Salmon catch down, but fish are bigger in 2013
Ludington, Mich. — Summer salmon fishing on Lake Michigan is shaping up to be an unusual season. Charter captains report plenty of big chinook salmon. Many run 20 pounds, even 30 pounds this year, but fewer of the big, silver kings are winding up in the cooler.
“It’s been decent and we are seeing a lot of larger fish,” said Capt. Dave Lindberg, of Ludington, secretary of the Ludington Charter Boat Association. “But we’re not seeing the numbers we have before.
“Instead of 10 to 15 fish per trip, we are down to eight to nine per trip. Overall, it’s been a mediocre season,” Lindberg said.
Charter customers prefer to see big numbers, several captains told Michigan Outdoor News. Big fish make for great photos and plenty of excitement, but it is numbers that keep customers coming back.
“This is the worst season I’ve ever seen,” said Capt. Arthur Schotts, owner of Steelhead Charters out of Muskegon and a 38-year veteran charter fishing captain.
“We see 20-pound fish every trip, but people don’t want big fish. They want to catch more fish. If I was on a five-person charter and only one guy reels a fish in, I would be disappointed. No one wants to go home with nothing, and we have that guy all the time.”
Twelve to 15 fish per trip was once the norm, Schotts said. But the season started sluggishly and even once it gathered steam, there were still days when only two fish were boated. His largest, however, was a 30-pound, 1-ounce chinook, which proved the “saving grace” for that particular trip. His customers have also enjoyed a mixed bag of coho salmon and kings.
State fisheries managers say the 2013 summer salmon season has been that way up and down the Lake Michigan shoreline. A colder-than-usual spring scattered the fish and made them tough to find. Once the weather and waters warmed, the fishing got better. Twenty-pound kings began showing up – a development that surprised many who expected smaller fish, given the small fish that were caught last year and early season forage assessments, which had reported low alewife abundance.
When fishing picked up in July, typically prime time, the catch rate lagged well behind 2012, when anglers caught an average of 35 salmon per 100 hours of fishing, a catch rate state officials called “excellent” and one of the highest on record.
“The catch rates seem about half of what they were last year,” said Jay Wesley, a DNR fisheries biologist on Lake Michigan, speculating, without having hard numbers to compare. “But the growth rate is one we haven’t seen for 10 to 20 years.
“We have a strong 2010 and 2012 year-class of alewives. The big question we had was how they would survive and would they provide enough forage,” Wesley said. “So far, so good. They (alewives) aren’t growing fast, but there are plenty of them out there. Salmon are finding them and are putting on some weight.”
Charter captains at Grand Haven have reported salmon catches that were stuffed with alewives. Some question whether there was a need to cut salmon stocking on the lake.
Michigan and the other Lake Michigan states reduced chinook stocking lakewide by 50 percent this year based on dismal forage reports. State and federal fisheries officials who had conducted those assessments reported that alewife populations continued at an all-time low.
The cuts, which were put into place for a 3-year period, with the option of revising stocking rates up or down if conditions warranted, were made to conserve the alewife population and assure there would be enough food available to sustain the salmon fishery.
“It’s too early to tell if we have gone too far,” Wesley said. “Things are pretty unstable. We’ve gone from lots of small fish and record catch rates to fewer but much larger fish. That’s a swing you don’t typically see in one year. I think we will be reluctant to make an adjustment (next season). We’ll let it slide a year.”
Any cuts to salmon stocking this year are not expected to be visible in the fishery for two to three years, according to Wesley. Meanwhile, having two solid alewife year-classes helps.
Charter captains say the alewives in salmon are 2 inches to 3 inches long, smaller than the normal 6 to 8 inches long.
Acoustic surveys of forage in Lake Michigan last fall found 2011 and 2012 were the lowest and second-lowest biomass years, respectively, in the 17 years the lake had been surveyed.
Dave Warner, the federal survey leader with the U.S. Geological Survey’s Great Lakes Science Center in Ann Arbor, said the survey showed an “average” year-class from 2012.
“While this may sound negative, my estimate for the survey last August was that there were at least between 5 and 8.7 billion alewife in the lake,” Warner said in a recent email.