On a recent
weekend 9,000 fishermen disregarded small-craft warnings, threw caution to the
near-gale-force winds sweeping treacherous Lake Michigan and put their small
boats into the storm. It was a bad, sad day—150 boats were swamped and seven
anglers were drowned. What prompted this mass imprudence, which in retrospect
seems almost like hysteria? The answer, of course, is fish—and not just any
fish. It has been a long time—like never—since coho salmon have been available
in Lake Michigan, and quiet towns like Manistee, Honor and Frankfort have
virtually been upended by their sudden presence.
The cohos were
planted as four-inch fingerlings in rivers feeding into Lake Michigan just 1�
years ago and have this year returned as fighting fish weighing an average 14
pounds. When word of the coho run got out, shortly after Labor Day, most tackle
shops were soon sold out, and stores that still had stock on hand were selling
lures for as much as $10 apiece. Quickly rigged charter boats were renting for
$100 a day (four men for eight hours or until each had caught two fish). On
weekends, hotels and motels were jammed with anglers, some of whom had come
hundreds of miles. The coho thus was fulfilling the expectations of those
wildlife management people who believed the fish was what Michigan needed to
regain the popularity it once held among sport fishermen.
Fishing in the
Great Lakes began a slow decline around the turn of the century. The lake
trout, recorded as reaching weights up to 60 pounds in Lake Superior and
running slightly lighter in the other major waters, was the principal fish
sought by big-tackle anglers. There were, of course, perch, smallmouth bass,
pike and muskies, but the great gray trout was the favorite. After World War
II, the decline of the lake trout catch was precipitous. The commercial catch
in 1946 was 5,500,000 pounds, but by 1953 the catch of lake trout was down to
sea lamprey was largely the cause of the depletion of the slow-maturing lake
trout, though practically unrestricted commercial fishing certainly had
something to do with it. The sea lamprey, a parasite that drifted in through
the St. Lawrence Seaway, flourished in fresh water and found a convenient host
in the lake trout. The U.S. Government worked with Canada in trying to find a
method of coping with the lamprey, but the blood sucker was a tough adversary.
After some 4,000 poisons (and many other more costly methods) had been tried, a
breakthrough came in 1959 in the form of TFM, a complex chemical that proved to
be an effective and selective lampreycide. Then another finny carpetbagger
found its way up the Seaway. This was the scaly, razor-bellied alewife, a
member of the herring family. This fish liked fresh-water living—particularly
when it found there were practically no predatory fish left in the Great Lakes.
The alewives multiplied—and multiplied. It was estimated in 1962 that alewives
comprised about 17% of the fish volume, by weight, in Lake Michigan. In 1966
this volume soared to 90%. The worthless fish were everywhere, and they crowded
indigenous species right out of existence.
A handful of
commercial boats were converted to enable them to take the alewives, and they
had no trouble doing it. Catches of four to seven tons could be made in
minutes, but the alewives had little food value and market price ranged from
one-half to three-fourths of a cent per pound. A couple of plants were set up
to convert the fish into fertilizer, and some fish found their way into
cat-food cans. It was hardly the start of a thriving industry.
conservation department, pleased by the decline of the sea lamprey but
disturbed by the bloom of alewives, began a search for a predator fish that
might also make a good sport fish. They started planting lake trout in Lake
Michigan and Lake Superior, but the gray is slow growing and would have taken
years to repopulate the lakes. They tried crossing brook, or speckled, trout
with lakers, but the resultant hybrid also proved to be a slow-growing fish. A
program of planting rainbow trout in the lower reaches of some of the lakes'
tributaries was started, the goal being to produce lake-run rainbows, a
variation of the steelhead trout.
A few of the fish
biologists in the department advocated brown trout, heavy feeders known to have
reached weights of up to 40 pounds. Some others wanted striped bass, which had
been successful in making the transfer from the ocean to the fresh waters of
the TVA impoundments. It was finally decided that the best bet would be an
anadromous fish, a variety that could be planted in the rivers and that would
then run to the waiting fresh-water "sea," where, on the abundant food
supply, it could eagerly eat and grow before returning to the rivers to spawn.
These fish would not compete with the native trout for food and space in the
rivers and would not be caught in the egg stage in the lakes to be gulped down
by the billions of alewives. The coho, or silver salmon, was selected.
arranged for a four-year supply of salmon eggs, the first shipment of one
million arriving from Oregon in the fall of 1965. These eggs became 800,000
fingerlings by the spring of 1966. Then gently and with great ceremony, the
silvery four-inch fingerlings were planted in four rivers.
In May 1966 the
conservation department issued a news release that, in retrospect, was the
epitome of humorous understatement. It said that since the newly planted coho
salmon were not covered by Michigan regulations, sportsmanlike anglers should
return to the waters any fish under seven inches, the existing minimum legal
size for trout. On August 9, a commercial fisherman near Charlevoix netted the
first coho to be taken since the May plantings. It was a historic occasion—and
an astonishing one. The four-to five-inch fingerling had grown, in
approximately 90 days, into a 15-inch fish that weighed one pound, four
had expected to see some cohos return to their home streams in the fall of
1967. The fish normally mature in their second or third year, then go back to
their hatching places to spawn and die. It was predicted that the first fish to
put in an appearance would be the more rapidly maturing males, or jack salmon,
and that in the following year, 1968, both males and females would make a
spawning run. The predictions were conservative.