Could coho records go? We’ll know soon if it’s so

In a turnaround reminiscent of decades past, a few coho in southern Lake Michigan are heavy enough to near Illinois and Indiana records

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Ray Guzak caught this 17.8-pound coho, one of a number of really big coho being caught in southern Lake Michigan, on July 3 around the Illinois/Indiana line.

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Amber Guzak sized the moment up right.

``My husband [Ray] caught a fish [July 3] on Lake Michigan that’s pretty impressive-- a 17.8-pound coho (not a king),’’ she messaged. ``He’s been doing this for many years and has never come across a coho this size before.’’

That’s enough of a freak of a coho that I emailed Ben Dickinson, Indiana’s Lake Michigan fisheries biologist, to make sure it was a coho and not an oddly colored Chinook.

``Sure looks like a big coho,’’ he responded. ``I’ve seen a few that size caught this year. Probably a few others caught that weren’t widely shared as most people assumed they were kings.’’

Guzak caught his big coho just north of the Indiana state line, his wife messaged. They keep their boat, Reel Distraction, at Marina Shores in Burns Harbor, Ind.

Something big is going on in southern Lake Michigan and I don’t just mean the occasional big Chinook, even 30-pound kings have already been reported in Illinois. But there are coho of a size not seen in decades.

In my weekly reports from Capt. Bob Poteshman, he has been consistently calling them, ``big chunky coho.’’ In early June, Poteshman’s Confusion charters had already turned up a 17-pound coho, caught by Tom Zurek of Orland Hills, out of North Point Marina.

This week in his weekly report, Capt. Scott Wolfe reported, ``Again coho dominated the catch with some big kings in the mix too--6- to 7-pound coho make up most of the catch with some this week up to 13 pounds.’’

As of Wednesday afternoon, there were already eight Chinook of 30 pounds or heavier weighed from boats in Salmon-A-Rama, based in Racine, Wis. and running through Sunday. All 10 top spots for coho were 10 pounds or heavier, the heaviest going 14.18.

``I would say they seem a bit larger than last year, yes – but really they have been larger than average for the last two or three years,’’ Dickinson emailed.

Illinois Lake Michigan Program manager Vic Santucci emailed, ``I have been hearing some anecdotal reports of big salmon being caught again this year, but we will not see any data until after our fall harbor surveys and the summer creel data is tabulated over the winter.

``I think the bigger salmon are the result of better predator/prey balance in the lake.’’

Dickinson put the credit in the same spot.

``I feel fairly confident in saying that the biggest reason is the stocking reductions over the past few years have resulted in a much better predator prey balance in the lake – the reduction alleviated the predation pressure on the baitfish, so as a result we’re seeing more bait, and the silver fish have all improved in size and body conditions,’’ he emailed. ``We’ve seen very nice steelhead size in addition to the big coho and very large kings. There’s more bait to go around for the salmon in the lake. It’s quite the turnaround since the small, skinny fish in 2015!’’

I’ve been doing the outdoors for the Sun-Times for more than two decades and never figured that the coho records in Indiana or Illinois would ever be challenged again. I’m beginning to wonder if those coho records might not just be challenged but perhaps surpassed this year.

``Breaking our 20-pound, 9-ounce coho record would be quite a feat and a fun challenge for our local anglers,’’ Santucci emailed. ``We have had several Lake Michigan records broken for other species in recent years, it would be great if we could add a new coho record to the list.’’

Carry VandeVusse caught that Illinois record on May 24, 1972.

That was back in the early years of the experimental introduction of salmon into Lake Michigan to control alewives.

Significantly, 1972 was the same year that John Beutner caught the Indiana record (20-12) in LaPorte County.

``I would not be shocked to see a record, but I would be mildly surprised,’’ Dickinson emailed. ``Given the number of mid-teen coho I have seen it certainly seems to be in striking distance by the end of the year or maybe even next year if there is another good year for alewife and coho.’’

Last word goes to Amber Guzak on her husband Ray, ``He’s been fishing Lake Michigan since he was a young boy and said he has never seen one this big.’’

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