Spring likely best for Lake Michigan anglers
Chicago — Predictions are that the spring coho fishing will live up to expectations, but once the fish head out into the deeper water, a repeat of last season’s disappointing summer fishing seems likely.
Recent surveys of the alewife have revealed that the population of this vital forage fish is at an all- time low, continuing a 15-year decline, and probably due to the depletion of nutrients by massive colonies of invasive zebra and quagga mussels, DNR fisheries biologists have reported. Coho salmon, and especially Chinook salmon, depend on alewives for healthy growth. It is estimated that it takes 10 pounds of alewives to put one pound of weight on a Chinook salmon. Simple math indicates that one 20-pound Chinook will have consumed at least 200 pounds of alewives.
As the alewife population declines, the number of stocked Chinook must be reduced accordingly. But, with naturally produced Chinook coming out of some Michigan rivers in uncontrollable numbers, this is a very difficult balance to strike. DNR surveys show that in 2013, 65 percent of caught Chinook were wild fish. In 2014, this number fell to 57 percent, likely the result of low water conditions during the winter of 2011.
As anglers prepare for the 2015 fishing season, most fisheries biologists feel the alewife population in Lake Michigan is not sufficient to support the number of Chinook present. With little to eat many Chinook will succumb to disease, while those that survive will have to expend more energy to fill their nutritional requirements, biologists fear.
The result is going to be fewer and smaller Chinook.
Another downside to the shrinking alewife pool is that following their spring spawning effort in harbors around the lake, the alewives will disperse into the open lake, and these small schools, and the predators that follow them, will be much more difficult to locate. This will, of course, result in lowered catch rates for salmon anglers.
And, as if the above news is not bad enough, throw in the fact that this winter caused the lake to ice over even more completely than in the previous winter.
Last year, spring fishing basically began around mid-April, when the water was 35 to 40 degrees, and the young coho were small but plentiful. As May dawned, warmer water and dense alewife schools produced steadily growing coho, and bonus Chinook and rainbow trout.
By mid-June, the alewives, having completed their spawning chores, were moving off-shore, followed by the ravenous salmon. As the fish dispersed, fishing action slowed a bit.
But that drawback was more than compensated for by the much larger size of the fish. This deep water fishing routinely held up through the summer months until late August, when the salmon began to migrate towards their spawning sites.
Following a brutal winter that saw the entire Great Lakes surface virtually frozen over, the 2014 fishing season was possibly the worst ever recorded since the introduction of coho and Chinook salmon in 1965.
After the traditionally excellent spring coho fishing, the salmon, with rare exception, seemed to disappear.
Some fishermen blamed the DNRs of Illinois, Michigan and Wisconsin with secretly cutting back on their stocking programs. Since there was no truth to these accusations, the bewildered anglers simply threw up their hands. Others accused the charter boats of overfishing the resource, but in reality, many charter operators were allowing their clients to cancel trips because they couldn’t find any fish.