Fall fishing makes Lake Michigan a busy place
MILWAUKEE (MCT) — Milwaukee’s lakefront, scenic threshold to the world’s greatest freshwater resource, has a tendency to draw a crowd.
Even as temperatures dipped and summer slipped into fall this week, the harbor was one of the busier places in Brew City.
Sailors from four continents gathered to compete in the Soling Worlds. The fleet of sleek boats and support vessels made a parade-like passage through the harbor gaps each day to and from their open-water course.
At the other end of the spectrum, freighters the length of football fields chugged into and out of our fair port.
And less conspicuous — mostly — a smattering of sport-fishing boats trolled and drifted in the near-shore waters of Lake Michigan.
Eric Haataja of West Allis, Wis., and I had just embarked on a noon fishing outing from McKinley Marina one Monday when we contributed to a traffic jam in the harbor.
It would be tempting to blame a chinook salmon. But that would fail to acknowledge our intentions.
“We’re going to have to follow it,” Haataja said, eyeing the dwindling supply of line on my reel as a fish made off for points east.
The helmsmen on a half dozen sailboats nearby noticed the line sizzling through the water and deftly tacked to the south.
Haataja fired up the main outboard on his 19-foot fishing boat and closed the distance to the unseen but considerable force.
“Thank you,” Haataja said to the sailors as he slid our boat close to the breakwater and out of the traffic pattern.
It’s not a standard point of lecture in boating education courses. But it sure is nice when other vessels are aware of their surroundings and give a sport-fishing boat at least a brief right of way while fighting a fish.
Yes, we intended to hook the fish. No, we didn’t want to cause congestion in the harbor. And since it was the first fish of the day, we also didn’t want to lose it.
The fish circled the boat and went on several more long runs.
I don’t know if scientists have measured the horsepower of an 18-pound chinook salmon, but medium-weight fishing tackle is barely able to harness it.
It took 15 minutes to bring the fish to boat-side. Haataja slid the net under the fish and hoisted it aboard.
The fish, a female, was 35 inches long. In the early stages of a spawning migration, its skin was the color of tarnished silver.
We kept the fish. Its flesh was firm and still very good table fare. And its eggs will be used for bait.
As we reorganized the boat, a pair of fishing boats trolled past us, working the north gap. More sailboats zigzagged through the harbor. And a few shore anglers cast from Government Pier and the Veteran’s Park sea wall.
As with attendance at football games and lakefront music festivals, anglers targeting Wisconsin’s Lake Michigan harbors in fall can expect plenty of company.
For this, the fish are entirely responsible. Chinook (or king) and coho salmon return to harbors and tributaries in September and October on spawning migrations.
Brown and rainbow (or steelhead) trout are also caught close to shore in fall.
For shore and pier anglers, the concentration of fish presents one of the best opportunities of the year. Boat anglers simply shift their focus closer to shallower waters.
The fall fishery is dependent on stocking in Wisconsin waters. In the Milwaukee harbor, 114,000 chinook salmon fingerlings and 16,135 coho salmon yearlings were stocked in 2010.
The stocking, paid for by license fees and the Great Lakes Trout and Salmon Stamp, occurs in harbors from Kenosha to Door County.
Cuts to the stocking levels are pending to help balance the number of predator and forage fish in the lake. An announcement by the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources is expected soon on final stocking levels for 2013.
Haataja, owner of Big Fish Guide Service, grew up in Racine and has three decades of experience catching fall salmon.
“One of the best parts of this fishery is it’s available to every type of angler,” Haataja said, keeping an eye on the graph as he repositioned the boat.
Haataja takes advantage of electronics to locate pods of salmon in the harbor.
“If I’m not seeing fish on the graph, I’ll keep moving,” Haataja said.
Moving can include fishing. Some days Haataja will troll crank baits on flat lines in the harbor. Others he’ll rig up a lead head jig with a soft plastic tail and fish while drifting or slowly trolling.
But we found fish within 5 minutes of leaving the McKinley Marina public boat launch. The spot, near the north harbor gap, was the first we checked.
The water was about 25 feet deep. Fish showed on the graph from 17 to 22 feet down.
This time of year, Haataja said the fish most readily hit crank baits or salmon eggs.
We let the boat slowly bob in the lee of the sea wall while we fished long spinning rods with slip bobbers and No. 6 hooks. We attached chunks of skein, or salmon roe, to the hook and set the slip bobber to present the bait about 18 feet below the surface.
The skein had been cured with a homemade mix featuring Borax. Commercial recipes are available.
The salmon couldn’t resist. After the first fish was landed, Haataja reeled in an 8-pound coho salmon, still bright as a new dime.
During the next 45 minutes we each landed three more kings between 12 and 20 pounds.
Haataja then dropped me off on the north break wall to oblige a photo request. As he moved the boat into position, two more chinook hit this lines.
I watched as Haataja landed and released both fish.
“The king always returns in the middle of September,” Haataja said.
Like the genial crowd of fellow anglers, boaters and sailors in the harbor this week, that’s a fall tradition worth celebrating.