Spawning Migration Offers Unique Fishing on Lake Michigan Streams
KOHLER – Sunrise was obscured Monday by a haze of fog and a woolen cloud blanket over the Sheboygan River.
But it was not muted.
As Jerrad Kalmerton and I walked along a riverside path at 6:45 am, the new day was heralded by an explosive soundtrack.
Every 20 seconds or so, a large finned shape jumped out of the water and crashed again.
In turn, one could gracefully porpoise along the surface. Then another spun on its side and quickly flapped its tail.
“It was a 10,” said Kalmerton of Howards Grove after a particularly heavy fish collapsed in the middle of the river.
The aquatic performance was provided by chinook salmon. The fish, which spend most of their lives traveling and feeding in the open waters of Lake Michigan, were now mindful of Mother Nature and were living their final chapter on a spawning migration.
It is an autumn rite that takes place here on the Sheboygan and other tributaries around the lake.
Kalmerton, a friend who is also a licensed fishing guide, charter captain and co-owner of Wolf Pack Adventures, is an expert in catching salmon during open water seasons.
For most of the year that means trolling in the large pond.
But come early October, the best bet is in the rivers.
Instead of piloting a 30ft boat and laying lines on downriggers and planing boards, it’s all about wading and throwing.
“It’s all fun in every way,” Kalmerton said. “Here it’s a hand-to-hand fight with them. These fish are big and strong and it’s a really intense experience.”
Kalmerton purchases a pass that allows access along private property on the river. We got off and waded through a section lined with golf courses.
One, the Meadow Valleys at Blackwolf Run, is inspired by the fishing theme for the names of its start and finish holes: # 1 is Fishing Hole and # 18 is Salmon Trap.
“There is nothing in the United States that looks like this course,” famed golf course architect Pete Dye said of Blackwolf Run.
This feeling should only be multiplied in the fall, when the chinook is wading through its obstacle of running water.
Conditions in Sheboygan on Monday were just about perfect. Recent rains had lifted the water slightly and helped attract more fish to the river.
But it was neither too high nor too fast; we were able to wade safely in every section we fished.
And the salmon were present in great numbers.
Some modern forms of fishing rely on sonar and other forms of electronics.
We only needed our ears and our eyes.
There’s a reason chinook salmon are also called “king” salmon.
They are the largest of all species of salmon. And in Lake Michigan, they have proven to be the most tenacious survivors of any introduced salmon or trout.
Around 7 a.m., we settled on top of a deep hole and drifted skeins under floats. We set up our rigs so that the bait, which is dried salmon roe, hovers just above the bottom as it heads downstream.
At 7:15 a.m., I was hooked up to a winged fear train.
The fish ran downstream across a raft and made for a fallen tree in the shallows.
Luckily, he didn’t wrap himself around a branch and swam towards the middle of the stream.
After another 10 minutes of back and forth he came to the net. Kalmerton estimated that the egg-laden hen weighed 18 pounds and was a relatively recent arrival in the river.
We freed her to continue her quest.
Chinook salmon are one of a series of non-native trout and salmon – including coho salmon and brown and rainbow (or rainbow) trout – stocked in Lake Michigan since the late 1970s. 1960s.
The lake’s main native predator, lake trout, had collapsed in the late 1950s due to deteriorating environmental conditions and mortality from invasive sea lampreys.
The lake trout’s disappearance came as the number of invasive alewife skyrocketed. Small silvery forage fish died in the millions every year, fouling the beaches of Kenosha in Door County.
In what began as a great fishing experience, non-native trout and salmon were placed in the lake to feed on gaspereau and provide sport fishing.
It worked and was hailed as one of the most successful fisheries management in North America in the twentieth century.
Not only was the alewife reduced to harmless numbers, but a thriving charter and sport fishery settled in the harbors around the lake.
Despite decades of intensive stocking and millions of dollars of research and management effort – including continued monitoring of sea lamprey – by the US Fish and Wildlife Service, lake trout have struggled to reestablish a natural population. in Lake Michigan.
There are signs of some lake trout success in some areas.
But the chinook is another story. Robust, adaptable and aggressive, the fish have “naturalized” in the lake and are now reproducing in impressive numbers.
According to data from the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources and the US Fish and Wildlife Service, the natural reproduction of chinook salmon has steadily increased over the past few decades and current estimates suggest that naturally produced smolts represent about 50 to 70 % of annual chinook salmon recruitment. in Lake Michigan.
Most of chinook’s successful breeding occurs in the Michigan and Ontario rivers.
The water in Wisconsin’s tributaries to Lake Michigan is typically too hot, too silty, and too low in oxygen for salmon eggs to hatch and fry to survive.
The DNR collects the eggs and milt from adults which are used by the Wisconsin hatchery system to raise the next class of salmon for stocking.
But the fish don’t know it.
They go up rivers and do what their instinct tells them to do.
Growing up in Racine in the 1970s, I watched with amazement the return of Chinook to the Root River.
A river that previously contained only common carp and bullhead now had a strain of Pacific Ocean fish.
We learned to catch them on pieces of Velveeta cheese caught at the bottom. I never understood why kings took cheese in their mouths, but they did and it was enough for a young fisherman.
The times have changed. Kalmerton is most successful in the hank or fly fishery for spawning chinook.
What remains the same is the character of the fish.
Here on the Sheboygan, they charge through the harbor, navigate the lower reaches of the river and through the streams, pools and rafts of the scenic Wisconsin countryside where they congregate by the dozen on spawning grounds to carry out their age-old spawning behavior.
“It’s pretty impressive to see up close,” said Kalmerton.
After catching half a dozen kings on a skein, we changed tactics at 9 am and moved downstream to a series of guns.
The fish were thick in the water 1 to 3 feet deep.
We put away the bait casting gear and picked up 10 weight, 10 foot long fly rods. We used the graphite rods to drift colorful beads and egg patterns towards the fish.
Although chinooks have stopped feeding, they still instinctively respond to certain baits, lures, and flies. A red egg yarn pattern was too much for the fish on Monday.
Once I had the right amount of weight on the leader, about every third drift was encountered with a strike.
The ensuing action reminded me that these fish keep fighting even when they leave the lake.
A male estimated at 27 pounds took at least 25 minutes to land.
Kalmerton and I each hooked up, landed and released three more fish and called it one morning around noon.
The river corridor was also visited that day by a striking golf outing.
As Kalmerton and I walked up a path, we pulled up to let a line of golf cart conga past.
The event featured a large number of former Green Bay Packers players and some current team officials and employees.
Among those who passed were Dave Robinson, Bill Schroeder and Wayne Larivee.
When Robinson, the Packers Hall of Fame linebacker who won three NFL titles with the team in the 1960s, including the first two Super Bowls, saw us in our fishing gear, he slowed down to get some words.
“I should go fishing with you, that’s what I really should be doing today,” Robinson said with a smile.
Then he subtly shook his head and continued to the first tee.
The invitation is open at any time, Mr. Robinson.
The tenacious king salmon will likely return for many autumns to come.