I fished for carp before there were salmon and I'll fish for lake trout if Chinook disappear.
Indiana Department of Natural Resources' biologists sketched a questionable future for salmon fishing on Lake Michigan at last week's public meeting in Michigan City. It's not over by a long shot, but the crazy-good catching is likely in the past.
There are a lot of similarities between lake trout and carp, not the least of which is they are both species of last resort.
I love catching big fish and the aforementioned bottom dwellers filled the craving nicely. There used to be carp from shore before evolving to trolling, which is mostly lake trout of late.
Like most anglers, I'd prefer salmon and steelies. They're simply sexier and provide a lot more sizzle when hooked.
Alas, Lake Michigan is becoming more and more a lake trout lake.
Annual stockings are 3.4 million lakers versus 1.7 Chinook. Both species have substantial natural reproduction. The kicker is lakers live much longer than salmon.
Despite what anglers want, biologists have a goal, among other reasons, of establishing a self-sustaining population of "native" lake trout.
And who knows? Fifty years from now anglers may be thankful lake trout were pushed so relentlessly. Lakers were here long before the invasive species/industrial upheaval of the last century and appear to be better suited for a more sterile Lake Michigan.
The sterility of the lake is the foundation of the current Chinook quandary.
The big salmon feed almost exclusively on alewives, an invasive species, but the food supply for alewives has been increasingly compromised in the last decade by invasive Quagga mussels.
"Mussels are choking the lake from the bottom up," biologist Ben Dickinson explained. "They're basically siphoning out all of the phytoplankton in the water column - there has been a 75 percent decline in phytoplankton."
Basic science is phyto feeds zooplanton which feeds alewives. Alewives have been reduced to 50-year lows and are less healthy, Population estimate of the thumb-nail sized Quagga in Lake Michigan is 950,000,000,000,000 (that's 950 trillion).
The salmon fishery on Lake Huron collapsed a decade ago when Chinook over-grazed, and eventually wiped out its alewives, which were simultaneously being squeezed by lack of food due to the mussels. Lake trout are thriving now, but angling effort declined by 90 percent from Huron's salmon heydays.
There are some stark parallels on Lake Michigan, which have led to cutbacks to the current level of Chinook stockings. On Huron, by the time biologists realized 16 million Chinook were being naturally reproduced in Ontario tributaries, it was game over.
Hopefully, the alewife/chinook situation in Lake Michigan has been checked in time.
On the other hand, with so many more lake trout feeding on the salmon's preferred food, the alewife population would seem to be in grave danger.
At the very least, Chinook may be trivialized. So, too, to a lesser extent, may be coho and steelhead and brown trout.
The bottom line is great things rarely stay great forever. Lake Michigan fishing will always be good for something.
Whether its salmon or lake trout, I'll be out there enjoying the heck out of it.
A couple of key points from the DNR's presentation which were put on screen:
1. Not much can change the fishery in a substantial way (i.e. bring back lots of kings) unless mussel abundance drops immensely or alewives increase a lot.
2. We can change the stocking mixture (more steelhead, less coho, more browns or whatever) and we can tweak the stocking locations, but this is not a high-impact activity that will 'fix' fishing."
The nature of invasive species is a population boom, or peak, (often to the detriment of native species) before settling into a niche within an ecosystem. Invasive mussels, first Zebra, but since replaced by larger Quagga, have knocked the Great Lakes food web for a loop. Studies are ongoing, but there is a bit of research offering a glimmer that Quaggas may be reaching their peak.
A presentation during a Ludington Workshop in January showed mussels were not surviving well beyond 150 feet of water at Muskegon. Check it out at on You Tube at http://youtu.be/qwL0XgDKZgA, The mussels' non-survival part is about three-fourths of the way into the "Lower Food Web and Changes in Alewife Conditon" tape.
The best news delivered at the DNR meeting is test netting for young-of-the-year perch was exceedingly good recently.
Four one-hour seines at East Chicago, Gary, Burns Ditch and Michigan City yielded 2,500 y-o-y perch at each site. Last year, the total for all four sites was eight perch. This marks the second-highest catch of its kind since the 1980s.
Of course, it's a treacherous, multi-year journey from one-inch babies to keeper-sized eaters, but for the first time in a long time there is some positive news about Lake Michigan perch.