Plugs, spoons, flies, dodgers even downrigger lead cannonballs... hungry coho will attack them all.
It had been a very long day. Actually, a very, very long day.
As had been that way for most of the day. Both Fenwick Rigger Stiks went off in tandem and began violently throb-bing downward under the protests of angry salmon. For my part I just didn’t have the strength or desire to jump into action and react. While I was worn down to a frazzle, my old friend Harry Gingrich and one of his co-workers from the Ontario Ministry of Natural Resources immediately jumped into the fray. Even before they could grab the rods two big sassy coho burst up and out of the water with high-flying leaps in attempts to dislodge the Jensen dodgers and trailing squid baits buried deep in their jaws. This scene had been repeated over and over at least a dozen times on this beautiful day in mid-August. I was quite content to just sit back and enjoy the pandemonium taking place in front of me. Why not, the fabled Lake Ontario coho bite was on in full display and I was just too exhausted to participate. It had been one really long day.
That was back on a sunny Saturday afternoon of coho madness in mid-August, 1975 on Lake Ontario out from the north shore port of Bronte. The salmon action had been on fire for weeks and on this day in particular it could be best described with one simple word…dynamite!
Earlier in the morning, Harry and I had started out just as the sun was peeking out over Lake Ontario’s horizon. For the entire week prior the coho salmon action had been on fire. Limits were the norm and the fish were big, weighing between 12 and 15 pounds.
The evening before we had left a big school of feeding salmon directly out from the harbor’s river mouth in 70 feet of water and that’s exactly where we found them again as the first sun began to appear on the horizon. Two cannonballs were quickly lowered with dodgers and Luhr Jensen Kelly’s Comets attached and almost immediately two spunky coho were pound-ing the life out of our Fenwick fiberglass Rigger Stiks almost as soon as the baits had a chance to level out. By 10 a.m. we had our limit of deep bellied silvers on ice and heading back to the ramp. It was then that Harry asked if he could make a quick phone call back to his office and invite a few friends out to observe what this coho fishery was all about. I agreed without any hesitation. There’s nothing better than educating the powers at the top to what was happening out on the big lake. On this day there were more than 400 boats scattered out around us with rods popping and anglers screaming with excitement. The office boys were about to get an eye opener of what Great Lakes coho fishing was all about. In little more than an hour we were heading back out to the fishing grounds with three Natural Resources staffers joining us. Within four hours the ice chest was filled to over flowing again.
Michigan had Howard Tanner and Ontario had Blair Dawson, the head of the MNR, as their salmon king.
Back at the dock for the second time that day one group departed the ramp and headed for the cleaning station, while three more government workers climbed on board my boat. The fish never disappointed. The fish continued to be hungry, aggressive and mean. New anglers were on the boat and rods began to pop once again. Within a few hours another full limit came to the net and that was achieved despite a few big hooked nose silvers spitting the hooks or breaking the lines. The newcomers were getting a great introduction of what the Great Lakes’ coho phenomenon was all about.
In total we had boxed forty coho for the day and released a whole lot more. I had simply sat on my butt for most of it. I was looking to almost a month of holiday time banked for the weeks ahead. I would spend a couple of hours scrubbing and washing down the Starcraft and then look forward to fishing the next morning. What was important, was the fact that government employees would now realize what was taking place on the big pond, the sport being generated and the value of the Great Lakes “miracle.”
That miracle had been created less than a decade before. In the fall of 1964 Dr. Howard Tanner and his assistant Dr. Wayne obtained one million coho eggs from the Oregon State Fish Commission. Most of the eggs hatched successfully. Eighteen months later 850,000 smolt were stocked at three sites, the Platte River, Bear Creek and the Big Huron. The results were almost instantaneous. Six months after being stocked precocious “jack” coho appeared in large numbers. By the spring of the next year the salmon boom began as fast as anglers with their boats could get on the water. Almost overnight anglers trailering everything from small tin boats to cruisers were con-verging on every port up and down the east coast of Lake Michigan in pursuit of the newly introduced silver imports. Besides the thousands of boats out on the open water, spoon tossers were lined shoulder to shoulder up and down the shoreline tossing iron for salmon. Tanner’s miracle truly had been created! The salmon phenomenon had been begun in earnest and even now, 50 years later it looks like it’s here to stay! Remember, it started with coho.
Outdoor scribe John displays a sample of what Lake Ontario coho salmon fishing was all about.
On Lake Ontario, biologists from New York State and the Province of Ontario were quick to follow Tanner’s lead. A year after Tanner’s first fish were introduced to the Wolverine state, west coast coho eggs were incubating in the Chatsworth provincial hatchery in Ontario. In 1969, more than 130,000 coho smolt were released into the Credit River, Bronte Creek and the Humber River on the north shore of Lake Ontario. New York followed suit with plantings on the south shore of the big lake as well.
Michigan’s miracle was contagious and had spread to Lake Ontario. As was the case, when coho “fever” took hold, anglers converged to the water. Thousands of boaters and pier fishermen were enthralled by the arrival of the new coho fishery. In the early 1970’s fishing boats were trolling out from ports on each side of Lake Ontario and piers everywhere were jammed with shore anglers tossing hardware.
