During the school year, he’s a principal. During summer, he’s a Northern Michigan fishing charter boat crewmate. Will Cwikiel shares insight from the deck on the secret world of Great Lakes fish, as fishing excursions can also reveal fascinating lessons about a constantly evolving lake ecology.

As I clip the last lead core line to the port planer board cable, Captain Scott yells, “Fish on the port rigger!” I hand the rod I’m preparing to the nearest client, Ray, grab the downrigger rod with the fish, and set the hook on what feels like a nice lake trout. “Tanya, you’re up … ladies first.” She passes on the first fish, and I hand the fishing rod to her teenage son, Lucas. Hoots and hollers follow as the young man reels in his first lake trout.

Trolling for Lake Michigan’s trout and salmon is 90 percent pleasant boat ride and 10 percent chaos. We have just left Harbor Springs on a clear July evening aboard the Edith Opal with a group of five clients from Ohio: Tanya, Doug, Ray, Eli and Lucas. The wind is a bit from the northeast tonight, so we decided to stay in calm waters by keeping to the northeast side of Little Traverse Bay. The lines have been in the water for less than five minutes, and we are already into the chaos. As a 50-year-old whose “day job” is flexible enough to allow for this part-time gig, I love it. Serving as the first mate on the Edith Opal is the best summer job ever!

Photo by Todd Zawistowski

The Edith Opal is a 28-foot Pursuit walk-around equipped for fishing big water: depth finders, GPS, radar, downriggers, planer boards, and enough stout rods to make the boat look like a swimming porcupine. Operated by Captain Scott Carbeck, the Edith Opal is one of four licensed charter fishing boats operating in Little Traverse Bay.

As Lucas brings the fish closer to the boat, I grab the long-handled rubberized net and scoop the fish out of the water. The rubberized net is gentler on the fish and reduces the mortality rate of those we send back into the water. Lucas’s 22-inch trout, however, is well within the legal slot limits and will be perfect for the grill. I remove the hook and hand the fish to him for pictures. After the photos are snapped, I clip-cut the gills with scissors and slide the fish into the cooler filled with ice water.

Eli asks why we clip the gills. I explain that we are all about making sure that the fish our clients keep are the highest quality to eat. Cutting the gills and placing the fish in ice water allows it to quickly bleed out, die, and be chilled to 32 degrees, making an excellent seafood product.

While I’m explaining the process of converting a live fish into seafood, Captain Scott sets the course on the Edith Opal’s autopilot and walks back to the fishing deck to send the spoon back down to 80 feet. The boat’s electronics are telling us that the thermocline is between 80 and 85 feet tonight. The thermocline is the transitional layer between warmer, less dense, surface water known as the epilimnion and the colder, denser water near the bottom known as the hypolimnion. Trout and salmon require cold water laden with dissolved oxygen. The sweet spot (warm enough to allow these cold-blooded animals to be active, but cold enough to hold a lot of dissolved oxygen) is water temperature in the mid-50s. Typically, the sweet spot is sitting just on top of the thermocline.

One of the guys asks about the marks on the depth-finder screen. Captain Scott explains that one display shows depth, bottom contours, location, speed, and surface water temperature, and the other screen tells the temperature, depth, and speed at the bottom of the downrigger cable. “That’s what matters—what’s going on down there,” the captain says.

As if on cue, the Dipsey rod on the starboard side of the boat leaps, and the drag on the reel sings as a fish strikes and heads for deeper water. Scott grabs the rod and hands it to Tanya. With the strike and the singing reel, this could be a chinook salmon. Scott advises her to take it easy and let the fish run. The run is short lived, and Tanya begins to reel. The Dipsey Diver is a device comprised of a disk and a keel that attaches directly to the line for the purpose of taking a lure to a depth greater than it would normally run when trolled. Sometimes the big fish seem to prefer a spoon trolled behind a Dipsey over a cannonball hanging from a downrigger cable.

The fish turns out to be a large lake trout—nearly 30 inches—over the slot limit for this area of Lake Michigan. Fish this big are sometimes tough to revive, so as I’m removing the hook, I explain that we have to release this one as quickly as possible. “What? But it’s the biggest one yet!” Tanya’s son says. As I kneel on the swim platform with my arm in the water cradling the fish at the back of the boat, Captain Scott explains that a slot limit is a type of fish regulation that involves both a minimum size and a maximum size. In Little Traverse Bay and most of northern Lake Michigan, the minimum size limit for lake trout is 15 inches long, and the maximum is 27 inches long. In order to keep a fish, it must be between 15 and 27 inches long.

