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Salmon and trout: A look back at 2020 and ahead to 2021 on Illinois waters of Lake Michigan

Crunching the numbers and the dreams of salmon and trout on the Illinois waters of Lake Michigan back to 2020 and forward to this year.

Sunrise over Lake Michigan on March 25,2020, the day before the Chicago lakefront shut down for the pandemic. Credit: Dale Bowman
Sunrise over Lake Michigan on March 25,2020, the day before the Chicago lakefront shut down for the pandemic.
Credit: Dale Bowman

I never thought I would see a year like 2020 on Lake Michigan.

Chinook and coho salmon records in Illinois stood unchallenged for more than 40 years but anglers came close in 2020.

I wondered what 2021 might bring (assuming the weather will break).

On June 20, 2020, Dale Rehus and Chris Ranney went out of Waukegan in Rehus’ boat, ‘‘Delirious’’ and set up on South Reef as the sun rose.

Then lost six straight big fish, until Ranney landed one on a meat rig on a downrigger. They estimated it at as a Chinook around 17 pounds. But when Ranney was prepping to clean it, all their friends said it was a coho. Ranney jumped on a scale with and without the fish and had 18.6 pounds, close to the Illinois record (20 pounds, 9 ounces) caught by Carry VandeVusse on May 24, 1972, in Lake County waters.

Chris Ranney holds his near-record coho caught out of Waukegan. Provided photo
Chris Ranney holds his near-record coho caught out of Waukegan.
Provided

On Aug. 14, 2020, Brad Reineking of Fox River Grove launched out of Waukegan with Wisconsin brothers Dan and Ben Keifer. Dan Keifer would reel in an unbelievable Chinook.

‘‘When I got [the king] into the net, I had to hand the net to my buddy, and he was struggling so hard to get it into the boat I had to help,’’ Reineking said. ‘‘I had never seen one that big.’’

So big, it didn’t fit in the big cooler and weighed 35.27 pounds, just short of the Illinois record (37 pounds) caught by Marge Landeen on Aug. 7, 1976, in Lake County waters.

Dan Keifer with his near-record Chinook salmon. Photo provided
Dan Keifer with his near-record Chinook salmon.
Provided

I asked Vic Santucci, Illinois’s Lake Michigan program manager, if there is a chance of a repeat of a record chase in 2021.

“It is hard to predict the future Dale, but I believe we have been seeing good-sized Chinook and coho harvested the past several years in Illinois and other regions of the lake,” he emailed. “I would anticipate the trend to continue in 2021, barring any unexpected changes in alewife abundance or past increases in production of naturally-produced (wild) salmon and trout.”

As to alewives and other preyfish, Santucci emailed, “We will get some information on the Lake Michigan prey fish community at the March Lakes Meetings hosted by the Great Lakes Fishery Commission (GLFC). This year’s Lakes Meetings will be virtual and more information is available at the GLFC website.”

So far signs are hopeful for 2021 and coming years.

“Yes, egg take was good last fall and we anticipate another good stocking year for Lake Michigan salmon and trout,” Santucci emailed. “It is not yet clear what the 2021 stocking plans will be for lake trout stocked by our federal partners in 2021.

“Illinois’ 2021 stocking targets for Lake Michigan are the same as those in 2020. It is also status quo for lakewide stocking of salmon and trout in terms of predator (Chinook salmon) equivalents. However, other states may have plans to adjust target stocking numbers among species, as mutually agreed to in the Lake Michigan Committee’s (LMC’s) Salmonine Stocking Strategy.”

Even with the pandemic, Illinois’ stocking in 2020 went well. Jake Wolf Memorial Fish Hatchery met or slightly exceeded Illinois’ Lake Michigan stocking targets: Chinook, 180,000 (increase of 30,000 from 2019); coho, 300,000; steelhead and Arlee rainbow trout, 135,000 (increase of 25,000 from 2019); and brown trout, 110,000. (Stocking numbers may be found on IFishIllinois.org under the stocking tab.)

“One difference for 2020 was that we did not receive our typical allotment of 120,000 yearling lake trout from the federal hatchery system that are typically stocked at Julian’s Reef,” Santucci emailed. “The yearlings for Illinois were reared, but had to be stocked from shore in Kewaunee, Wisconsin, the nearest shore stocking site available under 2020 travel restrictions.”

As to Santucci’s view of the Lake Michigan fishery, “For me, the best plan is to have a multi-species salmon and trout fishery and predator community in the lake because it provides the best opportunity to catch fish throughout the year and to sustain the world class fishery that we all enjoy.”