By Howard Meyerson
ST. JOSEPH, MI — Russ Clark is among the many who say that salmon fishing was good on Lake Michigan last summer. But the 27-year veteran fishing charter Captain is worried — in particular about salmon fishing next fall.
Lake Michigan states are collectively moving ahead with a plan to cut Chinook salmon stocking by 50 percent in 2013, approximately 1.6 million fewer fish lakewide. The biggest cuts will come in Michigan waters where only 559,000 will be planted, approximately one million fewer than in recent years. The decision followed an extensive multi-state discussion with angling groups earlier this year about the need to reduce the number of predator fish because of the dwindling alewife forage base.
Michigan angling groups and charter fishing organizations recently were informed about where those cuts will take place; which ports and rivers will get fewer fish.
“I understand what the DNR is doing, but I don’t agree with them,” said Clark, owner of SeaHawk Charters in St. Joseph. “We had great fishing as a whole, but we had very tough fishing last fall.
“I wish they wouldn’t cut plants here. It’s going to be horrible.”
Clark and others are worried about the salmon allocation for St. Joseph: 48,000 in 2013, down 65.7 percent from 140,000 stocked annually. Those fish make up the bulk of the fall salmon runs there. They return each fall after three to four years in Lake Michigan once they are ready to run upriver and spawn. With fewer fish planted, the fall run will be smaller. The summer fishery is expected to be OK, made up of stocked and wild salmon that swim around the lake.
Jim Bennett, president of the Michigan Steelheaders Southwest Chapter at St. Joseph said anglers were misled earlier this year when state officials said stocking cuts would be heaviest at the northern ports with natural reproduction. The plan recently unveiled makes deep cuts all along the lakeshore.
“I am upset that we were not told the truth from the beginning. If I had known where this was going, I would have fought a lot harder,” Bennett said. “People are upset, but they don’t want a bad relationship with the DNR.”
Michigan officials say they had to make tough choices.
“That was the plan,” said Jay Wesley, the DNR’s southwest Lake Michigan unit manager. “We knew we had more natural reproduction in the northern Lower Peninsula and thought we would be able to reduce stocking there more, but it’s become more of an equal distribution (of cuts) to all ports.”
DNR fisheries managers decided to continue to stock salmon at Medusa, near Charlevoix, where coded, wire-tagged salmon have been showing up well in the open-lake fishery. Protecting the state’s Little Manistee River broodstock is also a priority.
The DNR collects salmon eggs there for its hatchery program.
“Then we wanted to keep net-pens going, and there wasn’t anything left to cut,” Wesley said. “We are cutting more than a million fish, so we had to take them from a lot of places.”
Captain Denny Grinold said he can live with the situation but isn’t pleased. Grinold operates a fishing charter out of Grand Haven, which will get only 59,000 salmon next year rather than 175,000 that has been the norm. The port is on the Grand River, where upstream stocking also will be discontinued, eliminating another 75,000 fish per year.
“It’s a much larger cut than I expected,” Grinold said. “Am I happy? No. But that’s the way it is. I am sure it will hurt the fall fishery at Grand Haven.”
Roger Belter, the president of the Michigan Steelheaders Grand Haven chapter favors the lakewide reduction and thinks it prudent. He wants to avoid the catastrophe that befell Lake Huron in 2004 when the Chinook salmon population crashed.
“I didn’t want to see us end up like Lake Huron,” Belter said. “I didn’t have a problem with it, but I didn’t realize it was going to be quite this drastic.”
The new stocking plan also calls for reductions at ports like Muskegon, Holland and Saugatuck which historically get fewer than Grand Haven. Muskegon will get 18,000 rather than 60,000. Holland will get 15,000 rather than 45,000. Saugatuck will get 16,000 rather than 45,000.
At Ludington, where 38,000 salmon will be stocked rather than 120,000 in past years, Jim Fenner is less concerned. Fenner, the past president of the Ludington Charter Boat Association, said natural reproduction from the Pere Marquette and Manistee River systems will keep the fall fishery alive.
“No one has made a big deal about it. We all have our fingers crossed,” Fenner said.
The stocking plan will stay in place for three years, according to Wesley, but it is flexible. Stocking numbers can change if conditions warrant. If the three-year-old Chinook salmon weights climb above 19.8 pounds, stocking will be increased by 30 percent, according to Wesley. If those weights drop below 15.4 pounds, stocking will be cut by 30 percent.
Meanwhile the southern ports will be scrutinized closely. All stocked fish will be marked and monitored. The wire-tags tell researchers when and where the fish was planted.
“We’re going to have to watch ports from the Muskegon River south,” Wesley said.
“Those are the ports that have the least amount of natural reproduction. The center of the state, from Muskegon (north) to Medusa should be fine. The northern part of the Lower Peninsula should be fine, and the open lake fishery should be fine for everyone.”
Email Howard Meyerson at firstname.lastname@example.org
This story appears on MLive Outdoors