Are Coho Salmon the “NEW SALMON” for LAKE HURON?

  • Kings, Cohos, Atlantic Salmon, Steelhead, Lake Trout…and their forage base
  • Atlantic Salmon and Steelhead have more extended lives and thrive on different forage
  • The Michigan DNR has an essential decision to make, in 2020: is the King dead?
Will cohos put the bend in the fishing rods of Lake Huron anglers in 2020?

By Mike Schoonveld

After the results of the coho salmon stocking experiment in Lake Michigan a few years back, the test was a success. Control of the overabundant alewife population had been established in Lake Michigan, so cohos were stocked in Lake Huron next. There, the experiment was also a success, but two things worked to keep the Lake Huron success in the background.

First, they were second. Who placed second at the Daytona 500 last year? Who earned a silver medal in Olympic ski jumping? Few people remember runners-up.

More importantly, after the resounding success of coho stocking in the Great Lakes, next came the stocking of chinook salmon. There’s a cute maxim about Great Lakes salmon: “A coho is a silver, a chinook is the king!” Coho and chinook are the names given these species by the indigenous people, explorers, and settlers to the Pacific Northwest who called them silvers and kings.

The emphasis in this aphorism is on kings, since king salmon are usually two or three times larger than cohos and two or three times harder to bring to net, even at equivalent sizes. Once kings entered the picture, few anglers put much effort into trying to catch cohos.

In Lake Michigan, cohos gained a loyal following – especially in the southern end of the lake – near Benton Harbor and New Buffalo in Michigan, and again in Platte Bay in October, when Michigan’s cohos show up for their spawning run. Lake Huron coho fans were much smaller in number, and far fewer cohos were fished for and caught. Add to this the expense of stocking cohos is roughly triple the cost per fish of stocking king salmon. It was an easy decision, 30 years ago, for the Michigan DNR to discontinue the coho program in Lake Huron.

The Michigan DNR reintroduced coho salmon in Lake Huron and they will be ready to catch this season, in 2020.

Things changed in 30 years, most notable was the collapse of the alewife/chinook salmon dominated ecosystem in Lake Huron. Sure there were lake trout, steelhead, walleye, bass, perch, even pike, muskies and smallmouth in certain areas, but the primary forage fish was alewife, and the central predator feeding on the alewives was king salmon.

The demise of the alewife/chinook ecosystem in Lake Huron is well documented. There were many moving parts in the collapse, but basically, king salmon numbers went up due to natural reproduction, and the resulting kings ate all the alewives.

Chinook catches crashed to near zero despite continued MDNR stocking in select locations. Biologists learned that most of the stocked fish that would hopefully provide a minimal background chinook fishery for Huron anglers had migrated to Lake Michigan, where alewives were available by the time they were big enough to catch.

The chinook/alewife connection proved to be unbreakable. When alewives were eliminated, native forage species (which had been suppressed by the abundant ales) flourished. Sticklebacks, sculpin, herring, and others increased, as did non-native smelt and invasive round gobies. Kings turned their nose up at eating these alternatives.

Not so with Lake Huron’s other predator fish. Walleyes, lakers, and others quickly responded by foraging on these alternate, often more nutritious prey fish.

Fishermen, by and large, weren’t as interested in fishing for lake trout, walleyes, and other species. It was king salmon that attracted the crowds and provided customers for charter captains, restaurants, hotels, and other businesses. Fishing license sales attributed to Lake Huron anglers dropped dramatically.

Can anything be done? That’s the new question the MDNR hopes to answer.

One potential answer is to stock more steelhead.

Steelhead are more opportunistic feeders, seemingly as content to slurp beetles and moths off the lake surface as they are chasing shiners or other small prey fish.

Another potential answer is to stock Atlantic salmon. The Atlantic salmon program run by Lake Superior State at Sault Saint Marie in the St. Marys River, which flows into Lake Huron, seems to be vibrant. Perhaps the Atlantics could fill the void left by the shortage of Huron kings.

Perhaps an idea based on the concept “everything old is new again” could entice anglers back to Lake Huron. The MDNR recently stocked almost 50,000 coho salmon at Port Sanilac and another 50,000 at Alpena.

Food studies have shown cohos aren’t nearly as picky eaters as king salmon. They spend their first year of life, or longer, in the hatchery. When stocked at only seven or eight inches in length, they feed more on bugs than prey fish for much of their second year of life, and even in their third and final year (they spawn and die at age three), they will eat insects as well as smelt, gobies or most any other fish they can find.

The angling results of this experiment will be known this year. By spring, these cohos should be two or three times as large (16 to 22 inches), and many will be four to six pounds by mid-summer.

When it comes to Lake Huron salmon, a take-off on another familiar dictum may be appropriate, “The king is dead…long live the coho!”

