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Salmon and Trout Savvy

By Mark Romanack

King salmon fishing in the Great Lakes has been up and down over the
years. This one came from Lake Ontario which is currently the hottest
salmon fishery among the five Great Lakes. Buzz Ramsey of Yakima
Bait caught this one using a Mag Lip plug.
Here in the Great Lakes salmon fishing is mostly about king salmon, with a little attention thrown in towards coho or silvers. Kings are the least expensive salmon to stock and the only pacific salmon that seemingly has any reasonable chance of natural reproduction here in the Great Lakes.

Because kings smolt at just six months of age, they can be raised in hatchery situations for far less money than it takes to raise a coho, steelhead or brown trout which smolt at approximately 18 months. Also, naturally reared kings suffer from less natural predation from osprey, otters, herons and bald eagles because they leave their natal rivers about a year earlier than other salmonids. 

It’s no surprise that here in the Great Lakes our salmon fishery is mostly about kings. Ironically, when pacific salmon were first introduced into the Great Lakes is was the coho, not the king or chinook salmon that was stealing the show. With an almost limitless supply of alewives for food, coho returned to the Platte River just three years after stocking and many of these fish topped 20 pounds! That’s right, coho in the 20 pound range were common back then.

These days any coho that tops the double digit barrier is considered to be an exceptional fish. They say you are what you eat and in the case of pacific salmon the more these fish can find to eat, the bigger they become at maturity.

If you’re one of those Great Lakes anglers who travels and fishes a multitude of ports, there is a pretty good chance that you’ve caught some pink salmon. Accidentally introduced into Lake Huron by some Ontario fisheries managers, the hardy little pink salmon has carved out a niche for itself mostly on the north shore of Lake Huron. 

In the spring time pinks are caught routinely along the southwestern shoreline of Lake Huron from Lexington to Grind Stone City by anglers targeting kings, steelhead, lakers and brown trout. The immature pinks that are caught this time of year are almost a nuisance because they are so small. Many anglers have caught these young pinks and tossed them back thinking they were immature coho or jacks a common term for immature king salmon.

The St. Mary’s River is an angler’s best shot at catching a worthy pink salmon in the Great Lakes. In fact, the mighty St. Mary’s River is one of the few places in North America where a diligent angler can catch all four species of salmon including kings, coho, pinks and Atlantic salmon in a single day!!

Atlantic salmon like this one are fairly rare in the Great 
Lakes. Northern Lake Huron has a few and this one 
came from Lake Ontario.

Atlantic salmon were stocked by the Michigan DNR as an experiment and a small, but seemingly sustaining population survives in northern Lake Huron. The Atlantic salmon was also stocked in Torch Lake, but that fishery never materialized to the level the DNR had hoped. A small population of Atlantic salmon can be caught by Torch Lake anglers, but this fishery is mostly made up of adult fish that are rapidly decreasing in number.

Atlantic salmon were also stocked in Lake Ontario and a small population of fish is surviving in Lake Ontario. Mostly Atlantic salmon in Lake Ontario are caught by accident rather than by design.

The Great Lakes has since 1967 enjoyed some of the best trout and salmon fishing in North America. There have of course been many ups and downs along the way, but a noteworthy sport fishery and economy has thrived throughout the 70’s, 80’s, 90’s and now into the new millennium.

What the future holds for the Great Lakes trout and salmon fishery is a difficult prediction to make. In some respects, this fishery is thriving. For example, Lake Ontario continues to produce the most diverse trout and salmon fishery in North America. Anglers who visit Lake Ontario can expect to catch king and coho salmon in large number, lake trout, steelhead and brown trout number are also impressive.

Forage is a big part of the puzzle here. Because Lake Ontario is the last lake in the chain of Great Lakes, it benefits from the nutrient base of the other four Great Lakes. Lake Erie is especially nutrient rich and all the water from Lake Erie eventually flows through Lake Ontario!

In short, the forage base and diversity of forage fish found in Lake Ontario exceeds all the other Great Lakes. Fish are indeed what they eat and in the case of Lake Ontario they have lots to eat and lots of forage options to choose from.

Brown trout like this one are abundant at some isolated locations on the 
Great Lakes. This fish came from the Milwaukee area. Other hot spots 
include the Niagara Bar, Olcott and Oswego areas of Lake Ontario. April 
is the top month for brown trout fishing in the Great Lakes.
For example, king and coho salmon feed heavily on the abundant alewife and smelt populations, while bottom dwellers like the lake trout and brown trout are doing nicely on a diet of round goby. Lake Erie also has a healthy forage base that supports trout and salmon primarily on the north shore and in the Eastern Basin regions.

Lakes Huron, Michigan and Superior are struggling to maintain a forage base adequate to support the kinds of trout and salmon populations these lakes have historically supported. The trout and salmon fishery found in the “big three” of the Great Lakes will likely stabilize, but unless the forage base situation dramatically changes it’s unlikely these fisheries will support trout and salmon numbers like the hay days. 

My advice is for anglers to become more mobile in their search for fishing adventures. The Eastern Basin of Lake Erie has amazingly good trout and salmon fishing currently and the future looks bright for those fisheries. In particular the steelhead bite on the north shore of Lake Erie is second to none in the Great Lakes.

The spring and fall salmon fishing opportunities on Lake Ontario rival the best days on Lake Michigan. Fishing is exceptionally good on the Niagara Bar for kings, coho and lake trout. The early spring brown trout fishery is amazingly good from one end of the lake to the other. Simply concentrating on incoming rivers and creek mouths, anglers can expect to enjoy world class brown trout fishing in April every year.

There are some amazing lake trout fisheries also on Lake Huron at Harbor Beach, Oscoda and Alpena. On Lake Michigan angler’s can still enjoy world class trout fishing at Frankfort north to the Manitou Islands and all of East and West Grand Traverse Bays.

In the “good ole days” anglers could pick a port and fish it successfully all year long. These days anglers are better served by being mobile and hitting specific fisheries at peak times of year. The Great Lakes will continue to evolve and with them the sport fishing trends will fluctuate. Staying open minded and the willingness to travel to find the best fishing is the best way to keep a tight line, most of the time.