Waters of Resiliency: DNR Researchers Talk Mysteries and Surprises of Changing Life in Lake Michigan

Lake Michigan has endured a stunning set of changes in the past century, and yet somehow keeps producing a bounty of life. Here, a lifelong fisherman heads out on the water with a research team to learn more about the evolution of fish in Lake Michigan and the mysteries of the changing life under the waves.

This article is featured in the June 2017 issue of Traverse, Northern Michigan’s Magazine.
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In 1979, Dad and I moved our Danish-made 20-foot Coronet boat from West Grand Traverse Bay to Onekama on Lake Michigan to fish for lake trout and salmon. The boat was old, slow and hard to service, but we fished twice a day every weekend from May through September for years. We caught plenty of fish in what biologists now understand as the “pre-mussel invasion period,” when the water was far less clear than it is today. We often fished with lures just five or six feet in back of a cannon ball downrigger weight, knowing that plankton would obscure the ball from the fish. Today, the water is so clear we often put lures 100 feet back of the cannon ball.

Photos by Christopher Morey

Smallmouth bass, rock bass, and, in the distance, a sucker take up residence near the break wall at Clinch Marina under the waters of Traverse Bay

We began with only two downriggers. We used dodgers and squid, Johnson spoons on single-strand wire line and lures no longer made, like Lucky Lures and KC spoons. Salmon and trout were plentiful, as were the alewives they preyed on. Rods on downriggers would bounce as we trolled through massive alewife schools. Together, we stepped up to a 26-foot Chris-Craft and then a 30-foot Trojan, enhancing our seaworthiness amid one of the best salmon and trout fisheries in the world, right there on Lake Michigan.

When I moved to Manistee as a part-time resident in 1998, I fished on an 18-foot center console and then jumped, several years later, to a classic 1967 31-foot Bertram Moppie. Boats and tackle became more sophisticated. Plain monofilament line has been joined by braided, fluorocarbon, copper and multi-strand wire lines. Our limited supply of lures has expanded to now include hundreds of spoons, plugs, flies, flashers and special heads for fishing with frozen herring or ballyhoo strips. We have spoons and plugs that light up with a flash. Our old manual downriggers, a radio with three channels and a flashing sonar have been replaced with high-speed downriggers, GPS, speed and temperature indicators at the cannon ball and cell phones.

On November 4, 2016, a month after I put the Bertram in storage and over 37 years after Dad and I moved the boat to Onekama, Lake Michigan charter fishing captain Mark Chmura, friend Bill Rustem and I set lines for salmon and trout in the dark of early morning four miles west of the Manistee harbor. Amid the ripples, we were looking for temperature breaks, eddies of water so calm they reflected the red morning sky like a mirror—and signaled the potential of baitfish and predators. At dawn, Bill brought a 12-pound chrome steelhead to Captain Mark’s net on an orange spoon trolled near the surface. We then landed seven Chinook salmon, ranging from six to 12 pounds in the next three hours.

It had been a good morning for early November, with great companions and healthy, strong fish, just as it has been for many of the 51 years since Pacific salmon were introduced by Michigan Department of Natural Resources Director Howard Tanner in Bear Creek, a Manistee River tributary, and in the Platte River, both flowing into Lake Michigan. Since then, Michigan’s salmon landings per hour have often exceeded those of salmon fisheries of the West Coast and even Alaska. Great Lakes salmon and trout fishing became a multi-billion dollar economy in Michigan.

[Read this Traverse Magazine feature about Howard Tanner]

But Lake Michigan has changed so much and so often that we enter each season with new expectations about what we will catch when and where and at what size. The influx of invasive species into the Great Lakes played the pivotal role in bringing that change, that unpredictability.

“Last week we found three new non-native species.”

A freshwater drum swims past the Greilickville Township Park just south of the West Bay Marina break wall.

A day prior to my successful fishing trip with Bill and Captain Mark, I was about a half-mile offshore from the DNR Charlevoix Research Station on a boat pulling in a 500-foot-long net the research team had set the day before. The water was nearly dead calm, and we saw no other boats, barely even any birds. Other than talking, the only sound was the quiet hum of the electric winch hauling in the net. I was the guest of Fisheries Division biologist Randy Claramunt, here to learn about the Lake Michigan fishery and how it has withstood the onslaught of invasive species, which continue to flow into the world’s second largest freshwater sea. As Claramunt answered questions, he also worked, gently pulling fish from the net as it came over the bow. He would measure each fish, weigh it and then delicately slip the fish back in the water, two-handed, right side up.

There are over 180 known invasive species in Lake Michigan, including 25 invasive fish that at times can make up over 50 percent of the total living biomass of fish in the lake. These include the sea lamprey, which entered the Great Lakes after the Welland Canal opened in 1829 and which nearly wiped out the lake trout; alewives, discovered in Lake Michigan in 1949, whose large-scale die-offs rotted on beaches until predatory Pacific salmon were introduced in the mid-1960s; and quagga mussels, which filter algae and plankton from the water, leaving little food for fingerling salmon and trout or the small fish they prey upon. The most recent influential invader is the round goby, a bottom-dwelling fish that entered the Great Lakes from Central Eurasia via the ballast water of large, ocean-going cargo ships.

