Lake Huron's fishery is doing well despite a collapse of a common bait fish, and anglers are pulling up more wild, native species these days.
At a fisheries workshop held in Oscoda Wednesday, Department of Natural Resources Fisheries research biologist Jim Johnson told a sizable audience about where Lake Huron's fishery currently stands. Despite strong catch rates for a variety of species, including the highest catch rate ever recorded for steelhead, anglers have a misperception that Lake Huron doesn't have good fishing.
"Three out of four people who used to visit Lake Huron to fish don't do it any more," he said.
News Photo by Jordan Travis
The Michigan Department of Natural Resources research vessel Chinook returns to its slip on the Thunder Bay River after setting some nets near South Point. Jim Johnson, DNR fisheries research biologist, said Lake Huron’s sport fishery is going strong, although the species composition has changed.
While the lake's sport fishery is at about the same levels as it was before the disappearance of alewives in 2004, the species composition is different, Johnson said. Previously, salmon were the feature species of the lake's sport fishery. Now, there's no telling what anglers might have at the end of their line. They could reel in a walleye, steelhead, Atlantic salmon or lake trout, among others.
"To me, I think that makes it really exciting," he said.
Walleye numbers have recently improved, roughly tripling since 2002, Johnson said. And that's largely natural reproduction; the DNR hasn't stocked the fish in Lake Huron since 2005.
While the salmon catch has dropped significantly due to the disappearance of alewives, the steelhead catch rates have hit record highs, Johnson said.
Lake trout also are poised for a huge recovery, Johnson said. Their natural reproduction rates have been high lately, and last year anglers saw a lot that were too small to keep.
One species creating a big buzz is the Atlantic salmon, Johnson said. The DNR is working to improve this fishery by stocking fingerlings at Alpena, Lexington and Oscoda. In 2011, they started matching Lake Superior State University students' 30,000 Atlantics with their own.
"Last year, we reached a record level of Atlantic salmon harvest lake-wide," he said. "In the (Upper Peninsula) ports, they're catching more than double since last year."
These stocked Atlantics are doing well, with about half of the fish brought in last year coming from the DNR's hatchery, Johnson said. This means stocking efforts in Alpena, Lexington and Oscoda are likely to succeed.
"We're very, very hopeful that, in 2014, Atlantic salmon will become a major feature in the Brown Trout Festival," he said.
Lake Huron's forage base has been relatively stable, Johnson said. Yellow perch have become the main forage fish, because there's "almost nothing else to eat."
"That's going to hurt our perch fisheries," he said.
It's estimated there are more than 3 million adult walleye in Lake Huron, Johnson said, and yellow perch make up half of their diet. As their numbers continue to grow, this could be even harder on yellow perch populations.
Prior to alewives, the major forage fish was the lake herring, commonly known as the cisco, Johnson said. Fisheries biologists are hoping they'll recover and provide a forage base, but they're absent from much of their native range. A previous experiment to stock them in Thunder Bay had some success, but there wasn't enough funding to start an actual stocking program.
"We're hoping that changes after the license fee schedule changes," he said.
The workshop was part of a series, with another held in Cedarville Thursday night, Sea Grant Michigan Northeast District Extension Educator Brandon Schroeder said.
At the end of the workshop, Schroeder asked the audience a question he's been asking for a few years - what is your overall attitude toward the future of Lake Huron? They could rate it on a scale from one, which means they think it's "amazing, full of opportunity," or five, meaning "the fishery is in dire straits."
"Four years ago, I asked this question in Tawas," he said. "The response on average would've been, 'we have hope but this fishery needs some help.' There's a significant shift in that question this year ... to 'this is a great fishery, full of opportunities.'"