River Report - September 25, 2015
"Here is your country. Cherish these natural wonders, cherish the natural resources, cherish the history and romance as a sacred heritage, for your children and your children's children. Do not let selfish men or greedy interests skin your country of its beauty, its riches or its romance." - Theodore Roosevelt
Autumn is a time for reflection. A chance to hear the echos of summer, as well as past years. Family, friends, relationships, time spent on the water or in the woods...all are things that make each of us who we are, and allow us to grow into better individuals. Autumn is not a time for regret, only reflection, and a recollection of all one has seen, heard, and done.
As with life; as with fish.
I've been putting off this report for some time, in an effort to 'say the right thing', and to hesitate in spewing nonsensical jibberish that has no backing. With that being said, Boyne Outfitters is a fly shop. Not a "salmon" shop, or a "trout" shop, or a "bass" shop...but a fly shop. We do cater to ALL fly anglers the best ways we can. Nevertheless, trout are our mainstay. Trout are the lifeblood of this shop, as with most fly shops. We love the intimate trout fisheries of northern Michigan, and pride ourselves on our knowledge, ethics, and use of these wonderful fisheries. However, each fall we start receiving the calls..."Are the salmon in yet?" "Are the salmon running?" "Are fish in the river?" Most years we have something significant to report, and although we do have some fish in the systems, this year is different.
The chinook salmon are disappearing.
As I said previously, autumn is a time for reflection, so let's reflect on the history of salmon [and other non-natives] in the Great Lakes. It is so easy for individuals to place blame..."It's the snaggers", "It's the charter boats", "It's the lack of stocking." In reality, it's the history of our Great Lakes fishery, the introduction of invasive and non-native species, and an effort by the Michigan Department of Natural Resources to conduct the one of the largest biomechanical experiements of all time.
Salmon [all varieties...Chinook/Coho/Pink/Atlantic] are not native to the Great Lakes. Nor are Rainbow Trout/Steelhead or Brown Trout. They did not enter the Great Lakes through the Welland Canal around Niagra Falls like so many unwanted species did. They were put here...we put them here. However, rainbow and brown trout were introduced in the 1800s, in an effort to produce a sport fishery in place of the grayling that met its demise due to over fishing, the Michigan lumber era, habitat degradation, and the introduction of said trout species. Rainbows and Browns were put in our streams to play with - to fish for - and what has resulted is a wonderufl trout fishery that has been cherished by many for generations. Salmon on the other hand, were introduced for a very different reason. Invasive sea lampreys had decimated Lake Trout Stocks. The alewife, a small silvery baitfish native to the Atlantic had snuck its way into the Great Lakes via the St Lawrence Seaway and Welland Canal. They had become so invasive that massive fish die offs began to occur. The dieoffs resulted in piles of dead fish on the beaches, discouraging summer tourists from visiting our beautiful Great Lakes towns. This resulted in loss of tourism; a loss of income. The dieoffs became so bad a few years later that the north part of Chicago had to go under a 'water-boil' warning because the dead fish had clogged the pumps of the city water intakes. The amount of dead fish removed by tractors from Chicago's beaches were hauled and disposed into two landfills in Indiana. The landfills only purpose - to dispose of the dead alewifes. That was 1967.
A few years earlier however, Ralph MacMullan, former director of Michigan's Department of Conservation (Michigan's DNR), saw an opportunity. He tasked Howard Tanner, the State Fisheries Chief, to "do something spectacular." 658,760 Coho salmon were stocked into the Platte River and Bear Creek. Wayne Tody, who succeeded Tanner, then stocked Chinook salmon. Pacific salmon were introduced into the Great Lakes to help revive a dying commercial fishery (Lake Trout) and provide a biomechanical control of invasive alewifes. What resulted was a multi-million dollar sport fishery that hinged on a predator-prey balance that was completely unnatural to begin with. The alewife from the Atlantic, and the salmon from the Pacific, brought together in the great freshwater seas of the Great Lakes. There were so many alewife, and therefore so many salmon...and BIG salmon...that it was a dream come true. The tenacity and brute strength of a silver King in the Great Lakes were relished by anglers across the country. Anglers swarmed the rivers during the fall spawning run. Snagging was ever so present, even though it has always been illegal in this state. However, restaurants and storefronts were busy. Towns gained a much neeeded financial boost. And [most] people were happy. Never again would the Great Lakes sportfish captains and anglers have to worry about a species to chase. Or so we thought.
