Is it karma, management, natural selection, better anglers, climate change, better tackle, something else or all of the above contributing to the abundance of Great Lakes mega kings the past few seasons?
First time salmon angler, Luis Martinez, set a new Great Lakes hook and line record with a 47.86 pound wild spawned king last August.
When the Michigan DNR first started stocking salmon in Lake Michigan, the project leaders looked ahead to see if the “experiment” would come with unintended consequences. One of those consequences, they thought, would be tens of thousands of dead salmon lining the stream banks creating a mess in the spawning season. At the time, it was believed spawning salmon were nearly impossible to catch with hook and line, except to snag them with large weighted trebles.
So on several spawning streams around the state, the DNR created weirs to stop spawning fish from heading upstream past these blocks. When the fish gathered below the weirs the DNR collected fish to take eggs and milt to produce the next generation of salmon. After gathering enough for their purposes, the DNR then turned the facility over to a contractor to harvest the fish to sell for human consumption, for pet food or for other purposes. It was one of these contractors who reported the first Great Lakes salmon over 50 pounds.
A memo circulated around the Michigan DNR in 1976 announcing the first recorded 50-pound-plus king salmon. Okay, the fish was recorded on the wall of the processing facility at the Little Manistee weir, not on an “official” form, but there’s no reason to believe it was any less true. The contractor had an accurate scale at the facility used to weigh the amount of salmon eggs they were gathering from the gravid females. Apparently, the workers kept track of the most sizeable specimens they encountered, perhaps for beer-bets or other reasons. When they weighed a big king, they grabbed a Sharpie and wrote the numbers on the wall, including the 52-pounder.
The largest king ever recorded from the Great Lakes was a 52-pounder caught at the Little Manistee Weir in 1975.
Remember, at this time such facilities had only been operating for a few years, the salmon program was in its infancy and most of the involved fisheries professionals expected fifty-pound king salmon or larger to be encountered on occasion. The DNR memo only noted this was the first 50-plus-pounder. Most of the recipients of the memo probably expected the next and the next would be turning up sooner than later.
As it happened, apparently that Little Manistee king was the first over-50 king and also the last—so far. Is there still hope?
If you’d asked this question ten or twenty years ago, no one would have expected a 50-pounder. By then, hundreds of thousands of people had fished for king salmon in the Great Lakes and few of them had even caught a 30-pounder, much less a 40- or 50-pounder. Hundreds of charter captains around the lakes are still waiting for the first “on-the-scale” 30-pound or bigger fish to hit their decks. I’ve been a charter captain since 1998 and weighed the first 30+ pound king (actually 32) caught by one of my customers on Memorial Day of 2021.
I was happy (who wouldn’t be) but not as surprised as I might have been a few years earlier. After invasive mussels overwhelmed the lakes, prey fish stocks (primarily alewives) plummeted and the average size of Great Lakes king salmon declined significantly. Stocking numbers were curbed, then cut again and again, to balance the predator/prey numbers.
I found this Facebook photo of Capt. Carl “Fuzzy Bear” Stopczynski last summer. I call it “Big man with a big fish!”
Basically, it worked. For the last de-cade or more a common description of the Great Lakes king salmon population was: numbers are down, but the size is good. The fish management teams for Lake Michigan say this is exactly the result they expected when they ordered cuts to the number of kings stocked over the years. But did they expect what seems to be a booming population of super-sized king salmon to be present? Hardly.
If the current “boom” in hefty kings, especially in Lake Michigan, is just a factor of there being more well-fed kings, the first 25 or so years of king salmon being stocked in the Great Lakes should have produced more than just that one fish over 50 pounds. There should also have been bountiful numbers of 40-pounders and 30-plus-pound fish should have been a somewhat regular occurrence. That wasn’t the case.
When king salmon were originally stocked in Lake Michigan and the other Great Lakes there were uncountable trillions of alewives in the lakes and king salmon loved eating them. This meant, early in the “salmon-history” of the Great Lakes, there were no hungry king salmon. When a salmon felt the urge to slurp down an alewife or two, it had no problem finding them and they didn’t have to expend much effort catching them.
