By Howard Meyerson
BENTON HARBOR, MI — The sizzle of running line caught everyone’s attention. Another fish had hooked up and seemed to be running with a lure. It was just nine in the morning and the ice box was filling nicely. Captain Russ Clark, owner of Sea Hawk Fishing Charters had called it well; the anglers aboard Sea Hawk were having a good time.
“The water today is just 48.4 degrees F,” Clark had said earlier, at sunrise while motoring out beyond the St. Joseph pier. He is a 30-year veteran captain who runs his 36-foot Tiara out of Benton Harbor. “That’s 10 degrees colder than last year. Cold water seems to keep the fish in closer and longer down here in the southern part of the lake.”
The day’s fishing strategy was troll relatively close to the Michigan shoreline, in shallow waters from 40 to 80 feet deep. Salmon were in looking for something to eat. And from the time Sea Hawk mate, Don Sader, set the lines, the action was steady – with two and three simultaneous hook ups on multiple occasions.
This cool, sunny day was proving an example of Lake Michigan salmon fishing at its best
– a welcome early season indication of things to come; the bottom had not dropped out as some reasonably fear.
“The fishing has been sporadic, but overall it’s been very good,” Clark offered. “We’ve had some 30 fish days, but a lot have been 10 or 12 fish days with a lot of salmon and steelhead and lake trout mixed in.”
WILL THERE BE ENOUGH ALEWIVES?
State fish managers and anglers are concerned about the declining Lake Michigan forage base. Alewives are at low ebb. Some worry that salmon fishing could suffer. That happened on Lake Huron in 2004. And though walleye, steelhead and lake trout fishing there has since boomed, chinook salmon have become a minor element.
Lake Michigan’s 2013 salmon catch was defined by fewer but bigger fish. Many said they would prefer catching more fish, even if they are smaller. This year’s prediction is for just that: smaller fish and more in the cooler. The catch rate (the number caught per 100 hours fishing) is expected to climb. State fisheries managers anticipate that salmon will be hungry and hit more lures.
Clark’s clients, a group of Missouri anglers who drive in each year to fish with him, didn’t wait long between hookups. They would all limit-out by 10 a.m., managing five fish each and a mixed bag made up mostly of chinook salmon with a smattering of steelhead and lake trout. They group got their limits two days in a row. The biggest chinook would run nearly 16 pounds.
“We’ve had this kind of success (most) every year,” said Stan Kostecki, a videographer from Defiance MO., and the organizer for the annual two-day outing. “One year four of us guys limited out by 8:30 a.m. They were all nice kings and one was a 24-pounder.
“The last four or five years has been the worst and it does make us think about skipping a year or two, or coming later in the season. Sometimes it’s been the weather. This is later for us. We used to come at the end of April, but Russ suggested we come later because of the cold.”
Michigan’s long winter resulted in a slow start for salmon, according to Jay Wesley, the southern Lake Michigan fisheries supervisor for Michigan DNR. Anglers began the season targeting brown trout which were in close and more plentiful than in recent years. Coho salmon came next, then the kings.
Colder waters are likely to extend well into the summer season. That, Wesley says, means early season tactics will be appropriate even in June.
“The guys who go out in June need to think about fishing like its early May and not be afraid to fish in shallow and closer to shore,” Wesley explained. “The cold water keeps the fish in close because gobies are close in and alewives come in to spawn.
Clark said everyone he knows is “concerned about the bait fish issue,” but the fish being caught are healthy and fat. They are eating something. Now it’s a matter of wait and see.
This story appears on MLive Outdoors.