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River Runners

By Judy Nugent - November 1, 2006
It is fall and for anyone who lives near Lake Michigan, fall means salmon. In the next few months salmon and trout leave the deep waters of the lake in search of shallow gravel beds upstream. The sheer abundance of these trout and salmon make it a fishing bonanza. There are different sizes and types of fish in the river and the more you know about each one the better your trip will be. So gear up. This fall will be an excellent season for anglers.

One of the best fall fisheries is the Chinook run. Also knows as King salmon or Kings, these powerful fish start entering the tributaries in September. Chinook are traditionally described as iridescent green or blue-green with black spots on their backs and tops of their heads. They have silvery sides and a white belly. They are distinct from other salmon in that Chinook have a gray or black mouth, black gums, and a square tail with spots on the entire tail. But when the fish begin to spawn, their colors change. Fall river Chinook are bronze or dark brown and may have reddish spots on the head and body. Spawning males develop an elongated head and hooked lower jaw, called a kype.

First stocked in the mid 1960's, these fish have continued to grow in numbers and popularity. Released into the streams as fingerlings, they swim into the open lake and feed on forage fish like alewifes. When they mature, they return to the same river where they were stocked to spawn. And return they did. Last year over 12,000 Chinook were estimated to have returned to the Root River alone. And this year is poised to be even better. Yet, despite the efforts of the fish, all of the eggs will die. Turbidity, temperature, and flow make this fishery dependent on DNR stocking. The DNR collects all the eggs they need out of the Strawberry Creek facility in Door County, so there is no need to feel guilty about bring home a spawning salmon. Those fish are there for you to catch and enjoy. The average fish last year was 13 pounds with a few 20 pound fish tipping the scales.

Another fish that enters the stream in September is the Coho. Summer Coho that you catch in the lake are steel blue to slightly green on the back with bright silver sides and white bellies. They also have a black mouth, but their gums are white. Their tails are slightly forked with spots on the top half. These fish also transform when they swim up the rivers to spawn. In the fall their sides will darken from silver, to gray, to nearly black, and the males will get a hooked jaw and a slightly humped back.

This fish has been stocked annually in Lake Michigan since 1966. They return in their third year to the stream where they were stocked. There is some limited natural reproduction in northern Michigan stream, but by in large this fishery is also dependent on stocking. At the Root River station, Coho returning populations were estimated at just fewer than 6,000 last year. Estimates are that the numbers will stay the same for 2004 or drop slightly. Look for fish to range from 6 to 8 pounds.

The next two fish are present in the fall, but in smaller numbers. The first is the Brown trout. These fish show no noticeable change when they prepare to spawn. Slightly tan, these fish have colored spots and a square tail. Lake Michigan brown trout may be more pale than their inland counterparts, but in general they are easy to identify.

This fish came to Wisconsin in 1887 and did well in the warmer stream where brook trout were struggling. Today they are also stocked in Lake Michigan at a rate of 1.5 million a year. These fish usually stay close to the harbors in which they are stocked. They are wary and often feed at dusk or night. Most fishermen can be found on the piers at night casting spoons that glow in the dark. A few of these fish make it into the rivers in search of headwaters with clean gravel. The run usually starts in August and runs into October with some fish wintering in the deeper parts until spring.

Another fish found in the fall in lesser numbers is the Rainbow, also know as the Steelhead. In general these fish are identified as having spots all over their tails. They have a silver body with a white belly and a white mouth. They will still have their bright colors in the fall.

There are three genetic strains of Steelhead, each entering the stream at different times. All strains, however, spawn in the spring. Those fish who get a head start on the migration linger in the streams until their eggs ripen. The three species are the Skamania, July through September, the Chambers Creek strain migrating from November through March, and the Ganaraska who come in March and April. These fish can be as long as 30 - 32 inches and may reach 16 pounds by the time they are five years old. They are capable of spawning two or three times in their lives if they can avoid the angler's hook. Again, there is limited natural reproduction and the DNR had to stock 500,000 last year.

Remember to check your regulations before you head out. Night fishing is prohibited after October 1 until the first Saturday in May, and with so many fish in the river, there is no need to poach.

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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