Lake Michigan anglers welcome rainbow?s return
Written by Green Bay Press-Gazette   
Thursday, 02 June 2005 17:10
Brian Belonger of Peshtigo is enjoying his retirement after many years working in fisheries for the Department of Natural Resources. So is Dan Olson of Oconto, the long-time Ducks Unlimited representative.

The two men share a passion for hunting and fishing, as well as a mutual friend with a boat in Algoma. So, even though I was going on just 3 hours of sleep, I met the retirees at the city marina at 4:30 a.m.

Soon we were motoring out on a smooth Lake Michigan, hoping to tangle with even a few of the millions of salmon and trout that cruise the Big Pond. It was already plenty light, but not too late to get in on the action.

Minutes after 5 a.m., a rainbow trout of about 7 pounds slammed a fly run behind a deep-set Dipsy Diver about 4 miles off shore. Not long after, a chinook salmon of perhaps a dozen pounds hit the same setup.

By mid-morning, we had caught three more rainbows and a coho salmon while losing six fish, two of them from leaders that broke due to a sticky drag on one reel. Another trout was inches from the net when it thrashed off.

The action was typical of one of the fastest starts to multi-species action in years and has seasoned anglers believing the 2005 catch could be another record-setter.

While 2004?s haul of almost a half-million fish was dominated by chinook salmon, the return of the rainbow ? steelhead, as many Great Lakes fishermen know them ? is the biggest news along the lakeshore these days.

Anglers reeled in an estimated 25,000-plus rainbows last year, the fewest since record-keeping began nearly three decades earlier. While some believe that was due to the phenomenal salmon fishing, lakeshore veterans think it was more than that.

Those who love the aerial acrobatics of the showy steelies tried up to 15 miles off shore last year before salmon fishing picked up or after the morning salmon bite slowed. However, much of the time it was like searching for a needle in a haystack.

This year, many trollers have already caught more steelhead than they did the entire 2004 season.

Hot spots can change quickly, but some of the best action has been taking place in 125 to 325 feet of water. Most of the rainbows are hitting in the top 30 feet on spoons while most salmon are taking flies, spoons and plugs down 50 to 150 feet.

Three- to 4-inch Mylar flies in a multitude of color combos run behind attractors were deadly on chinooks during the record-setting, three-year salmon catch of 2002-2004. However, spoons and J-Plugs are still very effective, as are other lures capable of good action when trolled between 2 and 3 mph.

Wisconsin, Michigan, Illinois and Indiana combine to stock about 13 million chinooks, cohos, rainbows and browns annually. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service puts in another 2 million or so lakers. There?s also thought to be millions of naturally reproduced salmon, mainly from Michigan streams.

Fisheries biologists were cautious this winter, mulling reduced salmon stockings to allow the salmon?s favorite forage, alewives, to recover. A lakewide conference was held in Michigan, and it was decided to closely monitor the situation this year.

So far, at least, it appears there may have been a good hatch of alewives last year. The salmon and trout being caught are robust and have been feeding on mixed sizes of baitfish, mainly small alewives but also larger alewives, smelt and other species. Bugs also are commonly seen in the bellies of rainbows.

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