ALPENA - Early indications are that this year's Michigan Brown Trout Festival will benefit from recovering fish populations, a trend tournament officials have consistently reported for the past few years.
On Sunday, Tournament Director Doug Niergarth said volunteers had yet to confirm official registration and average fish size statistics, but like last year, he saw an increase in both participation and catches.
"You have more people in the tournament now. It's slowly been growing. It's my general feeling that fishermen are kind of getting used to, you know, way high gas prices, and very few salmon, and few brown trout," he said. "(Fish populations) are up. I mean they're low, but they're up from last year. They're bringing more in. I think last year they didn't want to bring them in, because there were some very small ones there, and it's just not right to bring in babies ... It's like a slow, steady recovery both in the fishermen and the fisheries."
News Photo by Andrew Westrope
“Fish Doctor” Roger Barc carves up a lake trout after inspection at the weigh station on Sunday for the Michigan Brown Trout Festival.
Niergarth said steelhead and Atlantic salmon are going strong, and reports of emaciated fish are less common now than immediately after the fish dieoff around 2006. Both he and weighmaster Kyle Urban attributed the slight but apparent uptick in specimen and population sizes to a number of possible factors, including the waning influence of certain invasive species. Urban said some fish species adapt to particular invasives better than others; salmon, for instance, are ill-suited to prey on the invasive goby fish, while lake trout and walleye have incorporated them into their diets; and Niergarth suggested the cannibalizing effect of the invasives on one another may finally be taking a toll.
"We had this big issue with gobies, and now the gobies, as it turns out, are eating the quagga mussels. How cool is that? ... And then, they're now becoming the bait. Where we used to have alewives, we now have gobies. It's not for every fish, and the fish that aren't adapted to it, they're not going to last," Niergarth said, adding it was "hard to say" how much invasive species ecology contributes to local fish health.
Another question is how local the probelm is, and for how long; Urban said he heard Lake Michigan was starting to show early signs of the same ecological strain Lake Huron has been going through, and Niergarth wondered about the implications of such a large-scale phenomenon.
"It might be all the healthy (salmon) are migrating over from Lake Michigan. I don't know," he said.
In any case, Assistant Tournament Director Dick Cadarette was encouraged by this year's turnout so far and said the guiding principle behind the tournament remains: may the best fisherman win.
"It's going better, we think, and the weather's perfect," he said. "A lot of people say, 'Why do you still call it the Brown Trout Festival?' I always say, 'Anybody can catch a lake trout. You have to be a good fisherman to catch a brown.'"
Andrew Westrope can be reached via e-mail at email@example.com or by phone at 358-5693.