Our Best Ports For Brown Trout
Written by Mike Gnatkowski - Gnat's Charters   
Saturday, 31 March 2007 14:22
Michigan’s Great Lakes brown trout fortunes rest solely on planted fish. While an estimated half or more of the Chinook salmon in lakes Michigan, Huron and Superior are naturally reproduced fish, spawning by lake-run brown trout contributes little to the fishery. Great Lakes brown trout are basically a put-and-take fishery. The last few years though, there hasn’t been much “take.”

Image The Great Lakes brown trout fishery exploded during the mid 1990’s when fisheries managers introduced new strains of lake-run brown trout that were thought to be more suitable to the open waters of the Great Lakes. Strains such as the Seeforellen and Wild Rose thrived when they were first planted. The new strains were hailed as the saviors of the Great Lakes brown trout fishery and biologists rejoiced with the hope that a blossoming fishery was in the making. But what many people failed to realize was that the new plants also coincided with several years of prolific alewife abundance. The fish gorged on the plentiful baitfish and grew to trophy proportions. Survival of the naïve young trout was excellent. Conditions were ideal for the new and improved version of Salmo trutta.

Ideally, during times of prolific alewife abundance newly planted brown trout are also less vulnerable to predation so more trout survive to catchable size.  As a result, they keep anglers smiling and coolers heavy. With a gluttonous amount of alewives available, predators, like cormorants, walleyes, northern pike and dogfish, keyed in on the shad-like alewives and not on succulent, newly planted brown trout. Today, the reverse is becoming increasingly clear.   Alewives are just about non-existent on Lake Huron and the fishery is suffering to the point where brown trout are becoming a rarity. Lake Michigan may not be far behind. Lake Huron

When I asked Alpena Fisheries Research Station biologist Jim Johnson if anything had changed with regard to the prospects for brown trout on Lake Huron he said, “Things are always changing. Unfortunately, it’s not always for the best. It’s pretty hard to plant anything right now and expect them to do well because of the lack of baitfish. The brown trout we do plant just become food for the predators.” In recent years fisheries personnel have planted upwards of 100,000 browns in the waters of Thunder Bay and Lake Huron and the return on the investment has been dismal.

Johnson said that alewives, which once comprised upwards of 90% of the biomass on lakes Michigan and Huron, are now nearly nonexistent. “Alewives were rare in recent surveys,” lamented Johnson. “The scary thing is that there’s no spawning stock of alewives to produce more young-of-the-year. And it’s not only alewives that are down. All baitfish are down.”That presents a double whammy for brown trout. Because there are no alewives to feed the predators the hatchery trout become fish fodder and the ones that avoid the onslaught of toothy and web-footed marauders aren’t likely to find anything to eat.    

Biologists on Lake Huron have tried planting brown trout at night, tried planting them offshore, tried holding them until the fall to plant larger fish. Nothing has worked and they are running out of options. The latest strategy is to move the brown trout plants farther to the north at Rockport and away from cormorant colonies. Most feel they are grasping for straws.      The one bright spot in this dark cloud that is hanging over the brown trout is that the ones that survive are getting big. “The brown trout have a gauntlet to run before they make it to catchable size,” said Johnson. “The good thing is that the ones that make it are doing extremely well by growing fat on gobies.” The exotic gobies have overrun native species like sculpin and emerald shiners and the brown trout are taking advantage of it.

Johnson said that in spite of the gloom and doom that fishing for browns on Lake Huron last season was fair and an improvement over the last two years. “At least there were some brown trout caught during the Brown Trout Festival in Alpena,” said Johnson. He said that Tawas continues to be one of the better ports, although it’s still been pretty spotty. “Tawas still has some of those bigger, older fish from earlier plants,” suggested Johnson. “There are a fair number of fish in the 15- to 20-pound range.” If you want a brown for the wall Tawas might be the place to get it this spring.     For information on boat launches, facilities, bait shops and accommodations in the Tawas area contact the Tawas Bay Tourism & Convention Bureau at (800) 558-2927 on online at www.tawas.com .   

