2016-09-29 / Life in Leelanau

More salmon in rivers, Wisconsin as hope for rebound continues

By Alan Campbell
Of The Enterprise staff

It’s indicative of how far the salmon fishery of Leelanau County has fallen that positive discussions have settled upon the fact that it hasn’t completely collapsed.

The Boardman River offers proof. More salmon have already been counted at the Boardman River weir than in all of 2015. And chinook are stacking up in good numbers below the Platte River Hatchery in Benzie County.

“We’re not to the point of Lake Huron, and we’re trying our best not to get to that point,” said MDNR fish biologist Heather Hettinger.

Jim Munoz, a charter fisherman out of Fishtown who’s been finding salmon for clients since the 1960s, said salmon fishing improved in 2016 compared to the previous year.

Unfortunately, said Munoz — who’s known for speaking his mind — that’s not saying much.

“Salmon fishing was better than last year, that’s true. But last year was dismal,” he said.

Fishing in Lake Michigan off the Leelanau shoreline has it’s good and bad points, he added. Lake trout numbers remain high, and limits are common. Charter clients have mostly been happy to fill up on laker fillets even if they miss the line-tearing runs of chinook salmon, which are known for their strength and fight.

But about those salmon, which until three or four years ago represented the mainstay for Fishtown charters.

“Maybe you could go to the (Manitou) islands and maybe catch two or three (salmon) — or you might be shut out,” Munoz said.

The frustration was compounded this summer because salmon fishing was good to excellent along the shoreline of Wisconsin. While Munoz wishes those mature salmon had drifted westward, their existence lends hope to a theory that the Lake Michigan salmon fishery has bottomed out and is capable of rebounding.

“If those fish had not been in Wisconsin this year, I would agree a lot with what they are saying,” Munoz said.

Munoz and Hettinger say the salmon fishery problem comes down to a lack of alewives, caused by invasive species such as zebra mussels that have taken the lower rung out of the food chain. Young alewives lack enough food to survive.

But Munoz questions how much science can determine considering the scope of environmental changes undergone in the past few decades by the second-largest Great Lake.

“They say there’s not enough food. How do you measure that? I don’t have the answer, but that’s a question,” he said.

The MDNR has responded to a drop in alewives by severely cutting back salmon plants, hoping that less predation will allow prey fish to rebound. Hettinger said anecdotal results from a state fisheries boat taking samples in Lake Michigan are that alewives reproduced this spring in about the same numbers as 2015.

That would represent more hope for salmon, which rely on alewives for food more than any other prey fish. Alewife reproduction has been anything but reliable in recent years, with some year classes virtually non-existent.

“Really it’s encouraging that we are consistently getting alewife reproduction in repeated years. That’s been a struggle for us,” Hettinger said. Michigan and neighboring Great Lakes states and provinces cut salmon plants with just that result in mind.

Unfortunately for Leelanau County, salmon fishing near major rivers may be hurt less by a reduction in salmon plants and, consequently, more reliance on natural reproduction.

“What we saw out of Leland is representative of what we’re going to see until we start stocking more salmon again,” Hettinger said.

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