It looks like it could be a dandy year for salmon and trout fishing on our Great Lakes waters -- if you know which ports will be hot, and which ones not! Here's the scoop from our on-the-water expert.(May 2006)
Although 20-pound chinooks were rare at most Lake Michigan ports last year, there were still some trophy kings caught. Photo by Mike Gnatkowski.
The only constant in Great Lakes fishing is that it never stays the same.
The Great Lakes are in a continuous state of flux. Water levels go up and down. Baitfish populations are boom or bust. Planting success or failures, contributions from natural reproduction, angler success rates, exotics, predation and other factors constantly influence the state of the lakes and how good fishing is going to be in any given year. It is a very delicate balance between great fishing and so-so fishing.
Right now, chinook salmon numbers are booming on Lake Michigan, and anglers are enjoying outstanding fishing at most ports. But there are warning signs on the horizon that the fantastic fishing can't go on forever, and fisheries managers are taking steps to offset a decline similar to the one that now grips Lake Huron. There is little doubt that if you like to catch salmon, Lake Michigan will be the place to fish in 2006.
The biggest news on the big pond for 2006 is that Lake Michigan management agencies have agreed to cut the chinook stocking in the lake by 25 percent beginning this year. Chinook plants lakewide will be cut by over one million fingerlings to 3.2 million fish. Michigan will be making the largest cuts -- 30 percent -- because our rivers produce the bulk of the naturally reproduced salmon. Wisconsin will cut its plants by 21 percent, Illinois by 17 percent and Indiana will reduce its chinook stocking by 12 percent.
Back in 1999, fisheries managers made a similar cut of 27 percent from 6 million to 4.4 million fish in an effort to better balance predator-and-prey populations. Biologists had learned from their mistakes. During the late 1980s, high densities of chinooks and the reduction of baitfish populations caused an outbreak of bacterial kidney disease (BKD), which significantly reduced the chinook population. Fisheries managers should be applauded for recognizing the warning signs of an eminent decline in the chinook population if some hard decisions weren't made. Lake Michigan's chinook catch skyrocketed to 68,235 salmon in 2004 from 57,136 in 2003. Most agree that the figure will be even higher when data for 2005 is available.
What just about everyone can agree on is that the following ports will be the best ones to fish out of for salmonids in 2006.
The port of St. Joseph annually produces excellent spring chinook fishing, and there's no reason to believe it won't happen again this year.
"The fishing usually picks up about the second week in April, right after ice-out," said Capt. Jerry Lee, who runs charter boat Sea Screw III out of St. Joe in the spring to take advantage of the hot king fishing.
The captain said the chinook fishing off the river mouth last spring was as good as it's ever been. "It was nothing to take a limit of kings in just a couple of hours by working the pierheads," claimed Lee. Lee said, unlike ports to the south, kings are the main draw at St. Joe in the spring. If anything, the problem was catching anything other than kings. "We have not had many cohos. I think the lack of plants has really hurt us."
Lee said when targeting kings near the pierheads at St. Joe, it is especially important to pay attention to spoon sizes. Normally, super magnum or magnum-sized spoons are the ticket, but there was a time last spring when regular-sized or mini-spoons outproduced the big stuff. "Plugs were very good last spring, too," offered Lee. The size of the baitfish present determines lure size. Standard chrome/redhead and glow colors excel. Hot Silver Streak colors at St. Joe run the gambit from SOG Froggie to Lobster and Purple Smurf.
A hot tactic for spring kings at St. Joe is to watch the wind and then stitch the color line where the St. Joe River spills into Lake Michigan. Chinooks will use the veil of colored water to ambush unsuspecting schools of baitfish. The dirty water is usually significantly warmer than the lake water, too. Fishing can be hot in the 20- to 50-foot depths all the way to the Cook Plant at Bridgman to the south. The kings typically run 5 to 10 pounds in the spring, but Lee said there were plenty of 15- to 18-pound brutes in the catch last spring.
The hot king fishing usually lasts into the middle of May before the salmon begin filtering north. A good plan then is to head west to 80 to 200 feet of water, and put out a spread of in-line planers and divers featuring orange spoons and Thin Fins to target steelhead, cohos and lake trout. Fishing for steelhead usually picks up in early summer when summer-run steelies headed for the St. Joe River begin milling around the pierheads. Michigan winter-run rainbows add to the mix as fall approaches.
