On Lake Michigan, anglers are catching more chinook, cohos
Written by Detroit Free Press - Puckstop   
Thursday, 21 April 2005 13:55
In 2003, charter boats caught about 56,000 salmon on Lake Michigan. In 2004, they caught about 68,000.

Mike Gnatkowski, a charter captain who fishes out of Ludington, said early indications are that the 2005 catch will be as good or better on a lake where salmon fishing is superior to the fishing in most Pacific Coast waters where these fish originated. And early findings by fisheries biologists back up that belief.

"I had a guy on the boat from Oregon, and he was really excited because they had passed 158,000 salmon up the Columbia River," Gnatkowski sad. "He couldn't believe it when I told him that the charter boats had caught 68,0000 that year and the private boats caught nearly as many, and we only catch a tiny fraction of the salmon out there."

Jim Dexter, the Lake Michigan fisheries manager for the state Department of Natural Resources, said the lake is home to about 4.5 million chinook salmon that average 12 to 15 pounds and 1.6 million coho that run about six to 10 pounds.

"We are getting more positive news this spring (from anglers) than we typically get," Dexter said. "The spring fishing in Lake Michigan has been very good. The cohos are bigger than last year, and in addition the anglers fishing for salmon are catching a lot of nice brown trout."

Dexter said this indicates a healthy population of another species essential to maintaining large numbers of salmon -- the alewife.

The alewife is a six-inch-long, silvery exotic invader from the Atlantic Ocean. By the 1950s, the Great Lakes were so overpopulated by alewives that when algae blooms used up much of the oxygen in the water during the summer, the fish died by the millions and washed up on the beaches.

The alewife overpopulation was made possible by the decimation of major predators like lake trout and walleyes through pollution and overfishing. Pacific salmon were introduced to the lakes in the 1960s to control alewife numbers.

But now alewives are the primary prey species for salmon, and what was once an exotic nuisance and environmental disaster has become a valuable prey species that supports part of Michigan's tourism industry.

Unlike adjacent Lake Huron, where alewives have almost disappeared in many regions, Lake Michigan still has a strong population. But numbers are down from a few years ago, and some anglers are worried that the Great Lakes states are stocking so many salmon that it will result in the kind of salmon and alewife population crash that has been seen in Lake Huron.

"Thank God for the 1998 year-class," Dexter said of alewives. "It was huge and carried us for quite a while. It really saved our butts. But now we have indications that there are other very good year-classes out there as well."

Biologists don't think Lake Michigan will experience the kind of salmon population crash that has occurred in Lake Huron, Dexter said, "because while they are really one lake, they are very different."

Dexter said the DNR would like to smooth out the highs and lows in salmon fluctuations "and manage for what we call reasonable expectations. The problem now is that when we have a year in Lake Michigan like last year, when the catch rate went off the charts, that becomes the expectations.

"People remember last year, and they expect to be able to go out and get a limit of salmon each time they go fishing, and they expect it every trip. But that's not the norm. We call it fishing. There should be times when you get a limit and other times you don't.

"We'd like to be able to manage to cut off the really bad years and the super high years. We'd like to see (fish numbers) fluctuate within a narrower range."

Like his counterparts on Lake Huron, Dexter said natural reproduction of salmon is increasing.

"We don't know if it will be in 10 years or 100 years, but if the natural reproduction in these lakes continues to increase, we might not need much stocking," he said.

Natural reproduction accounts for about 50 percent of Lake Michigan's salmon, Dexter said, "but we don't know where they are coming from. A lot of the fish we catch in Lake Michigan could be coming from Lake Huron.

"If we catch a hatchery salmon in Lake Michigan, we can tell if it was planted there or in Lake Huron, if it came from Wisconsin or Michigan. But if we catch a wild salmon, we have no idea if it was hatched in a Michigan river or on the Canadian side of Lake Huron."

The Pere Marquette, Muskegon, Betsie and Little Manistee are the major salmon spawning streams on Lake Michigan, Dexter said, "and we know that nearly all of the natural reproduction in Lake Michigan tributaries occurs in Michigan rivers because there are very few spawning areas in the other states around the lake. We need to get a handle on just how many of those naturally reproduced fish come from Michigan and how many come from elsewhere."

Gnatkowski said the average size of Lake Michigan salmon has declined in the past couple of years, probably an indication that a large salmon population is competing for fewer and smaller alewives.

"Two years ago, we got a lot of 25- to 30-pound fish," Gnatkowski said. "I don't think we're going to get as many big fish this year, but that's not really important. My customers are just as happy catching 15- to 18-pounders.

"There are still plenty of alewives out there. The 2002 year-class was really good, and so was 2004. If we get a good hatch this spring, we should be in good shape for some time to come."

Dexter said: "It's a tightrope we're walking. The more you figure out, the more you learn that there's a lot you don't know."

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