By Howard Meyerson
What anglers can expect from the Lake Michigan salmon fishery this year is anybody’s guess. But rest assured that people are watching it closely.
State and federal officials continue to be worried about the forage base, the abundance of alewives and other prey fish that have reported to be at an all-time low. Chinook salmon, in particular, rely on alewives to survive. That’s why all of the Lake Michigan states agreed to a 50 percent lake-wide cut in salmon stocking this year, hoping to spread those prey fish out.
The outcome won’t be seen until those stocked fish grow up, possibly as early as 2014, but definitely by 2015, according to state officials.
And yet, charter anglers are reporting catches with 20-pounders in the mix already this season. They are also reporting spotty conditions, hit and miss fishing as of mid-June when fishing was hot last year.
“We have seen some of those 20-pounders and I heard of one guy in South Haven who caught a 26-pounder,” said Captain Russ Clark, owner of Sea Hawk Fishing Charters out of St. Joseph. “I was a little surprised to see those jumbos, given the talk about low bait fish numbers.
“This year as whole has been tougher. The fishing has been inconsistent. I am hearing that up and down the lake. Last year was good fishing at this time of year.”
State officials say the lake’s colder temperatures this spring may have scattered fish too, making them harder to target. But the reports of big ones also has them wondering.
“The early news that 20-pounders were being caught was a real surprise. I wouldn’t have expected it,” said Jay Wesley, the Michigan Department of Natural Resources southwest Michigan fisheries supervisor. “I hope that continues to play out this summer. If it does, we could see 30-pound salmon by August or September.
“I do hear that the fishing is more sporadic. The average Joes are going out and getting three and four fish where they were getting five to 10 last year.”
No alewives, lots of salmon
Wesley expected smaller fish this season because anglers were catching smaller Chinooks last fall, albeit abundant. There has been no big bloom of alewives in the lake. The Chinook salmon population is large, he said, and the amount of food to go around is low. Those are conditions that typically result in smaller fish.
“We’re still at the lowest point in 10 years,” Wesley said about the alewife population. “The trawl data shows low numbers and the acoustic survey picked up some 2012 year class alewives, but nothing out of the ordinary.”
Having an abundance of salmon resulted in excellent catch rates in 2012, Wesley said.
The catch rate was: .35 fish per hour or 35 Chinook salmon per 100 hours. That resulted having a five salmon daily limit again this year. State fisheries officials review the conditions annually with an eye to whether the limit should be lowered to three salmon.
“The bench mark for changing to three fish daily is .165 fish per hour (16.5 salmon per 100 hours). And we are way above that,” Wesley said. “We are coming off one of the highest catch rates for Lake Michigan that we have had.”
The Lake Michigan salmon population is thought to be mix of stocked fish, wild fish from northern Lake Michigan tributaries, and migratory fish that swim over from Lake Huron.
The stocked fish are marked with an adipose fin clip, according to Wesley. Those fish also carry coded-wire tags. DNR fisheries staffers want anglers to turn in the heads of the marked fish. The data on the tags helps them determine where and when fish were stocked and caught. Fish that have their adipose fin are wild and likely grew up on northern Lake Michigan tributaries.
Michigan still stocks the waters of northern Lake Huron. Approximately 600,000 Chinook salmon are planted there.
All of those are marked as well, Wesley said.
The province of Ontario also is beginning to mark its stocked salmon in Lake Huron, but numbers are “miniscule” according to Wesley, who said approximately 14 million wild salmon are produced in the Georgian Bay each year. But many of those young salmon are being preyed upon by other fish, Wesley said.
“Only a few of those are making it to adult size and coming across the lake,” Wesley said. “They are part of the forage base and are getting eaten up or we would see a larger adult population in Lake Huron.”
Looking to the future
Lake Michigan anglers continue to worry about what’s ahead. Bruce York, an Allendale angler who regularly fishes the Grand Haven pier for perch or steelhead or salmon when they are in, said he is concerned about the stocking cuts and what it might mean in the future.
“I think it will hurt the guys in boats who make a living at it,” York said.
Stacey Schmalz, another Grand Haven angler who fishes the pier there said he managed to catch three or four 20-pound salmon earlier this season. He remains concerned about the stocking cutbacks because “there isn’t the natural reproduction down here that they get up north.”
Russ Clark, in St Joe, said he remains “on the fence” about the alewife situation, meaning uncertain about whether state and federal officials have it right.
On Lake Michigan where the salmon season is king, what we have is a wait and see situation where only time will tell.
This column appears on MLive Outdoors