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Lake Michigan big fish: A season of chasing history for big coho and big Chinook in Illinois waters

Once again it looks like a season on southern Lake Michigan where Illinois’ seemingly unassailable records for coho and Chinook may be within reach.

Chris Ranney holds an 18.6-pound coho caught at South Reef out of Waukegan. Provided by Dale Rehus
Chris Ranney holds an 18.6-pound coho caught at South Reef out of Waukegan.
Provided by Dale Rehus

Considering their Saturday started with losing six big fish, Dale Rehus and Chris Ranney ended up boating a coho big enough to talk history.

Now that boats are fishing again on southern Lake Michigan, catches begin to mirror the reports of big coho and big Chinook last year. I never thought we would see another chase for Illinois’ coho and Chinook records (see Fish of the Week), both of which were set in the 1970s. It’s time to rethink that.

‘‘Seeing those records topped in the next year or two would be pretty cool,’’ emailed Vic Santucci, the Lake Michigan program manager for the Illinois Department of Natural Resources.

That wasn’t what Ranney and Rehus were thinking about when they left Waukegan in Rehus’ boat, ‘‘Delirious.’’ They set up on South Reef as the sun rose.

‘‘Proceeded to hook up with six big fish. . . . I’m sure they were kings, as we were running a six-rod spread of king baits,’’ Rehus messaged. ‘‘Lost every one!!!! Maddening. But this one hit a rigger.’’

Ranney caught the fish on a meat rig on the downrigger, the ball down 42 feet.

‘‘We assumed it was a decent king,’’ Rehus messaged. ‘‘We both eyeballed it at 17 pounds. [Ranney] took it home to clean it, and we both posted pics. All our friends said, ‘That’s no king, it’s a coho.’

‘‘So he jumped on the scale with and without the fish. Difference was 18.6 pounds. Certainly the biggest coho ever caught on my boat in 25 years.’’

Carry VandeVusse caught the Illinois-record coho (20 pounds, 9 ounces) on May 24, 1972, in Lake County waters.

Santucci and Ben Dickinson, Indiana’s Lake Michigan fisheries biologist, would have liked a better look at the tail and the inside of the mouth of Ranney’s fish, but they agreed it was likely a coho.

‘‘[It is] likely one of the very rare ones that spends an extra year in the lake,’’ Dickinson messaged.

I wondered whether the better size was related to the reduction in salmon stockings for several years.

‘‘We reduced stocking of all of the salmon and trout species in our 2016 stocking adjustment, and estimates of naturally produced Chinook salmon has been lower in recent years — fewer predators for a given amount of prey usually means bigger, healthier fish,’’ Santucci emailed. ‘‘The increase in lakewide stocking of salmon and trout happening this year should not affect this year’s fishery very much, if at all.’’

I asked what impact the stay-at-home orders would have on salmon fishing.

‘‘[W]ith fewer fish being harvested this spring due to the stay-at-home orders (typically a big harvest period for coho in Illinois), we might expect that more fish will be available to anglers throughout the year, and, depending on harvest this summer, there might be better fall runs than we have seen in the past few years,’’ Santucci emailed. ‘‘It is hard to say for sure [because] our fall returns depend largely on survival of fish stocked in Illinois harbors.’’

Wild things

Retired naturalist Carl Strang posted what the 2020 periodical cicada emergence taught him at natureinquiries.wordpress.com/2020/06/23/periodical-cicada-update. . . . Follow the saga of Monty and Rose and their chicks, the piping plovers at Montrose Beach, at chicagopipingplovers.org.

Stray cast

Tina Turner’s opening to ‘‘Nutbush City Limits’’ (‘‘A church house, gin house/A schoolhouse, outhouse’’) is to dissections of American society what Norman Maclean’s opening sentence in ‘‘A River Runs Through It’’ (‘‘In our family, there was no clear line between religion and fly-fishing’’) is to descriptions of the passion for the outdoors.