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It's Good To Be King

It's Good To Be King

Today's Lake Michigan anglers are reeling in king salmon faster than ever before, but there could be trouble on the horizon. (August 2009)

It's minutes before sunrise on Lake Michigan, and you're sipping a warm cup of coffee to wash down a glazed jelly doughnut freshly made the night before at a local bakery.

Two Lake Michigan anglers show off a trio of salmon and one steelhead taken from the Algoma pier.
Photo by Kevin Naze.

Or maybe the sun has just dipped below the horizon on a steamy summer evening, and you're holding onto an ice-cold can of your favorite beverage.

The lake is calm -- barely a ripple -- and your mind drifts.

Just then, a fishing rod jerks toward the water's surface and begins pumping wildly as line furiously melts from the reel.

The sound of the screaming drag has everyone in the boat moving at the same time, and you lunge to grab the rod from its holder.

This high-intensity experience is repeated thousands of times each summer off Wisconsin ports from the Illinois border to Michigan's Upper Peninsula.


Whether you take a charter boat trip, launch your own rig or step aboard the vessel of a friend, each outing offers a chance for the next salmon you hook to be the largest you've ever tangled with.

Add a tournament, with prizes and bragging rights on the line, and you'll feel an extra adrenaline rush with each smack down on a favorite lure.

Anglers often battle fatigue as well as fish, with most participants rising between 3 and 4 a.m. to take advantage of the pre-dawn bite. A lot of the heavyweights are reeled in within an hour or two of sunrise and sunset, though certainly not all of them.

Part of the allure of Lake Michigan salmon tournaments is that you don't need to be a seasoned professional to win. Once an angler knows the basics, all it takes is luck to have a trophy-sized fish take the bait.

Hotspots vary widely on Lake Michigan. Many anglers visit online message boards or call a fishing hotline, lakeshore sport shop or friend to find out what's happening before heading out. Often, mid- to late-summer fishing means trolling a mix of flasher/fly, spoon and plug combos 50 to 100 feet down over 80 to 180 feet of water or more. You can monitor the general depths charter boats are fishing, and then work similar depths well away from the pack. Fish are widely scattered, and the best catches often come while working undisturbed or lightly fished water.

Forty years ago this spring, Wisconsin's first stocking of chinook salmon was made in Sturgeon Bay's Strawberry Creek. With few exceptions, it's been a fruitful harvest ever since.

Fishery managers likely never envisioned the world-class salmon action enjoyed today by thousands of residents and visitors spring through fall. After all, salmon -- cohos at Algoma in 1968, and chinooks a year later -- were originally planted not just to offer a shot at landing them, but in hopes of taking care of a smelly problem along lakeshore beaches.

Alewives, the baitfish of choice for salmon and trout, used to die by the millions each spring and summer and wash up on the beaches. It was a public relations nightmare and nuisance for lakeshore communities, with costly cleanup efforts the only option. Fast-forward four decades, and alewife numbers are precariously low. That prompted all four states surrounding Lake Michigan to cut chinook stocking by a combined 25 percent the past four springs in an effort to get prey fish numbers to rebound.

There were signs last year that the cuts may be helping. For the first time in several years, the average size of adult chinooks returning to the Strawberry Creek egg collection facility was up. While there were no 30-pound-plus giants seen, some of the healthiest specimens were in the 25-pound class, and 20-pounders weren't as uncommon as they had been the previous two seasons. Most of the returning fish averaged between 10 and 20 pounds.

Today's Lake Michigan fishermen are reeling in salmon and trout faster than ever before. Anglers spent an estimated 4.94 million hours pursuing fish in 1988; last year, the number dropped to 2.49 million hours. Even so, fishermen caught more salmon in 2008 spending half the time they did 20 years earlier.

Catch rates, in fact, are far better than they are in West Coast states like Washington and Oregon, where Wisconsin's salmon originally came from in the late 1960s.

A record-setting string of catches between 2003-2007 -- the best five-year harvest in history -- came even after Wisconsin cut salmon stocks to about half as many as were planted in the mid-1980s. That's because there were too many salmon in the system, stressing alewife populations and causing chinooks to succumb to bacterial kidney disease.

The first big cut was made in 1991 as biologists figured out what was happening. The second took place in 1999, and a third -- totaling another 25 percent lakewide by the four states -- began in 2006.

The reduction in the number of salmon that hatcheries had to produce meant better conditions for fish: more room, better water quality and less competition. Broodstock from spawning streams are also tested for diseases, and eggs are treated to ensure the healthiest fingerlings are returned to start the cycle over again.

