Chinook and Indiana DNR: Q & A with fisheries biologist Brian Breidert
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Here’s another piece of the fall Chinook story on southern Lake Michigan, an email Q&A — posted unabridged here — with Brian Breidert, Indiana’s Lake Michigan fisheries biologist.
What is your take on the fall return to near shore of Chinook?
The fall Chinook fishery has provided countless anglers an amazing fishing experience over the years, whether via nearshore trolling, casting from the piers, or fishing the streams. It has historically been one of the highest profile fisheries in Indiana, along with our spring coho and summer skamania steelhead. Unfortunately, fall Chinook fishing has generally been poor in Indiana since 2014. That is an unavoidable and regrettable fact. The survival and return rate of Chinooks on the southern end of Lake Michigan has declined fairly steadily over the past five years, primarily due to the collapse of the bait population and inconsistent alewife spawns.
Are you satisfied?
We are very displeased with the fall fishery in Indiana over the past few years. Chinooks are highly desired by anglers and are the easiest and cheapest to raise in the hatchery. If there was anything we could do to move the needle significantly on the fall fishery without torpedoing our other stocking programs, we would do it in a heartbeat.
The single biggest predictor of good baby Chinook survival is the strength of the alewife spawn in the year that the Chinooks are stocked, and we have had several very poor years for alewife spawning, especially in 2013 and 2014. Until we have more baitfish and reliable alewife spawns, we will likely not see an increase in Chinook survival rates and improve our fishery. We are hopeful for the future because bait populations have been trending in the right direction, but we still have a long ways to go to get back to where we were a decade ago.
Is the fall return what you expected?
Yes, the fall return is about what we expected, unfortunately. It is important to note that the poor fall Chinook fishing of the past several years is NOT from the most recent stocking cuts. Chinooks return in the fall as mature 2- and 3-year-old fish, for the most part. This year’s fishery is built on the backs of fish stocked in 2015 and 2016 — before the stocking cut in Indiana took place.
Any changes coming in stocking rates or stocking placements?
We are planning on stocking between 70,000 and 75,000 Chinooks next year. We eliminated some fingerling skamania and will be making those up with a few extra Chinooks.
Chinooks will continue to be stocked in Trail Creek (odd years) and the Little Calumet River (even years). We went to this rotating stocking strategy because we did not feel that spreading 70,000 Chinooks over our three historical stocking locations would provide a viable fishery at any location, given current low return rates. Trail Creek and Little Calumet River have the best return, so that is where we are going to stock our fish.
Are you getting pushback from fishermen either way?
We’ve been getting push back from anglers about Chinook fishing for several years. They’re very passionate about the king fishery – and they should be, they are called king salmon for a reason. Nothing really compares to the fight of a big king.
There has been a lot of angst about the fact that Indiana dropped from 200K Chinooks down to 63K last year. Many anglers have seen these new numbers and believe that Indiana is getting the short end of the stick and stocks disproportionally fewer Chinooks than other states. In reality, the opposite is true. Indiana has only 1% of the surface area of Lake Michigan and about 2.6% of Lake Michigan’s shoreline length. Despite this very small footprint, Indiana in 2017 stocked 4.75% of all the kings in Lake Michigan.
Some anglers have urged us to keep our Chinook quota at 200,000. However, to do so we would have to significantly cut our other stocking programs. For example, to retain our Chinook stockings at previous levels, we could eliminate our entire skamania steelhead program. Or we could eliminate all our coho and all our winter run steelhead stocking. Or we could eliminate all winter run steelhead, all brown trout, and 25% of our skamania steelhead stockings.
Steelhead and coho have provided fantastic fishing over the past several years in Indiana, for boat, pier, and stream anglers alike over the entire year. They are the best returning fish on our end of the lake right now. We feel it is irresponsible to eliminate our best-performing fisheries at the expense of our worst-performing fishery. We wish we did not have to choose, but it is an unfortunate reality.
It is important for all our anglers to understand that our stocking programs are geared towards three modes of fishing (boat, pier and stream), and also geared towards providing fisheries throughout the entire calendar year. Each species provides for a component of those fishing modes or a combination of two or three modes, at different times of year.
We’re asking anglers to be patient and allow the stocking cuts to keep moving our fishery in the right direction, and rebuild more bait. The only way we can stock more kings in the future is to keep increasing the baitfish population.
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