No young alewives equal no Chinook.
Seems pretty simple, but it remains the best explanation for the horrendous, Lake Michigan salmon returns in 2015.
Research biologists told us alewife hatches and survival were extremely poor in 2013 and 2014, but nobody realized how bad until, as the saying goes, the chickens came home to roost with the recently completed fall Chinook run.
Local fishing was the worst I've seen in 40 years. I can count on one hand and one finger the number of mature kings I've heard caught by anglers I know in Trail Creek or the Michigan City harbor since Labor Day
At the Little Manistee weir in Michigan, where every returning salmon is tallied, a paltry 386 Chinook had come home as of Wednesday. That is way down from a previous all-time low of 2,781 in 2014.
Of relevance, returns to the Little Manistee topped 14,000 in 2011 and 12,000 in 2012, which coincide with the last respectable alewife hatch of 2010.
Basic history is Chinook are stocked at six months of age as three-inch fingerlings and return to planting sites (or natal streams in the case of "wild" salmon, which are at least 50 percent of the total Chinook in Lake Michigan) three-and-a-half years later.
At some point in their young lives, Chinook switch from zooplankton and insects to minnows to continue growing. Small mouths need small food, which is mostly alewives in the Lake Michigan ecosystem.
While anglers (often angrily) speculated where the mature kings were this fall (and spring and summer), the most likely answer is they starved to death years previously.
The next conclusion is stocking numbers (and natural reproduction) really don't matter if Chinook can't get past the bottleneck of the right size prey being unavailable at a certain age.
Indiana biologist Ben Dickinson offered a bit of hope this week.
"Conversations with the USGS indicate they have surveyed more young-of-year alewives this August and September than they had in 2013 and 2014," Dickinson said. "It remains to be seen how they survive and they (Feds) won't have any hard data until the numbers are crunched and calculations completed, which is usually in March."
Dickinson offered more good news as he made a run to Wisconsin last week to secure enough Chinook eggs to meet Indiana's stocking goals.
There had been great concern when the poor return to the Little Manistee weir started to unfold that there might not be enough Chinook eggs available. Michigan collects their quota as well as eggs for a contract with Indiana from the LM site.
Fortunately, Dickinson and the Indiana DNR were on top of the situation. Michigan has subsequently met its needs by pulling eggs from the Swan River hatchery on Lake Huron.
Salmonid stocking targets for 2016 and beyond for all of Lake Michigan with Indiana in parenthesis are;
Chinook 1.7 million (200,000), Coho 2.5 million (270,000), Steelhead 1.9 million (505,000), Brown Trout 1.4 million (50,000) and Lake Trout 3.4 million (92,000). Of note, both Chinook and lake trout enjoy substantial natural reproduction, which adds to the fishery.
The Indiana Hunter Education course will be held from 8 a.m. to 6 p.m. on Saturday at the Michigan City Fish & Game Club, 3091 E. Michigan Blvd., Michigan City. For more information, call Ed Bohle at (219) 898-6745.
This is Youth Waterfowl Weekend (Oct. 17-18) in Indiana's North Zone. Youngsters, age 15 and under, and properly licensed, must be accompanied by an adult at least 18 years of age, who may not hunt. Bag and species limits are the same as those allowed during the regular North Zone waterfowl season, which opens Oct. 24.
Fall shotgun season for wild turkey in La Porte County is Oct. 21 to Nov. 1.