Atlantics leap in popularity
Written by Detroit Free Press   
Monday, 26 June 2006 02:31

While anglers at the southern end of Lake Michigan sing the blues about the collapse of good salmon fishing, they're whistling a happy tune 250 miles to the north. Here, fishermen are returning to shore with good mixed bags of chinook and Atlantic salmon, along with the occasional steelhead.

Ivan Gable runs his charterboat off Drummond Island, where he lives, but good salmon fishing has been reported from Cedarville on the Michigan shoreline 30 miles west to Manitoulin Island in Canadian waters 70 miles east.

"It's been a really good spring, especially for Atlantics," Gable said. "We're not just getting a lot of them, they're nice mature fish, 8-10 pounds. They stocked some bigger fish three years ago, and we can tell from the fin clips that they're the ones we're getting. They seem to be surviving a lot better than the smaller fish they stock."

When Michigan began the first modern salmon stocking of the Great Lakes 40 years ago to replace the nearly exterminated lake trout, it was initially with coho salmon. While the salmon were hearty and proved popular with anglers, biologists soon learned it was more efficient to stock the bigger chinook salmon, which require only nine months in a hatchery, compared to 18 months for the other species.

But the fish that is rapidly becoming the glamour species of this region is the Atlantic salmon. Lake Superior State has been stocking the fish in the St. Marys River at Sault Ste. Marie about 50 miles upstream from Drummond Island and Lake Huron.

"Boy, they can really jump. They're as acrobatic as steelhead and as strong as chinooks," said Gable, whose clients have landed 30 Atlantics in the past month. "We're getting all sizes of chinooks, too. One day you catch a bunch of 4-5 pounders, the next day they've moved on and you get 10-12.

"Salmon" is derived from an ancient word meaning "the leaper" and may hark back to Sanskrit, one of the earliest-known Indo-European languages. Delicatessens from Bogota to Berlin sell Atlantic salmon under the name "lox," an ancient Hebrew word that also means "leaper."

It's that world-renowned acrobatic ability that makes the Atlantic salmon the most revered of freshwater game fish and perhaps second only to the tarpon as the premier light-tackle game fish in fresh water or salt.

There was a day when Atlantics were so plentiful that the contracts of indentured servants in England specified that they should not have to eat salmon more than three times a week. But river dams that blocked off spawning waters, commercial overfishing and pollution have created hard times for wild salmon, and the vast majority of Atlantics sold in fish markets and restaurants today are farm-reared in net pens anchored in ocean waters.

Atlantics were never native to the upper Great Lakes, although they lived in enormous numbers in Lake Ontario in colonial times. The last of them didn't disappear from Lake Ontario until the early 20th Century.

Lake Superior State's salmon-stocking program enjoyed relatively modest success through the 1990s and early part of this century, but it seems to have exploded in the past two years. Last summer, fly fishermen in the upper St. Marys were commonly catching and releasing 10-15 Atlantics a day, numbers that would be a good season in many European rivers, where anglers pay $150-$1,500 a day to fish.

Russ McDonald, a fly fisherman from Sault Ste. Marie, Ontario, said he averaged about five Atlantics per trip on the St. Marys last July and August, "along with a couple of steelhead. It was just amazing. You'd go down to the rapids and there would be a whole pod of Atlantics in front of you getting ready to spawn, maybe 10 to 20 of them. And there would be other pods up and down the river.

"The best part is that you usually had them all to yourself at that time of year. But that isn't going to last. The word is out, and I think this year we'll see somebody waving a fly rod every 50 meters, just like during the chinook run in the fall," he said.

Gable said that trolling for Atlantics in the lower St. Marys usually lasts through mid-July, after which the fish head upstream to the rapids and bigger numbers of chinooks begin staging in the lower river for their annual spawning run.

On a recent day, Gable was trolling with Doug Zink, who lives in Redford Township and has a summer home on Drummond Island, Jerry Felster, a native Detroiter who moved to De Tour last year, and Mike Meyers of Argentine.

Charter clients had landed three 10-12 pound chinooks on a morning trip, but the evening trip with three fishing pals was slow. In four hours they had caught and released two small chinooks and a 4-pound steelhead.

"C'mon, we want a leaper," Gable said. "The Atlantics are funny. A lot of times, you pick up the rod and they come in with no trouble. Then they hit the boat's prop wash and just go nuts. Sometimes I deliberately have the angler walk them into the wash farther behind the boat, because I don't want them coming straight out of the water at the transom."

A good fish finally hit, and while it was close to 10 pounds, it was a steelhead, not an Atlantic.

Coincidentally, another boat trolling the same spoons in the same waters a quarter mile ahead of us caught two Atlantics as we watched.

"I was hoping to show you the kind of Atlantics we've been catching, but I guess we won't do that tonight," Gable said, the disappointment clear in his voice.

But as the man said, "That's why we call it fishing, not catching."

If it always was easy, it wouldn't be much fun.

 
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