Chinook Salmon Down In Lake Michigan, But Charter Trips Steady

By on May 23, 2016
Juvenile Chinook salmon. (Credit: Roger Tabor / U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service)

Chinook salmon are highly valued as a much sought-after fish for charter fishermen. In Lakes Huron and Michigan, this is especially true.

This is in many ways because of the fish’s popularity among anglers who prize the fish for their size and fighting abilities. Catching one is just seen as more of a challenge when compared to other fish like trout and salmon.

And so a recent study confirming that the number of charter trips on Lake Huron was greatly affected by the health of Chinook populations wasn’t much of a surprise. A decline of Chinook salmon there in the mid-2000s was linked more strongly with drops in charter fishing trips than any other species.

Nowadays, a decade later, charter fishers along Lake Michigan shores are wondering if the same type of relationship will emerge as the numbers of Chinook salmon drop in that lake. So far, according to scientists at the Michigan State University Extension, much the opposite is happening.

Lake Michigan charter captains logged 12,758 trips in Michigan waters last year — the highest number of trips recorded since 1991, and an increase of 565 trips over the previous year.

An explanation for this difference is that other factors might be at work. The Lake Huron study found that economic factors were also important in driving the decline of charter fishing, with the rising price of gas being most important. Also, there was a lag-time effect, which means that charter fishing effort did not decline immediately as catches declined. Instead, charter customers tended to stop showing up the year after catch rates (fish caught and kept) declined.

Lake Huron (shown in blue) experienced a dramatic decline in charter fishing when catch rates fell. Charter fishing effort in Lake Michigan (shown in red) has not fluctuated as much and catch rates have been above 2 Chinook salmon per charter trip. (Credit: Michigan State University Extension)

Lake Huron (shown in blue) experienced a dramatic decline in charter fishing when catch rates fell. Charter fishing effort in Lake Michigan (shown in red) has not fluctuated as much and catch rates have been above 2 Chinook salmon per charter trip. (Credit: Michigan State University Extension)

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Another explanation is that Lake Michigan still provides decent fishing for Chinook salmon despite the decline in catch rates, and good fishing overall when all trout and salmon species are considered. Lake Michigan catch rate averaged over 5 Chinooks per charter fishing trip during the 2000s, peaked at 7.3 Chinooks per trip in 2012, and fell to 2.3 Chinooks per trip in 2015.

Compare this to Lake Huron, where a party of anglers could expect to catch 3 Chinook salmon per trip in 2000-2004 and only 1 Chinook per trip in 2005-2009. The glory days of Lake Huron were never close to what anglers have experienced on Lake Michigan in 2012, at least as far as Chinooks are concerned.

Both lakes saw a decline of Chinook catch rates, but the bottom end for Lake Michigan may not be the same as Lake Huron. And Lake Michigan’s other fish species also help to support charter fishing trips. The lake has a varied fishery, featuring a variety of trout and salmon species along with walleye.

For charter fishing customers, this means that Lake Michigan still provides quality fishing. In 2015, a typical group of four anglers could expect to catch at least two fish per person. Each customer also had a 50/50 chance of catching a Chinook salmon.

Top image: Juvenile Chinook salmon. (Credit: Roger Tabor / U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service)

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