Sometimes failure breeds success. The Ontario Ministry of Natural Resources tried for about a decade to establish Atlantic salmon in Lake Ontario. The unsuccessful effort cost staggering amounts of tax payer money in hopes of creating a new and exciting sport fishery.
Atlantic salmon are actually indigenous to Lake Ontario and get into the lake via the St. Lawrence Seaway. The idea of stocking this popular species to establish a self-sustaining population had merit, but unfortunately the Ontario MNR stocking efforts generated few adult fish. The failed hatchery program was a disappointment to sport fishermen and eventually became an embarrassment to the Ministry of Natural Resources.
I find it ironic that some of the most experienced, talented and best funded fisheries biologists in North America failed at the task of raising and stocking Atlantic salmon in a place where they are native. The ironic part is a bunch of greenhorn college kids with limited funds and facilities are enjoying more success at raising and stocking Atlantic salmon than a small army of biologists!
The Lake Superior State College Aquatic Research Lab is where LSSU students conduct research, raise, net pen and ultimately release Atlantic salmon into the St. Mary’s River. Only about 30,000 Atlantic salmon smolts are released each fall, but the return rate on those fish is exceptional.
The Michigan DNR also raises Atlantic salmon at the Platte River Hatchery and releases them at points all across Lake Huron. About 100,000 Atlantic salmon are released by the Michigan DNR and these fish can be identified by the adipose fin clip.
Anglers are encouraged to cut off the head of Atlantic salmon with an adipose fin clip and turn the heads into the Michigan DNR. These fish contain a coded metal tag that is imbedded into their snout that contains invaluable biological data.
Salmon released by LSSU can be identified by pectoral and pelvic fin clips that identify them as LSSU fish and also the year they were stocked. Fish with a left pectoral fin clip were released in 2017, fish with a right pelvic clip were released in 2016, fish with a right pectoral clip were released in 2015, fish with a left pelvic clip were released in 2014 and fish with a left pectoral clip are from hatchery releases in 2013.
This unique and collective tracking system makes it possible to identify year classes and judge the overall health and growth rate of the fish. It’s this intensive study that has allowed the students of LSSU to determine strains of Atlantic salmon that do exceptionally well in the Upper Great Lakes system.
ATLANTIC SALMON BIOLOGY
Atlantic salmon enjoy a longer life span than Pacific salmon such as chinook and coho. Atlantic salmon mature at age three, but they do not die after spawning. Some Atlantic salmon may spawn two or three times during their five to eight year life cycle.
This Atlantic salmon caught recently in the St. Mary’s River has a right pectoral fin clip indicating this fish was stocked by Lake Superior State University in 2015. While only three years of age, this salmon is impressive in size and very healthy.
Raising Atlantic salmon is more difficult than chinook salmon because these fish must be kept in the hatchery for 18 months compared to chinook salmon which smolt at just six months of age. The extra time and cost associated with stocking Atlantic salmon is one of the major hurdles to establishing them as a sport species in the Great Lakes.
Because Atlantic salmon have a much more varied diet than either chinook or coho salmon, stocking them makes sense despite a declining forage base in the Upper Great Lakes.
FISHING FOR ATLANTIC SALMON
Atlantic salmon are caught in various ports of Lake Huron where they are released by the Michigan DNR including Lexington, Oscoda and Alpena, but the best or perhaps most consistent fishery for Atlantic salmon takes place in the St. Mary’s River.
Both Michigan DNR and LSSU stocked salmon start showing up at the mouth of the St. Mary’s River in June. These adult fish are naturally drawn to flowing water where they will spawn in the fall. A place called DeTour Passage in the lower river is where fishermen get their first crack at adult salmon.
Trolling spoons with the help of lead core line to get them down 10 to 30 feet is one of the most productive ways to target Atlantic salmon in the lower river. In line planer boards like the famous Off Shore Tackle OR12 are critically important to spreading out lines and covering the maximum amount of water.
Jake boated this 12.2 pound Atlantic salmon trolling an Orange Crush Wolverine Tackle spoon on five colors of lead core line. Atlantic salmon are routinely caught high in the water column. Lead core, diving planers and also downriggers equipped with “add-a-lines” are the most productive way to catch them.
On our recent visit standard Wolverine Tackle Silver Streak spoons worked great as did the “Mini” a slightly smaller sized trolling spoon. Productive colors included Jerry Lee, Orange Crush, Orange Chilly Willy, and Halloween. While a few other bright colors such as chartreuse caught fish, the majority of the bites came on spoons that featured primarily the color orange.
LOW LIGHT IS BEST
Like all salmon early morning and late evenings are the best times to target Atlantic salmon.
Our best fishing came right at dawn and again just before sunset each day. During the day if the wind blows enough to break up the water surface, fishing was also pretty good during the middle of the day. On bright sunny days when the water was calm, very few fish came to net.
UP RIVER ACTION
Atlantic salmon push up the St. Mary’s River and create an exciting fishery near the power house and rapids. Up river anglers use a variety of methods to tempt these fish including casting with jigs tipped with soft plastics, slip floats armed with spawn bags, streamers on fly gear and slipping the current with stickbaits.
Unlike their cousins the chinook salmon, Atlantic salmon are aggressive and hit a variety of fishing presentations even during the spawn.
Atlantic salmon feature a more firm flesh than chinook or coho salmon. Considered by many to be the best eating of all the salmon species, because the St. Mary’s River fishery is largely considered a “put and take” project, most anglers keep and eat their catch.
SUMMING IT UP
The Atlantic salmon of the St. Mary’s River remind us of what can be accomplished when open minded and hard working individuals have the courage to try where other before them have failed. Certainly the Michigan DNR is contributing to the Atlantic salmon fishery in the Upper Great Lakes, but the kids of LSSU are the real heroes in this story. Without out their efforts at the Aquatic Research Lab, it’s unlikely that Atlantic salmon would be routinely amazing anglers with their impressive leaps, runs and exceptional table fare.