The mystery or enigma of our Lake Michigan fishery is how we can have trophy fish but not enough food to support good numbers of salmon and steelhead.
Brett Hartford and his 16-pound steelhead.
Most anglers that fished Lake Michigan last summer and its tributaries this past fall, winter, and spring would agree that numbers of salmon and steelhead were well down but there were a bunch of fish that were larger than average. This was especially true for Chinook salmon in the lake and steelhead and Chinook in the tributaries. It is a good bet that taxidermists that specialize in fish have been very busy mounting these trophies.
I was fishing with Brett Hartford, a former student in my community college angling class and now a good friend and regular river fishing partner, this past December. As usual we fished adjacent stretches of stream, spotting the car between us. When we met up at the end of the day, I could tell that Brett was really excited. He had landed a 17.5 pound male steelhead, his personal best (see photo below). Maybe even more impressive, he had put three other steelhead in his net, and they were all big. The average size of his catch was 15 pounds and also included a 16 pounder. I also hooked four steelhead but only landed two and, of course, the big one got away. I searched my records of 50-plus years of hardcore Michigan steelhead fishing and could not find a day where my best four steelhead weighed 60 pounds. Once, I did make the 15-pound average with three steelhead that weighed a little over 46 pounds. But it should be noted that my Michigan best steelhead, 21.3 pounds on a certified scale, was included in this group. This special day for me was a mere 36 years ago.
Last year big fish were showing up on the Internet all summer and fall. A longtime fishing friend landed a 35-pound king in the Manistee River, another personal best. It certainly won’t be a surprise if a record number of Chinook and steelhead end up in the DNR’s master angler rolls for 2019. While my best fall steel-head was “only” 16 pounds I have noticed that the large steelhead always seem to be either extra “girthy” or “tall” or both. I also noticed that steelhead numbers appear to be well down in the streams that I fish.
This situation seemed to continue through the spring season although the steelhead were not quite as heavy and the numbers were not as depressed. However, I did land another 16 pounder in late April. Of course there is a good reason for the somewhat smaller weight. These fish don’t feed much in the lake when the water gets cold and those that ran the rivers in the fall rarely feed at all while burning calories swimming upstream. The conversion of body fat and other nutrients to eggs and milt is not 100% efficient so weight is lost during this lengthy process. And, of course, lots of energy is expended when spawning along with the obvious loss of the weight of eggs and milt. The big male I caught in late April was spawned out and was definitely showing the wear and tear of spawning. Guessing its weight was near 20 pounds when it entered the river.
Salmon and steelhead that found the near shore bait balls might be doing very well. Brett Hartford and his 17.5-pound steelhead.
While all these big fish have been landed, the news from the research fisheries biologists is that scientific surveys of Lake Michigan show that the lake wide alewife population is still way down from the long time average. And the quagga mussel population is still way up and growing. The increasing clarity of the lake shows that the mussels are still taking a big bite out the plankton population which is the principal food source for alewives. We also know that the salmonids grow best when their main diet is made up of alewives.
At the Lake Michigan Citizen Fisheries Advisory Committee meeting last fall many captains reported frequently seeing “balls of baitfish” on their sonar screens and expressed doubt that the alewife population could be as depressed as the research data seems to indicate. But they also reported that their salmon catch rates were down and stated their desire for increasing stocking. I am pretty sure that planting more fish will not be the answer with the overall limited forage base.
The mystery or enigma of our Lake Michigan fishery is how we can have trophy fish but not enough food to support good numbers of salmon and steelhead. My theory, as an aquatic scientist and extremely avid river angler, is that plankton has been somewhat concentrated relatively near shore. The mussels, especially the zebra variety, have declined near our shore and the influence of nutrient rich rivers is most pronounced near shore. The result is an increase in plankton levels relatively close to shore and the alewives found this higher concentration and took advantage. And, of course, a portion of the salmon and steelhead populations found this concentration of alewives and other bait fish and really “made hay.” In addition, it should also be noted that we’ve been planting fewer salmon and that natural reproduction has been negatively impacted by the scarcity of food greeting the smolts when they transition to Lake Michigan. The survival of the planted smolts was likely much lower than the wild ones because they had never had to find their own food. So there were fewer fish competing for the concentrations of bait fish.
Jay Wesley, the Lake Michigan Basin coordinator for the DNR, thought that my theory made sense. He especially agreed with the thought that nutrients were concentrated in the near shore waters and that any fish that found the near shore bait balls were going to do very well. He also noted that DNR research biologists have recently found that young alewives have a patchy distribution, with numbers concentrated in the southeastern and south central parts of the lake and absent in most of the rest of Lake Michigan.
Have near-shore steelhead and salmon been feeding well? A very girthy steelhead.
Perhaps our only hope is that the quagga mussels follow the pattern of the zebra mussel and soon reach their peak and then begin to decline. When that happens we need to hope that there will be enough plankton to keep a decent number of alewives going as they are the preferred forage fish, especially for Chinook salmon. The good news is that Lake Huron has gone through this change and a good lake trout, Atlantic salmon, and steelhead fishery endures. These fish have expanded their diet and are taking advantage of the explosion of round goby numbers. I also think Chinook salmon will adapt to dining on gobies as the coho salmon have already done. There are strains that eat bottom dwelling fish in the ocean so why not the Great Lakes?
As I write this in early June we have only been fishing the lake with a “full fleet” for less than a month because of the Covid 19 restrictions. In talking with several charter boat captains it seems like there are already similarities to last year. One captain reported that he had already landed a 30 pound Chinook and your associate editor put a boat best 28-pound king in his box at the beginning of May. Some captains reported frequently seeing bait balls and were finding larger than normal alewives in the stomachs of their catch. Others were not seeing much bait and it was noted that the smelt run was well down from what it was in 2019. All captains confirmed that catching silver fish was a challenge but lake trout often were filling the gap.
When you read this article we will know a lot more about how the 2020 big lake season is turning or has turned out. Let’s hope that a better balance with a lower mussel population is reached.