By Howard Meyerson
The 2015 salmon season is just getting underway and what anglers can expect remains uncertain. Lake Michigan fishing typically picks up in May but just where in the lake depends on water temperature. And so far lake waters have been uniformly very cold.
“It’s tough to pinpoint where the chinooks will be when water temperatures are the same around the lake,” said Jay Wesley, the Michigan Department of Natural Resources Lake Michigan basin coordinator. “But, fishing for lake trout, coho salmon, steelhead and brown trout has been decent. And I know of one 17-pound (chinook) that has been caught.”
Charter anglers around St. Joseph have had intermittent luck with chinooks so far. One recently called to share that fishing was sporadic — a 30-fish-day with a boat full of clients might be followed by a three-fish-day. Cold blustery weather made for difficult fishing in April.
Anglers are likely to find this year’s catch about the same as last, according to Wesley. Michigan sport and charter anglers caught 125,000 chinooks in 2014 and in 2013. Both years were down from 2012 when anglers caught 275,000 chinooks.
Of course, there are fewer chinooks in Lake Michigan these days. Fewer are now stocked by all the Lake Michigan states, and a 2015 U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service report indicates fewer wild (untagged) salmon showed up in the 2014 catch, particularly up north, where they have been plentiful.
The reason speculated was a weak 2013 year class of wild chinook due to “low water levels and warm water temperatures during the fall 2012 spawning run, and the exceptionally cold 2013/2014 winter and delayed spring,” according to the report.
Wesley said today’s smaller salmon fishery may be more in balance with the available forage base, meaning the abundance of alewives they depend on. Lake Michigan’s alewife population hit “an all time low,” he said, and you might recall that Lake Michigan states cut chinook stocking by 50 percent lakewide in 2013 to conserve alewife.
“We’re pretty close to our objectives,” Wesley said. “(We’ve looked for) real-time catch rates of about 13 chinooks per 100 angling hours. Ours are between 8 and 12 (now), which represents a more balanced system. In the mid-2000’s, anglers were catching 35 (chinooks) per 100 hours, but that was out of balance and not sustainable.
“People need to change their expectations. We now know what the lake can support, and it can’t support catching 35 fish. That was out of whack. But we (still) have concerns about what will happen if we don’t see a change in the forage base.”
Desired multi-species fishery
Having a diverse, multi-species fishery is another objective, where salmon make up only 50 percent of the annual sport and charter catch. That too is being met, according to Wesley.
“Last year, we were at 45 percent salmon,” Wesley said. “We also want to see growth rates that put 3-year-old females at 15.4 pounds, or larger, and last year they were 16.6 pounds.”
Even with that said, there is still concern about alewives. Bottom trawls and acoustic surveys (of alewives) in Lake Michigan in 2014 showed only two year-classes, 2012 and 2010, are substantial enough to support the (chinook) fishery. In all, there are five year-classes present in the lake where typically there are nine to help produce future forage. Lake Huron’s salmon fishery collapsed when the alewife population dropped to four year-classes.
“The risk we face is if the 2014 and 2015 year classes don’t produce (more young),” Wesley said. “If we have good year-classes, we will be fine. Right now there’s a lot of uncertainty. We aren’t sure the entire alewife population made it through the winter. We have concerns because we know the chinook population is down, but is it (down) far enough for alewives to bounce back?
“It’s good that overall salmon numbers are down until the alewives come back. Right now, it’s a waiting game.”
Appears in MLive Media Group newspapers and MLive Outdoors.