The largest king ever caught on the author’s charter boat was a 32-pounder caught by Keegon O’brien.
There were huge numbers of mature (or maturing) kings in the lake each sum-mer feeding on an unlimited supply of food. Still, most of these well-fed kings weighed in the upper teens. Many were 20 pounds or more and occasionally a fish weighing over 30 pounds would be pulled in. Why weren’t there more of them which were super-sized?
Actually, these weights match closely to normal sizes for king salmon which mature at age four in their native environments on the West Coast. Pacific Northwest kings, most places, mature at weights in the high-teens to mid or upper 20s. A 30-pound or larger king is so special it is given a special name out west, it’s a “Tyee.”
The point is, even though unlimited food was available in the 1970s, 80s and 90s, before invasive mussels disrupted the lake’s food chain, Tyee-salmon were few and far between. One would think, with drastically diminished numbers of kings in the lake—stocking numbers are just a fraction of what they were pre-mussel invasion—a Great Lakes Tyee would be even harder to come by, these days.
Something has changed in Lake Michigan that hasn’t changed in the other “salmon” lakes of the Great Lakes, specifically, Lake Huron and Lake Ontario. Erie and Lake Superior do have salmon in them, but neither offer ideal habitat or forage base. Lake Huron’s alewife forage base crashed in the early 2000s and is only slowly recovering. Most of Lake Huron’s kings actually migrate to Lake Michigan for most of their life to feed on the alewives there. Lake Ontario used to produce kings with a slightly larger average size than the other lakes, but Lake Michigan’s kings have caught up and more in the past few years.
What’s going on? No one knows for sure, but certain things are known. There are three things that determine how large a fish will grow—any fish. Number one is the availability of high quality food. Number two is how long the fish lives. Number three is the length of the growing season. I’ve explained past and current forage levels in Lake Michigan and Huron—it used to be unlimited, currently it’s very limited. Let’s examine the other growth factors in regards to Great Lakes king salmon.
State fisheries employees work to gather king salmon eggs for future generations as efficiently as possible.
Fish never stop growing but for king salmon, lifespan is a finite number. Most kings in the Great Lakes (and in their native range) only live four years from the time they hatch to when they spawn and die. A few mature early and spawn and die after living only three or even two years. In the Great Lakes only a tiny percent live and grow an extra year or more. Most of the similar aged fish (any species) grow to similar sizes when they live in the same area and feed on the same forage.
When you see photos and hear fish stories of huge king salmon being caught in Alaska or British Columbia it’s because in a few areas or even in a few streams, like the Kenai River, a sizable percentage of the fish live five, six or seven years before spawning. The fish live longer, they grow larger. It’s a simple equation.
There’s a reason largemouth bass, other fish and even alligators grow larger in Florida than they do in more northern latitudes. The growing season is longer. When a fish is in water that is too cold, they feed only enough to maintain their bodily functions and grow slowly if at all. When a fish is in water which is too warm their metabolism increases and most of what they eat just fuels that metabolism. Again, their growth suffers. But when the temperature is in a preferred range—for king salmon those temperatures are from the low 40s to low 50s—for a longer period of time they grow rapidly for a longer period of time.
I’m not going to debate climate change here, but when or if a change in the climate causes enough of a change in water temperature in the Great Lakes to drastically alter the length of the growing season, most of us will be long gone. The growing season in the Great Lakes, on average, is the same now as it was in 1966 when the first kings were introduced.
So when the food was super abundant, Great Lakes kings had normal growth rates. The length of the growing season hasn’t changed so they aren’t just chowing-down for a longer time period each year. So are they, like the giant king salmon spawning in Alaska’s Kenai or the Tyees heading to spawn in British Columbia’s Campbell River, older than normal king salmon?
