Is 20 the new 30? Salmon healthy, plentiful despite smaller fish
Written by Ludington Daily News   
Monday, 20 August 2007 02:27

Salmon fishing on Lake Michigan has been starting to heat up in recent weeks, and most anglers are not having a problem catching numbers of fish. What they aren’t seeing are fish growing to the familiar trophy size they’ve come to expect in the past years.

Fisheries biologists are quick to point out, however, that doesn’t make the salmon fishery unhealthy.

“We’ve been cautioning people with regard to salmon sizes — it’s difficult to say average size is an indicator of healthy salmon,” said Randy Claramunt, Department of Natural Resources fisheries research biologist based in Charlevoix.

“Our best thought right now, and we don’t have a lot of data, is that we had good ’05 and ’06 year classes, but maybe not a good ’04 year class,” said Mark Tonello, a Department of Natural Resources fisheries biologist. “People are catching a lot of small kings. A 20-pound king is a rare fish this year. There are guys bringing in big boxes, but they’re all smaller fish.”

In this year’s Gander Mountain Offshore Classic, only two fish barely surpassed the 20-pound mark.

“We’ve been getting some nice kings, with the average being a 12- or 15-pound fish,” said Capt. Tracey Laaksonen of Finn Wonder. “A few years back we’d get the 30-pounders, but now, when you push 20, you’ve got a good fish.”

In fact, no fisherman in Michigan has even reported catching a Master Angler-size Chinook, coho or rainbow trout through press time, although entries often trickle in throughout the end of the year. From Lake Michigan in 2006, 13 anglers reported catching salmon weighing either 27 pounds or heavier or 41 inches or longer in Lake Michigan; two anglers reported catching coho salmon 12 pounds or heavier or 32 inches or longer; and two fishermen reported catching rainbow trout — commonly known as steelhead — 17 pounds or heavier or 37 inches or longer.

Of the 13 Master Angler entries from Lake Michigan in 2006, 11 were submitted in the month of August. In total, 18 Master Angler-qualifying Chinook salmon were caught from Lake Michigan or Lake Michigan tributaries in 2006. Most river entries were caught in September and October.

Capt. George Freeman of Free Style said his biggest fish this year was a 22-pounder, compared to a 28.8-pound king last year.

“But they’re very healthy,” Freeman said. “The meat is a nice bright color and they’ve got alewives in their stomachs. It’s just about a carbon copy of last year. What they lack in size, they make up in quantity. They’re fighting good, and they’re just good, healthy fish. I’ve got no complaints here.”

Tonello agreed the salmon this year are about the same size as last year; fishermen just have not been able to find any big fish. “The number of big fish are down,” he said.

Capt. Jim Fenner of Pequod II and president of the Ludington Area Charterboat Association said he, too, thinks the fish are about the same size as they were last year, but smaller than they were four to five years ago. The 30 pounders of the past have been replaced with many 20 pounders.

“They’re very healthy and scrappy, and we’re seeing quite a lot of bait in the water,” Fenner said. “We’re seeing some with some big alewives in them, and the females have a good amount of eggs. We’re just not seeing the 30 pounders we did four and five years ago.”

Claramunt said the cyclical nature of predator-prey numbers in Lake Michigan accounts trends in Chinook growth rates. When the alewife population is healthy with a strong year class, Chinook salmon typically follow suit in the next year or two.

Claramunt collaborates with the U.S. Geological Survey in a hydroacoustic survey to gauge the numbers of young alewife and smelt in the lake. He said the 2006 year class was better than the 2005 year class, which might account for the strong numbers of one- and two-year-old salmon.

The status of the 2007 year class of alewives has yet to be officially determined, but he said the initial indicators are not pointing toward a strong class.

“We surveyed the northeast part of the lake and didn’t see any young-of-the-year alewives,” Claramunt said.

When the alewives show up in the northeastern portion of the lake, he said he can usually bet on a good year class.

“We always see them in the southern offshore zone,” he said, “but we haven’t seen young-of-the-year alewife up here yet. The early indication is that ’07 is not that strong either. But I’m cautious because we haven’t gotten through the survey yet this year.”

Claramunt said the research vessel will be in Ludington by the end of the week as it makes the trek down the coast.

“Our assumption is that the ’05 year class of alewife was relatively strong compared to the ’03 and ’04 year classes,” Claramunt said. “We’d expect to see good survival of Chinook for one to two years after that. We might have a lot of strong fish, but small fish. Maybe we don’t have many 3- to 4-year-olds in the lake right now following the ’03 and ’04 year-class of alewife, but it’s hard to conclusively say that.”

Claramunt credits fisheries managers across the Lake Michigan basin for reducing the numbers of salmon planted in the lake to account for the recent weak year classes of alewife. The reasoning behind the cuts were to better balance the predator-prey relationship to help prevent a population crash like Lake Huron experienced.

“The managers made the right move,” he said.

A better indication of fish health than average size, according to Claramunt, is the growth rate per year-class of fish. Creel clerks across the state have been collecting scale samples from fish caught throughout the lake, but the scientists have yet to age the fish. That data might provide them with a better idea of the age structure of the fish in the lake.

“With all the press about how bad Lake Michigan is, it actually is doing quite well,” said Jory Jonas, a fisheries research biologist based in Charlevoix. “There’s been all of this alarmist stuff out there without the data to support a crash in Lake Michigan, but we are seeing some concerning stuff up north. There are not as many alewives as we’ve seen in the past, but we are seeing more smelt. The north (part of the lake) is not typically a big alewife area, but we’ve had a few phenomenal years up here.”

Freeman, Fenner and Laaksonen said they’ve been seeing many fish with stomachs full of good-sized alewives. They’re optimistic about the baitfish situation.

“When I run in in the morning, I’ve been marking a lot of bait,” Freeman said. “Some days they’ve been jumping out of the water, so it looks good.”

Even if the status of the fishery is still somewhat in question, most people are just enjoying the good salmon action available on the lake the past few weeks.

Fenner said the clients haven’t been complaining.

“Fishing’s been so good that everyone’s been ecstatic,” Fenner said. “We’ve pretty much catching limits every day. And while we’re not sending them home with any 30-pounders, we are sending them home with healthy, firm fish.”

Freeman said he noticed a few larger cohos this year in the 7- to 8-pound range, something Tonello said the creel studies have also been showing.

Tonello said from a fisheries management position, most fisherman should be enjoying the current fishery, despite the smaller fish.

“Rather than have fewer numbers of oversize fish, for me and the average angler, I think they’d rather catch four or five fish and have them be smaller rather than just one big fish,” Tonello said. “People like to go out and catch fish.”

Salmon anglers have been fairly successful as of late. Most boats are reporting good catches of the smaller fish.

“For the most part, it’s not hard to catch kings out there (up and down the coast),” Tonello said.

Laaksonen said she hoped the year will end on a high note for the charter fishery.

“The way fishing has been going now, it looks like we’ll have a good end of the season,” she said.

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