GRAND HAVEN, MI – It was just shy of 7 a.m. when a rod bucked and caught everyone’s attention.
“There’s one,” yelled Captain Brian Butts, owner of Sea Flea Charters LLC, out of Grand Haven. He had just run the boat a mile-and-a-half offshore to fish. The rods were just getting rigged when the first one went off.
Amber Wiersma came out on the aft-deck to reel the fish in, swaying with the roll of the boat under a slate-gray sky. Within minutes she had it next to the 31-foot Tiara’s hull where April Bosker, a licensed charter captain working as Butt’s mate this day, netted a nice, silver two-year-old Chinook salmon.
The young king had slammed a Blue Skinny Jeans spoon that Butts was trolling. It was the first of 13 fish he and Bosker would boat for the Wiersma family by noon, fish that would range from just a few pounds to as much as 16-pounds. Each family member would get their opportunity to land a big one.
“We’ve been coming out here on the lake since we were kids,” said 34-year old Amber Wiersma, explaining that she wasn’t concerned about the inclement weather. “We do this once a year,” she said referring to her sisters, Lindsey and Ashley, and parents, Bob and Gloria Wiersma, of Grand Haven.
Bob Wiersma said the annual outing on Sea Flea typically results a limit of fish, that is, five fish per person. But catching so many proved more difficult than usual, as has been the case for most of charter fleet this year.
“I was catching 30-fish limits last year,” said Butts, a 12-year veteran charter captain and successful salmon tournament angler. “This year, through all of June, a good day was
three to seven fish. It wasn’t until the last two-and-a-half weeks that we started getting double-digit catches.”
State fisheries managers say that’s been the norm this year. The season began with a stretch of unseasonable cold, scattering the fish around the lake, making them harder to find. That cold-snap put the fishing season back a couple of weeks where lake temperatures warmed early in 2012, pushed by springtime temperatures in the 80’s.
Fewer salmon but bigger
“Last year we saw the highest catch rate we have ever seen reported by charter boats,” said Todd Kalish, the Lake Michigan fisheries basin coordinator for the Michigan Department of Natural Resources. “It was one of the best years we ever had in terms of the fishing.
“This year we are not seeing as many fish get caught, but the quality of the fish we are seeing is a lot better. We are seeing numerous fish that are 20-pounds and greater and we are seeing a lot of alewives.
Big salmon result when the forage base is abundant, meaning the big predators have enough to eat. Chinook salmon rely on alewives to thrive. Butts and charter captains on the lake say the salmon are full of alewives this year – a development has some scratching their heads wondering about the accuracy of early season state and federal assessments that found alewives at an all-time low.
Twenty pound salmon started showing up in the catch in early June. That caught state fisheries officials by surprise. They expected to see numerous, smaller fish, but none so large. It too suggested that there was more to eat than previously thought. And if so, they forecast 30-pound salmon by the end of summer.
Anglers have been abuzz in recent weeks about the 30-pound Chinooks that began to appear in the catch in early August. Butts would boat one too on another day, the first 30-pounder, he said, in the history of his boat.
“It’s great,” said Butts. “People like to catch big fish. When I can come out here and get everyone a big fish, it makes their day. What’s impressive is the 4-year old kings we are seeing are bigger than when I started fishing in 1974.
“We would see a 30-pounder once in a while. This year we are seeing a 25-pounder on every trip. The average four-year-old we see is 18-pounds to 19-pounds.”
But not so on this day. Butts worked every angle possible, talking regularly with other captains about their locations and tactics that worked. He pushed Sea Flea farther off shore about mid-morning, hoping to find the bigger fish, the salmon that had been closer to shore the day before.
It wasn’t long before his hunch paid off.
“Reel! Reel! Reel!” Butts hollered as two-rods went off, eventually yielding nice fish in the 12- to 14-pound range, the start of a sequence that would produce an assortment of larger fish.
“We moved out and the big ones are sitting outside of the smaller fish,” Butts said.
“They were inside yesterday.”
“Every day we have to come out and fish for them. It hasn’t been easy. You have to do your homework to catch them.”
Relaxing under the cabin roof, Bob Wiersma appeared pleased about the outcome. He’s fished on Sea Flea for the last 10 years and knows what Brian Butts can do. Big fish, small fish, there were plenty in the box this day.
“It’s a fun day out with family or friends,” Wiersma said. “And it’s an opportunity to get out and fill the freezer for the season.”
This story appears on MLive Outdoors