2018-06-28 / Outdoors

Patience, salmon fishers

Good reports from south Lk. Michigan
By Alan Campbell
of the Leelanau Enterprise


IT WILL be months before salmon start jumping the falls at the base of the Leland River dam, so Jack and Sharon Ray are hoping to catch any sportfish from the docks of Fishtown. Charter captains out of Leland are hoping the success found by salmon fishers in southern ports of Lake Michigan continues to move northward. IT WILL be months before salmon start jumping the falls at the base of the Leland River dam, so Jack and Sharon Ray are hoping to catch any sportfish from the docks of Fishtown. Charter captains out of Leland are hoping the success found by salmon fishers in southern ports of Lake Michigan continues to move northward. Lake trout may be the SUVs of big lake fishing off the shoreline of Leelanau County, but anglers about this time of year are itching to feel the power of a chinook salmon.

They’re the Corvettes of a Lake Michigan fishing trip.

And they’re coming our way.

“I think we should have a pretty good August for salmon up here,” said Heather Hettinger, district fish biologist with the Michigan Department of Natural Resources. “I would say we should be on par with last year, or a little better.”

Veteran charter boat skipper Jim Munoz agrees.

“We’ve had three down salmon years, but last year was better than the first two. I’m hopeful. We’ve got some stable weather coming on and I think it’s going to be stable for awhile, and I think that’s a big part of it.”

It’s typically more hope than results as June rounds into July. Munoz said he knows of some charters that have made successful runs for salmon to North Manitou Island, but so far his clients have been satisfied targeting plentiful lake trout closer to Leland.

“There are a few (salmon) showing up, but there is nothing consistent yet. Right now we’re catching a lot of trout, and big trout. There’s enough salmon that you could make a trip out of it, but you couldn’t guarantee anything,” he said.

Indeed, lake trout have sustained the charter boat fleet harbored in Leland so far this year. Clients are practically guaranteed to catch enough to feed a family, perhaps several times over.

But salmon are bigger and fight harder. When available, they’re the target fish of the Great Lakes.

In past years salmon schools have been found in southern Michigan early in the season. Then they move steadily north as water temperatures warm, completing their journey by spawning in northern Michigan rivers such as the Boardman.

Early salmon fishing reports from southern Michigan can serve as a gauge of mid- and late-summer success in Leelanau County. If that’s the case in 2018, anglers can expect a fair number of big, four-year-old salmon to head our way.

“Frankfort has had good catches, and then it was spotty. It’s the same way in Manistee. Ludington was good for awhile, and then it cooled off. Farther south around Benton Harbor and St. Joe, it was really good earlier. They got a lot of big salmon,” Munoz said.

Big salmon, indeed. A few pushed 30 pounds.

The key to finding salmon, though, has always been locating schools of alewives. And after learning about their spawning practices this spring, Munoz is not sure what to expect.

He hasn’t observed alwives spawning in the Leland River as they do in most years, but his son Jimmy Munoz saw a large school spawning near the National Park Service dock at North Manitou Island. Jimmy Munoz is a ferry captain with and co-owner of Manitou Island Transit.

Back in the 1960s former DNR director Howard Tanner, a fish biologist by trade, came up with the concept of importing Pacific salmon in the Great Lakes to munch on an alewife population that had outgrown its food source. Dead alewives piled up on the beaches of Leelanau County, requiring a bulldozer to find sand.

Even though salmon and alewives were both invasives, the plan worked to perfection - at least for awhile. Then other intruders such as the invasive zebra mussels also found their way to Lake Michigan, consuming zooplankton needed by young alewives to survive.

The alewife population shrank, followed by salmon. In fact, Lake Huron’s salmon population crashed and has never recovered; Lake Michigan salmon numbers shrank but did not crash.

Hettinger said the worst might be over for Lake Michigan salmon. The DNR had cut back salmon plants hoping that alewives would rebound, and they have a bit.

“We were able to plant more salmon this year,” she said.

In fact, some 60,000 salmon smolts were released this year into the Boardman River. The Boardman had last been planted in 2015, she said.

The smolts, 4-6 inches in length, were raised at the Platte River Fish Hatchery.

“The forage base is still close to the rock bottom, the basement, compared to historic levels,” Hettinger continued. “Salmon (numbers) are not as high as people would want. It’s a fine line trying to keep forage and predator bases going.”

She and her husband, Chris Hettinger, a retired charter boat captain, often fish out of Frankfort. Salmon fishers have enjoyed some success there.

“We’ve had a lot of fish over 20 pounds, which is great. And we’ve had a lot of two- and three-year-old fish. Growth rates appear to be pretty good,” she said.

When those fish will arrive in Leland is tough to predict.

“On a normal year by the Fourth of July it’s a pretty safe thing,” Munoz said.

But given the dramatic changes in Great Lakes fish populations, what’s normal?

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