To sample St. Joe's fantastic spring king fishery, contact Capt. Jerry Lee at (734) 421-8559. For information on bait shops, lodging and amenities in the area, contact the Southwest Michigan Tourist Council at (269) 925-6301, or visit their Web site at www.swmichigan.org.
Hidden between Holland and Grand Haven is southern Lake Michigan's best-kept secret. Port Sheldon doesn't get the fishing pressure that ports to the north and south do. It may be because it lacks a harbor of refuge or because the port doesn't get any fish plants. If you let those factors influence your decision to fish the port, you're making a mistake.
"Port Sheldon is one of our most popular ports for the guy with a trailerable boat," claimed Southern Lake Michigan Management Unit fisheries biologist Jay Wesley. "There are good facilities there, and it's only a short run to the lake."
Wesley said while there aren't any plants made directly at Port Sheldon, fish stocked at Grand Haven and Holland take a natural liking to the area. Wesley said anglers can find excellent angling at Port Sheldon from early spring right through summer.
Hot action starts at Port Sheldon right after ice-out. Fishing takes place off the Consumer's Energy Company pierheads or around "The Bubblers" a mile north and a mile out from the pierheads. Warmwater discharged through a series of tubes there attracts spring salmonids in 20 to 40 feet of water. Anglers cast jigs and spoons, soak live bait, or troll near The Bubblers. Anglers who play the wind can have good success along the shoreline as the warm water stacks fish up there. Expect a hodgepodge of browns, steelhead, lake t
rout and salmon. The fishing remains good in the shallows into May.
June, July and August finds trollers heading northwest out of the pierheads to the 100- to 150-foot depths while targeting the top 70 feet for chinooks, cohos, steelhead and the occasional lake trout. Typical of most Lake Michigan ports, green, chartreuse and blue spoons highlighted with glow tape are hot combinations for kings out of Port Sheldon. Hot-colored spoons are better for the rainbows and cohos.
For information on charters, bait shops and lodging in the area, contact the Holland Area Convention & Visitors Bureau at 1-800- 506-1299.
"I can't really imagine the king fishing getting any better," said Grand Haven charter skipper Chip Klein. "There was just a ton of fish here from mid-May right though the summer. They weren't the biggest fish we've ever seen, but for numbers, you sure can't complain."
Charter boats accounted for 13,019 kings at Grand Haven in 2004, up from 8,962 in 2003. When the numbers for 2005 finally come out, thoughts are that they will likely to be much higher than 2004.
Chinooks usually show up at the Grand Haven pierheads in early May. "You'll hear about anglers catching them at South Haven, and then Holland, and within the next day or two, they're here," Klein said.
The big draw for spring salmon is the slug of warm water that the Grand River pumps into Lake Michigan at Grand Haven. Klein is a master at working the color line, and can pluck a limit of kings from the dirty water faster than you can say, "Time to go!" Key is to deploy a spread of divers, downriggers and short lead cores to cover the water column. Watch your graph for clouds of alewives, and your surface temperature gauge. Find the bait, and kings won't be far away.
As the water warms and the kings begin to move offshore in late May and June, a hotspot is the area known as "The Trench" just south of the pierheads in 60 to 70 feet of water. Rocks here provide some subtle structure, which is a rarity in this part of the lake.
About the only other structure in the lake at Grand Haven are nets. "The nets are structure here," Klein said. "You need to learn the layout of the nets and how to fish them if you're going to do well at Grand Haven." The trap nets funnel and concentrate salmon, and anglers who can deal with them are able to pinpoint schools of hungry salmon. Klein advised having your spread set well short of the nets so you can give your full attention to maneuvering around them.
Klein said he generally heads north of Grand Haven during the summer and fishes off landmarks like J.P. Hoffmaster State Park, Mount Garfield and the outflow of Black Lake north to Muskegon in 100 to 200 feet of water. "There's generally some pretty dependable action in 260 to 300 feet of water," suggested Klein. "There are usually a lot of smaller bait out over the deeper water that attract juvenile salmon."
Klein said many Grand Haven anglers get into the rut of heading out deep every morning. It can pay big dividends, though, to check the pierheads every once in a while from mid-July on. Klein said a big slug of kings could show up at the pierheads anytime after mid-July, and if you don't keep tabs on the fishery, you could be missing out on a hot bite. Many mature chinooks show up by late July, and the salmon arrive in waves through mid-September.
