The Wild Chinook of the Michipicoten
Anyone who has fished for chinook salmon in Michigan waters since 2012 has no doubt witnessed a dramatic decline in the numbers of these impressive fish. The steady decline of chinook salmon numbers in Michigan has been directly influenced by steadily declining stocking efforts of these fish.
River run salmon can be caught a number of ways, but the author feels that fishing spawn below a float is the most productive way to boat these fish day-in and day-out.
The Michigan DNR Fisheries Division made a conscious effort to reduce stocking efforts on chinook in response to trawling reports that suggested the alewife forage base of Lake Michigan was on the bridge of collapse. A similar collapse of the alewife population in Lake Huron occurred some years ago and for reasons no one seems to be able to pinpoint the alewife numbers in Lake Huron have never recovered.
So for anglers who covet chinook salmon the years since 2012 have been a tough pill to swallow. While DNR stocking efforts on chinook have slowly increased in recent years, the numbers of fish being stocked are small compared to numbers of fish available in the first decade of the new millennium.
WILD CHINOOK IN MICHIGAN WATERS
As the numbers of chinook salmon being stocked have declined since 2012 an interesting debate has emerged focusing on natural reproduction. The 98 cent question is how successful are chinook salmon at natural reproduction in the Great Lakes?
If you’re looking for a comprehensive answer to this question, you won’t get it here. Without a doubt there are chinook salmon naturally reproducing in the Michigan waters of Lake Michigan. The question no one can seem to answer is how many fish are naturally recruited into the system each year.
It’s pretty obvious that natural reproduction occurs in select tributary streams of Lake Michigan, but it’s also fairly obvious that natural recruitment is low enough that it has not produced fishing results anything close to what we enjoyed prior to 2012. That tells me natural reproduction while encouraging and interesting to ponder is not the answer to our quest to make Lake Michigan great again.
WILD CHINOOK IN CANADIAN WATERS
While natural reproduction of chinook in Michigan waters is not contributing enough to the Lake Michigan fishery to satisfy anglers, there is a place in the Great Lakes where salmon are naturally reproducing in more impressive numbers.
Fishing Guide, Brett Robinson is intimately familiar with the Michipicoten River and the early fall run of chinook salmon this river produces.
For some time now Wisconsin and Minnesota have stopped stocking salmon in Lake Superior. Michigan followed suit and stopped stocking salmon in Lake Superior in 2016.
Despite the reductions in stocking on Lake Superior, salmon numbers appear to be rising! The Ontario Ministry of Natural Resources continues to stock a modest number of chinook salmon on the north shore of Lake Superior near Thunder Bay, Ontario. However, the numbers of kings the Canooks are stocking can’t explain the tremendous runs of chinook salmon showing up in a few streams that drain into Lake Superior along Highway 17.
When I talked with Michigan DNR Fisheries Biologist Mark Tonello, he was very much aware of the chinook salmon of the Michipicoten. “The spawning conditions on many of those tributaries draining into Lake Superior on the Ontario shore are nearly ideal for salmon spawning,” says Tonello. “The water stays cool year around, which allows chinook and to a lesser degree coho and pink salmon to spawn successfully, live in the river until large enough to smolt and ultimately return back to Lake Superior. Based on the numbers of salmon rearing naturally on Lake Superior it made no sense for Michigan to continue stocking salmon in Lake Superior.”
Based on this conversation and talking to guides who are fishing these waters, I had to see for myself what the Michipicoten River had to offer. This past September the Fishing 411 TV crew headed north to Wawa, Ontario to see first hand how many chinook salmon are running the Michipicoten River.
On this particular filming adventure, we teamed up with Brett Robinson of Wawa, Ontario. Brett is a young fishing guide who is making a big name for himself as a multi-species angler. I met Brett a few years ago when filming a brook trout episode north of Wawa Ontario with Brett, his father and grandfather.
Over the years I have watched Brett grow into an exceptional young man who’s passion for fishing is second to none. His business Brett Robinson Outdoor Adventures keeps him busy guiding clients on brook trout, chinook salmon, steelhead and walleye fishing adventures. Brett also guides for winter wolf hunting adventures when he can’t be on open water fishing.