Most people understand the conservation value of releasing the little ones, but letting the big ones go is counterintuitive, so Scott explains the rationale behind the slot limit. “Lake trout are the native salmonid in the Great Lakes. One of Michigan’s conservation goals is to restore populations of naturally reproducing lake trout. Lake trout are long lived-fish, and the big ones are more successful spawners. If we want this species to recover, we have to let the big ones go,” Scott says. This is a big trout full of eggs, and she seems to be reviving just fine. I point her nose back to the deep, and she swims out of my hands.

Captain Scott decides to motor out over deeper water where we might be able to find some salmon chasing suspended baitfish. I rinse the landing net and hose down the deck: a clean boat is a happy boat. Named after Scott’s grandmother Edith and the lake, Opal, on which his family had a cottage while growing up, the Edith Opal is the perfect-sized boat for Great Lakes chartering. Her 28 feet is ample for heavy weather, the twin 225 horsepower outboards allow her to get up and go, and there’s plenty of room for six clients to be comfortable, while small enough so everyone feels like they are part of the action.

Lake Michigan’s salmon population has recently suffered a serious decline, so as we hunt for them over deep water, I know that the action will slow compared to fishing for lake trout. It’s time to pull out the snacks and tell stories.

Scott and I have a running competition to see who can produce the best smoked lake trout. I am partial to my maple syrup brine, but his fancy new smoker gives him better control over the moisture content. As he passes around an excellent batch of smoked lake trout, I ask our clients if they want to hear a tale of ruin and recovery.

They nod and I tell how once upon a time in the Great Lakes, there was an incredible fishery comprised of creatures perfectly adapted to the cold clear waters of these inland seas. Thanks to an impassable barrier presented by Niagara Falls, Lakes Superior, Michigan, Huron, and Erie were protected from invasion by scary aliens from the ocean. The lake trout, also known as the Mackinaw, was the dominant predator in these waters and had lived on the North American continent for more than two million years, moving with the glaciers, utilizing fat stores to survive the cold water, and happily eating members of the whitefish family, especially the very tasty cisco.

Tanya's son reels one in.

Tanya’s son reels one in.

The mighty Mackinaw’s fate changed when the Great Lakes were settled by Europeans. Logging and farming generated unprecedented amounts of sediment that clouded the water and choked spawning grounds. The relatively small and sustainable harvest by Native Americans was replaced by commercial fishing for markets across the country. Later, poisons from polluted runoff and industrial discharge accumulated in the fat and flesh of this top predator, reducing reproductive success.

But the deathblow was dealt by another animal, an invader from the Atlantic Ocean—the sea lamprey. This primitive jawless fish makes its parasitic living by attaching itself to other fish with its sucking disk. Its sharp teeth rasp through scales and skin so it can feed on the trout’s body fluids.

Improvements to the Welland Canal (that piece of engineering that allows ships to navigate around the Niagara Falls) allowed sea lampreys to enter Lake Erie in the 1920s. By the mid-’30s, they were established in Lake Michigan, where they found lake trout easy prey. The combined effects of habitat change, pollution, and the sea lamprey were devastating. By the 1960s, native lake trout were considered extinct from Lake Michigan.

About this same time, another fish from the Atlantic Ocean was making its debut on the Great Lakes stage via the newly improved Welland Canal: the alewife. First recorded in Lake Michigan in 1949, this pelagic planktivore (meaning that it swims in the open waters of large bodies of water eating plankton) found a perfect home: plenty of food in the open waters of Lake Michigan, fine spawning habitat, and thanks to the sea lamprey, very few predatory lake trout.

The alewife population exploded. By the mid-‘60s, alewives had outpaced all other forage fish in Lake Michigan. The general public became aware of alewives when millions of pounds of rotting alewives started washing up on beaches in the summer. With Lake Michigan’s ecosystem in turmoil, the Michigan DNR came up with a bold plan: introduce a new predator to eat the alewives. Enter the chinook and coho salmon,two fish native to the Pacific Ocean.

The plants of chinook and coho completely transformed the ecology of the Great Lakes. They brought the alewife population under control while creating a whole new salmon fishery worth billions. Horrible ruin … and then miraculous recovery! Yay! Right?

Not so fast.