Fast forward 40 years...2003 in Lake Huron. The fish were large, but there were fewer of them. The alewife population had collapsed, and the remaining kings were gobbling up whatever alewifes that were left. By 2004, the chinook salmon fishery in Lake Huron was gone. Captains sold their boats, storefronts and motels locked their doors for the last time. And the busy salmon ports became quiet little towns on the shores of Lake Huron. No alewife = no chinook salmon. And even if every state hatchery had switched operations over to producing alewife full time year round, the annual stock would have only been enough to feed the remaining king salmon for TWO days.
State agencies continued to stocked Lake Michigan with 3.3 million chinook salmon fingerlings annually. Much needed for the Lake Michigan charter and sportfishing fleet. However, in 2012 the Michigan DNR proposed a 66.9% reduction in stocking...bringing the Michigan stock from 1,688,500 down to 559,000 chinook fingerlings annually for years 2013-2015. Why? To reduce pressure off the alewife and try to alleviate a complete breakdown of the fishery like what happened in Lake Huron. Here we are in 2015. Two harsh winters have continued to take their toll on the alewife population. Young of the year alewife (age 0) are no where to be found in the survey hauls. And the salmon populations are down. So much so that in northern Michigan, we have very few reports off our ports, and even less fish entering the rivers. The towns of Manistee and Ludington are seeing reduced fish as well, but anglers are hopeful for their return. We have seen decreases in alewife populations, and we have seen bounce backs, however...this is the lowest of the low, and with no show of young of the year which represents no recruitment for future bait stocks, the future of the predator-prey balance of alewife and salmon teeters on a breaking point.
I've been telling people for several years, what happened in Lake Huron will likely happen in Lake Michigan. Even with state biologists encouraging me that Lake Michigan will not see the same fate as Lake Huron, I continue to believe that it will. And it will not be because the state is stocking less salmon, not because the charter captains or snaggers took too many fish home, but because it wasn't supposed to be in the first place. These two species were not "supposed" to be here, and the Great Lakes and Mother Nature are doing exactly what they have done for generations...clean up our mistakes. The Cayahoga River, a tributary to Lake Erie, lit on fire in the late 1960s. This helped spur the environmental movement. Now Lake Erie is widely considered one of the premier walleye fisheries in the United States. The Lake Trout are considered (by the Feds) to be recovered in Lake Superior; a 80-20% natural reproduction/stocked in Lake Huron, and about 50-50% in Lake Michigan. Nature is finding a way. And now it is doing so with chinook salmon and alewife. The salmon did exactly what they were designed to do. In terms of a biomechanical experiment to control the invasive alewife, the experient succeeded.
What does this mean? It means the yesteryears of the king salmon era may be coming to a close. I'm not saying that it is over, and if the State's efforts in reduction of stocking do work and the kings remain, they still will not be at a level we remember in the past. The charter captains and sport anglers will start to target steelhead and trout, and the future of the Great Lakes sportfishery will hinge on the balance and response of those species to the increased pressure. The fall salmon spawning runs on the rivers which pull everyone near and far in their effort to chase salmon will decrease as with the fish. It will be a hit to the local economies that depend on these fish for their livelihood, however the loss of the king salmon is welcomed by some. Some see it as an opportunity to broaden horizons in fly fishing...a way to encourage the education of what else our rivers have to offer. Some see it as getting the river back from unethical anglers and their ways. And for others, it is bittersweet. The loss of the king marks the end of an era - an end to the 'way it was.' It is welcomed and feared, but regardless, only the future holds the answer to the longevity of the king. All we can do is adapt to the changes that nature brings.
And so it is with autumn. A reflection of what once was. A recollection of the past, and an eager welcoming of what the future holds. Change is always hard for some, but longed for by others. We don't need to play the blame game. We need to work together to protect the future of the fisheries we wish to keep, and let go of those that may not be. Personal interests are not always the most important aspect when debating natural resources. Special regulations work because they protect the fishery and the fish. Federal stocking management works because it focuses on native species. As Teddy Roosevelt said, we shall cherish the natural wonders, natural resources, the history and romance as heritage of this country. And not allow selfish men or greedy interests to lose the beauty, riches and romance of this country.
We have so many opportunities in the fall - nymphing for trout, late season BWOs, streamer fishing for trophy browns, and fall steelhead. Even if the kings do disappear, there are so many opportunities to enjoy fishing in Michigan in autumn.
But above everything else, we all need a little more time on the water~