Lake Michigan Chinook: the Future is Bright


Coho salmon are scrappy, rainbow trout are acrobatic, lake trout and brown trout are dogged fighters, but none of these Lake Michigan fish can get an angler’s heart pounding like the powerful rushes of a big Chinook salmon. By powerful, I mean reel-screaming runs of 20 to 50 yards, and a determined battle all the way into the landing net. You don’t need to hook into a trophy sized Chinook to experience a memorable battle. A fish over 10 pounds will give you all you can handle. One in the mid-teens often outfights a 25-pound specimen. If you can successfully get one into the boat in 15 minutes, you have done a good job of it.

The next time you watch a T.V. fisherman catch a big muskie, time how long it takes him to get the fish netted. In almost every case, it will be less than a minute. It’s a matter of seconds, really. Try that with a Chinook and you will wind up with a broken rod, a broken line, a straightened hook or all of the above. They don’t call them “King Salmon” without reason.

A favorite invasive

The Chinook is an invasive species from the Pacific Ocean. It was brought into the Great Lakes in the late 1960s to deal with the invasive alewife, which snuck in from the Atlantic Ocean. It prospered to the point of constituting 99 percent by weight of all the fish in Lake Michigan. Along with coho salmon, rainbow, brown and lake trout, were stocked annually by the millions, and the plan worked. The alewives were held in check, and the game fish grew large and plentiful.

Then, in 1990, the invasive zebra mussel showed up. The wheel started coming off the Lake Michigan fishery. It seems the little mussels—which reproduced with amazing rapidity—ate the same microorganisms as did the alewives. It wasn’t long before the alewife population began to crash. Since big fish eat little fish, the trout and salmon were seriously impacted by this turn of events, but none more so than the Chinook.

While the coho and the trout switched their diets to other prey species—notably the invasive round goby and insects—the Chinooks stubbornly demanded alewives for its meals. When the alewives disappeared from large sectors of the lake, so did the Chinooks. Nearly the entire Michigan shoreline was devoid of alewives, as were most Wisconsin waters north of Milwaukee. Southern Wisconsin, all of Illinois and Indiana, and extreme southern Michigan sill had enough alewives to satisfy some of the remaining Chinooks, but for how long?

Rebuilding the food pyramid

Now, the challenge is no longer how to get rid of the alewives, but rather how to save them as a forage base for the sport fishery.

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The answer the biologists decided on was to simply reduce the predation on alewives by cutting back on stocking levels—a solution complicated by recent findings that Chinook were now successfully spawning in some Michigan rivers. Each spring, millions of wild salmon were entering the lake. Then came the evidence that Chinook are migrating out of Lake Huron, where the alewife population had completely crashed, into Lake Michigan in search of food.

How many wild fish and migrants came each year varied according to conditions, so regulating stocking programs became a matter of by-guess-and-by-golly. All fishery managers really could be sure of was the alewives were under excessive pressure. The Chinook were eating up as many of the forage fish as the other four species combined. Stocking cuts were instituted over the past ten years. While the results were at first inconclusive, the latest surveys show the predator/prey relationship is now in balance.

The data, which were obtained from 931 Chinook gathered at seven spots around Lake Michigan, show the 2017 lakewide average weight of a three-year-old female Chinook was 17.8 pounds, a 0.6-pound decrease from 2016, but 5.8 pounds higher than 2015. Significantly, the 2017 weight was 2.3 pounds higher than the long-term (1986-2017) average of 15.5 pounds.

While this is indeed encouraging news, it is by no means a sign that a balance of Chinook/alewives has been permanently achieved. Large areas of the lake remain devoid of alewives and Chinook, while others hold sufficient forage to maintain a productive fishery.

What we can draw from the latest reports is that there are areas—mainly in Lake Michigan’s southern basin—where Chinook are doing well. Plenty of exciting action awaits big-lake trollers in 2019. Additionally, there will be excellent coho, lake trout and rainbow trout in the offshore waters, and good brown trout opportunities for shore anglers.


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