By Howard Meyerson
It’s not a stretch to say that lakes will be cold when the 2014 fishing season opens on April 1. And, given the volume of frigid runoff this spring, federal hydrologists predict Lake Michigan-Huron waters are likely to be colder than last year throughout the summer fishing season.
What Lake Michigan anglers can expect remains a question that will soon be answered – particularly when it comes to Chinook salmon. Anglers this year can once again catch and keep five salmon daily. Last summer was tops for 20 pound to 30 pound fish, very big salmon, but fewer were caught overall.
State fisheries officials will be watching the 2014 salmon catch closely. Concern remains about the forage base. The alewife population is still at low ebb, and they are the preferred food for Chinook salmon.
You may recall that Michigan and other bordering Lake Michigan states reduced Chinook stocking in the lake by 50 percent in 2013. That was done in an effort to conserve alewives and provide a sustainable salmon fishery going forward. The effects of that cut are not expected to show up until 2015.
“Last year we saw a surprising increase in the size of Chinooks,” notes Jay Wesley, the Michigan Department of Natural Resources southern Lake Michigan management supervisor. “This year we expect the size will be down, but the catch rates will be higher. That’s what we see when the forage base declines.”
SMALLER BUT MORE NUMEROUS SALMON EXPECTED
Catch-rates, meaning how many fish are caught per hour, are expected to go up this season because the salmon are expected to be “hungry” and more likely to bite lures, according to Wesley. When food abundance declines, their weights decline as well.
“We seem to be living off the 2010 and 2012 year classes of alewives,” Wesley said. “Our concern, moving forward with a 2013 year class that isn’t anything special, is how well those (other) two other year classes will survive the winter, and will they persist as prey source.”
The record cold, snow and ice could have an adverse effect on alewives. It can stress them and deplete their fat reserves. That, in turn, can result in a larger-than-normal die-off once summer comes.
“Alewives, like deer, save up fat reserves to get through the winter,” Wesley said. “If those reserves last, they will be fine. But we’ve noticed that they have been in poorer condition, with less fat in their tissue, and lake is going to warm up less quickly.”
“We don’t typically see alewife die-offs until June. Those are typically fish that are in poor condition coming out of winter and trying to spawn. That stress causes a die-off. We see a little of that every year, but the potential is that we will see more this year.”
SURVEYS FIND LITTLE CHANGE FROM 2013
Acoustic surveys and mid-depth netting trawls conducted last August by state and federal agencies found little change in alewife abundance compared to 2012. That information figures into calculations that determine if predator-prey relationships are in balance. Read: Is there enough food in the lake to sustain big predators like Chinook salmon? If not, the question becomes: Is it time to cut stocking further.
“What the acoustic survey showed was a very low abundance of (new alewives) and an abundance of older alewives that was similar to 2012,” explained Dave Warner, a fisheries research biologist with the U.S. Geologic Survey. His crew and others from the DNR and U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service each surveyed portions of Lake Michigan looking for prey fish.
“The overall number of bloater chubs and smelt was also down. We’re seeing a medium term decline that doesn’t appear to be changing. Smelt have been going down since 2007 and bloaters are too, depending on the age group. They are very low compared to the 1990s.”
No further salmon cuts are planned for this year, according to Wesley. Michigan will go ahead and stock 559,000 Chinook salmon in May. Any necessary cuts would take place in 2015. Anglers, meanwhile, can expect to find a full spread of Chinook age classes in Lake Michigan this year.
COHO AND STEELHEAD SHOULD BE GOOD
Coho salmon fishing is also expected to be good this season. Look for them to show up first in the southern part of the lake around New Buffalo and St. Joseph. Wesley suggests Coho may remain in the southern part of the basin longer than usual because of the colder lake water temperatures.
Steelhead fishing will be good as well, but they too may be smaller than in 2013.
“The adult (steelhead) coming in this year should be good fish,” Wesley said. “With the run off and snow melt, we should have strong runs up and down the lakeshore – and it should be a more prolonged run.”
This story appears on MLive Outdoors