“The Thumb has some brown trout,” offered Johnson, “but the baitfish situation there is the worst. The lake off the Thumb is subject to cold water in the winter because the wind there really mixes the water and alewives do not winter well in those kind of conditions.”    “There might be more browns in the waters off the Thumb than many people think,” suggested Southern Lake Huron Management Unit fisheries supervisor Jim Baker. “Generally, fishing for browns is slow off the Thumb and they don’t turn up in large numbers, but I think a lot of it is guys just don’t target them. I think there’s fish there to be caught, but people are just not trying to fish for them.”   

One reason Baker thinks there are more browns off the Thumb than people think is habitat. “The Thumb has a lot of that rocky substrate that is good habitat for browns,” theorized Baker. The problem is that same rocky substrate is hell on props and boat hulls. “I think a lot of times the guys just aren’t trolling shallow enough to target browns. Most of them are geared up for salmon or lake trout.”     Baker said that the MDNR plants upwards of 10,000 brown trout annually at Port Austin and at Grindstone City. Both ports have great facilities and are popular with big-lake trollers. Likely spring brown trout locations include Eagle and Alaska bays to the west of Grindstone City and off Point aux Barques. Trolling shallow-running body baits along the reefs is good for a mixed bag of browns and lakers. And watch for rocks. Fish-holding structure exists all the way to Port Austin.

For more information on access and spring brown trout opportunities off the Thumb contact the MDNR Southern Lake Huron Management Unit at (989) 684-9141. For information on lodging and other amenities in the area contact the Greater Port Austin Area Chamber of Commerce at (989) 738-7600 or online at www.portaustinarea.com

Lake Michigan

When I asked Central Lake Michigan Unit fisheries biologist Mark Tonello what kind of season anglers enjoyed for brown trout on Lake Michigan last year he was brutally honest. “I didn’t hear a lot of good things,” was his reply. Even though Lake Michigan certainly has better spring brown trout fishing than Lake Huron right now it was not a banner year. “The charter boat data shows that 2003 was the poorest year since 1997,” said Tonello. “I know that 2004 was a little better, but not great.”

Tonello said that the charter boat figures are not really indicative of the brown trout fishery though. Most captains don’t have their boats in when the brown trout fishing is good. “Small-boat anglers are more indicative of what the brown trout fishery is like,” theorized Tonello.     When I asked Tonello how big an impact cormorants were having on the brown trout plants he said, “That’s the big question. No one really has the answer.”

Image One advantage brown trout do have on Michigan’s west side is that they can be planted in the drowned river mouths which are warmer and dark and help jumpstart the browns and shield them from predators. In recent year fisheries managers have tried to plant browns as early as possible in the spring so that they can get acclimated before the migrating cormorants show up. Anglers were encouraged because they did catch some of the 2- to 4-pound footballs that are the result of last year’s plant. Some of the fish are surviving. The question is, “How many?”

Biologists are in disagreement whether the poor brown fishing is from cormorant predation or a lack of baitfish.      “Planting of brown trout is pretty significant,” said Charlevoix Fisheries Research Station fisheries biologist Dave Clapp. “We wouldn’t have a fishery if we didn’t.” Lake Michigan brown trout plants seem to do best at Ludington, Manistee and Frankfort and that’s where anglers typically find the best spring brown trout action. The drowned river mouth lakes that spill into the big lake at these ports warms near shore waters and concentrates browns and baitfish.

Lake Michigan browns are likely growing fat on gobies or spot-tailed shiners. “Emerald shiners are pretty much gone from the near shore water,” claimed Clapp. “Darters and sculpin are getting hammered by the gobies too.”

The prospects for brown trout this spring don’t look too rosy. But the just chance to get out on the big lake and enjoy a warm spring day is often reward enough. If you happen to box one or two of those football browns, it’s a real bonus.

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