Enter two invasive bivalves to the story: zebra and quagga mussels. The first zebra mussels entered the Great Lakes in the 1980s and quickly covered any hard surface—rocks, pipes, and dock pilings, so on—in Lake Michigan, causing widespread ecological and economic damage. As if the zebra mussels weren’t bad enough, their evil cousin, the quagga mussel, arrived in the 1990s and quickly out-competed the zebras. Quaggas are zebra mussels on steroids, they can live on any bottom substrate, like sand, clay and mud, and don’t need to attach to hard surfaces like the zebra. Also, they can inhabit the deepest waters of Lake Michigan. In some areas of the lake, quagga mussel densities are as high as 35,000 per square meter!

When scientists did the math, they realized there are hundreds of trillions of quaggas filtering Lake Michigan’s zooplankton and phytoplankton—the base of the aquatic food web. It’s estimated that quaggas filter the entire 1,180 cubic miles of Lake Michigan’s volume every four days. The result: schools of baitfish like alewife, smelt, and native cisco have very little to eat. If they have little to eat, their populations decline, so goes the salmon. Fisheries managers have responded by planting fewer salmon, but the downward slide in salmon, and the fish they eat, continues.

As if to prove that all is not lost in the Lake Michigan salmonid fishery, one of the lead core lines being trolled from the planer board is tripped from its release. I grab it and hand it to the next person in line to bring in a fish. Doug’s fish is a perfect “eater,” a 20-inch lake trout. After I show them fine green-gold vermiculations (worm-like patterns) that belie the lake trout’s close relation to the brook trout (they are both char), I clip the gills and slip the fish into the cooler. After I re-set the line, Doug asks: “So the salmon have declined, but then why so many more lake trout?”

The story takes an ironic twist. There’s another Great Lakes invader that actually may be aiding the recovery of the lake trout: the round goby. Native to the Black and Caspian Seas and transported here in the ballast water of ocean-going freighters, round gobies were first found in the Great Lakes in the early 1990s. With special teeth in their throats that allow them to grind the shells of zebra and quagga mussels, they found the Great Lakes a wonderful new home with plenty of food. Their populations exploded.

Unlike salmon, which feed almost exclusively on large schools of baitfish, lake trout are comfortable foraging along the bottom where the round goby dine on mussels and other morsels. And now, thanks to the slot limits that ensure prime spawning-age fish are released, the establishment of protected spawning refuges in northern Lake Michigan, genetic research and stocking programs by the state and federal governments, and this plentiful source of food in the form of round gobies, lake trout populations are on the rebound. Hail to the recovery of lake trout fishery!

Wil Cwikliel nets a fish.

Wil Cwikliel nets a fish.

As the sun flirts with the horizon on this cloudless evening, two rods go at once. A double! Since this time of the evening is known as “salmon-thirty,” I’m hopeful that we might have a salmon on the line, but the fish we net are two beautiful lake trout. Since our clients have a full cooler, they go back into the water. As the sun sinks below the water’s surface, we all look to the west in hopes of seeing the green flash, an atmospheric phenomenon that occasionally happens near the horizon at sunset. Someone whispers that Lake Michigan is a treasure. Another says that we are so lucky to be out here on the Edith Opal.

Captain Scott breaks the reverie with a reminder that we have fish to clean. I hand rods to the youngest two of our crew and ask them to start reeling. Although nearly 20 fish have been brought over the rail, the clients are still game to reel. When all the lines are in and the rods are stowed, Captain Scott fires up both engines, asks if everything is secure, and powers the Edith Opal to comfortable planing speed. As we cruise around Harbor Point in the gloaming, half of our clients admire the multimillion dollar shoreline real estate and the other half admires the last colors of the sunset playing on the water.

Back at the dock, the twilight boat ride is over, and the work of charter fishing comes to its daily conclusion. Captain Scott wields the fastest knife on Little Traverse Bay, so he fillets the fish while I put away the electronics, downrigger, and planer boards, swab the decks, and prepare the boat for the next excursion. When the fish are cleaned and bagged, our new friends from Ohio thank us profusely for the Lake Michigan adventure, slip a tip into the captain’s hand, and walk down the dock with the makings of an incredible fish feast for tomorrow’s dinner.

After wiping down the fish cleaning station and tucking the Edith Opal in for the night, Scott and I stand for a moment and enjoy the peacefulness of Harbor Springs in the middle of the summer. The wavelets lap at the hulls of the boats, and the lights of Harbor Point encircle our little bay. Stars twinkle on the water. Scott turns to me and says, “We are lucky to live in Northern Michigan.” Indeed we are. I hope I never take this place for granted.

Photo(s) by Todd Zawistowski