Probably not. For a number of years the U.S. Fish and Wildlife service implanted coded wire tags in all the king salmon stocked into the Great Lakes. Since then, state and federal fisheries workers have been on the lookout for kings with these tags. One of the things the code on the tag would tell is the age of the salmon at recovery. Plenty of tags were collected from kings aged 1+, 2+ or 3+ years, meaning they’ve passed their first, second or third birthday. Only a teeny-tiny percent have been 4+, meaning they skipped their spawning run and stayed in the lake for another growing season, potentially growing larger than normal. But remember, all of these tagged fish were hatchery-spawned fish. None of them were hatched in a stream.
Lakes Michigan and Huron, however, does have a large population of “wild” spawned fish and some of those wild fish come from streams which have never had hatchery fish stocked in them. Some years, depending on the spawning conditions in the streams, considerably more than 50 percent of the kings present in Lake Michigan are the result of natural reproduction. No one knows the percentage of 2+, 3+ or longer-than-normal lifespan 4+ fish successfully spawning in Great Lakes tributaries. Could it be that one or more of these “wild” streams have established a Great Lakes strain of king salmon predisposed to producing longer-lived fish?
I’ve talked to a few fisheries biologists regarding this theory. All are highly skeptical, but none of them have said it’s impossible.
Bigger than average kings have become more abundant in the past couple of years in Lake Michigan.
Will you ever win the Powerball Lottery? It’s doubtful, but it could happen. Though the number of number of 4+ aged fish in a spawning stream is very small, as are the odds a 4+ female’s eggs would be fertilized by a 4+ male’s milt, like winning the lottery. It could happen and statistically, will happen or perhaps has happened already - and there’s no way to determine how often that occurs.
One would expect (as happens in the Kenai River) if a male and a female mated, each with the genetic disposition to spawn at five years of age or older, there’s a good chance their progeny will be long-lived salmon. Actually, if even one of the parents were normal and the other predisposed to “long life,” some of the offspring could carry the long-life genetics.
In the Great Lakes it’s an unlikely theory, but possible. No one knows.
Another scenario could also be manifesting to produce extra-large wild fish, this theory having nothing to do with the salmon’s ability to live extra long. When a DNR is collecting eggs and sperm from salmon (wild or hatchery born), little attention is given to selecting which parents to pull out at the weir. What they gather is a mix of reasonably “normal” fish, some are bigger than normal, others a bit smaller than normal, some may be 2+ year old fish, some may be 3+ year old fish. The DNR’s goal is to gather a specific number of eggs and enough milt to fertilize them to take to the various hatcheries to hatch and rear to stocking size and do it in a short time span. There’s a job to be done, they do it as efficiently as possible. There’s no natural selection.
In the wild, however, bigger females will produce more eggs, larger males out compete smaller males and have a better chance of passing on their genetics. That is natural selection. It’s been going on for eons in the salmon’s natural range, but it’s none-the-less important in the Great Lakes tributaries which are producing half or more of the king salmon in Lake Michigan.
Some years, even small kings like this are used as parent stock for future generations.
What I have observed on my boat and elsewhere—on fishing forums, at fish cleaning stations, on Facebook and other sources is the majority of the “super-sized” salmon I’ve seen in the past few seasons are wild spawned fish, identifiable by the presence of an adipose fin. (Remember, all the hatchery kings in the Great Lakes since the super-sized salmon started showing in the past few years have had their adipose fin clipped.)
The 32-pounder caught on my boat last year was a wild spawned fish. The new Great Lakes record king salmon caught last summer was a 47.86 pound wild fish. The 2021 K/D Tournament in Wisconsin, one of the largest derbies on the Lake Michigan was won by a “wild” king weighing almost 36 pounds. The largest king ever caught in a Lake Michigan salmon tournament (a 39-pounder) was caught last summer in Muskegon.
Is it karma, management, natural selection, better anglers, climate change, better tackle, something else or all of the above contributing to the abundance of Great Lakes mega-kings the past few sea-sons? You decide. Me? I’m going fishing to see if I can put an even larger king salmon in my cooler.