August 18, 2017
Michigan salmon fishing on our big waters comes alive in September. Here's where to get your share of cohos and chinooks this month.
By Mike Gnatkowski
Salmon fishing in the Michigan waters of Lake Michigan has fallen on hard times.
The decline is largely blamed on the reduction in salmon plants by Michigan's Department of Natural Resources. Fisheries managers theorize that baitfish numbers in the lake have declined to the point that they cannot support the number of salmon that the MDNR was planting in the past, and so they instituted a series of cuts.
Over the last decade, the reduction has severely impacted the number of salmon in Lake Michigan that are available to anglers.
Plants of chinook salmon in the southern half of Lake Michigan have been eliminated. Salmon that stray into the rivers and streams there don't produce much in the way of natural reproduction. Plants in the northern half of the lake have been reduced to a fraction of what they were during the heydays.
The only thing sustaining any kind of fishery in the lake now is natural reproduction. Fortunately for anglers, the rivers and streams in northwest Michigan produce enough naturally spawned fish to maintain some semblance of a fishery. Natural reproduction has always sustained a decent salmon fishery in Lake Superior rivers and streams. Some years are better than others on Lake Superior, of course, depending on water levels.
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The one time when anglers can count on decent salmon fishing is when naturally reproduced salmon return to their natal streams in the fall. Rivers in northwest Michigan, like the Muskegon, White, Pere Marquette, Betsie and Big Manistee, continue to pump out millions of smolts each year. Good portions of the fish make it to adulthood and return to the river each fall.
"There's plenty of good spawning habitat and there are lots of eggs being produced every fall," said Central Lake Michigan Management Unit fisheries biologist Mark Tonello. "The problem is not with natural reproduction, but when the fish migrate out. There's no food for them when they get to the lake. The other thing is with fewer alewives there isn't the cover for out-migrating smolts that there use to be. Spawning alewives used to fill the river mouths right about the time the salmon smolts were out-migrating, giving predators something else to target besides the smolts. Without the big number of alewives now, the smolts are more vulnerable."
Studies have shown that naturally spawned salmon make up a substantial portion of the salmon population in the lake. The percentage of natural age 1 chinook salmon in the Lake Michigan population in 2013/2014 was estimated to be 38.6 percent. In 2014/2015 the number was 59.8 percent and in 2015/2016 it was 48.6 percent. Anglers would be wise to concentrate their efforts in the fall near rivers where these fish are returning.
"In a good year I would have to guess that the Big Manistee River might produce a million smolts," said Tonello. "The Betsie River is a chinook factory." Studies conducted back in 2009 showed the Betsie River got a run of 16,000 adult chinooks."
Coho salmon are not as prolific spawners as chinooks because, like steelhead, coho smolts spend a year and a half in the river before migrating out.
Chinook smolts only spend a half-year in the river before heading to the lake. Salmon smolts are not subject to the gauntlet of predators in these cold northern Michigan streams that they are in southern Michigan.
Other than avoiding the stray smallmouth bass, northern pike and kingfisher, salmon smolts in northwest Michigan have a pretty good chance of making it to the big lake. Once there, it's critical that they find a good source of terrestrial insects along the shoreline during their early life stage. Once they reach a certain size, their diet changes to baitfish. That's where the lack of alewives can become a problem.
The Muskegon doesn't receive chinook salmon plants anymore. Fortunately, the Muskegon River produces thousands of salmon each year to provide some semblance of a return. Runs are nothing like they were back in the 1980s and 90s, but there are still enough returning fish to provide a decent fishery.
Chinooks begin returning to Muskegon Lake in late August and provide a unique jigging fishery for some knowledgeable anglers. The kings school in some deep holes just after entering Muskegon Lake and will slam heavy jigging spoons when in the mood. Trollers take kings pulling J-plugs.
Kings stack up in the deep pools and runs near Mill Iron, Maple Island and Bridgeton in the lower river. The fresh-run salmon are receptive to Flatfish and Kwikfish dropped back and chunks of fresh spawn dropped back or fished under a bobber. With fewer fish in the lake, it seems that fish have been bigger in recent years with salmon in the mid-20-pound range not uncommon.
Gravel becomes more common from Old Women's Bend up to Croton Dam, which is the final destination for spawning salmon. The Muskegon is a big river averaging 150 to 200 feet across and is best fished from a boat. Anglers dropping back plugs, cast spinners and crankbaits, drifting spawn and casting flies, catch kings poised near the gravel. A bonus is the large population of trout. Anglers targeting salmon can catch rainbows and browns all day.
For more information on the Muskegon River Contact the Michigan DNR Plainwell Operations Service Center at 269-685-6851.
The White River between Montague/Whitehall to the Hesperia Dam has some quality spawning gravel. Consequently, it still gets a decent run of king salmon. Some salmon get over the dam and make it all the way to White Cloud, which offers even more spawning habitat.