FLOAT FISHING SPAWN
Anglers who have targeted chinook salmon in rivers during the spawning run know that these fish can be caught on a number of different presentations including casting crank baits, casting spinners, back bouncing spawn and of course drifting spawn below floats. During our visit to the Michipicoten the Fishing 411 crew zeroed in on drifting spawn below floats, a presentation that day in and day out produces best on pre-spawn chinook.
Our set up started with 9’-6” medium action Daiwa North Coast spinning rods and 30 class spinning reels loaded with 20 pound test super braid. We used Hawken Fishing slip floats in the 1/2 ounce size, matched up to Hawken Fishing 1/2 ounce slip float weights. At the business end we ran 24 inches of 10 pound test fluorocarbon leader terminated to a No. 6 Eagle Claw Trokar octopus hook.
We fished a combination of dime sized spawn sacs and small chunks of salmon roe cured using Pro Cure Liquid Egg Cure. To say this set up worked wonders would be an understatement. Conservatively we boated over 40 chinook while filming the first day! It has been decades since I’ve seen that many chinook salmon in a spawning stream. Fish were literally surfacing everywhere and not every drift produced a bite, but the action was fast enough the day was over in a heart beat.
Typical of pre-spawn chinook, the fish were holding in the deeper pools, prior to moving up onto the gravel where they actually build their reds and spawn. Lake Superior kings are noticeably smaller on average than kings found in other Great Lakes waters. It’s obvious that Lake Superior doesn’t offer these fish an abundance of forage species to choose from. Smelt and smaller cisco make up the majority of the salmon forage base on Lake Superior.
Our typical fish landed during filming was about 8 to 10 pounds. A few fish in the 15 pound class were also landed, but nothing bigger came to net on this particular adventure.
WHITEFISH LODGE AND OUTPOST CAMPS
Our base of operation was Whitefish Lodge and Outpost Camps located about 10 minutes east of Wawa, Ontario. Located right on the shores of Whitefish Lake, our accommodations were beautiful cabins with full housekeeping facilities.
It was about a 20 minute drive to the launch on the Michipicoten River located just south of Wawa, Ontario on Highway 17. Besides the fishing for chinook and steelhead found on the Michipicoten River, Whitefish Lodge is also a great destination for targeting walleye, northern pike, stream brook trout and also lake trout in the Wawa region of what’s known as Algoma Country.
A LITTLE FISH BIOLOGY
Across the Great Lakes the author has chased chinook salmon in Lakes Michigan, Huron, Ontario and Superior. The wild population of chinook that run the Michipicoten River near Wawa, Ontario may well be the largest population of completely wild salmon in the Great Lakes.
For those who are wondering why chinook salmon in Lake Michigan don’t seem to reproduce as efficiently as in Lake Superior, there is an explanation. Chinook that feed predominately on alewife absorb a higher percentage of thiamin in their bodies. High levels of thiamin in salmon seems to prevent this species from enjoying significant success at natural reproduction.
In Lake Superior there are few alewife and salmon feed predominately on smelt and also ciscoes which do not have high levels of thiamin. In theory, this is part of the reason that chinook and other salmonids seem to enjoy better spawning success in Lake Superior compared to Lake Michigan, Lake Huron and Lake Ontario.
WRAPPING IT UP
Anyone who remembers how great the river salmon fishing used to be in Michigan will be interested in looking into the Michipicoten River in Wawa, Ontario. To say the fishing is astonishing would be an understatement.
Fishing from shore is possible, but difficult due to lack of access. We accessed the best waters using a Smoker Craft 1866 Sportsman, welded hull Modified V powered with a 60 HP jet outboard. Navigating the Michipicoten with a small boat and prop driven outboard is possible, but takes caution as a lot of the river is made up of shallow rocky shoals.
For more information on guided fishing trips, visit the Facebook site of Brett Robinson Outdoor Adventures. For travel information I’d suggest visiting www.algomacountry.com, www.ontariotravel.com and the Go Fish In Ontario Facebook site.