When I moved to Northwest Indiana from the Upper Peninsula of Michigan, the weather was comparatively balmy here. It was 1996 and friends of mine that were holed up beneath eight feet of snow in Marquette, Michigan would come down to fish or hunt occasionally.
None of us will ever forget huge steelhead in incredible numbers in the creeks of Indiana during late winter.
To this day my personal record of fish landed for a group of anglers happened that following winter. As I recall it was 63 steelhead for the three of us. Before noon. That seems truly impossible now and was utterly glutinous then, even though we didn’t kill a single fish.
Dan even lamented that it was “too easy.” Adam and I were just fine with it, though. Honestly, I don’t think Dan ever fished for steelhead again. It ruined him.
Even more amazing was the fact that I had landed a true giant of a fish that morning that has yet to be surpassed by myself or anybody I’ve been guiding or fishing with.
It was a large “wild” male — and not a hatchery fish, evidenced by its perfect fin structure and clean body profile. He was a burly winter-run steelhead as opposed to a lanky summer-run Skamania strain, which are comparatively more common in these parts.
I’ll cut to the chase: That particular steelhead was 39¾ inches long and weighed an astonishing 24 pounds. I’ve caught longer fish and a half-dozen steelhead weighing more than 20 pounds over the years — all but one on fly rods — and nothing has ever surpassed that behemoth.
We clicked a few photos and I released him back into the creek. Unlike salmon that are guaranteed to die, steelhead can and often do survive to spawn again.
I barely had time to get my wits about me when I noticed another dark shadow in the same run. I made a quick cast and amazingly enough, hooked another giant. The second fish was a “cookie cutter” to the prior one, just not quite as big at a very respectable 34 inches and 17 pounds.
Those were the days. The fish were Jurassic. Their numbers were ridiculous. To be honest, the entire thing was a little obscene.
Many area anglers cut their stream-fishing teeth on huge steelhead in massive numbers and I’m sure many of you can relate similar experiences. I knew we were being spoiled, but I don’t think the average guy did. Most folks, including many biologists, just figured it’d always be that way.
Similarly, Cranberry Lake east of La Porte was without question the most prolific bass fishery I’ve ever encountered, and just like Lake Michigan, the food chain collapsed. Like a famous rock star or athlete that burns through their fortune living the high life, only memories remain now.
Of course, I get the blame for the Cranberry Lake thing because I was managing it. Believe me when I say that I knew long before the whole thing went to hell in a hand basket that it was inevitable. I screamed, kicked, cussed and threw things begging the former owner to give me a budget to work with on stabilizing the fishery. But alas, it just wasn’t in the cards.
Once the synchrony of predator vs. prey gets out of whack and the domino effect kicks in, the fishery is in for it. I watched in horror as “my lake” died a gruesome death. I cannot imagine how veteran biologists feel when they are in the twilight of their career and watch decades worth of effort basically go down the tubes.
What has happened to the Lake Michigan fishery, and for that matter the Great Lakes in general, is not unprecedented by any means. That said, it’s easy to become complacent. Sadly, feeling all warm and cozy when it comes to fisheries management is a bad thing as I’m sure many biologists will tell you. I’m certainly not suggesting that this is what happened, but it seems almost impossible that what we had is for the most part, gone.
It’s a shadow of its former self.
I’m still amazed at how many anglers do not understand that fish have to eat and they have to eat often. If they don’t have forage fish — and lots of them — big predatory species will dwindle quickly. The fishery will be relegated to a boom-and-bust cycle, but the trajectory is typically downward unless something changes.
In the case of Lake Michigan, stocking more steelhead and salmon is not the answer, plain and simple. Sure, it may help locally in some regions of the lake, but putting a tiny bandage on a gash that is spewing blood is not going to stop the bleeding that ultimately comes from the heart.
Will the Great Lakes fishery stabilize or even improve? Hard to tell, but I sure hope so. I suspect that the lake will find its way whether or not man has a lot to do with it.
Let’s face it, the economic boom of the recreational fishery was based on non-native species anyway. The alewife, the salmon and steelhead — even the brown trout — are not endemic to the Great Lakes.
Another uninvited guest, the sea lamprey, used to be enemy number one. But now it’s the zebra and quagga mussels that have proliferated and killed the lake. That sucking sound is zillions of little bivalves killing alewives, ever so quietly.
The next big thing? Asian carp. Not a one of these species was put there by evolution or any god. Science people! Mother Nature does not like to be messed with and now she’s lashing out at us.
But somehow, someway these inland seas chug along from a fish and wildlife perspective, despite our incredible ability to screw things up. Guys like me that have made a modest living exploiting these fisheries will slowly disappear from the radar.
Recreational anglers that simply want to enjoy a Saturday morning after a long week of work will play more golf perhaps. Other fishermen will just work harder at it. That is, unless anglers and fisheries managers start to think in terms of self-sustaining resources and conservation.
Hatcheries are great, but sending more fish to a dinner table that has only been set for what nature has determined to be the right amount of mouths to feed is no way to fix things.
Natural reproduction, lower bag limits and catch-and-release are critical to the future, and I truly hope that more anglers get that in the very near future. I have for a long time and trust me, it feels fine.