Water woes aside, captains focus on fishing

Chicago — Low water and fish, not necessarily in that order, are at the top of the minds of the Lake Michigan charter boat fleet as the spring fishing season gets going.

“Every year, it seems like there’s something new that the lake throws at us,” said Jerry Taylor, captain of the Runnin’ Bare out of Waukegan Harbor.

With nearby boat ramps such as Winnetka’s Lloyd Park in question because of record-low water levels, Taylor said that could lead to long lines elsewhere.

“There’s several launches that could be unusable,” Taylor said. “The remaining ones are going to see a lot more traffic. The trailer guys are going to be hit the hardest.”

Waukegan Harbor, the commercial shipping channel, which had been dredged by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers last year, saw more sand piled up after Hurricane Sandy shifted the lake’s bottom.

But marina manager Brion O’Dell said recreational fishermen and charter boats won’t be affected.

“We have some dredging we’re going to do in our marina for sail boats, but we shouldn’t have any problems,” O’Dell said.

Still, as the harbor’s charter fleet began dropping their boats into the slip in early April, many, with deeper hulls, were forced to have their boats lowered into the harbor by crane.

“It’s a little chunk of change out of my wallet, but it’s the cost of business this year,” said Rick Bentley, captain of Windy City Salmon.

There is hope that the melting snow pack in northern Wisconsin and Michigan will help matters.

“People don’t realize how long it takes to raise the lake even an inch,” Taylor said. “It’s a lot of surface area. It could take 10 years to get it back up to where it belongs.”

And both Bentley and Taylor would prefer to focus on the fishing. Last year, it was an early start to the spring coho fishing.

“And they seemed to swim right past us up to Kenosha and Racine,” Taylor said of the coho. “We really didn’t mind because the kings showed up early, too, and stuck around.”

This spring has been slower to start, but Bentley is expecting a steady spring coho season. He is less sure about the king fishing this year, even coming off a very good Chinook season last year.

Last year, he half expected the Chinook season to be good because fishing in the fall of 2011 suggested there was a solid class of fishing coming up. And, sure enough, last year turned out to be one of the better Chinook seasons in Bentley’s memory.

“We put some kings in the box in May,” he said. “You don’t see that very often. It was good until the middle of August.”
But nasty weather last fall led to widespread trip cancellations, and so the fleet has little to go on in sizing up this year’s class of three- and four-year-old kings, Bentley said.
Despite the quality Chinook fishing last year, with numerous fish in the 14- to 17-pound range, Taylor noted that there were few “monster” kings caught, which makes him concerned about the average size of the alewives.
“We saw tons of bait last year, but the bait fish seem to be smaller,” Taylor said. “You didn’t see the cohos coming to the boat with three or four tails sticking out of their mouth with seven-inch alewives.”
Instead, the alewives found inside salmon stomachs last year were much smaller, Taylor said. The lake’s fisheries managers are also very concerned about alewives.
Biologists believe that Chinook salmon are naturally reproducing at much higher rates than previously expected, especially in Michigan’s numerous streams, and they worry that too many Chinook could crash the alewife population.
Illinois, which historically has stocked only a small percentage of all the Chinook stocked into the lake annually, is only cutting its stocking by 8 percent, since there is no known natural reproduction.
And while Bentley said he is glad that the lake managers are playing it safe with the alewives, he wondered what effect clearer water, thanks to invasive zebra and quagga mussels, may be having on Chinook, since, he too, has seen no shortage of alewives. He has noticed that king fishing has gotten increasingly tough on bright days, once the morning has passed.
“They’re much more light sensitive than coho,” he said. “They more selective feeders. Maybe the lake is becoming less hospitable to kings because of light sensitivity.”

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