One could make the case that Jim Dexter, fisheries chief for the Michigan Department of Natural Resources, all but declared chinook (king) salmon dead last year, naming lake trout heir to the throne of the state's most important open-water fishery.
Dexter's premise was next-generation anglers on Lake Michigan would have to learn to be content with fewer of the fabled fish, and it looked like he was right.
After record-high catches in 2012, forage was down for chinook salmon and catch numbers had plummeted from 2013-16.
Now, it appears the monarchs aren’t ready to abdicate their 50-year reign.
Charter boat captain Denny Grinold, chair of the Committee of Advisors of the Great Lakes Fishery Commission, says it has been one of the best years for chinook salmon, maxing out within an hour or two.
“We’ve been averaging 20 salmon a trip, compared to past seasons where we would catch nine or 10 fish of mixed, chinook, steelhead and lakers," said Grinold, also known as "Old Grin." "Now, it’s been closer to 100% salmon. The neighbors in my marina caught more fish in that one week than we did in one year."
In contrast, charters on Lake Michigan averaged 2.4 salmon per trip in 2016.
“This year might take until 11 in the morning to max out with six people. That means 30 fish in the boat with the lines still hopping,” said Grinold.
Grinold is optimistic there might be a few years left in the chinook salmon fishery, even though the invasive alewives the fish primarily consume are at historically low levels.
“There may be a rebound of alewives in the second- to third-year classes, maybe the fourth. It takes them three years before they reproduce," Grinwold said. "We’ve had a few warm years and they’re surviving.”
He also saw an abundance of unclipped 1-year-old chinook salmon, all naturally reproduced. It’s good news, because as the DNR constantly raises the bar on stocking lake trout, meeting and exceeding metrics of success, it drastically has reduced salmon stocking.
According to the DNR, 1.2 million salmon were stocked on the Michigan side of Lake Michigan in 2012. Last year, the number fell to 539,000, and it's expected to drop to 330,000 this year.
The difference is due to changing winds, says charter boat captain Glen Beuhner of the Great Lakes Salmon Initiative.
“For four years an east wind has been blowing surface water containing the protozoa, plankton, diatoms that baitfish feed on to the center of the lake and toward Wisconsin, resulting in a sterile black Michigan shoreline and reduced catches,” said Buehner.
“This year, southwest and westerly winds throughout the fall and winter piled the water back on our side of the lake. The end result was that the surface water was here and the bait followed it.”
The now-naturalized chinook salmon were introduced in 1966 by Howard Tanner. It was an audacious solution to an alewife invasion, with the hope of creating a sport fishery.
Nonnative alewives were washing ashore en masse upon once beautiful beaches and killing the summer fun with their stench.
The slow maturing, native lake trout hadn’t fared well on the alewife diet. They also took up to two decades to mature. The new, glitzy chinook salmon grew to full fighting size within three years.
Not only did they function as a control mechanism for the invaders, the slick silver salmon were gold for shoreline communities. Hotels, campgrounds, bait shops, restaurants,and gift shops drew guests from around the world. Lure manufacturers started in barns and made millionaires out of their hard-fishing owners.
But the self-subsidized sport-fishing industry bankrolled the state’s $11 million commercial fishery. The cost of stocking kings was covered by angler license purchases, and the return was realized in hundreds of millions of dollars annually.
Salmon fishing became the state’s most important open-water fishery.
DNR fisheries over-stocked the salmon on the east side of the state. Alewives were indeed wiped out there, leaving thriving businesses dependent on salmon fading into oblivion. The west side of the state struggled with bacterial kidney disease (BKD) in the salmon stock but recuperated.
Salmon were naturalized with no ill effects to the ecosystem. The alewife problem was defused and fishing communities were flourishing. Meanwhile, the ecosystem adjusted. Salmon stocking continued to decrease and lake trout stocking remained steady
But another invader, quagga mussels, moved in, sucking up the microscopic food that sustained the alewives. Salmon catch went down, and the lake trout catch skyrocketed, thriving by consuming the same prey base as salmon and living a lot longer.
Anglers and biologists began to imagine a future with few salmon and many lake trout. The biologists didn’t seem to mind, but the anglers were angry at what they perceived as a laissez-fair approach on the part of the DNR. In the vision with salmon gone or greatly reduced, the fine line that kept shoreline communities from poverty began to blur.
Not too many people take big vacations to catch lake trout.
Anglers formed initiatives on both sides of Lake Michigan. Michigan started the Great Lakes Salmon Initiative, and Wisconsin formed the Wisconsin Lakeshore Business Association. In an unprecedented move last year, the Wisconsin DNR responded to angler’s concerns and reduced lake trout stocking by half, even after setting official numbers.
Michigan’s DNR made smaller concessions.
“We’re still within the paramaters of science,” Dexter said at the time, responding to claims that citizens wishes were dictating decisions instead of science.
Regardless of the politics involved, this is a better year than ever to catch a king.