Some of the biggest salmon ever are being caught in Lake Michigan this summer, and charter fishing captain Brian Butts said it’s due to a more balanced predator and prey relationship in the big lake.

While he expects the average salmon caught to be over 20 pounds, the owner of Sea Flea and Sea Flea Too, both based at Grand Haven’s Chinook Pier, admitted to being excited that one of the biggest fish this year was caught recently on one of his boats.

Kegan McPharlin, 12, of Port Huron, fishing with his father and grandfather on the Sea Flea Too on Aug. 8, reeled in a 36.25-pound king (Chinook) salmon.

“That’s the biggest one we’ve caught on a charter boat ever,” said Butts, who started running a charter boat in the Grand Haven area in 1973.

Sam Emmons, a Ferrysburg resident, was the captain on board that day.

“It was a rough morning, but we had decent fishing,” he said.

Then the big fish took the bait on McPharlin’s line.

“When it ran, it did a really, really deep dive and a long run,” Emmons said. “It took 28 minutes to reel it in.”

Emmons said an average landing of a fish takes between five and 15 minutes.

Emmons, who has been working on a charter boat for six years and fishing all of his life, said he’s never had a fish over 30 pounds until that one. Last week, another customer came close with a 29-pounder.

Also last week, another local charter fishing captain, Dana Bonney, reported a 34-pounder taken by one of his customers.

A better balance

Ottawa County MSU Extension educator Dan O’Keefe agreed with Butts that the appearance of the larger fish in Lake Michigan is the result of a better balance between the bait fish (primarily alewives) and the predator fish (the salmon). The fact the fish are bigger means that they have a good food supply, he said. But the Michigan Department of Natural Resources has had to cut back on the numbers of fish it stocks over the past few years because the amount of bait fish remains at a historic low.

Chinook salmon were first introduced into the Great Lakes in the mid to late 1960s, partially to combat the large numbers of the invasive alewives brought in on freighters and partially to help create a charter fishing industry.

Butts’ father, Terry, said that he bought his first boat in 1966, in anticipation of the first salmon run, and has been fishing ever since.

The Barryton man lives with his son in the summer so he can serve as first mate on the charter boats.

Terry Butts admitted that they didn’t really know what they were doing, but caught a lot of fish because there were so many out there. It’s a lot more technical now, he said.

The elder Butts said “every day seems to be a new day with a new challenge,” but it helps to get a good start in the morning and find the right spot.

Fish crises

Fishing was good until the early 1980s when the salmon developed a bacterial kidney disease and most of the fish were lost, Brian Butts said. Management methods changed and the fish gradually came back, although there was another crisis in the early 2000s.

“We were at the edge of the cliff, but never fell off,” O’Keefe said.

There was a decline in salmon catch rates in Lake Huron to the extent that the charter boats were lucky to get one fish each trip. In Lake Michigan, the industry survived better because they still averaged a couple of salmon per trip, though nothing like the heyday of a 10-12 catch per trip.

On Wednesday, Sea Flea Too customers reeled in eight larger fish and three smaller ones, with the biggest being about 15 pounds.

Terry Butts said the color of the fish they are seeing is an indication that they will be ready soon to make the trip upriver to spawn.

Right now, the fish they are catching are about 50/50 stocked versus wild. The stocked fish all have a clipped adipose fin, Terry Butts said.

The large fish caught Aug. 8 was a wild salmon. Those fish will most likely spawn in the more shallow and rocky rivers from Muskegon north, he said.

The Butts agreed that the salmon catch will be down this year, mainly because of the cool spring, but that it’s good now and business has been steady. 2018 was one of the best salmon runs ever, they said.

Lake Michigan salmon facts

The majority of Chinook salmon in Lake Michigan are the product of natural spawning in Michigan streams and rivers, O’Keefe said. Volunteers with the Salmon Ambassadors program found that 78 percent of the Chinook salmon caught in the Grand Haven area last year were wild and the rest were stocked.

Stocking has been reduced several times, most recently in 2017, but stocking certainly still makes an important contribution to the fishery. However, wild reproduction has been highly variable and unpredictable, O’Keefe said.

The number of wild Chinook salmon smolts (young fish) coming into Lake Michigan from streams dropped by around 80 percent from 2012 to 2013. Since then, wild reproduction has been increasing and is now back to the low end of average (around 3.5 million wild smolts in 2017).

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