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Lake Michigan salmon, where have you gone?

Published: Friday, Aug. 15, 2014 7:51 a.m. CDT • Updated: Friday, Aug. 15, 2014 7:57 a.m. CDT

Bob Rossa, a Lake Michigan authority, recently wrote me an email, and it was staggering.

“Most of our charter boats are coming in with 0 to 3 fish per trip,” Rossa wrote. “Most of these are lake trout. I caught two king salmon in the month of July. Nobody is catching kings from Indiana to Racine right now.

“We are starting to believe there are none to catch. I knew the fishing was going to get bad but never imagined it would get this bad this fast. I know of five boats that didn’t catch a fish today (Aug. 3). It looks like it’s the end of an era, and lots of people dependent on the fishing, such as the motels, marinas, bait shops, restaurants, and fishing charters will be in dire straits. If we can’t catch them, they aren’t here!”

This is shocking after reports the past couple of years have been glowing. Coho salmon hitting the 10-pound mark started showing up in the past two years. Big kings were starting to be the rule rather than the exception.

We went through a period of years where it was an extreme rarity for a charter to bring in a king that weighed over 20 pounds. In the past two years, 20-pound fish were being landed in pairs or maybe even triplets on occasion. I received more than one report of a 30-pound salmon being caught. This year’s spring even started off so promising that I felt the new era of big fish was set to continue.

I called Rossa and a number of other charter captains to gauge the mood of the anglers. Rossa was adamant. He insisted the fish were absent.

“The only thing I can figure is that the IDNR’s cutback on stocking salmon is finally showing up in low numbers,” Rossa said. “This is basically a put-and-take fishery. If they don’t put them in, we can’t take them out. Thank goodness I’m ready for Social Security. I don’t know what the young guys are going to do.”

The IDNR’s Lake Michigan Program Manager Vic Santucci agreed this spring’s fishing was excellent but has fallen off in the summer months.

“You know, I hate to say that there are people jumping the gun, but they’re are,” Santucci said. “The stocking was only cut by eight percent in Illinois and only in 2013, so those fish would only be two years old right now, anyway. I don’t have any valid creel surveys in yet, so I can’t give you true data right now. Let’s give this some time before we say we’ve fallen off a cliff. Let’s wait and see how the data comes in after the fall fishing is complete.”

Capt. Bob Jenkins of the Challenger told me he believed the fish were still out there, but the charters weren’t able to catch them. He claimed the charters were marking plenty of fish on their sonar units but they were not biting. He believes the fish are in a totally negative feeding state because of the lack of winds we have felt in July.

He said the salmon may just be in a very unusual pattern, hanging out in the shallows during what is a typically deep-water period.

Capt. David Smith from the Last Cast believes the weather patterns that have befallen Lake Michigan’s western shoreline have driven our salmon to the big pond’s eastern shore. He believes our Illinois salmon are currently swimming in Michigan waters.

I decided to call Capt. Chip Porter. Chip was one of Lake Michigan’s most prominent charter captains up until a couple of years ago. He fished all summer and staged the Salmon Master School across the Midwest during the winter. He was very successful and won his share of tournaments.

I hadn’t seen Chip in two years and figured it was time to catch up with him. The last time I talked to Chip, he told me he had given up his schools. He said he couldn’t take people’s money to teach them how to fish for salmon because it was his belief that the salmon were going to disappear from Lake Michigan. Not only did Porter shut down his school, he also quit running his charter service.

Porter believes the salmon have disappeared, just like they did from Lake Huron a few years back. He blames it on the lake’s infestation with the quagga mussel. The quagga mussel is believed to have come here from the Ukraine in the ballast water of freighters.

This invasive species filters out all of the microscopic foodstuff that begins the food chain. Although the zebra mussel gets all the publicity, it basically cleared the water and gave the lake’s bass fishery a big boost.

The quagga filters the microplankton and other organisms out of the water. This takes away the food source for the minnows and fry. No minnows or fry leads to no food fish like alewives. No alewives and the salmon and trout starve off. It’s a vicious circle.

Porter saidthe quagga is able to live in much deeper water, filter more food out of the system and is more able to affix itself to more varied types of bottom compositions than the zebra mussel.

Porter doesn’t believe the state’s stocking cutbacks have harmed the fishery. He believes that even if more salmon were stocked, there isn’t enough food out there to support a good fishery right now.

This is a perplexing problem. I am sure there will be hearings and studies and forums and meetings concerning this over the winter. I’ll try to stay on top of the issue as best I can and keep you informed as things transpire. Right now, all I can do is keep my fingers firmly crossed and hope for the best.

Steve Sarley is a weekly columnist for the Northwest Herald in Crystal Lake, which is a sister publication to Lake County Suburban Life.

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