Lake Michigan anglers in 2011 recorded the highest harvest of coho salmon in three decades and the third highest on record since the state started stocking salmon and trout in the 1960s, according to recently released results from angler surveys.
"Coho fishing for Wisconsin anglers on Lake Michigan last year was the best it's been since 1982," says Brad Eggold, Department of Natural Resources fisheries supervisor for Southern Lake Michigan. "Boaters were fishing hard for coho from April to early August and focused on these abundant and easily catchable fish."
The 2011 season for coho salmon ran much longer than previous years and the fish were close to shore and easily accessible by most boat anglers, Eggold says. Those factors helped propel this year's estimated harvest to 157,367 coho, more than triple the 42,445 coho harvested the previous year.
The coho harvest total also was the third highest ever recorded in Wisconsin since DNR started stocking Pacific strain salmon and trout in the 1960s to control populations of alewife, a nonnative species that was washing ashore and collecting in huge, rotting piles on Lake Michigan beaches.
Angler harvests of rainbow trout and lake trout were also up in 2011, while chinook and brown trout harvests were down from 2010. Wisconsin anglers in 2011 harvested 75,442 rainbow trout, up from 49,121 in 2010, and 17,788 lake trout, up slightly from 17,483.
The chinook harvest was down with 169,752 fish caught in 2011, about half of the previous year's harvest of 315,294 and lower than the 10-year-average of 300,000 fish, Eggold says.
"Since the coho salmon fishery was so successful in 2011, many anglers opted to fish for them instead of for chinook salmon, which were found in deeper water farther offshore," he says. "Once anglers located the chinook in mid-August, most of the summer fishing season was over and that contributed to the lower harvest."
Eggold says that the number of chinook returning to the weir DNR operates on Strawberry Creek in Door County was above average, and in fact was up almost 100 percent from the previous year, which indicates that fewer fish were harvested by anglers.
The lower harvest also reflected in part that there are fewer chinook in the lake. Stocking reductions lakewide were implemented in 1999 and 2006 to better match the number of chinook in the lake with available forage.
While the lake-wide chinook stocking reductions have helped better balance game fish and prey fish populations, biologists believe those reductions have not been enough and are concerned that the forage base is weakening. The need to keep the number of predators stocked in line with available forage will be the topic of public meetings in Milwaukee May 1 and Green Bay on May 8 .
Recent surveys indicate that older alewife are becoming scarce in Lake Michigan, the year-class produced in 2011 was not good, and computer modeling done by Michigan State University researchers predicts a potential mismatch into the future, Eggold says.
Despite such concerns, however, the near-term fishing prospects look good, Eggold says. "Early fishing reports for 2012 are showing that anglers are catching good numbers of brown trout, coho and chinook salmon, so the fishing season is off to a good start," Eggold says. "We're asking anglers now to help us make some decisions to keep their fishing strong in the future."