When Great Lakes coho were actually the king of fish. Jan Van Herwynen with his 18lb, 4oz Great Ontario Salmon Hunt grand prize winner from Lake Ontario back in the golden days. Top prize was a fully loaded $70,000 truck and boat package.
The coho is a different fish altogether from the Chinook. Remember first, it’s a completely separate species from its close relation. Yes, they may be smaller at maturity than the Chinook. They more than make up for it in other ways. When those coho were first introduced to the Great Lakes, the big bodies of water were entirely different than the Great Lakes we have today. Lakes Michigan, Huron and Ontario were actually almost over-loaded with nutrients in the form of phosphates. Alga blooms darkened the water so thick that downrigger cannonballs would disappear from sight when lowered just a few feet under the surface. Remember though, those same nutrients were the start of a food chain under that same surface. Zooplankton populations exploded and at the same time so did small predator populations such as the alewife and smelt. It was the massive annual die-offs of smelt and alewife floating above the lakes and piling up along the shores of the lakes that first attracted the attention of Howard Tanner. Why not take advantage of a bad situation? Stock a predator like the coho and at the same time create a world class sport fishery, as well as controlling the ever expanding explosion of nuisance smelt and alewife populations.
In the late 1960’s and throughout the 1970’s smelt and alewife populations weren’t estimated in the millions, but quite possibly in the billions in the Great Lakes. So thick in fact that our downrigger wires were continually pinging with the collision between bait and metal wire. The graphs on our fishfinders were darkened with the abundance of bait, not measured in yards beneath the boat, but for miles. In turn, our mature Great Lakes coho in those pioneer days, especially in Lake Ontario, weighed an average of between 12 to 14 pounds. Many big coho would attain weights of 15 to 17 pounds or more regularly. True trophies for this species.
The glory days when continuous bait balls ran for miles and miles. Lake Ontario still has healthy bait populations.
Coho had been stocked into a forage food heaven. No, they are not like Chinook. They swim around each of the Great Lakes not in small packs like the Chinook, but in much larger schools. When the coho bite was on in the old days, rods were pop-ping everywhere and fishing mayhem was everywhere. Limit catches were the norm and not the exception and they were often attained in a few short hours.
Here’s another interesting observation after fishing salmon for over five decades and filming thousands with my underwater camera. Coho and Chinook approach their chosen prey in entirely different ways. Almost always, Chinook big or small will pull in behind a lure and stalk a spoon or plug trolled with or without an attractor added. They almost always seem to be the more cautious, possibly the smarter of the two species. Coho on the other hand can almost be defined as finned kamikazes fighters. They show absolutely no hesitancy when it comes to feeding. The never seem to drop back behind a bait follow and stalk. Instead, they simply attack, from all sides and at random. They throw caution to the wind and simply are intent on filling their bellies. Unlike the Chinook, after stocking they only live out in the Great Lakes for a year and half. That’s a short period to be out in the wild putting on weight for a return to the river. It’s estimated that coho in their last few months out in that open water are eating their weight in a week to meet the future demands of the river and spawning. In the early years of the salmon introduction when baits schools were much more abundant, these fish would gain as much as a pound a week over that last summer. Lower a lure back then and you could most often expect a response from an angry coho. Many times, all your rods would trigger at once. Seconds later, highflying coho were breaking water in sassy leaps all around you.
The late Harry Gingrich with an average Lake Ontario coho on the day of Choronzey’s big exhaustion.
No, a coho is not a Chinook. They may be smaller, but that feeding frenzy caused all that fishing exciting and kept the adrenalin pumping. Here are a few very important facts to remember. The Great Lakes are changing constantly. With proper pollution controls in effect and more on the way the Great Lakes are becoming cleaner. That in turn means newer phosphate controls are being put in place. This in turn will relate to less zooplankton growth. Which in turn means less smelt and alwife for predator fish to feed on. Chinook for the most part prefer to dine on smelt, alewife and native herring. Surprisingly, they shun other smaller fish such as the invasive round goby, which are now abundant and even expanding throughout the Great Lakes. While Chinook turn their noses up at a meal of round gobies, walleye, bass and coho, have made the switch and are putting on the pounds and gladly dining on this recent Great Lakes invader. States such as Michigan, have noted this change and are once again putting more attention and emphasis on the coho, especially in Lake Huron. I don’t think it will be long before the Province of Ontario and New York State do the same as well.
No jurisdiction is abandoning the Chinook as the real king of the Great Lakes fishery, but it is become a balancing act between fish being stocked and forage fish available out in those Great Lakes. With coho showing no reluctance to make the switch to a regular meal of the invasive round goby, I believe we will see this same coho becoming a tool in controlling spread and growth of goby populations.
I for one, love the thrill of playing war games with big trophy Chinook. I’m also a fisherman that looks forward to the return of a fish that started it all… and when under the boat are willing to bang my baits all day long!
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