For Claramunt, there is no such thing as “business as usual” on Lake Michigan. His mission is figuring out how to support the resiliency of the Great Lakes in the face of unyielding, unpredictable change—because though the lakes possess gargantuan power, they are not invincible, not indestructible. Claramunt’s job also involves educating others about what we know and don’t know about our big water sport fishery. He is so vividly aware there is much more to be understood and the process of discovery and education will never end. That lack of complete scientific knowledge, that uncertainty and ambiguity, is often met with resistance, sometimes hostility. Big lake anglers can find it difficult to accept the continual fluctuation in salmon populations, changes to management plans and the shifting multiple forces affecting change. Finding these changes most difficult to accept are fishermen accustomed to the days of returning to port by mid-morning with their limit of king salmon. We anglers—myself included at times—can be in denial as we head our craft out to Lake Michigan, bristling with 20 or 30 rods and six passengers, all spoiling for a fight with the king of Lake Michigan, and a mission to max out the limit of five fish per person.

“Though the lakes possess gargantuan power, they are not invincible, not indestructible.”

The day moves on and the wind stays calm, the water flat. I can’t help but be amazed as the fish come in, how much respect the research team shows each fish, how gently they handle them, regardless if the fish is a trophy walleye or a white sucker. “Last week we found three new non-native species in the Great Lakes,” Calaramunt says as he disentangles another fish from the net. He runs through the list: a shovelnose catfish (an aquarium species) on Lake Erie; a sea robin from the Atlantic Ocean; and a marine zooplankton. Biologists don’t expect much impact from the new invasives, but their presence proves once more how life in the Great Lakes is continually, unpredictably evolving because of the flow of invasive species.

“It’s hard to fathom the changes during the last decade,” Claramunt says. The goal is to promote resiliency of the Great Lakes in the face of changes and the threats they pose. Biologists want to protect the resource while maximizing fishing opportunities. But Claramunt concedes, “We realize that those opportunities involve an ebb and flow of fish species and of the entire food web, affected by factors that we simply can’t control, including weather.” Until there are regulatory and management reforms enforced to prevent invasives from entering the lakes, our ability to keep them out is minimal at best, he explains.

Only five years ago, Lake Michigan’s salmon fishery was on the brink of collapse as a huge population of mature king salmon were consuming up to 800,000 pounds per day of a rapidly diminishing alewife supply. The king salmon were plentiful but small and thin, rarely exceeding 15 pounds. Lake Michigan was running out of food with invasive mussels stripping the water of plankton at the base of the food chain. To respond, state and federal fish biologists sharply reduced the number of king salmon planted each year. Today, fisheries experts estimate consumption of alewives by king salmon is down to 120,000 pounds per day, with fewer but larger salmon in a more sustainable population. With fewer predators and two mild winters, alewife population is now on an upward trend.

As we lift the experimental DNR net, we scan the catch for Cisco, also known as lake herring, a cousin of the prized Great Lakes whitefish. A native Lake Michigan species, the Cisco had all but disappeared in the 1960s and had been thought to be gone from Lake Michigan until only recently. Claramunt pointed out that the reduction in the non-native forage fish, namely smelt and to some extent alewives, provided a window for Cisco to return. They are now being caught in fishable quantities in Grand Traverse Bay and were caught in smaller numbers along the Lake Michigan coast in 2016. Like whitefish, Cisco are highly perishable but make fine table fare if consumed fresh.

[Cisco Return to the Great Lakes]

“Despite Cisco harvest reports along the Lake Michigan shoreline, we’ve only documented one place where they successfully reproduce, a shallow reef complex in Grand Traverse Bay,” Claramunt says. One of the DNR’s challenges is to locate, chart and understand reefs on Lake Michigan that may be critical spawning habitat. Spawning reefs can be in five to 350 feet of water, and how they support reproduction of fish like Cisco and lake trout can vary substantially from one reef to another. Biologists also need to learn how to support natural reproduction, which is challenged by invasive predators like gobies and rusty crawfish that dine on fish eggs. Storms and prevailing winds and currents also alter reef ecology and damage eggs.

“Our calculations show that the mass of gobies in Lake Michigan is equal to the mass of alewives when they were at their highest levels,” Claramunt says. “Since gobies stick to the bottom, we’re seeing a big upward shift in the number and size of lake trout, walleye and smallmouth bass that feed near bottom.” Gobies are native to the Ponto-Caspian region, where zebra and quagga mussels are also from, so gobies are evolved to eat the mussels. The invasive rusty crayfish, also a favorite of bass and walleye, have been found to prosper in mussel-rich environments as well and have completely overtaken Great Lakes native crawfish populations. For salmon and steelhead, however, the food story is somewhat different. Chinook and steelhead feed higher up in the water column—away from the bottom dwelling rusty crayfish and gobies—so they’re not benefiting directly from the shift brought on by the invasives. “Surprisingly, we have learned that Coho salmon will eat gobies,” Claramunt says.

