Smith:Silver Salmon is Lake Michigan's annual spring revelry

OAK CREEK - The fireworks don't always go off after dark.

At 5:30 a.m. Thursday, a storm erupted in Lake Michigan, about 10 miles east of Oak Creek.

Lots of splash and flash, all thanks to silver salmon.

It started when the starboard line behind Steve Rusteberg's 21-foot boat started dancing with life. I grabbed the rod and started thrashing around.

A few seconds later, Scott Kelly of Big Bend took the rod when the lower port slinger started.

As the sun tinted the eastern sky orange, we caught two fish, both silver salmon weighing about 3 pounds.

Before we had a chance to clean the net, the climax came:Two more lines were hit at the same time.

The three of us came up with an impromptu quick dance: cleaning the rod, steering and reeling in the line. Then Kelly tucked the net under two more silver lines and hoisted the thing into the boat.

"Hit the jackpot!" said Rusteberg, 50, of Oak Creek.

Fortunately, another fish hit five minutes later. That gave us time to unhook all four fish and unhook the matching tackle in the bag.

After this flurry of action, a singles and doubles tournament unfolded over the next two hours.

It is this type of fishing that has earned the silver carp their prized reputation, drawing large numbers of anglers to the waters of Southwest Lake Michigan each spring.

Says Rusteberg: "It's pretty easy."

Among Lake Michigan's fish populations - Chinook salmon, silver trout, rainbow trout (trout), lake trout and brown trout - silver trout are known for their spring "migration" from southern Lake Michigan northward along the Wisconsin coast " and is known for its

Typically, hot silver snake bites begin in Kenosha in March or April and spread to Racine, Milwaukee and Port Washington in successive weeks.

Silver sheep are notoriously aggressive; anglers I know who grew up in Racine once said that these fish would even hit "fishing in the prop pool" lures.

While that may be true in some cases, it doesn't diminish my love for coho. They are my favorite of all Lake Michigan trout and salmon.

I'm not the only one to comment in this way.

I don't like (marijuana) very much," says Kelly, 51. "I love them."

The best action tends to happen earlier in the day. When we launched at Bender Park at 4:15 a.m. Thursday, a lunar deficit, convex moon periodically passed through the scattered clouds.

When we arrived at our location, the lake had 2-foot waves and the water temperature was 42 degrees; the depth was 150 feet.

Rusteberg used a combination of downriggers and submersibles to arrange six lines that covered the water column from 15 to 60 feet underwater.

The most conspicuous end of the line was the bread and butter of spring silver cod fishing: dodgers and flies.

Some lines also had spoons on them.

One of them was baited with frozen herring "meat machines".

Rusteberg and Kelly met as friends through the online fishing forum Lake-Link.

They have a lot in common: high job flexibility, more time to get out and fish than the average full-time employee, years of fishing experience on big ponds, and no aversion to fishing from 0:00 to 30:00.

Rusteberg grew up in northern Illinois and became an avid musky fisherman, culminating in the professional musky circuit.

In 2002, he moved to Cady and has been a "cheesehead" ever since, including learning the Lake Michigan fishing game.

He now spends as much time on Lake Michigan as he does on other waters; the public boat at Oak Creek Bend Park is just minutes from his home.

Kelly grew up in West Allis and cut his fishing teeth fishing for Lake Michigan trout and salmon from the shore. Over the past 15 years, he has fished more and more from his own boat.

The game plan for Thursday was to leave early and get back early so we could put in a full day of work.

With six fish in the cooler at 5:30, we made considerable progress toward that goal.

The Lake Michigan trout and salmon fishery has its roots in state and federal stocking programs that were initiated in the 1960s.

From the 1800s to the mid-20th century, the ecological health of Lake Tahoe was hit hard by overfishing, pollution and invasive alien species. For example, the marine seven-gill eel, an exotic species that can swim from the Atlantic Ocean to the Great Lakes through newly constructed shipping lanes, massively reduced the populations of two of Lake Michigan's top native predators - lake trout and burbot.

This has led to a population explosion of another invader, the walleye herring. As a child growing up in Racine, I often saw dead herring windows several inches deep scattered along the beaches of Lake Michigan's southwest shore.

An experiment that began in the 1960s to introduce Pacific species of trout and salmon to Lake Michigan not only solved a long-standing problem of fish pollution of the beaches; it also created a world-class fishery. Brown trout from Europe were also added.

This overall effort is now being hailed as one of the greatest success stories of 20th century fisheries management.

Along with some natural reproduction, the stocking program has helped maintain the lake's trout and salmon populations.
In Wisconsin, the Department of Natural Resources (DNR) uses state hatcheries to raise 1.2 million Chinook salmon, 515,000 silver salmon, 430,000 trout, 410,000 brown trout and 50,000 brook trout annually.

In addition, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service stocks approximately 45,000 lake trout in Wisconsin's Lake Michigan waters.

In 2020, silversides were the third most harvested species, the most recent year for which data are available. In the DNR's Croaker Survey, Chinook topped the list with 80,453 fish, followed by rainbow trout (54,430 species), cod (40,349 species), lake trout (38,271 species) and brown trout (3,317 species, a misleading number because this information was collected from May through November, missing the peak of the brown trout fishery in winter and early spring).

Silver salmon typically live in the lake for two summers and contribute the most to the sport fishery in the year following stocking.

In other words, this year's silver salmon catch will depend heavily on the yearling silver salmon stocked in 2021.

According to the DNR, the average weight of silver hake caught in Lake Michigan from 2015-19 was 4.03 pounds, the smallest of the five largest stocked species.

This has worked out well for me and many anglers I know.

The smaller spring silver lamb lent itself to a variety of preparations:grilled, roasted, boiled or smoked.

By 7:00 we landed 4 more Mountain Hawks and learned that this morning the western trolling route was better than the other directions.

So we had the boat heading up the coast at 2.5 miles per hour.

This area is one that Rusteberg has favored for many years. Why here?

Rusteberg likens it to the migration of migrating birds.

He says the area we fished Thursday, which he calls "Route 55" because it's east of Oak Creek, is particularly productive for about two weeks in May.

"There's got to be something fishy here," he said. "All I know is if there's fish, then that's where you should be fishing."

Indeed, as the proverb says: "Listen to the fish."

For the next hour, we continued to fish for cod, and shortly after 8:00, our 15th and final fish met our daily limit.

By 8:30, we departed from the parking lot for work and were each enriched by another beautiful spring day of silver cod on the shores of Lake Michigan, Wisconsin.

Leave a Comment