Through new research, biologists are also learning that more than 50 percent of the chinooks in the lake are naturally reproduced, most coming from the Michigan side. A four-state study is ongoing to better determine the percentage of "naturals" coming into the fishery. Those results will help guide future stocking efforts as the forage base is monitored.

Record-high gas prices at $4 or more per gallon last summer and unusual weather patterns likely contributed to across-the-board decreases in the number of salmon and trout caught off Wisconsin ports in 2008. Reduced salmon stocking levels also may have played a role.

The estimated chinook salmon harvest of 256,796 fell more than 40 percent from the 2007 record of 431,143, while the rainbow trout catch declined by about a third, to 41,552. Still, the "king" catch was better than any year from 1988-2001.

Anglers spent a combined 2.5 million or so hours fishing Lake Michigan and tributaries, down from 3.1 million hours in 2007 and only half of the record effort of 1988. I

t was the least time spent on the water since 2000.

WDNR fisheries supervisor Brad Eggold said chinooks seemed more scattered throughout the water column -- and spent more time far offshore -- than they had in recent years. Additionally, coho salmon success didn't follow its usual pattern of starting off strong in spring near Kenosha and slowly moving northward.

Since the current system of tracking ramp, moored, charter, pier, shore and stream fishing effort began in 1986, anglers have caught an estimated 5.2 million chinooks, 1.87 million cohos, 1.63 million rainbows, 1.21 million lakers and 988,000 brown trout. Last year, more than 650,000 salmon and trout were reeled in.

Combining the catch of all species, the two-port county of Kewaunee produced more than 85,000 fish. The solo ports of Milwaukee (48,712), Port Washington (42,116) and Sheboygan (40,358) had big numbers, while two Manitowoc County ports combined for more than 38,000 fish and four eastern Door County ports added another 36,000-plus. Kenosha's solo estimate was 24,268; Racine's was 21,124.

Algoma hosted the most charter fishing trips at 2,523. Sheboygan (2,377) and Port Washington (2,330) were also extremely popular for guided outings. Kenosha, with 1,132 reported charter trips, was fourth, followed by Sturgeon Bay (885), Kewaunee (850), Two Rivers (633) and Racine (550).

Algoma and Kewaunee combined for some 65,481 chinooks, 22,191 of them on charter trips. Eastern Door, also with multiple ports in the county totals, was next at 31,482. Solo ports that had strong king numbers were Milwaukee (30,055), Port Washington (29,937) and Sheboygan (28,357). Manitowoc and Two Rivers combined for 26,895 more, while Green Bay's resurgence in salmon action led to an estimated 21,013. Kenosha (12,827) and Racine (10,749) also produced plenty.

Ramp anglers -- those who trailer their rigs to the lake and launch them at public marinas -- led the way with more than 81,739 chinooks, followed by charters (79,491), moored privates (67,460), stream anglers (19,992), shore-fishermen (4,581) and pier-casters (3,533).

The chinook catch was estimated at 396,478 in 1987, then crashed along with alewives, bottoming out at 87,365 in 1993. Stocking cuts allowed the baitfish to recover, producing a gradual comeback.

Meanwhile, the coho salmon catch took a big nosedive, from an estimated 94,677 in 2007 to just 25,453 last year. The all-time record of 138,423 was set in 1997. As usual, southern ports produced the most cohos in '08. Kenosha (6,705), Racine (4,182), Milwaukee (3,649), Port Washington (3,375) and Sheboygan (2,712) set the pace.

The state-record rainbow trout catch estimate was 117,508 in 1995, when there were far fewer chinooks available. Last year, an estimated 13,746 steelies were caught off Kewaunee County, more than 6,000 of them on charter boats. Manitowoc/ Two Rivers and Sheboygan produced more than 5,000 each, Port Washington 4,221 and eastern Door County 3,329.

Milwaukee gave up more than 10,000 of the estimated 23,763 brown trout caught in 2008. The harvest of browns has ranged from a record of 82,397 in 1987 -- including more than 20,000 each in the waters of Green Bay and off Manitowoc County that year -- to a low of 17,769 in 2006. Port Washington, Racine, Sheboygan and Manitowoc/ Two Rivers all saw more than 2,000 browns landed last year.

Only 12,763 lake trout were estimated to have been landed, the second-lowest total on record. The harvest has been under 20,000 each of the past five years. The record was 113,930 in 1987. Port Washington led the state with 2,163 lakers, followed by Algoma/Kewaunee at 2,135, Milwaukee at 2,072, Sheboygan at 1,767 and Manitowoc/Two Rivers at 1,736.

