5/11/2023 Fishing Report Waukegan Harbor
Water temp is 52 degrees at the surface in 40’ to 50’ which is where we found the coho today. It was not fast, but consistent with a six person limit caught. We’ve been fishing pretty much straight out of the harbor at Waukegan, but coho are being caught to both the North and South of us. All the typical dodger/fly combos on planer boards and dipseys along with spoons on rigger are working well. Riggers are between 15’ to 18’ down and dipsey’s set back 40’ - 45’ are getting a workout. Planer boards with a 35’ stretch seem to be optimal. Colors in the green family are performing best. There are some King salmon being caught too, which is typical of May. Just a tip - When we start fishing in 50’ of water and beyond, it is definitely worth putting some 8” dodgers with 3” to 4” flies in the spread.
The Lake Michigan Salmon and Trout Fishery - How Did It Become?
This question is the most frequently asked among our charter guests. So, with some recollection as a Waukegan, IL. native growing up fishing the lake with my father, our chartering experience, and some research here’s our answer.
Alewives and Lake Trout
To understand this we need to know a little about the Alewives and the Lake Trout. Alewife colonized the Great Lakes from the Atlantic Ocean through the Welland Canal and became most abundant in Lake Huron and Lake Michigan (Cited in multiple sources). They reached their peak in the 1950s and remained consistent into the 70’s. Anyone living around the lake during these years will remember the massive spring post-spawn die off of the alewives which created one heck of a nuisance along the shorelines and beaches. The stench of decaying alewives could be smelled for miles and beaches had to be bulldozed to remove the dead alewives. Growing up in Waukegan, IL. I can clearly recall this through the late 70’s.
During this same time the main predator and native fish; the lake trout, were nearly decimated by commercial overfishing and the invasion of the sea lamprey. This sparked the DNR restocking efforts of the lake trout and lamprey control efforts. Both have been greatly successful and continue to this day. I remember in the 70’s when 3 out 5 fish caught had a lamprey on it or the wounds of one present. The flesh of some fish was nearly white as they had the blood sucked out of them by the lamprey. Today we see a lamprey 3-5 times a year per a thousand fish caught and the lake trout are once again abundant.
Fun Fact: While working with the IL DNR Biologist we learned that the alewives contain an enzyme that makes the lake trout sterile when consumed. However, the goby (another invasive species) reverses this enzyme when consumed and allows the reproduction to continue. Someone want to fact check that?
The Coho and King Salmon
This is where the salmon comes in. With a lack of predator fish and an overabundance of alewives, coho salmon were introduced to Lake Michigan in 1966 by a DNR biologist to curb the alewife population and shortly after was the introduction of king salmon. The introduction and successful fishery that we now know is deemed to be the largest ongoing ecosystem experiments ever performed. Introduction of the salmon into the lake created one of the largest sport-fishing opportunities of non-native fish in the world. This salmon experiment is still thriving with the multi-state DNR and federal management of stocking vs. abundance of alewives, which seems to be fluidly changing every year. The salmon fishery in Lake Michigan is an overlooked opportunity by many and memory maker for so many other anglers.
I remember back in the 70’s and 80’s when Waukegan, IL. was renown as the “Coho Salmon Capital of the World” and huge fishing derby's would take place annually. These were days of fishing with Deep 6’s, Tadpolly’s, Loco spoons, and rubber squids. It’s been amazing to be a part of the fishing industry over the past several decades and to witness the evolution of tackle and techniques.
According to Purdue University research; [ Steelhead trout, members of the salmon family that live and grow in the Pacific Ocean, genetically adapted to the freshwater environment of Lake Michigan in less than 120 years. The steelhead were introduced into Lake Michigan tributaries in the early 1800’s and still continue to spawn in small freshwater tributaries and streams, but now treat the entirely freshwater habitat of the Great Lakes as a surrogate ocean. After their introduction into Lake Michigan, steelhead began to naturally reproduce and established self-sustaining populations throughout the Great Lakes. ] On the charter boat we consider the steelhead the fresh water tarpon. Their intense fighting style and airborne acrobatics make them one of the funnest fish to catch in our opinion.
Fun fact: if the mouth of the fish is pinned shut by the barbs of a treble hook, it will not display the acrobatics.
According the Wisconsin DNR, [ Brown trout were first stocked into Lake Michigan in 1883 but these early plantings did not survive well. Because of this early failure, few brown trout were stocked into the Great Lakes in the years that followed. This stocking policy changed in the mid‚Äź1960s when, as part of the Great Lakes rehabilitation effort, brown trout were once again stocked into Lake Michigan. This time survival of the fish was excellent. ] Brown trout are maintained through stocking programs and are commonly found in shallower, warmer waters from Michigan around the southern basin and up into Wisconsin. The best time to target Brown trout in from October through April.