Sportfishing resources in the Great Lakes region are constantly in a state of change. Despite the best laid plans of fishery biologists, aquatic researchers and natural resource managers, keeping fish populations growing or stable is no easy task.
In the case of introduced species like king salmon, coho salmon, brown trout, Atlantic salmon and even the steelhead, the challenge of keeping a thriving population of fish is especially difficult. As the Great Lakes have evolved and become more sterile thanks to plankton filtering invasive species like the zebra and quagga mussels, the environment in the Great Lakes is no longer as trout and salmon friendly as it used to be.
While the numbers of king salmon are down in many Great Lakes fisheries, there are still lots of kings to catch in Lake Ontario. One of the author’s favorite destinations is the Niagara Bar near the mouth of the Niagara River in May and again in July/August.
Dramatic changes in the forage base have gradually occurred over the years. Smelt, lake herring and alewives that were once abundant fueled one of the world’s most successful recreational fisheries. Unfortunately as these forage species have declined in numbers, fish like king salmon and to a degree coho salmon have struggled to adapt.
Not surprisingly fish species like salmon that thrived in the Great Lakes a few decades ago are currently struggling just to keep a foothold. Certainly there are places in the Great Lakes such as Lake Ontario that are still experiencing a robust forage base and this unique fishery continues to produce noteworthy salmon and trout fishing action. Other noteworthy fisheries still exist seasonally in localized regions of Lake Huron and Lake Michigan. Make no mistake however, the “glory days” of salmon fishing in the Great Lakes have clearly come and gone on Lake Huron and even where it all began on Lake Michigan that once supported the best recreational salmon fishing in North America.
As Great Lakes walleye populations continue to prosper more and more anglers are targeting these abundant, sporting and good eating fish.
The changing face of the Great Lakes is not necessarily favoring certain species like king or coho salmon, but thankfully the changing environment is user friendly for other species like walleye and smallmouth bass. One of the major hurdles in the salmon and trout fishery is generating natural reproduction to supplement declining stocking efforts. Salmon, brown trout and even steelhead enjoy only marginal success at natural reproduction for a host of complex reasons.
Meanwhile, walleye and smallmouth bass are enjoying record year classes and their populations are self supporting in part because the changing environment of the Great Lakes favors their biological needs.
Smallmouth bass numbers are exploding in Great Lakes waters, creating amazing fishing opportunities that did not exist just a decade ago.
Even Saginaw Bay where walleye were heavily stocked in the 80’s and early 90’s has morphed into a highly successful fishery based completely on natural reproduction.
Lake Erie walleye are also totally supported through natural reproduction. While it’s true that Saginaw Bay and Lake Erie are struggling from some of the same “changing environmental issues” that have plagued the salmon fishery on Lakes Huron and Michigan, these basins of water are shallow by comparison, warmer during much of the year and much better environments for generating zooplankton, the building blocks of the Great Lakes forage base.
For the angler who is trying to make sense of all these changes, the best advice is to remain mobile and flexible. Our team at Fishing 411 has demonstrated that we can be routinely successful targeting trout and salmon by fishing during peak times and by concentrating on places that still support excellent fishing.
Just a few examples of trout and salmon fisheries worth noting including the April brown trout bite that centers near Milwaukee, Wisconsin area. The early spring coho bite that takes place in southern Lake Michigan is also a very productive fishery. At about the same time southern Lake Huron provides a mixed bag of salmon, lake trout, steelhead, lake trout, pinks and Atlantic salmon. In June, a good run of Atlantic salmon show up at the Straits of Mackinaw. In May and again in July/August a killer fishery for king and coho salmon plays out at the Niagara Bar near the mouth of the Niagara River in Lake Ontario. In early September a nice push of coho show up near the mouth of the Platte River, north of Frankfort, Michigan.
Seasonal fisheries like the April brown trout bite in the Milwaukee, Wisconsin area is an example of a great fishery, few anglers seem to know about or capitalize on.
In addition to these noteworthy destinations for targeting trout and salmon, our TV crew has put more and more emphasis on targeting walleye and also smallmouth bass who’s numbers are currently reaching historic records.
Back in the day a Great Lakes fishing enthusiast could pick a popular port and fish that port all year long with sustained success. These days, remaining more mobile and being willing to travel to fisheries and concentrate fishing efforts at peak times is the way to keep rods bending and smiles on the faces of those who enjoy fishing in the Great Lakes.