THE END

 

 

MONSTER CATCH puts spotlight on Illinois Lake Trout COMEBACK

Capt. Shawn Keulen’s monster lake trout, held here by Jordan Keulen, was within short reach of the Illinois state record. It also drew attention to the remarkable restoration of successful lake trout spawning on the reefs off the Illinois shoreline.

By Mike Pehanich

  • Shawn Keulen’s 36-pound laker reported as 2nd largest fish taken from Lake Michigan so far this season
  • Lake trout reproduction on Illinois reefs best on all Lake Michigan
  • Goby addition to diet touted as key to natural laker reproduction

 Capt. Shawn Keulen’s 36-pound lake trout was a big fish that shed light on an even bigger story — that lake trout are spawning successfully off Illinois shore and creating another world-class fishery.

On Sunday, July 29, Lake Michigan guide Capt. Shawn Keulen brought a giant lake trout to boat. The head looked menacing and atavistic, a throwback to some species of prehistory. Its weight registered over 36 pounds on at least one scale, according to local reports.

But to long-time followers of the Lake Michigan fishery saga, the catch was big beyond its physical dimensions.

Keulen’s laker is believed to be the second largest salmonid caught by hook and line this season, and it came within short reach of the Illinois state record lake trout of 38 pounds, 4 ounces, caught by Theodore Rullman in August of 1999.

More significantly, the catch highlights the revival of successful lake trout reproduction in Lake Michigan following decades of failure and disappointment.

“Illinois waters are loaded with lake trout,” said Rob Wendel, manager of the Lake Michigan Angler bait and tackle shop in Winthrop Harbor (www.lakemichiganangler.com ; phone 224-789-7627). “You can catch as many as you wish. It’s that good.”

First mate Jordan Keulen holds Capt. Shawn Keulen’s monster lake trout. The 36-pounder is believed to be the second largest salmonid taken from Lake Michigan this season.

Laker comeback

The monster laker, the largest reported from Lake Michigan this season, stirred recollections of the bold efforts of Great Lakes biologists, anglers and volunteers to establish or reestablish viable populations of salmon and trout to Lake Michigan 60 years ago. The lake trout was the species impacted most heavily by a devastating sea lamprey invasion and locust-like alewife propagation in the middle of the 20th century.

Angler conservation with catch and release can help populations survive.

The resultant program brought exciting Coho and Chinook salmon populations to the lake and buttressed fading steelhead numbers. But extensive efforts by Great Lakes states to bring back a self-sustaining population of the lake trout, a native predator, showed little success for almost half a century despite substantial annual stockings by the four Lake Michigan border states and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.

That story line has changed dramatically in recent years, and, to the amazement of most, Illinois waters have staged the greatest lake trout comeback on the entire lake.

Careful release and life continues for a once endangered Lake Michigan population.

“We’re seeing high rates of non-stocked fish, wild lake trout, in our samples,” explained Vic Santucci, a Lake Michigan biologist for the Illinois Department of Natural Resources. “Anglers are also seeing more wild fish showing up in their catch due to our mass marking project in which we mark stocked fish with adipose clips and coated wire tags. We are seeing probably on average over 40 percent wild fish in our population since 2012.”

Reef madness

Lake trout are spawning successfully on reefs located off Illinois shores, most notably Julian’s Reef and Waukegan Reef. In fact, reefs from Chicago to the Wisconsin state line may host the most active and successful lake trout spawning grounds on the entire lake.

“As far as we know from annual samples, our percentage of wild fish is highest here in the southern basin,” continued Santucci. “We are seeing the highest percentage of wild trout in our samples. There are a lot of trout on the Midlake Reef in Wisconsin…but the last numbers I saw were in the high teens and 20- to 25-percent range (for wild fish). They go lower than that as you survey waters farther north.”

Light tackle lake trout angling is becoming popular sport throughout the Great Lakes. That’s Jeff Slater of Seaguar showing off a handsome specimen.

For bedding lakers, the cobble composition of the reefs is part of their charm. The chunk rock and small boulders comprise a lake bottom “where eggs can get into interstitial spaces and be protected from predators yet still get oxygen,” according to Santucci. Ironically, shells of dead quagga mussels, an invasive mollusc, may also factor to lake trout favor in the evolving structure of the reefs.

Going goby!

Forage mix also seems to be working to lake trout favor. And the lowly round goby, long viewed as an ecological nemesis, may be the unheralded hero of the wild lake trout revival.

“The prevailing theory is that our lake trout suffered from a dietary deficiency when they were eating alewives almost exclusively,” noted Wendel. “Now their diet has switched over to goby and other forage species as well. The diverse diet is healthier for the lakers, and the results are evident in lake trout catches today.”

