How's the fishing?

Alex Doty • Apr 13, 2016 at 10:00 AM

The results from the 2015 Salmon Ambassadors program are giving insight into the 2015 salmon fishing season, and a glimpse at what the future may hold for Lake Michigan sport fishing.

“One of the big things we saw was the lack of mid-size fish,” Sea Grant educator Dan O’Keefe said of last year’s catch. “We know we got data on all the fish that anglers in our program caught.”

According to results from the past season, king salmons in the 20- to 30-inch range in 2015 were mostly 2-year-old fish. In Lake Michigan, a Chinook salmon’s lifespan is 3-4 years. 

The class hatched in 2013 was small for several reasons, noted O’Keefe. One reason is the cutback in the number of stocked salmon that year as a preventative measure to save the forage base from crashing.

Based on numbers from the Salmon Ambassadors program, the number of mid-sized (20- to 30-inch long) Chinook salmon caught from Lake Michigan fell from 1,707 in 2014 to 552 last year.

“We expected the natural reproduction to increase to fill in the gap,” O’Keefe said of the stocked reduction. “But we didn’t see that.”

Instead, he said they saw a decline in wild salmon, or salmon that reproduced naturally.

Salmon Ambassadors data show that while 53 percent of wild fish caught in 2014 were 20- to 30-inches long, this dropped to only 33 percent in 2015. This may mean large salmon could be a tough find this year.

“The 2013-year class will be pretty weak and we probably won’t see large (Chinook) salmon coming in,” O’Keefe said.

Other findings

Despite the news that wild salmon numbers dropped, the data from last year’s catch show that wild Chinooks made up between 72 and 81 percent of the catch in four Michigan regions of Lake Michigan, compared to 65-75 percent in 2014.

Results for 2015 show:

— 74 percent wild in the Grand Haven area (Whitehall to Saugatuck)

— 72 percent wild in Manistee

— 81 percent wild in the Ludington area (including Pentwater)

— 72 percent wild in southwest Michigan (South Haven to St. Joseph)

The study indicates that Wisconsin’s Door Peninsula stands out in both 2014 and 2015 as the region with the highest-rated Chinook salmon fishing in the months of July and August. The contribution of wild fish to Door County volunteer catches rose from 62 percent wild in 2014 to 69 percent last year.

Northern Lake Huron and Southern Wisconsin had much lower contributions of wild fish, with 37 percent and 41 percent, respectively.

Fish to be found

But experts say don’t write off the prospects of a successful day on the water.

“I expect this year to be another hard year for Chinook salmon, but it might be better for other fish,” O’Keefe said. “For anglers, if you still enjoy being out on the big lake, it is still a great place to be. There’s still fish to be had out there.”

In particular, O’Keefe noted that brown trout fishing has also been good the past several years, and Coho salmon appear to be larger. Lake trout are also available.

“We’re seeing some changes and it may take a while to figure out what the new equilibrium is going to look like,” O’Keefe said.

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