Yes, This Year Is Better
Salmon & Steelhead Bite Solid
Last summer sucked! Well, this summer sucks too, but for a totally different reason. This summer we are all trying to find a way to live with a deadly pandemic in some sort of safe yet sustainable way. Face masks, distancing and really clean hands will be part of our lives for quite a while. Sure, last summer I didn’t have to talk through a piece of cloth or avoid touching my face, but it still sucked because, for much of the season, Chinook salmon were nowhere to be found in the waters around Baileys Harbor. Most area anglers as well as visitors conceded that 2019 was one of the worst salmon seasons in decades. There were some big fish caught during the K/D Salmon Tournament, but except for a short spurt in July, the numbers were way down for most private anglers. Even the usually reliable charter boats struggled and were having to rely on catching steelhead to keep customers happy. For me personally, the summer of 2019 was a disaster for salmon. I had not caught a single salmon by the 4th of July. By the end of the season, I had only boated a couple of decent fish with most of my Chinook were of the “shaker” variety. Paul and I caught a few rainbows to sustain our interest, but by the end of the summer, I was spending a lot more time on the Bayside chasing bass and walleyes rather than fruitless forays out on the big lake.
The reasons for the poor salmon catch in 2019 are not totally understood and, like the ecology of the Great Lakes, are complex. Just bring up the topic anywhere that salmon anglers gather to drink and bitch and you will get plenty of opinions. As with any issue relating to hunting and fishing, the Wisconsin DNR unfairly gets too much of the blame. They don’t stock enough, they stock too much, they stock the wrong fish, they stock in the wrong location, their boats are the wrong color. Whatever. I do know that we have salmon in Lake Michigan because of the DNR’s efforts and I am grateful for that. The DNR is serving a very diverse set of stakeholders often with competing interests. I figure that if everyone is at least a little unhappy with the DNR, they are probably doing a good job. Or at least the best they can.
I also know that there were some very difficult conditions out in the lake last summer. The water was a lot cooler for much of the summer and took a long time for a thermal gradient to set up. For example, on July 17th of last year although the water right at the surface was fairly warm, in the low 70°F’s, you only had to go down forty feet to find water at 45°F. This week, almost three weeks earlier, I had to go as deep as seventy feet to find water that cold. In addition, there were not large numbers of baitfish in the lake near Baileys Harbor. This year I regularly see such masses on my sonar. Whatever the reason, the salmon fishing is off to a much better start in 2020, so I’m not asking questions. I’m just going to shut up and fish.
In the last two weeks of June, we have boated several nice Kings, up to twenty pounds. Last week Paul and I went out about 6:30 one morning and were back in marina by 9:30 with five nice rainbows and a 36-inch Chinook in the box. Visiting angler Scott from Appleton reported two nice days fishing off Baileys Harbor boating some steelhead and a beautiful 25-pound King on a fly/ flasher combination off Cana Island. Reports from other anglers as well as the charter boats have been equally encouraging with most reporting nice catches of rainbows with a few salmon thrown in. Almost everyone is coming in with fish. A lot different than last summer when puzzled and forlorn anglers often dragged into port with empty coolers.
This past week, I had the opportunity to take my son Matthew and his wife Kelly out for a morning seeking salmonids. Grandma, aka wife Pam, had agreed to ride herd on the grand-daughters and boat namesakes. Again, we left the marina about 6:30, well after most of the charters and anxious weekend anglers had launched. The launch was busy, but not too crowded. I felt good about our timing when I noticed local fishing legend Lynn, “The Fish Doctor”, was leaving the marina at the same time as we were. We had lines set in 120FOW well before 7AM. The first hour or so produce no action except for a “release” on one of the downriggers. I was getting concerned that we would have a rare empty trip. Finally, one of the planer boards with three-color lead core line and an orange ladder spoon leapt backward and we all saw a leaping silver mass of fish flesh about a hundred and fifty feet behind it. With Kelly on the rod and Matthew maneuvering the boat, I slipped the net under a beautiful 25-inch steelhead. Fish in the box! Thirty minutes later the board with 100’ of copper wire and also an orange spoon started to bounce wildly. This produced a nice “eater” steelie. Both fish were caught over 180FOW. As I was redeploying the copper wire, Matthew called my attention to one of the downriggers that had released. Lifting the rod from the holder, I quickly took up the slack line. I felt life on the other end and then experienced the thrill all Great Lakes salmon anglers hunger for. The awesome, powerful run of a big salmon. The reel screamed as the fish frantically raced as far from the boat as she could. I handed the rod over to Kelly. This would be her fish. Although an avid angler, this would be Kelly’s first experience with a big King in the open waters of Lake Michigan. As she was hanging on for yet another reel-screaming run, Matthew and I busied ourselves clearing the other lines and keeping the boat properly positioned. Kelly eventually started to gain back some of the hundred or so feet of line the fish had stripped off the reel. She remarked on the power she felt at the end of the line. About seventy-five feet out, the fish came to the surface and frenetically attempted to dislodge the purple Howie fly imbedded in its jaw. They were tiring, Kelly and the fish, but slowly the two were getting closer and closer to each other. Following a few short, wild lunges the silver, black-speckled torpedo moved to the side of the boat giving me the opportunity to coax it into the net. Finally, there on the floor of the Maggie Leigh, surrounded by a beaming angler, a proud husband and a relieved father-in-law, was a writhing 33-inch, 15-pound Chinook Salmon. I am not at all sure who was the happiest. The ride back to the marina was all smiles and contentment with our morning on the water together.
As a foot note to our successful outing, I went out the very next morning by myself. I had a nice fish on the same rod and lure with which Kelly had battled her fish. About halfway through the fight, the line went slack. The fish was gone. Upon retrieving what was left of my rig, I discovered that the line had snapped between the dodger and the fly. As disappointed as I was, I was very grateful that this did not occur a day earlier. I did manage to tie on a new fly and later boated a 13-pound King.
The fish are out there. The landing is buzzing with happy anglers. The fish cleaning station is open (with proper distancing). Get out there and fish. There are plenty of things to worry about this summer, and time on the water is one great way to forget about them for a while. So far, at least fishing-wise, this summer does not suck.
Stay safe and sane.
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