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History of the Salmon Run

By Judy Nugent - November 1, 2006
The abundance of salmon found in Washington State and Oregon is now in Wisconsin, but it would die tomorrow without the continued efforts of the DNR. For the past four decades fishermen have timed their fall fishing outings with the annual spawning runs of the Chinook, Coho, and Steelhead. What seems so natural to us now is really unnatural.

Although there were some salmon present in the Great Lakes as early as 1877, serious stocking didn't come about until the introduction of the first strain of Pacific salmon in the 1960's. In 1964 and 1965 the Wisconsin DNR got salmon eggs from Washington, Oregon, and Alaska. Raised and introduced as a predator to control the alewife population, no one guessed at the amazing fishery it would create. In 1967 the first Chinook and Coho were released into the Lake Michigan tributaries. They grew up in the lake and returned to the tributaries when they reached sexual maturity. Since then the salmon population has only been getting better. The Coho numbers are now rather constant. The Chinook, on the other hand, are having an exceptional decade.

Three years ago the fisheries biologists predicted a good year for the Chinook because a good year class was returning to the rivers. For that year class they saw good survival rates and were not too surprised at the rate of return. The next year, in 2002, the biologists were more cautious in their forecasts. There were still plenty of Chinook, but they doubted they would reach the same high level as the previous year. They were wrong. 2002 turned out to be a very strong year. And then came 2003. Again the biologists were cautious. Yet 2003 turned out to be even bigger than the previous year. According to a DNR report, in 2003 the Chinook "showed the largest increase, 77% above the 5 year mean and the highest estimated harvest recorded since 1987."

According to Brad Eggold of the DNR, angling for these fish has never been easier. "A study in the 1980's," said Eggold," found that anglers spent around 4 million hours fishing for salmon. Today that number is cut in half. The catch rate on these fish is phenomenal." The general harvest numbers for trout and salmon in 2003 were 27% above the five year average.

But there is a twist to the story. During this time of great Chinook fishing the DNR has been cutting the number of fish it stocks. In an attempt to keep a balance between predator and forage, the DNR cut stocking in 1991 by 27%, and then again in 1998 and 1999. The state of Michigan also reduced its stocking by some 65%. Also, keep in mind that there is little to no natural reproduction occurring in the streams. A combination of turbidity, flow, and temperature have made the fishery entirely dependent on human efforts. Stocking is the only way to keep Chinook in the lake. Yet how is it Wisconsin seeing such an abundance of salmon when it is stocking lower and lower numbers?

The key is in how they raised the salmon. By reducing the number of fish they intended to stock, it allowed for more room and more water in the hatcheries. This translated into a higher fat index and a healthier fish. Eggold commented that "It's a tough sell to the public to say we're cutting Chinook, but the fingerlings are healthier and have a better survival rate than in the earlier years. In the end, the DNR is putting out a stronger product."

The process starts at an egg collecting station. For the Coho it is Kewaunee Anadromous Facility or the Root River station. Most Chinook eggs are captured at the Strawberry Creek facility in Door County. After collection the eggs are sent to a local hatchery. The eggs hatch in January and begin to grow into fingerlings. They are then released into a specific river in the spring. A tricky part to the puzzle is allowing the fingerling to imprint the specific smell of its home river. In the 1990's the DNR did research on the best time to release the fingerlings and found that a spring release produced greater survival than fall release because the small fish didn't have to contend with winter. The problem was a spring release introduced the fish into the streams right after smoltification. This is significant because smoltification is when the yearling loses it bars, turns silvery, and is ready to imprint. It is also a time when they are still delicate. Excessive handling can injure them, but feeding them less to slow development only encourages disease. Now the DNR tries to stock the fish as close to smoltification as possible to insure good imprinting and continued the tradition of the salmon run.

And when the adult Chinook return to spawn they come with a vengeance. Coho and Steelhead on the other hand don't like low water and often wait for large rain events to start swimming. Not Chinook. They come regardless of the water levels. In 2002 the DNR stocked 140,000 fingerlings at the Root, and did similar stocking in other tributaries. In the coming years these fish will return as adults and continue to provide excellent fall fishing opportunities.

After the success of the salmon, what other stocking ideas is the DNR working on? You might be surprised. Currently they are testing two new strains of Rainbow, the Arlee and the Kanloops. These strains would tolerate warmer water temperatures and be a near shore sport fishery. This is in response to the poor brook trout survival and would work hand in hand with the existing brown trout fishery. So far Wisconsin has stocked 60,000 of each variety in the major harbors of Lake Michigan. Time will tell, but let's hope history repeats itself.

Author Judy Nugent
Judy Nugent
Judy Nugent has been writing for several years. Her work can be found in Wisconsin Outdoor News, Wisconsin Outdoor Journal, Wisconsin Sportsman, Midwest Outdoors, Fly Fisherman Magazine and Snowshoe Magazine among others. She is also on the TV show OUTDOOR WISCONSIN. Judy has experience in radio with the show Great American Outdoor Trails where she does a weekly segment called Women on the Trail.
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