Low water levels, warm temperatures hold salmon migration in check
Written by Grand Rapids Press   
Friday, 14 October 2005 12:29
It was about 1 p.m. when Mike Harvey boated the third salmon of the day -- a young four-pound jack, pretty close to the others -- leaving Bob Strek and me to ponder the imponderables.

For instance, why, after seven hours of fishing the Grand River salmon run, had we seen so few fish? And why, given that we fished the same lures and water, would Harvey catch all three fish while Strek got to spend 60 seconds battling two steelhead and I got to fight someone's wet blue sock?

But alas, some questions have no answers, at least not meaningful ones. This was, after all, the annual fall salmon run on the Grand River, where anything could happen, an event that anglers covet and come from miles around to fish.

"It's slow but steady. They are still out in the lake," said Harvey, a 28-year-old Press delivery driver who is known for his fishing exploits on the river.

Harvey caught a 28.5-pound, 37-inch brown trout on the Grand River using a fly-rod and streamer in 2004. It turned out to be the largest brown trout reported caught that year and topped the state Master Angler List in that category.

I joined Harvey and Strek for a day of fishing the Grand River run. Both are skilled salmon and steelhead anglers and members of the Grand Rapids chapter of the Michigan Steelheaders.

Each year at this time, salmon stream upriver from Lake Michigan looking for a place to spawn. Most are 4-year-olds and were stocked in the river as young fish.

Those that come upstream often congregate below the 4th St. dam. Others lay in any deep, cool hole they can find.

While many anglers take their chances fishing the boils and shallows below the dam, Strek and Harvey prefer to fish the river from a boat, a comfortable platform for casting hour after hour.

Our day had started in darkness, skimming swiftly up the river from Johnson Park where we had launched, often flying over just inches of water. By 7 a.m. we were anchored in darkness, across from Charley's Crab. It was see-your-breath cold under the stars. Getting any further upriver was out of the question. The water level was much too low.

It was at 7:50 a.m., amid the growing crescendo of overhead traffic on the S-curve, that Strek hooked a nice, but just-short-of-legal walleye. He threw it back.

By 8 a.m. familiar figures began to show up on the river. There were regulars who fish the bridges and the others who fish the shallows. Now and then an angler might be seen working a fish. But more often than not, they, like us, were busy looking for them.

"The run is really strung out this year," said Jay Wesley the DNR fisheries supervisor for southwest Michigan. "We are noticing it up north, too. We get a small slug of fish and then it peters out. At Ludington and Grand Haven, mature fish are being caught on the lake that should be in the river by now."

That is exactly the situation on the Grand, according to Harvey, who said the run has come in fits and spurts. It is mid-October and prime time for the run to peak, but water levels are low and the water has been warm.

Chinook salmon are temperature-sensitive fish. It may take a long, hard cold rain to bring them upstream.

"We should be into the peak of the run statewide, but it doesn't look right now like the run will peak," said Wesley. "It may just draw out into November."

By 8:30 a.m., Strek has had two steelhead on briefly. One came out of the water before flipping him the fin and disappearing. But salmon? Mmm no. The hunt is on and we move the boat, hoping to work a known productive hole under the bridge.

Harvey and Strek are both optimistic. But our morning is about to be interrupted by a DNR electro-shocking crew with a job to do.

The state boat with electrodes zooms into the area and immediately begins working productive holes nearby, stunning fish in its path and chasing others away.

The technicians onboard rapidly scoop up the stunned salmon. They need 200 and have 85. The three of us can only gawk at fish that they pull out of the river. So close, but so far. They are not to be ours.

The DNR is finishing a two-year study of salmon reproduction on the river, according to Wesley. Agency biologists want to know just how much natural reproduction takes place.

Fish grown at the hatchery have been marked with tetracycline, which turns up in their bones. Under a black light the markings are clear. Those that have it are hatchery fish. Those that don't were reproduced naturally.

"Compared to the Muskegon or Manistee Rivers, where natural reproduction can run 50 to 70 percent, the Grand River is low, more like 5 percent," Wesley said. "Somewhere between zero and 10 percent."

The fish fillets from the 200 salmon specimens collected are to be given to a local soup kitchen. They will not go to waste, Wesley says.

The shocking crew also is collecting fish that will be tested to determine how safe they are eat. Each year the agency collects fish from various locales around the state. The results go into the state's annual Fish Consumption Advisory.

The DNR crew is far more productive than we'd like to see. Any fish left will be wary. So we haul the anchor and head downstream.

Strek and Harvey are both disappointed.

"It's too bad we didn't get a chance to fish that area thoroughly," Strek said. "I realize that they need to be out there, but when we have weather conditions like this, where fish are just not coming upstream, we (anglers) can't absorb a loss like that.

Harvey nods and says: "Those are the cards we got dealt today."

We move downstream stopping to fish the various creek mouths and water discharges where fish are known to hold. By 2 p.m., we are four-for-six -- having landed a walleye and three young salmon. The blue sock doesn't count.

We may have missed some prime water due to the unplanned interruption, but if Wesley is correct, there is another month of salmon fishing ahead.

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