There are many red flags and few silver linings when it comes to the Lake Michigan forage base, but researchers aren't giving up hope that the lake won't have a similar salmon crash as took place in Lake Huron earlier this decade.

Exploding round goby and quagga mussel numbers and a huge drop in the abundance of diporeia -- a shrimp-like organism that once was a key source of food for alewives and other fish -- has drastically altered Lake Michigan's ecosystem.

Both diporeia and the volume of prey fish in the lake have dropped more than 90 percent in the past two decades.

There are more question marks than answers, but one thing is certain: Now that exotic invaders have irreversibly altered the lake, sport anglers and commercial fishermen alike are deeply concerned about the future of their favorite fisheries.

Chuck Madenjian, a research fishery biologist for the U.S. Geological Survey's Great Lakes Science Center in Ann Arbor, Mich., said round gobies accounted for more than one-fifth of all prey fish in the lake last year by weight during the fall trawl survey.

A specially-equipped USGS boat nearly 80 feet long is used each fall to survey the bottom off seven ports, including Sturgeon Bay and Port Washington along the Wisconsin shoreline. Tows are done for every 60 feet of depth, starting in 60 feet of water and ending in 360 feet of water. Ten-minute tows that take only a few minutes to lift at shallower depths can take nearly a half-hour at the greatest depths.

While alewife biomass estimates from the bottom trawl showed a 30 percent drop, research fishery biologist Dave Warner -- also with the USGS Science Center in Ann Arbor -- said the fall acoustic survey showed a 120 percent increase in alewife numbers.

Warner said the acoustic survey, which uses a high-tech, $30,000 sonar unit supplemented by trawls to identify just what is being detected, does a better job at finding fish still up in the water column; fish like young alewives, bloaters (chubs) and smelt. The bottom trawl is best for larger and older alewives, bloaters, gobies, sculpin, smelt and sticklebacks.

The 2005 alewife year-class was fairly strong, Warner said, and has some larger individuals that could have spawned last year. The 2007 year-class was the one that led to the huge increase in the sonar estimate. How those young fish survive could have an enormous effect on the future of the fishery.

"We've frequently seen good year-classes of alewives, but they don't always make it to the next year," said WDNR Lakeshore Fish Team Supervisor Paul Peeters of Sturgeon Bay. "The size and condition of alewives is important. A fairly small alewife year-class can bring off a huge hatch if conditions are correct, but they have to have something to eat."

Exotic mussels -- first the zebras and now the dominant quaggas, estimated to number more than 300 trillion lakewide -- filter out the crucial plankton needed by young alewives and other forage species.

In addition to their effects on the fishery, mussels have been linked to increased algae blooms that have fouled beaches and to disease outbreaks that have killed thousands of fish-eating birds and countless fi

sh species.

Warner said chinooks prefer large alewives but since the young ones have been so much more common in recent years, they end up in the salmon's stomachs. Small baitfish that have less body fat mean reduced growth for predators, and that's what anglers have seen the past few seasons: Only a small percentage of chinooks are reaching 20 pounds or more.

Some fish species -- smallmouth bass, walleyes, yellow perch and whitefish, for example -- are eating gobies, and Madenjian believes salmon and trout might target them, too, if alewife numbers don't recover. However, he's not certain of the crash some believe is inevitable.

"Alewives are low (in abundance), but it looks like they're holding up so far," Madenjian said.

Mysis, another important invertebrate that lives mostly in deep water and has a high fat content, have declined in some areas. However, Warner said he's been doing surveys the past four years and has found no change in lakewide abundance.

Mysis can get to be nearly an inch long. Whether or not they continue to thrive in the lake may be a key link to the sport and commercial fishery's future.

While a number of doom and gloom-type articles have appeared in Midwest newspapers in the past two years, Madenjian doesn't believe we should jump to conclusions that the bottom has fallen out of the food chain. Instead, he believes an excess of predator fish in the lake is the key reason prey fish populations are shrinking.

Anglers can do their part to help alewives recover by taking advantage of some of the best salmon fishing anywhere in the world. Save an Alewife -- Hook a Salmon!

Not sure where to start? A list of Lake Michigan port cities can be found at www.wisconsinharbortowns. org.

For the latest fishing reports, check out online message boards at and www.glangler. com or call the Southeast Lake Michigan hotline at (414) 382-7920 or the Algoma-area fishing hotline at (920) 487-3090. For stocking reports and other information, visit the WDNR's Lake Michigan page at

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