It’s January 2019 and winter is just now beginning to settle in. As we get ready to start going through all of our tackle in preparation for the upcoming open water season, and get ready for the upcoming tributary runs of steelhead, it’s a good time to reflect back and look forward to the state of our fisheries.
The Great Lakes Salmon & Trout fisheries are one of huge success and challenges for anglers and fisheries managers. Complex biological factors along with political forces shape the fishery on an annual basis. We have much to look forward to as fishermen, but the forces of change will always have to be dealt with.
About as good as you can get was the word from the Lake Ontario open water fishermen. Huge catches of chinook, though smaller in overall size for mature fish, and higher numbers of 2 year olds made the action interesting. Why is Lake Ontario the top from a Salmon perspective year after year in terms of overall numbers and average size? They have the food. Lake Erie’s nutrients (thanks to both ag and municipality run off) feed both Lakes Erie and Ontario to provide an almost limitless supply of food for baitfish. Recent stocking adjustments have been made on Lake Ontartio to balance predator with estimated prey biomass, but from a high level perspective the great action looks to continue. Same can be said for the health of the tributary fishery. Stellar brown trout populations provide nearshore and trib guys all kinds of great action from the Niagara around to the Genny. Steelhead numbers fluctuate as they do in most places, but they are out there and are available to those who will work for them. WNY trib guys have the benefit of slipping over to Eastern Lake Erie tribs to take advantage of their world class steelhead fishery as well.
Even the north shore guys from Port Credit all the way down past Oshawa had good fishing, though not as many super tanker Chinook as years past. Jury is out as to why, but the numbers were still solid for all silver fish.
A work in progress. This forgotten basin had a pretty good spring measured against low standards, with an unexpected but pleasantly surprising spring Coho bite on the south end. Where did these fish come from? Likely natural reproduction on the Canadian side. Expansions in Coho natural reproduction do not happen without good spawning conditions and FOOD to keep those fish alive. Baitfish assessments are mysteriously missing on Lake Huron despite a proclaimed high level of predators including Walleye, Chinook, Lake Trout and Atlantic salmon. How this lake gets away with stocking any level of predators with almost ZERO visibility into baitfish populations is one of the great mysteries of fisheries management.
Steelhead numbers are fair in certain places, as are Atlantic Salmon returns. Huron is one of those places when you talk to guys who fish there they claim its the greatest fishery in the world. But when you ask more details about where or how many or photographic evidence ....you get little. Either these guys are the greatest BS’rs or the tightest lips on the planet....there is little to be super excited about unless you are in the right place at the right time on Lake Huron or it’s tribs. Returns and creels of salmon and steelhead DO NOT substantiate the claims of a world class fishery on this lake but according to regulars who fish there, its as good as the Lake Michigan side.
There is one bright light at the end of the tunnel for Lake Huron. Managers are looking to reduce stocking chinook at the northern end which promptly swim over to Lake Michigan and pound bait there. Makes great sense to us. As a return favor there will finally be some notable coho stocking to take place on Lake Huron...ports tbd but Oscoda is high on the list. If managers can create a solid returnable coho fishery there, and we know those fish will swim south in the spring and come back north in the fall....this fishery might just have something to it that guys are interested in participating in. Other than that, its a lake trout Mecca with the occasional Atlantic, walleye, chinook, etc outside of the Bay.
An interesting year. A great year depending on when and where you were fishing. A real snoozer for many others (i.e. most of Wisconsin). Likely one of the most epic early spring Chinook fisheries of all time. Where did it come from and why did it happen? We had front row seats to it down near St Joe in early April and here is what we can say. The majority of these fish were wild kings, and many of them were already showing signs of sexual maturity. Somehow this rather large school of wild kings in the lake all came down to the Southeast corner and magically the baitfish appeared! It was a whack fest to be sure. Many many many kings over 20lbs, stuffed with multiple age classes of alewife. It began early April and lasted for much of May before the pod of fish started its slide north as usual, touching ports of South Haven, Saugatuck, Grand Haven and finally peeling out offshore just north of Muskegon as they usually do.
