A Lake Michigan fish story: Return of the king

Michigan DNR says natural reproduction of Chinook salmon is improving

Grand Haven, salmon
Salmon hang from hooks in Grand Haven. (May 25, 2017)


GRAND HAVEN, Mich. (WOOD) — In the harbor towns along Lake Michigan, there haven’t been a lot of good fish stories to tell the last couple years.

The salmon fishing’s been bad.

But this spring, the king salmon are back in big numbers.

“I’ve been running fish out of Grand Haven since ’84 and this is by far probably our best salmon fishery we’ve had in quite a long time,” Dana Bonney, charter captain for Danel Sportsfishing, said Thursday.

The Michigan Department of Natural Resources confirmed it. The salmon fishing has been strong up and down Lake Michigan, from St. Joseph to Frankfort. But the DNR said they’re really biting in Grand Haven.

“Grand Haven’s been on fire,” Brian Butt, captain of the Sea Flea charter boats, said. “It really has. It’s been on fire.”

Grand Haven, salmon
Brian Butt, captain of the Sea Flea charter boats, in Grand Haven on May 25, 2017.

It’s good news for charter boat captains and for harbor towns.

“The restaurants, the motels, the fuel stations and the shopping centers of downtowns all benefit by this sort of activity,” said Dennis Grinold, captain of the Old Grin charter boat.

Grand Haven, salmon
Dennis Grinold, the captain of the Old Grin charter boat, in Grand Haven on May 25, 2017.

In 2015 and 2016, Chinook or king salmon in Lake Michigan dropped to levels not seen since the 1970s, according to Jay Wesley, the DNR’s Lake Michigan Basin Coordinator.

“Last year, we could say there was 70 percent less chinook in Lake Michigan than there was in 2012, and those were pretty good years,” Grinold said.

A big reason for the drop was that the DNR drastically cut back the number of young Chinooks it planted in Lake Michigan. In 2012, the DNR planted 3.6 million of the four-inch Chinooks. The next year, it cut that in half. The year after that, it reduced it again, now down to 1.3 million a year.

But now, the DNR is noticing more natural reproduction of Chinook.

Grand Haven, salmon
Salmon hang from hooks in Grand Haven. (May 25, 2017)

Last year, the DNR said, an estimated 1.1 million king salmon swam the lake — far below average. This year, the DNR expects that number has almost doubled to nearly 2 million Chinooks, which is closer to average.

But average is a far cry better than what it has been.

“It’s not just Grand Haven,” Grinold said. “It’s from St. Joe all the way up to Manistee: coho and Chinook salmon.”

The DNR said one reason for the rebound is that a couple consecutive warm winters allowed the salmon’s food supply — the alewives — to thrive.

“I can’t recall seeing it last this strong this long in this area of the lake,” Grinold said.

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DNR on Chinook salmon