Santucci acknowledges the theory and finds it credible. He noted that gobies are rich in thiamine, believed to be the long-missing yet critical nutrient for successful lake trout reproduction.

“Lake trout feed on just about anything they can catch,” he said. “In past decades, their diet consisted primarily of smelt and alewives, especially alewives. The gobies they consume today are quite possibly adding more vitamin B, thiamine, to their diet.”

Wendel reports fabulous and consistent lake trout fishing off Illinois shores, though anglers often need to plumb triple-digit depths to catch them in late summer. But ballooning lake trout numbers in Illinois waters have reinvigorated angler interest in the species. Spring shore fishing along the Chicago lakefront is now popular sport, and light tackle techniques have brought out the fighting best in a species often berated for its performance at the end of a lead core line in 100-foot depths. Many are finding the fish can fight!

So, welcome to Illinois, lake trout mecca!

Follow the Illinois pages of Share the Outdoors for more Lake Michigan news and how-to fishing information throughout the year.

Travel Destination: NIAGARA USA

  • Water Temp Rising Now, Salmon Hitting with Fish to 22 Pounds
  • Smallmouth Bass Fishing is Good on Upper and Lower Niagara River
  • Southtowns Lake Erie Walleye Contest runs June 10-18

Niagara County, NY; June 9, 2017.   Despite record high water levels in Lake Ontario, salmon and trout fishing continues to be good in the lake, although it did slow down a bit with the recent east winds.  Some good fishing was being reported over the weekend from Tanner Niezgoda, of Newfane, while fishing out of Olcott

Jason Krebs with a pretty Lake Trout taken in the Lower Niagara River on a drift.

Best depths were 60 to 80 feet down over 150 to 300 feet of water with spoons and flasher-fly combos. Salmon up to 22 pounds were caught by Tanner and his sister.

Many of the captains have been tight-lipped on information with the Orleans County Open happening this weekend.  Be forewarned about the Niagara Bar with a report that moss is starting to come down through the river system.

In the Lower Niagara River, the fishing has been good to very good the past week.  Steelhead and lake trout are still holding on, but they probably won’t be around for long as the water nears the 60 degree mark. Minnows, Kwikfish and MagLips were all working on trout from boats up in Devil’s Hole; shore casters in the gorge have been using tubes, swim baits and marabou jigs.

That same hardware will also work on smallmouth bass downriver, but Chuck Booker of Amherst proved that his signature in-line spinners can also catch bass by going 17 for 20 on his last outing this week north of the sand docks in Lewiston.  

Yes, some moss is starting to show up, but you can still catch fish just fine. It will continue to get worse, though, as the month progresses.  Outdoor Writer Mike Brown of Ohio came into town over the weekend and his crew of family and friends managed to catch about 40 fish while fishing with Capt. Joe Marra of Lewiston.  Tip of the week: Don’t set your rod down to take a picture for your story in the Niagara River without reeling in a little line first.  Anyone who hooks into a nice spinning outfit in the river with a brand new reel on it could be returned to Capt. Joe.

Tanner Niezgoda, of Newfane, New York, Caught a beautiful lake Trout fishing Lake Ontario out of Olcott Harbor.

Upper Niagara River bass fishing also continues to be good.  Remember that the regular season doesn’t open until the third Saturday in June (June 17 this year) and if you are targeting bass, you must use artificial baits.  Speaking of bass, the Annual Opening Day Bass Contest sponsored each year by Kelly’s Korners will NOT be held this year.  Organizers for the tournament didn’t want to see the big bass end up in a fish fry and they decided to retire the event to help protect the resource.  Some walleye are being caught at the head of the river and at the head of Strawberry Island on worm harnesses and jigs.  This could be a sleeper area for the Southtowns Walleye Association’s tournament that kicks off on Saturday, June 10. www.southtownswalleye.org

To help Celebrate National Fishing and Boating Week, there will be a Free Fishing Clinic at Ellicott Creek Park on Saturday, June 10 from 10 a.m. to 1 p.m.  Call Mike Todd at 851-7010 to pre-register – although it’s not required.  

Just a quick reminder on water levels: There is still a state of emergency along the Lake Ontario shoreline for high water levels. This isn’t really going to affect the fishing that much, but the Niagara County Sheriff is asking that boats creating a wake stay at least 600 feet from shore. This doesn’t include trolling.  Caution is advised for floating debris when you are out in the lake moving around.  The problem seems to be launching.  The best spot to be right now is the Town of Newfane Marina in Olcott.  Fort Niagara has an open launch, but you need boots up to your knees or above.  Golden Hill State Park launch is closed and Wilson-Tuscarora Park is day to day (but you need hip boots there, too).  It’s worth the effort for the good fishing!!