago," said Dexter. "We plant about 4.5 million chinooks lakewide each year."
Dexter said the Michigan Department of Natural Resources still doesn't have an accurate figure on exactly how many salmon are being reproduced naturally that contribute to the fishery. "The estimates from several studies that were done indicate that about 30 percent of the chinooks in Lake Michigan are naturally reproduced fish," he said. Dexter indicated that if they could get a better idea of exactly how many fish are naturally reproduced that they might be able to further reduce stockings. "The fitness of the natural fish is so much better," claimed Dexter. "The natural fish just have a competitive advantage."
Dexter claimed that the big coho salmon die-off that occurred at the Platte River Hatchery last year should have minimal effect on the fishery.
"The coho die-off should not be a big factor," stated Dexter. "The result was about a 35 to 40 percent reduction in the plants. I don't think we'll notice a difference because it was just one year. Cuts in the plants were spread around the lake. And the good thing is that the remaining fish might just get bigger."
Dexter recalled the fact that back in 1998 and 1999 anglers caught hundreds of big Master-Angler-sized cohos when there were fewer fish planted.
"I really don't see a downside to the fishing on Lake Michigan," stated Dexter. "We'll have to look at the potential affects of Lake Huron fish migrating to Lake Michigan. We saw a few in the past, but last year we saw even more. Brown trout and lake trout are still questionable." But as long as there's plenty of alewives, salmon and salmon anglers should be happy in 2005.
It had been probably a dozen years since I'd fished southern Lake Michigan, so when I got the chance to sample the fishery off St. Joseph last spring I jumped at the chance. I'd heard how tasty those orange-fleshed cohos were in the spring, and I was on a mission to fill the freezer. Problem was that we didn't catch one coho! All we could catch were thick-shouldered, silvery kings that averaged from 10 to 16 pounds that would not leave us alone. Darn!!!
The fishery off St. Joe typically kicks off in March. Anglers in cartoppers and off the piers start catching the silvery cohos as soon as the ice leaves. April produces a more reliable fishery for bigger boats, and the fishing remains hot through May. The fish are shallow then, and most anglers troll the beach out to about 50 feet. Orange and red are the colors for cohos. Small red dodgers matched to blue and black flies excel, along with ThinFins, Bombers and Rapalas. Kings will bite the same baits, but magnum-sized spoons in blue and green were a hot ticket for us when fished 5 feet off the bottom. As fish move offshore in June, lake trout and steelhead add to the mix.
To sample St. Joe's hot spring fishery, contact the Southwest Michigan Tourist Council at (269) 925-6301 or at
www.swmichigan.org for information on marinas, charters, bait shops and amenities.
"Last year was a great year at Grand Haven," said veteran charter skipper Chip Klein, who runs his 31-footer out of Grand Haven. "The kings showed up in early May and never really left."
The warm outflow of the Grand River is a major attraction for both spring and late-summer kings. In the spring, try working the color line off the river mouth and in "The Trench," a rocky piece of structure off the Twin Sisters and Rosy Mound south of the harbor in 60 to 75 feet of water. As summer progresses, head farther offshore to the 200- to 400-foot depths for a suspended salmonid smorgasbord of kings, steelhead and lake trout. Kings return to the pierheads in late July, and Klein is one of the best at boxing limits of mature kings from the color line of the Grand River when they begin staging there in late summer.
To book a charter with Capt. Chip Klein, contact him at (616) 677-1860 or www.hitmanfishingcharters.com. To learn
more about marinas, amenities and things to see and do in Grand Haven, contact the Grand Haven-Spring Lake Visitors Bureau at 1-800-303-4092 or online at
Ludington was the port on the Great Lakes for chinook salmon in 2004. There's no reason to believe that it won't be again this year. Ludington has the perfect mix of structure, natural river mouths, protective points, regular plants and excellent angling amenities.
Chinooks typically show up at Ludington in mid-May. Look for schools of 5- to 15-pound kings to cluster straight out of the harbor in 50 to 100 feet of water and to the south off the Consumer's Energy Project. Beware of Indian nets off the project, because some are marked, others aren't. Spoons like Fishlanders and Pro Kings work well in the spring off divers, half-cores and shallow-set 'riggers.
Most years the kings scatter in June, giving Ludington anglers a chance to chase steelies on the offshore breaks and scumlines. Head northwest to 300 feet of water and head west. The steelhead are normally within a fathom of the surface, and in-line planers and divers trailing orange spoons are hard to beat.
The structure known as "The Ledge" off the Bath House at Ludington State Park is some of the finest chinook-attracting structure on the Great Lakes. Big schools of kings move in by mid-July, and their numbers build through early September. Best fishing is before light and at dark. Flashers and flies take the most fish.
For more information on booking a charter, lodging and amenities at Ludington, contact the Ludington Area Charter Boat Association at 1-800-927-3470 or online at
Think of Lake Superior and you automatically think of lake trout. If you do, you might be making a big mistake.
"I really didn't do anything different than I would fishing out of any other port," said Mike Lehto when I asked him about fishing out of Marquette last summer. "We put out some lead-core line, divers and downriggers, and never really put anything down deep for lake trout. About half the fish we caught during the two days were still lake trout, but we caught a bunch of kings, cohos and steelhead, too. It was fun fishing."
Anglers will find they don't have to go far at Marquette to find fish. A popular and productive spot is just off Presque Isle where anglers work the area referred to as "The Banks" for a hodgepodge of lakers, salmon and steelhead. Another proven hotspot is called the Sand Hole and is located in 90 to 150 feet of water between the Lower Harbor and Shot Point. Rivers like the Chocolay and Little Garlic attract spawning kings and cohos in the late summer.
For more information on launch facilities, bait shops and amenities in the Marquette area, contact the Marquette County Convention & Visitors Bureau at 1-800-544-4321 or at
Angling on the Great Lakes is constantly changing. To be successful, anglers need to change, too. Anglers poised with the boat on the trailer or ready to jump on a charter boat with little notice are sure to find some great action on Michigan's Great Lakes this season.