Fishing the ‘Big Lake’ in April

There are a lot of lakes in Illinois, but there’s only one “Big Lake”—Lake Michigan. There’s also a lot of good fishing going on in April in Illinois, but nothing that rivals the world-class trout and salmon angling found in the bigger water. And if the 2016 season was a prelude to this year, 2017 could be the best ever for Indiana and Illinois fishermen.

Why will this season be special?

Well, the good news is actually based on the bad news. Lake Michigan’s fishery is in serious trouble. Since the zebra mussels initially showed up in the lake in 1990, courtesy of cargo ships dumping their freshwater ballast picked up in the Caspian Sea, these invasives have been filtering the nutrients that support the base of the food chain. The zebra mussels, which soon covered the lake’s bottom, were eventually displaced by larger, more aggressive quagga mussels, which infested even more of the lake and ingested even more of the microorganisms that fed newly hatched perch, as well as the baitfish the larger predators need.

Years ago it became obvious the lake could not support both the mussels and the large populations of minnows, alewives, chubs and sculpin. Actually, it took a lot longer than I thought, but now we have reached the tipping point as baitfish have virtually disappeared from the Michigan shoreline and much of the northern half of Wisconsin. Catch rates for chinook salmon in those areas has crashed too, along with rainbow trout. Spring cohos have held up fairly well in Michigan, but those salmon also depart for more hospitable waters as the lake warms up. Lake trout, still present, are also gravitating to the southwest corner of this water where apparently the remains of the baitfish schools survive.

Stocking rates have been dramatically slashed to relieve the pressure on the baitfish, but unprecedented natural reproduction by both chinooks and lake trout makes any stocking plan little more than a crapshoot since there is now way to forecast how many wild fish will enter the fishery each spring. If that isn’t complicated enough, there is sound evidence that chinooks are migrating from Lake Huron, where a similar baitfish problem exists, into Lake Michigan.

So, with all this doom and gloom, why should we be enthusiastic about the open-water opportunities this spring?

The simple truth is as the Wisconsin and Michigan DNRs pour salmon and trout fingerlings into waters that can’t support them, those fish that survive mostly migrate south to find the forage fish they need. And, that brings them into Illinois’ waters. How good is it here? I have been fishing the Big Lake since 1970, both privately and as a charter captain all round the lake, and I’ve had some amazing fishing experiences. But I never have seen such incredible and consistent catches as those that came off the Illinois shoreline last year. Chinooks, while not huge, were of good size and abundant while lake trout were everywhere, and seemingly open for business every day. I’ve never seen so many big rainbow trout brought in. Cohos were where you found them, but they didn’t appear to have missed very many meals. Even brown trout, usually a bonus fish, were available to anyone who trolled the shallow water at dawn or evening. It was, indeed, a season to remember.

But will there be a repeat of the 2016 super season?

My guess is yes, though I don’t think the forage base is going to crash this year and there is no way it can rebound around the lake enough to satisfy the appetites of the big predators—they will certainly stay on the meat.

But don’t wait to take advantage of this unique opportunity to experience what may well be a fishing trip of a lifetime. With the mussels gnawing away at the bottom of the food chain and the top-of-the-line predators gobbling down the surviving baitfish, this whole ecosystem may be in for a total collapse.

If you or your friends don’t have a boat, please consider a trip on one of the many quality charter boats serving the Chicago and Waukegan areas. These captains will provide everything you need to catch fish, and most importantly, they will put you right on the schools of trout and salmon.

The Big Lake’s future maybe a dim one if nothing is done, but for now, it couldn’t be better. So get in on the action while it lasts.