In the cold waters of April, a school of gizzard shad swim by the entrance of West Bay Marina.

Gobies have generated good news in a way no one expected—they paved the way for lake trout to naturally reproduce. We now have brilliantly colored wild lakers in Lake Michigan, the kind of fish that have been missing for decades.

On the boat today we see direct evidence: Two of the lake trout we capture in our experimental net are gorgeous, orange finned, deep-colored wild fish, resembling their relatives the brook trout and Arctic char.

But even more, I am in awe at the variety and size of fish hauled in by this net. Nearly 50 lake trout, lots of white and longnose suckers, trophy smallmouth bass and trophy walleye, and an assortment of rusty crawfish and gobies, all captured in a net anchored in a seemingly unremarkable location in 30 feet of water a short distance from the Charlevoix pier. We were skunked on Cisco, although Claramunt reminds us that finding no fish is valued data as well. I could not help but think about what the rest of Lake Michigan looks like under the waves, and how poorly understood it is—the sheer volume of life there is amazing.

During a break in the action, Claramunt reflects upon the idea of lake resilience, that despite the stunning evolution of life and the food chain in the lake, it is able to produce a better wild lake trout than what’s been seen in decades, that we’ve recovered something that we thought we’d lost. “We would not have found wild lake trout five years ago,” Claramunt says. The natural reproduction of lake trout is an unanticipated benefit of the gobies, whose presence has dramatically changed the lake trout diet and stimulated natural reproduction in ways that biologists do not completely understand. The lake trout’s goby diet has also improved the flavor of lake trout, now served as a delicacy at many restaurants. Lake trout is “the new grain fed beef of the Great Lakes,” Claramunt says.

Claramunt, a thoughtful, conscientious encyclopedia of fish facts and studies, gently dispels myths, including some of my own created over 40 years of fishing Lake Michigan. Like the widely held notion that we should be raising and planting more steelhead trout because they eat bugs and leave the alewife forage base for the salmon.

Since the mid-1980s, when “scum lines” were discovered, seaworthy boats have run far offshore, seeking abrupt changes in surface water temperatures and having great success catching high jumping steelies. The change of water density caused by temperature change traps bugs and other floating objects, leading to the formation of “scum lines.” Today, we don’t see bugs offshore for reasons not entirely known. Claramunt explains that they’ve conclusively documented that steelhead will eat invertebrates (bugs) but they are more dependent on a diet of alewives, making them the number two alewife predator, after Chinook salmon and ahead of Coho salmon.

But Claramunt is ever positive and talks about the resiliency of Lake Michigan.

The Big Lake bends and shifts but does not break, as long as the biological management enhances the evolving conditions and does not create risks, like over-planting salmon when the forage base is teetering. Looking ahead, Claramunt says biologists will continue to plant kings to augment the natural reproduction that is happening. Lake trout will continue to increase and help manage the forage base. And he sees 2017 as possibly being a banner year for Coho.

Adapting and making the most of change is the rule of the day—resilience.

Here, a tiny yellow perch enjoys the offerings of Clinch Marina in June.

There is something about fishing on the Big Lake with your dad that also teaches resilience. Every fish is a shared experience: a surprise. You learn about each other, fishing and persistence. Those days on the lake were some of the best of our lives, but they ended too soon. In 1993, we were heading north after work for a salmon tournament when Dad stopped on his way home to see a physician about pain he’d had for months. An X-ray painted the picture everyone had missed: lung cancer.

The heartfelt memories of fishing with Dad are cherished in part because of the change in our relationship and the fishing experiences, not in spite of them. The changing of boats, gear, weather, the palette of lake and sky colors and the fluctuations in fish populations, successful locations, sizes and seasonality of our landings were part of the joy as well as the challenge.

When I head out on my maiden Lake Michigan voyage in 2017, likely with a boatful of U.S. military veterans in a tournament called “Tight Lines for Troops,” we’ll leave the dock with the same excitement, sense of expectation and joy of the Big Water sunrise without really knowing when or why the first rod will buckle, and once again the cry of “fish on” will be heard over the Lake.

Adapting and making the most of change is the rule of the day—resilience.

Tim Ervin writes from Manistee and the Florida Keys. [email protected] | Christopher Morey is a Michigan-based free diver who specializes in underwater photography in the Great Lakes and beyond. michiganfreediving.com.


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Article Comments

  • Bud Roberts

    Great article, but what im not seeing is in this article is he adaption of cormorants and pelicans to the freshwater lakes. They seem to be leaving a mark on the Fairport area and the water on Green Bay

  • sblawyer

    Captions for the photos, identifying the fish, would be helpful.