Fuzzy future for cohos
Written by South Bend Tribune   
Monday, 01 May 2006 01:06

A sun-splashed morning, no wind and good company provided just about everything we could ask for as Carl Stopczynski throttled his 39-foot Trojan across Lake Michigan.

The only thing missing were fish, but the veteran captain known as "Fuzzy Bear" dismissed any notion that would be problem.

"We'll catch em," grinned the barrel-chested charter captain, a 22-year South Bend Regional Airport police officer veteran.

We weren't as confident. Record low temperatures and a knifing northern wind pummeled the Michigan City, Ind. area the night before. Our motley crew, which included Bob Gwidz, outdoor writer for Michigan's Booth Newspapers; Ron Chess, a Shimano Tackle rep and host of the outing; and Kevin Claire, store manager of Lunker's, feared the abrupt weather change scattered the fish.

To add to the dilemma, only Claire is an experienced salmon angler, although Gwidz fishes for a variety of species and knows his way around a salmon boat. Chess and I, however, are bass fishermen, which is like wearing an albatross around the neck.

This was a special treat for me. Fuzzy Bear is regarded as one of the best on Lake Michigan. I got to see him in action with a less-than-stellar crew of amateurs.

We motored 18 miles north of Michigan City's harbor. The long ride provided a clear view of NIPSCO's belching smoke stack, Chicago's magnificent skyline, and the mills of northwest Indiana, all of which disappeared from the horizon by the time we shut down.

I had never been so far offshore. Normally, Indiana's shore provides the best fishing this time of year, but it's been a strange spring. Alewives, normally drawn to Indiana's fast warming waters, disappeared in recent weeks.

In fact, the lack of forage has salmon anglers concerned.

Biologists speculate that voracious chinook salmon have been overgrazing the big lake, reducing the quality of high protein groceries and forcing other gamefish to feed on the lake's less desirable fare.

Instead of steak, they're getting weenies.

"The cohos are in the middle of the lake eating bugs," said our burly captain. "When you clean these fish and examine their stomachs, you don't see many alewives. No one really knows what happened to the forage. It's a major concern."

Nonetheless, rods were baited with an array of spoons and plugs designed to catch coho and steelhead. Within minutes, rod tips were wagging wildly from hungry cohos that gobbled up lures fluttering some 200 feet behind the boat. We had a box full of fish within an hour, even though yours truly lost the first three fish he hooked.

If Fuzzy Bear was Yogi, then I fished like Boo-Boo. Not to worry, though, because this picnic produced a limit of cohos and five steelhead in short order.

That's the way it's supposed to be on Lake Michigan this time of year. Coho are the lifeblood of Hoosier salmon fishing, but as our captain noted, it could be in trouble. Indiana lost 400,000 fish last year due to a hatchery failure. To make matters worse, budget cuts forced Michigan to reduce 1 million fish from its stocking.

Michigan supplies most of the coho to surrounding states, and there's talk that more reductions may come in the future.

"If Michigan stops sending coho (eggs) to Indiana, we're really going to be in deep do-do," Fuzzy said. "Any more cuts would be disastrous because the southern end of the lake is dependent on coho."

Indiana Lake Michigan biologist Brian Breidert doesn't anticipate a problem -- for now.

"Getting eggs won't be an issue," he insisted.

Hoosier anglers say cutting coho plants impact all anglers.

About 90 percent of the fish caught on this end of the lake are taken from Michigan since the state border slices close to the southern shore.

"We all buy Michigan licenses; you have to if you fish out here much at all," our captain explained. "Besides, the lake fishery starts here first, and we get a lot of Michigan anglers coming to fish coho early in the year. It's not only going to hurt charter captains, but the small boat guys who troll near shore for coho in early spring."

In other words, southern Lake Michigan without coho is like Jellystone Park without picnic baskets.

And that would be a major boo-boo.

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