Not too long after, the pod of kings showed up on the Wisconsin side, Sheboygan and north...as they usually do in June. Door county up to Baileys Harbor got hot for a while, and then that was it. We all waited with bated breath to see who on the roulette wheel of Lake Michigan ports would get this bubble of fish back during the summer. Well, nobody did. By the time August was over it was a ghost town in most ports, save a few die-hards trolling pierheads after lake flips and north blow events. Most rec guys packed it up, and charter guys did what they normally do (regardless of chinook fishing) and pounded the reliable lake trout if they were fortunate enough to have them.
Mysteriously, there were some very prolific runs of chinook that started around Labor Day on the PM. Boat guys on the open water got next to nothing, the fish ran right into PM lake and stacked. Jigging was the ticket, and soon thereafter the float/skein guys further upriver got in the action...and it was good. A north blow followed and it was the Betsie’s and Plattes turn to get in on the action. Again, nothing out front, nothing offshore, just in the harbor and up the rivers. Those runs were quite solid, lasting several weeks in all cases. The Little Manistee/Bear/Pine system was largely quiet during this time frame.
What can we conclude from this small yet obvious sample.....most if not ALL of our chinook fishery on Lake Michigan is supported by natural reproduction in 2-3 very very small tribs. Lake Huron/Canadian swimovers are just not reality anymore....we live and die by what is naturally reproduced in the PM and the Betsie.... Fishery managers are starting to see the picture, that returns of the paltry numbered stocked fish are abysmal, and our chinook fishery is hanging by the thread of natural reproduction in small tribs that get pounded fairly hard in September.
Coho fishing was stellar in the usual spots. Down south through June, up the Wisconsin side through mid July and then GONE....back home to the Platte. These fish staged and then started to run hard just after Labor Day through early October. The weirs passed more than enough fish to get their egg take.
Offshore steelhead fishing was slightly better this past year, summer runs were really really sketchy in the usual places. Fall steelhead was pretty decent in some tribs as was coho trib returns. Platte was good for Coho as usual, so was the Rogue..
The net of 2018 open water and fall trib fishing was this....you were best served to be as mobile as possible. If you can trailer, or shore/pier fish, then you win. It’s all about following a pod of fish around the lake now (as far as chinook go) and tracking the variable runs in the fall based upon rain/temperature events. This looks to be the best method of consistent success moving forward for the recreational angler for targeting any silver. You can get huge silver numbers, but you HAVE TO be mobile and opportunistic.
As we always say, don’t wait for the mayhem report on Facebook...these migratory patterns are the same every year, timing changes slightly, but it almost always plays out the same way. Not to say that bubble fisheries don’t happen during the summer, as it did in 2017 when Saugatuck/Holland had a world-on-fire silver fishery for 3 weeks during August. Be opportunistic, be mobile, and you will hit good silver numbers offshore and on the tribs.
2019 Look Ahead
Mild winter so far, baitfish should be in good shape. The roulette wheel is spinning right now and only time will tell where this years class of wild and nearing maturity chinook will come to shore....it all depends on the bait. Might be back down south on the Michigan side, could be like two years ago and show up in Wisconsin. Slightly favoring a Michigan appearance, but with a mild winter the bait could be well ahead of schedule and moving into multiple ports at a time to spawn, which means NO concentration of spring Chinook. Coho should be stellar this spring as usual.
The trib situation with steelhead is still developing. The lake has been warmer than most tribs, keeping most steelhead out in the lake feeding. But, the clock is ticking and they have to come in sooner or later. Lots of guys miss early Feb pushes of fish because they are too focused on ice fishing, don’t be one of those guys. It happens every year, be ready for it and take advantage of it before the masses of guys swarm in March. Fish have been huge, fat feeders, so get ready for some battles. It should be as good as if not better than last spring, these fish have not been beat up on as much as they were last year at this time.
Good luck and tight lines!