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Summer/Fall Transition
Fewer Anglers, Still Plenty of Fish

Harbor Angler Report, September 12th (1) Photo

I don’t have to tell you that this summer has been a bit different and more than a little stressful for all of us. But, here’s the thing; The fish don’t care. They don’t have to worry about contracting an airborne virus, they don’t breathe air. They don’t care who gets elected, they don’t get a vote. Not even absentee. Fish don’t discriminate against other fish by the color of their scales.  Their only bias is whether they can eat them or not. So, as our usual summer activities have been modified, postponed or eliminated, it has been just another season to the fish. Their concerns are more basic, the creature comforts, so to speak. They need to eat. They need to seek comfortable water with the correct temperature and turbidity. They need to avoid getting eaten. They have to find a safe place. And, of course, sex. They need to spawn. Food, comfort, security, sex. The rest is all just window dressing to a fish. I suppose, this is what draws so many of us to activities involving the natural world. We use the constancy of the rhythms of nature to bring some semblance of stability to our lives, even in the most hectic of times. No matter the whirlwind that swarms around our lives, the sun will still rise, the geese will still flock and fly south and the whitetail rut will still occur.

So it is with fishing. While the fish may have noticed a few more boat hulls above their head and a lot more lures in the water this summer, things were pretty much the same as any other summer. In Door County waters, the inevitable transition from summer to fall is occurring and the various fish species are doing what they have always done to survive. Species which become less active in the winter, such as smallmouth bass, are franticly looking for that last big meal that will sustain them through the long, dark winter. Other species that remain active throughout the winter, including walleyes, yellow perch and northern pike, are responding to the cooler water temperatures with increased feeding activity and movement towards the areas they will use to spawn in the late winter and spring. Fall spawning Chinook Salmon are making the quadrennial journey to traditional spawning areas, the remembered locations of their hatching or planting. Even though most of the salmon will not be able to successfully spawn, they are nonetheless driven to the attempt. Soon Strawberry Creek will be teaming with hormone engorged “zombies”, The Swimming Dead. Other species such as brown trout and steelhead, become more accessible to anglers as they find comfortable water and food closer to shore with the cooler fall temperatures.

This is a great time to be a Door County angler, especially as there are many fewer of us around this time of year. Following the Labor Day rush, you can leisurely make your way to the boat launch and back right in. You don’t have wait in a queue for “that guy” to attempt to get his trailer into the water for the eleventy-seventh time only to jackknife it again. You can head out to your favorite bass or walleye spot and not have to say ”excuse me” every time you toss out a cast.  You can have all of Lake Michigan, from horizon to horizon, all to yourself. There are, of course, some downsides to fishing this time of year. The hours of sunlight are getting scarce as the sun sets earlier and earlier.  The air can get pretty frigid and the winds biting and unpredictable. These are small penances we pay for the privilege of catching fish amid the beauty and solitude of fall.  

I have made several post-Labor Day outings and have been rewarded each time. Sometimes the reward has been with fish caught, but also with surprise and wonder as to what nature has to offer.  A flight of migrating birds skimming over the water or a waxed moon reflected on the lake surface provide a wonderful backdrop. My in-shore outings have produced smallmouth bass and a few pike. I even had a small trout on and had a huge trout or salmon took swipe at my crank bait. Mostly I have been using larger Rapalas (#9 & #11) as it seems these fish are looking for larger, more satisfying meals. I have also been using my usual Ned Rigs and dropshots with pieces of crawler. The bass bite should stay good for several weeks or more until the water cools and the fish start to move to the deeper wintering areas.

The salmon are still around, even if many salmon anglers are not. Fishing buddy Paul and I have had several successful forays lately. Just before the Labor Day weekend, we went 5 for 8, boating three steelhead and a couple of Kings.  This week we set out in the early afternoon to get a few hours of trolling in before the sun set. After too many interminable days of high winds and nasty seas, we were anxious to be on the water. Based on records from previous years, we figured we would have to go out pretty far to find comfortable water temperatures for salmonids. We set up in about 300FOW water with surface temperatures in the low sixties. Lowering the temperature probe, we found we had to go down to almost 100 feet to find water temperatures in the low fifties and high forties. 70 feet down it was still 60°F. Armed with this information, we used an assortment of downriggers, Dipsey Divers and planer boards with weighted line to run various dark colored spoons and a fly-dodger combo between 60 and 100 feet.

We were soon rewarded with the satisfying sight of the backward lurch of a planer board indicating “fish on”. Paul removed the rod from the holder and started the arduous process of retrieving the planer board, two hundred feet of copper wire, one hundred feet of monofilament leader, not to mention a battling salmon. I eventually slipped the net under a nice 32-inch Chinook Salmon and lifted the nearly 12-pound fish into the boat. It was nice start to the evening. As I deposited the fish into the cooler, I scanned the lake around us. Not a single boat was in sight. This is in stark contrast to our mid-summer outings when twenty or thirty boats could be counted in the immediate area. As the evening proceeded, we boated three more Kings, one of which was a classic “jack”, almost 8-pounds. The other two were “shakers”, too small to keep so we immediately released them. “Come back in a year or two” we thought as each frantically swam to safety.  The final fish of the evening was a real treat. Again, the action started with a bouncing planer board and the process of retrieving our tackle. It was my turn “up” and as I grasped the rod, I knew immediately that this was no shaker. Even burdened with the weight of all that copper wire, the fish still managed several runs and a few surface leaps. We could only hope the hooks were lodged firmly into the fishes’ jaw to prevent it tossing the lure. Paul adeptly handled the net as I worked the fish slowly to boat side. We were a bit puzzled when we got a good look at the fish. It appeared different than the Chinook we caught. It was a Coho Salmon. A nice one. Coho are more common in the southern end of Lake Michigan, but we occasionally run into them, particularly in the fall. This one was bigger than most we have caught. After Paul successfully netted the fish and we got to measure the fish it came in 30 inches and eight and half pounds. One of the largest Coho’s I have ever boated.

By this time, the sun had settled behind the Door County peninsula, the lake surface had become smooth and the night air was getting a bite to it. We enjoyed a pleasant, albeit cool, 9-mile ride back to the marina. Paul and I were grateful for the respite from worrying about viruses, election woes and the other systemic societal problems. We would tackle these knotty dilemmas again soon enough. For a brief time we were able to concern ourselves with only the task in front of us. We could just not care about the other stuff. Just like the fish.

 

So Long, and Thanks for All the Fish, Bruce

Questions or comments to bsmith733@gmail.com