The White River is not a big river. Anglers will have their hands full landing a brawling king in such confined quarters. Deep holes near County Line Bridge lends the area to boating, but most of the river is easily wadable. The North Branch gets a stray salmon run and produces great fall trout fishing.
For more information on the White River, contact Hesperia Sport Shop at 213-854-3965.
PERE MARQUETTE RIVER
The first river in the United States planted with brown trout, the Pere Marquette River is equally famous for its salmon run. Anglers flock to the PM to try their hand at catching the naturally reproduced kings that return there every year. Much of the fishing effort is focused on the flies-only section from Baldwin to Gleason's Landing. Access is limited so most anglers use drift boats to float the river and then get out to wade and fish.
Dredging deep holes and runs using the chuck-and-duck method gets flies deep quickly and in front of finicky salmon. Though not feeding at all, kings will lash out at passing flies. Egg patterns, nymphs and Woolly Buggers are a few of the patterns that produce.
Downstream of the flies-only section the PM has less gravel, but fewer anglers. The river is still easily wadable and anglers can access the river at Rainbow Rapids, Sulak, Upper and Lower Branch Bridge, and Landon and Walhalla roads. If salmon are in the river, you'll be able to see them.
Best techniques include casting in-line spinners and stickbaits. From Indian Bridge to Pere Marquette Lake the PM is mainly sand, but fresh-run kings stack up in the undercuts and holes in September. Dropping back spawn and plugs and casting spinners are good techniques then.
For fishing reports, tackle and licenses, contact Captain Chuck's at 231-843-4458.
BIG MANISTEE RIVER
"The Big Manistee River is the No. 1 producer of naturally reproduced salmon in Michigan," claimed fisheries biologist Mark Tonello. "I would say in a good year it probably produces a million fish." If even a fraction of those make it back to the river, it can make for fantastic fishing.
Kings start filtering into the lower river in mid-August. The kings scoot from hole to hole under the cover of darkness and stage in deep holes, undercuts and logjams during the day.
The kings are impossible to catch when they're moving, but once they stop, dropping back skein spawn and plugs is a proven technique, even though the salmon are not feeding. Chucking in-line spinners can be gangbusters when salmon are packed in tight to cover. Gold spinners with green or chartreuse tape seem to do the trick.
Anglers can gain access to the lower river at Insta-Launch Campground and Marina and at Bridge Street. The middle section of the lower Manistee has an alluring mix of pools, runs and long gravel bars that salmon relate to.
Anglers can gain access at Bear Creek, Rainbow Bend, Blacksmith Bayou and High Bridge. The river is best fished from a boat, but there are places where wading anglers can gain access. From High Bridge to Tippy Dam is a mix of deep bends and shallow gravel bars that fill with spawning salmon in September. There's plenty of public access.
Salmon are caught using a variety of techniques from drifting flies to floating spawn under a bobber. The closer you get to Tippy Dam the more likely you are to encounter fat, resident brown trout that are common in the river. If you tire of the salmon, try drifting single eggs or small spawn bags behind the salmon beds for the trout.
For fishing reports and tackle, contact Andy's Tackle Box in Brethren at 231-477-5737.
The Betsie River is somewhat of a sleeper when it comes to salmon. The upper reaches of the river are too warm to produce much in the way of steelhead or coho natural reproduction, but kings do very well there and offer anglers plenty of targets when they return in September.
The pools fill with salmon below the old Homestead Dam site to U.S. 31 and beyond, beginning in late August. Anglers target fresh-run kings with spawn and bobbers in the marshy stretch of river just up from Betsie Lake.
The U.P. has never gotten much in the way of salmon plants compared to the Lower Peninsula, but it has always had a modest run of naturally reproduced salmon that includes cohos, kings and pink salmon. The runs can be sporadic depending on water levels in the fall.
"Salmon returns have actually been better in recent years than when we were planting fish," joked Baraga Operations Service Center fisheries biologist George Madison. "It varies from year to year, but some streams see pretty good returns."
Madison said some of those rivers include the Black River from Rainbow Gorge to Lake Superior, the lower Ontonagon, Gratiot and Chocolay. Most have falls that limit upstream migration and concentrate fish.
For more details on salmon rivers in the western U.P., contact the Baraga Operations Service Center at 906-353-6651.
Eastern U.P. salmon runs depend on water levels in the fall. "The run on the Two-Hearted River was pretty poor last fall because of the warm weather and low water levels," shared DNR Newberry Operations Service fisheries biologist Cory Kovacs. "The run was just a slow trickle and the cohos really didn't show up until November."
Kovacs said the Sucker River typically gets a decent run of salmon, as does the Carp River. The St. Marys River gets a smorgasbord of salmonids including pinks, Atlantics, cohos, brown trout, and steelhead. Access to fish the Rapids can be gained from the Canadian side. Pink salmon numbers have been rebounding across much of the U.P. in recent years.
Read more articles by Mike Gnatkowski