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Big salmon show up, then disappear

Matt DeYoung • Sep 14, 2018 at 9:00 AM

The fall salmon run up the Grand River started hot, with several fish that were caught topping 30 pounds.

However, the fishing has all but dried up since then, and Willis Kerridge isn’t sure if or when it will pick up again. 

“I think the fishing’s going to straighten out,” said Kerridge, a longtime local charter boat captain. “When the water temp went from 72 to 46 last week, it changed everything. We’ll probably get another run, but I’m not sure when.”

When fishing was hot, Kerridge said, it was red hot, especially when it comes to catching big fish. He said nearly every charter boat that docks at Chinook Pier landed at least one salmon tipping the scales at 30 pounds or more. 

“We saw 28- to 29-pounders in the spring,” Kerridge said. “When they showed back up here, there were a lot of 30-pounders caught. A few years ago, if you caught a 20-pounder, you had yourself a day. We call those 30-pounders the ‘cooler toppers.’ We had a day where we only caught four fish, but they were so excited about that 30-pounder, they didn’t care.”

Local angler Brooks Wheeler can attest to the size of the salmon — he landed a 32-pounder that measured 41 inches in length while fishing in the channel on Sept. 8. 

“I fished last Friday and didn’t get one fish out in 100 feet of water in my little boat,” Wheeler said. “Saturday morning, it was really windy with the east wind. All the charter boats went out deep, but me and my friend couldn’t go out deep, so we fished in the channel. As soon as I started fishing, boom-boom, double-header. I ended up with five fish, including that big one.”

Wheeler said the fight to land the 32-pounder was an epic one, as the fish hugged the pier and then dove under his boat. 

“I couldn’t believe it didn’t get in the motor,” he said. “Then it went under my other downrigger. I had to free-spool the line and put the pole down in the water to get it under the downrigger.” 

Wheeler said local charter boat captain Dana Bonney told him that he hadn’t seen a salmon that big since 1979. 

Willis noted that a majority of the fish caught are naturally born fish, as opposed to fish stocked by the Michigan Department of Natural Resources. 

Because of the abundance of natural reproduction now taking place — and the DNR’s belief that the number of baitfish in Lake Michigan is dwindling — local stocking of salmon has plummeted the past several years. In 2017, 50,000 fingerling chinook salmon were stocked in the Grand River. That’s down from a peak of 200,000 salmon stocked in years past. 

“The thing with the natural fish is, they probably aren’t from our river,” Kerridge said. “That’s why we’re not having a good fall run. In the summer, the fishing was great. But the downside is, we don’t have like the Muskegon, the Pere Marquette and the White, the cold stony river. The fish used to run up here (in the Grand River) because they were planted here.”

Salmon anglers are hoping the fishing picks up in time for Saturday, when the Grand Haven Steelheaders will host their annual Big King Fishing Contest in conjunction with Grand Haven’s Salmon Festival. Weigh-in will take place from 12:30-1:30 p.m. at Waterfront Stadium. 

Dan O’Keefe with the Michigan Sea Grant program will be at the weigh-in collecting data and answering any questions that people may have. He will also be collecting stomach samples that are being used as part of an overall study of the health of the fishery and the forage base in Lake Michigan. 

If the weather doesn’t cooperate and the waves are too big to hold the tournament, the event will be pushed to Sunday. 

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