Flasher-and-fly combos and spoons produce equally well at Grand Haven. "You'd be hard-pressed to find a better combination than a green- or white-crushed ice-flasher and a Rapture trolling fly," Klein said. Michigan Stinger spoons in a variety of greens, blues and chartreuse always produce at Grand Haven as well. "Orange and reds have their day, too," offered Klein. "It pays to experiment sometimes." Plugs get the nod when mature kings begin amassing near the pierheads. Savvy captains follow the schools upstream and work the 30-foot channel in the river. Kings will lash out at a variety of magnum-sized spoons, plugs and flasher/fly combos then.
To book a charter with Klein, contact him at (616) 677-1860 or online at www.hitmanfishingcharters.com. For information on amenities, lodging and other accommodations in the Grand Haven area, contact the Grand Haven-Spring Lake Visitors Bureau at 1-800-303-4092 or online at www.grand-havenchamber.org.
While St. Joseph, Grand Haven and Ludington get all the accolades when it comes to Great Lakes salmon, Muskegon is quietly producing some pretty darn good fishing for the few in the know. Many of those fish are the result of natural reproduction now taking place in the Muskegon River and its tributaries.
"Last year, we had some pretty good fishing off Muskegon," claimed avid angler Matt Schalk. "Fishing in Muskegon Lake in early September was fantastic! The fish weren't really big, probably 12 to 14 pounds, but limits were no big deal."
Schalk said the fishing gets started at Muskegon in early May. Fish can be caught right around the pierheads where the river spills into the lake, but Schalk said that a better bet is to head straight out of the harbor to 80 to 100 feet of water. Kings will be found there cruising the top 50 feet and can be caught on downriggers, divers and lead-core trailing spoons or flashers and flies. "I fished flashers and Slammin' Flies the whole year and did really well," Schalk said. Hot colors in the Slammin' Flies last season were Ragin' Richie, Lime Glow and Blue Bubbly.
As summer progresses, the salmonids move farther offshore at Muskegon. Schalk said that a quick drop about seven miles straight out of the harbor that goes from 180 feet to 250 feet in a short distance holds fish all summer. Expect mixed bags of kings, cohos and steelhead then.
You can get more information on Slammin' Flies by calling (248) 399-4341 or online at www.slammertipup. com. For information on bait shops, lodging and amenities in the Muskegon area, contact the Muskegon County Convention & Visitors Bureau at (231) 722-3751 or online at www.muskegon.org.
Year after year, Ludington is the premier trout and salmon port in Michigan. The combination of excellent structure, access to deep water, natal rivers, net pens and being situated between Big and Little Point Sable makes it a natural place for salmonids of all species to congregate. Because of this, it is also one of Michigan's busiest ports.
"I would say that 2005 was as good or better then 2004," said Capt. George Freeman, who has run his charter boat Free Style out of the port for more than 20 years. "People were saying that the fish were smaller, but I didn't hear any complaints. The kings were really nice fish, with a lot of them in the 15- to 17- pound range, the ones that pull like the dickens."
One thing that Freeman noted about fishing out of Ludington last season was that if you weren't on the water early, you often missed the best fishing.
"It was an early bite," Freeman declared. "There were a lot of days when you couldn't get all your rods in the water for the first hour. If you missed that early bite, you could be in for a long day."
Freeman said in the early morning darkness, glow baits really made a difference. Hot baits were Dreamweaver's Ever-Glow spoons in Crab, Lobster and Beefeater. Fishlander's Ultra-Glow spoons in Green All-Glo, Green Glo Froggy and Yellow Glo Froggy worked great, too. Glow-in-the-dark plugs were also good. Ludington is in the heart of flasher-and-fly country, and many a Ludington king met its maker at the end of a flasher/fly combo in 2005. Spin Doctors, Revelators and Coyotes all produced well when mated to KRW, Action and Slammin' flies.
With fishing on Lake Huron down the tubes, more anglers are headed to Ludington. "There definitely were more boats than ever before," observed Freeman. Freeman said, in most cases, he still worked "The Shelf" from the Bathhouse at Ludington State Park to Big Point Sable. "The key was to get out early, get positioned to make a couple of passes and then move out after the bite fizzled. 'The Bank' was definitely the place to be."
To book a charter with Capt. Freeman, contact him at 1-877-456-3474 or at www.CharterFreestyle.com.
One problem that continues to face Ludington anglers is the Indian nets. "The nets are definitely a factor because they are right in the heart of the trolling grounds," Freeman said. Freeman said the nets act as a deterrent to some anglers, and if you're not careful, you can learn a very expensive lesson.
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There could be more chinooks in Lake Michigan right now than there's ever been before. Get out there this season and get your share of fun.