THEY'RE FROM LAKE HURON: And you can find 'em along coast
Written by Detroit Free Press   
Thursday, 03 May 2007 17:07

People who have written off Lake Huron's salmon fishing may have acted prematurely, at least as far as the early season goes. "It was the first trip this year," Bay City angler Robert Kietzman said, "and we caught chinooks, cohos, lake trout and steelhead."

Kietzman said this after a recent outing in which his boat landed 11 salmon and steelhead and released several lake trout, which aren't in season.

He didn't say exactly where he caught them, because he's going to fish that spot during a salmon tournament, "but you can tell them we were off Port Sanilac, right on the beach in 17, 18 feet of water."

"There are still salmon in the lake," Kietzman said. "A lot of people miss them because they're going out too deep. Last year, we fished a tournament out of Grindstone City. We stayed close in and caught salmon, lakers, walleyes, steelhead and brown trout, while the people who went out deep didn't do much.

"The fish we caught this year were smaller than last year. We noticed we didn't see the 13-17 pounders that we usually see this time of year. The biggest chinook was 10 pounds, 2 ounces."

Lake Huron's salmon harvest peaked at 130,000 fish in 1998, averaged 60,000-100,000 through 2003 and then began a precipitous drop to about 10,000 in 2006. In part, that's because when word spread about the salmon decline, many anglers moved to Lake Michigan, creating something of a self-fulfilling prophecy.

But anglers who continued to fish Huron found the catch rate per 100 hours of trolling decreased 80-90%. Lake Michigan anglers continued to take salmon at near record rates.

There was no question that Lake Huron's prey base had been decimated, although there is disagreement on the cause. Originally, biologists thought that when Michigan and Ontario stocked salmon from 1990-2002, they drastically underestimated natural reproduction in streams on the Canadian side (there are few streams suitable for reproduction on the American side).

By that theory, the lake had too many salmon, which ate too many of the alewives that are salmon's primary prey species. By reducing salmon stocking, alewives should recover eventually, but how fast was anyone's guess. That's partly because Huron is colder and less productive than Lake Michigan, where baitfish stocks also are down but still adequate to maintain a thriving fishery.

Alewives are an invasive species from the Atlantic, and salmon were introduced to the Great Lakes 40 years ago to control alewife numbers. Alewives in Lake Huron are at the far northern end of the range where they can survive (they are almost absent from Lake Superior). A severe winter, like 2002-03, causes huge natural mortality, because alewives that hatched the previous spring don't have enough fat to survive until the next spring.

But new data developed by a University of Wisconsin biologist suggests the problem isn't over-predation by salmon but a collapse at the bottom of the food chain caused by invasive European mussels. That theory says that huge amounts of energy that once produced tiny crustaceans and fish, which in turn fed slightly larger fish like juvenile alewives, now go into producing zebra and quagga mussel shells and get locked up on the bottom of the lake.

If that theory is correct, biologists say a recovery of Lake Huron's salmon to previous levels is unlikely unless a way is found to drastically reduce the number of mussels. Other big predators, such as lake trout and walleyes, are more opportunistic feeders and will increase in numbers. But chinooks, which single-mindedly hunt alewives, can't return to 1990s levels without vast numbers of baitfish that roam the top levels of the open lakes.

Kietzman said friends had told him that they saw large numbers of small alewives just off the beach at Au Gres this spring. Chuck Herschberger of Flint said he made two salmon trips out of Lexington in April and while "we didn't set the world on fire, we did see a lot more bait than we saw last year."

"There were a lot of little alewives, about three or four inches long, which means they probably had a pretty good winter," Herschberger said. "With any luck, those schools of bait will give us some decent salmon fishing this summer."

Biologists say the salmon in Lake Huron have adapted to changing conditions by spawning younger and becoming smaller. The average chinook salmon has dropped from 11 pounds in 1995 to 6-7 pounds.

And where chinook along their native Pacific Ocean coast mostly spawn at four years of age, and once did the same in Lake Huron, most Huron salmon now spawn at age three. (Lake Michigan chinooks also have gone to a three-year life cycle.)

Biologists believe that's because salmon are genetically programmed to recognize that there's no point in spending a fourth year feeding in big water when there isn't enough food to ensure a reproductive advantage by growing bigger and stronger.

But Huron's salmon woes may be one of distribution as well as numbers. Many fishermen in ports south of Rogers City said that last year they caught a fair number of salmon through July, after which the fish disappeared.

Jim Johnson, who heads the Department of Natural Resources Lake Huron research station at Alpena, said that "the fish they were catching came from rivers on the Canadian side and in late July and August they head back across the lake to get ready to spawn."

Johnson said that posed a problem for fisheries managers. While the state recognizes that planting salmon may exacerbate problems of prey fish recovery, a complete end to stocking would leave most of Michigan's Lake Huron coastline with few salmon during the peak of the tourist season.

Ed Retherford, a charter captain who starts the season in Alpena, calls himself "a Lake Huron survivor."

He said that while many captains switched to targeting lake trout, which have increased in inverse ratio to the salmon decline, "I still concentrate on salmon. That's what the people want."

"Last year, we could catch them inshore through July, but from mid-August to September, boats were running up to 10 miles offshore looking for them," said Retherford, whose boat is Trout Scout V. "I suspect that fish were always out there, but in years past we only had to run a mile or so offshore and we were into them.

"I think the economy played a big part in the lower numbers of fishermen as well. We were down about 10-12% last year, but the Lake Michigan business was down about 5%, too, and they were still getting lots of fish."
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