Jul 5, 2017

LAKE TROUT: THE ORIGINAL TROPHY OF LAKE MICHIGAN

By: Captain Lee Haasch

The American flag at my dock hung limp in the partially overcast sky and the darkness made the boat’s lights seem brighter as we rounded the corner out of the harbor and headed north to the “fishing grounds.”   There was barely a ripple on the water and just a slight roll left from the north that should give the baits a slightly better action. There were already several lights from some smaller boats dotting the shoreline ahead of us. My plan was to stay a ways outside of them and run the lines in 20’ to 40’ just off the ledge. Trevor was already busy picking out several Rapalas to run including a mixture of floaters and Husky Jerks to work the backside of my Yellow Bird in-line planer boards. Clown, Hot Steel, Bleeding Hot Olive and Vampire would start our line-up and a couple of my favorite Warrior spoons, Naked Natalee and Psyco Perch would start on the working side of my slide divers. About a mile north of Algoma’s famous lighthouse, I powered down and brought the Grand Illusion 2 to trolling speed.

Trevor jumped into action even before we got to trolling speed. It didn’t take him very long to set his first line. He then grabbed his second line and just as he was clipping the Yellow Bird on when he yelled, “Fish, fish, here we go! That new Hot Steel colored Rapala on the far bird; I knew that’s going to be a killer!” 

Killer is right; my nephew has developed a pretty good eye for picking out hot baits. Today is no exception. He grabbed the rod and passed it to the first one up and finished setting out his other Yellow Bird rod and headed to get the net. This was no small fish, and in this shallow, clear water, I am running 12# Trilene fluorocarbon leaders behind 30# Trilene braid on Abu Garcia Alphamar 16 line counter reels and this fish had the 7’6” medium light Ugly Stik GX2’s bent right over. Horsing the fish was not an option. We’ll just have to take our time on this one. With light line and stick baits it is best to go easy on the fish as most hook-ups tend to be “lip and cheek” with the multiple hooks on the body baits. The lighter line will get you more strikes, but big fish demand a little patience. “It’s a dandy Trevor, careful of the hooks when you net it," I exclaimed. “We don’t want to lose this one!”

 

Trevor slid the net under the golden lake trout to the cheers of everyone on board. It was a beautiful 24 lb. lake trout to start the day! The sun had yet to peak above the horizon, but the crimson and orange pre-dawn colors looked like Rembrandt had painted the clouds in the eastern sky. This was going to be a great morning!   We continued to set the rest of the lines in the shallow 25 to 35 feet of water and before we finished getting all our poles set, we boxed two nice football shaped brown trout and another dandy lake trout in the upper teens. 

Trophy lake trout have long been overlooked as the original “trophy” of Lake Michigan. Long before Chinook “king” salmon were planted in Lake Michigan in the late 60’s, the lake trout were the native sport fish that both sport and commercial fishermen sought for table fare. A long living fish, the lake trout can grow to over 40 pounds. In the 1960’s, sport anglers targeted the lake trout with crude, and many times, homemade equipment and tackle.

In the 1970’s, the appearance of the king salmon brought about an industry switch to upgraded equipment for Great Lakes trolling anglers. In the early days, I remember targeting and catching kings in the early morning hours and by the time the morning bite had slowed, we transitioned into lake trout fishing and finished filling the coolers with the “spotted kitties” before heading back to port. 

Sea lampreys, an unwanted exotic species, came to the Great Lakes via the ballast water from ocean going freighters. The lamprey had all but wiped out the lake trout population in the 1950’s, but many years of research and strategic planting of lake trout fry by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Department (USFW) have led to a population of lake trout that are naturally reproducing. And since the 70’s, there are some fish approaching and exceeding 40 pounds! Now, that is a trophy in anybody’s book! With the ever-changing composition of the forage base, “lakers” are one fish that have adapted to foraging on the round goby, another exotic that populate the system, giving the lake trout ample forage to reach trophy proportions. 

Recent data that has been compiled by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife has shown that the lake trout have been successfully reproducing at a fairly good pace. As a native species to the Great Lakes, the USFW have diligently worked over the past 40 to 50 years to establish a native population of self-sustaining lake trout. The recent data shows that the long-term efforts are paying off and the species is on its way to recovery. There are also adjustments to stocking numbers in the works. This could free up federal hatchery space to possibly allow the department to look into other species that could be revived and provide additional forage options for the trout and salmon in the future. Could we see a future attempt to reintroduce herring to Lake Michigan? Only time will tell. 

How does the fishing look for 2017? In 2016, in Wisconsin, the overall salmon and trout harvest was 384,908 fish, which was up 43 percent from the 269,978 taken in 2015. This marked the highest catch since 2012. It came as little surprise that the waters off of Algoma and Kewaunee harbors were once again, for the 21st straight year, the top fishing grounds for king salmon and for the 15th straight year, top producers of steelhead. These waters held a fair amount of bait fish all summer long and where the bait goes, so do the top predators. 

A very mild winter has allowed shoreline trollers a very early successful shot at brown trout in mid-February. Lake trout remained closed until March 1st, probably for the very last time. WDNR worked on and passed an emergency order to open the lake trout season year-round (except off the mid-lake reef), and also to increase the daily bag limit back up to 5 to match the rest of the trout and salmon in Lake Michigan. Data shows that the population can sustain almost double the current catch numbers without affecting the natural reproduction of the population. All very good news. 

With all that in mind, the outlook for 2017 is pretty bright. We had a very early spring start to the fishing season this year. Mild winter, ice out in many harbors in mid-February, and ice thickness this winter was less than most years and all point to the lake surface temperatures warming early. I, for one, am expecting to see a great early trout season with browns and “lakers” available in good numbers followed by an early (mid-May) appearance of king salmon and steelhead, at least in the Algoma area.

For more information or current fishing reports, visit my website at www.FishAlgoma.com, like Haasch Guide Service on Facebook, or call me at 1-888-966-3474. From Captain Lee and the crew aboard the Grand Illusion 2, we wish all of you full coolers and hope to see you all on the water!

 

Captain Lee Haasch is a charter captain out of Algoma, WI. Captain Lee has over 40 years of Great Lakes angling experience and has been instructing anglers for over 25 years with education seminars and timely freelance articles in outdoor publications.