Lake Michigan Salmon Fishing Best in Decades

Published May 1, 2003

Lake Michigan creel surveys confirm what charter boat captains and sport anglers reported last summer: Trout and salmon fishing on the big pond was the best in nearly 20 years.

“The 2002 trout and salmon fishery was absolutely phenomenal–the catch rate for the overall salmon fishery was about 18 fish for every 100 hours of fishing, and that’s the best catch rate over the entire 18 years of data,” says John Kubisiak, Lake Michigan fisheries biologist for the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources.

“We had a strong near-shore brown trout fishery up and down the lakeshore in April and early May. The wind blew for the last three weeks of May, and when it calmed down, the coho and chinook fishery just took off.”

Kubisiak recently completed compiling and analyzing data from a year’s worth of surveys of anglers fishing Lake Michigan. DNR creel clerks survey anglers at Lake Michigan boat landings, piers, and tributary streams to learn how many fish they caught, the size, and the time they devoted to their pursuit. Among his findings:

  • Anglers caught 527,027 fish of all species of trout and salmon, up from 378,798 in 2001. That placed 2002’s catch among the top four in Lake Michigan since 1986.
  • The overall catch rate for trout and salmon, 17.9 fish, was the highest in more than 18 years; the next highest was 16, with catch rates of nine to 10 more common during slow years.
  • Charter boat captains averaged 10.5 fish per trip, up from eight during 2001.
  • Chinook and coho fishing fueled the frenzy: Anglers caught 275,454 chinook, the highest total since 1987, and reeled in 102,313 coho, up from 47,474 during 2001.
  • The chinook harvests during 2001 (191,378) and 2002 (275,454) were the highest since 1987. The coho harvest of 102,313 was also among the better years.
  • Anglers who fish from piers or the shores also benefitted from the abundant salmon, with the highest harvests since 1995 for pier and 1988 for shore anglers.

“At times, it was as if the fish were biting no matter what the anglers were doing,” Kubisiak said. Typically, anglers target coho in late spring and early summer and chinook in July, after a good thermal structure sets up and the fish start to follow a pattern.

“In June 2002, the creel clerks would come in with reports of boats fishing everywhere from 40 to 250 feet of water, using every lure color and variety imaginable, from the surface to 80 feet down, at every port on the lake–and they were all catching chinook and coho,” Kubisiak said. “The fish were scattered, but the anglers were still catching good numbers. Once the thermocline was established, it just got better.”

Number of fish caught per 100 hours fishing
  Ramp Pier Shore Stream
Coho 6.4 2.3 2.6 4.5
Chinook 15.9 4.5 10.5 30.6
Rainbow Trout 4.1 2.1 1.6 5.3
Brown Trout 4.3 5.1 8.9 2.5
Lake Trout 3.7 2.9 3.7  
Total Trout/Salmon 34.8 16.9 27.3 42.9

Steelhead and lake trout fisheries were comparable to the last few years–the catches were average or a little below normal. Kubisiak attributed this to the good salmon fishing rather than a lack of steelhead or lake trout.

Nearshore catches increased in 2001 and 2002, encouraging after a decade of decline in those fisheries. The stream fishery was dominated by an extremely abundant chinook run; low water flows, which tend to make the chinook easier to target, aided anglers’ success. The stream harvest of chinook was the highest of the 18-year period.

Dan Thomas is president of the Great Lakes Sports Fishing Council.