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The return of the few but mighty kings: Assessing Chinook on the lakefront

Resized/Sun-Times

Chicago lakefront Chinook 2018.
Provided/Christian Howe

Just before sundown this month, Mike Ocho experienced what makes Chinook special when he hooked into a 26¼-pound hen in a Wisconsin harbor.

‘‘She almost spooled me,’’ messaged Ocho, who is from the northwest suburbs. ‘‘She got me down to the backing, but I was able to catch up with the trolling motor. We were on my 14-foot johnboat.’’

There’s a reason Chinook, especially the 4-year-olds returning to shore now, are the kings of fishing.

Resized/Sun-Times

Mike Ocho with a Wisconsin king.
Provided

Christian Howe was spot-on with his assessment of their return to the Chicago lakefront when he texted: ‘‘The king numbers aren’t great, but the quality of the fish showing up is.’’

North Side pastor Mark Jones echoed that assessment.

‘‘One of the highlights this fall has been the size of the salmon,’’ he emailed. ‘‘During Labor Day week, I personally saw a salmon they had weighed up at 26 pounds. Many of the kings are in the upper teens, wishing near 20 pounds.’’

I’ve never had so many submissions of 20-pound-plus kings.

‘‘We have also been hearing reports and seeing pictures of bigger Chinook and bigger coho and steelhead this summer and in recent weeks,’’ Lake Michigan Program manager Vic Santucci said.

‘‘Perhaps the alewife population is doing better than we think or the planting of less salmon is working,’’ Jones wondered.

I asked Santucci.

‘‘I think the reduction of predators through stocking reductions of Chinook in 2013 and Chinook, coho, browns and lake trout in 2017/2018 is providing a better balance between the predator-and-prey fish communities in the lake,’’ Santucci emailed. ‘‘Achieving predator-prey balance is a goal of Lake Michigan managers because it not only leads to a more sustainable fishery, but it also means there is enough prey to support a healthy predator/sportfish community.

‘‘Lakewide prey-fish data indicate alewife numbers may have stabilized somewhat during the past three years, compared to the steady decline we had been seeing earlier in the decade. Lakewide data is currently being collected for this year, and we should know more next spring after the data are compiled and summarized. Our [Illinois DNR] gill-net surveys this spring were not really different from previous samples in recent years, so our surveys do not support the theory that the alewife population is in better shape than originally thought.’’

The last word goes to Jones.

‘‘I’m hoping the water temps drop back down again,’’ he emailed. ‘‘That will really take the run into another level. Have a blessed day in the Lord.’’

From his email to God’s ears.

Fisheries chief

Mike McClelland has accepted the job of Illinois’ new fisheries chief. He replaces Dan Stephenson, who retired at the end of July. McClelland had been the manager of the Rivers, Reservoirs and Inland Waters Program.

Big day

The 25th annual National Public Lands Day is Saturday. There’s a multitude of events around Chicago. I’m hoping to hit one in Will County. For options, go to NEEFUSA.org/NPLD.

Stray cast

Watching 2018 Bears games reminds me of rafting Wildcat Falls on the Vermilion River.