In the 1960’s Lake Michigan was nearly over run by hundreds of millions of stinky little silver fish known as Alewives. These fish were everywhere, in places so thick that you could reach into the water and grab one. In addition to their abundance, they were a fragile little fish that would wash up dead along the shores, beaches, and boat launches of Lake Michigan in the hot summer months creating a stench that would travel miles inshore. Naturally people stopped visiting these attractions and the Department of Conservation (now the Department of Natural Resources) had to make a decision that proved to be monumental in its recreational and economic impact, they started stocking salmon. Coho Salmon to be exact, and in time Chinook or as they are more widely known, The King Salmon. By 1967 the Alewive corpses that had plagued the beaches of Lake Michigan were now digesting in the bellies of a voracious new species to the lake. The beaches that had long been devoid of patrons were now as crowded as ever. The hordes of dead Alewives that inundated the launches of the lake had been replaced with boats rigged up with all variety of methods to entice these stocked salmon to bite, and a multi-million dollar sport fishing industry emerged.
The fishery was dependable, unique, and an important part of the lives of millions living around the port cities of Lake Michigan which is why what is happening today is so concerning.
From September 14th through November 10th 2009 I personally caught 71 Chinook salmon from the Lake Michigan harbors of Illinois and southern Wisconsin, I hooked and lost countless more. The amount of 4 year old King Salmon pushing into the harbors in which they were stocked 4 years previous was staggering. Driven by their well-known instinct to return to the waters in which they started their journey to spawn before succumbing to the rapid degradation of their physical systems as their four year life cycle comes to an end, these brutes put themselves within range of tens of thousands of anglers looking to test their tackle on an elusive species that rarely provides opportunity to be targeted from shore. This run, in the great lakes at least, happens as summer turns to fall. As the hot humid days of summer turn to cool crisp ones, the mature great lakes King Salmon return to the harbors from which they were stocked four years earlier. Whether or not the Chinook knows it won’t be returning back to the open waters of the lakes that harbored its growth into one of, if not the most powerful and hard pulling North American freshwater species is subject to the speculation of biologists and anglers alike. Of all of the uncertainty surrounding the patterns and movements of the Chinook salmon as it roams the deep and mostly empty waters of the great lakes for most of the year one thing has always been certain, as the days grow shorter and colder the Kings are coming in.
So what happens when they don’t?
Since 2009 my fall Salmon runs have consisted of perplexed frustration with the random fish here and there. A run that was once as dependable as the season change itself has now become no more than a crapshoot. Some years have provided short glimpses of what we had an abundance of in years past, but seemingly gone are the seasons of easily accessible world class fishing. As disappointing as not being able to depend on two months of consistent king action is for myself and my fellow shore anglers, the implications for the boat anglers and in particular the charter sport fishing industry are far more dire. The catches of salmon off shore during the spring and summer months have been shrinking as well. Charter captains depend on the Chinook salmon as the main draw of new clientele, and private boaters justify their purchases on the shoulders of the great lakes King Salmon as no other species native or introduced can offer the same level of tackle testing thrill. According to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration great lakes sports fishing pumps over $4 billion into our economy every year. The vast majority of which is spent locally in the towns and cities closest to the shores of the lake. This is an issue that is well deserving of the attention of legislatures and governmental organizations just as the original Alewive problem was in the 60’s.
Many hypothesize that the salmon are running out of food. In many places it has become a rarity to see even a single Alewive treading water near our beaches and boat launches. Have the salmon become too efficient in their original task and doomed themselves? Are adolescent Salmon starving and dying miles off shore before making their run back into the harbors and tributaries that they were stocked? Has the accidental introduction of Zebra and Quaga Mussels into the lake changed the make up of the ecosystem so drastically that the patterns of the salmon species have simply changed or evolved? Is this simply a result of the stocking numbers going down over the past several years?
Whatever issue is responsible for the problem at hand, we as anglers and outdoor enthusiasts should lend ourselves to this conundrum. The IDNR can’t be blamed as the last several years the number of stocked fish has been reduced in an effort to revitalize the Alewive population to bring balance to the lake, and yet this has not seemed to improve the numbers or the number of quality salmon being caught.
To any who read this that are familiar with this fishery, I know that there is more to this than what was outlined in this article. I wanted to bring a little bit of attention to this issue as the Lake Michigan Salmon fishery is particularly near and dear to my heart as well as tens of thousands of likeminded anglers. Let us have a discussion in the comments and maybe we can be the ones that find a solution.