Strong coho bite nets a spring tradition for Lake Michigan anglers   « Back

Author: Paul A. Smith
Source: Milwaukee Journal Sentinel

May 23, 2017

PORT WASHINGTON - Captain Dan Fox had set two lines by the time the bow of Foxy Lady, his 38-foot charter boat, cleared the gap at the eastern edge of the Port Washington harbor.

They were all he needed to decide on his plans for the afternoon outing.

As the craft nosed into the clear waters of Lake Michigan, the drag on the port-side reel started screaming.

"I kinda thought that would happen," Fox said, as he grabbed the rod from its holder. "Who's up?"

Dave Roesler of Milwaukee stood and obliged. As he began reeling, a silver fish leaped clear of the waves 100 feet behind the boat.

Thirty seconds later the starboard rod also started bucking to a lively weight.

Fox handed that rod to me and we had our first double of the day.

The Foxy Lady had barely put 100 yards between its stern and the Port Washington lighthouse.

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Within 10 minutes, we had two fish - a 6-pound steelhead (rainbow trout) and a 3-pound coho salmon - in the box.

Fox eventually set 11 more lines. Over the next four hours on this day in the middle of May, he trolled our group of five anglers through schools of bait fish and the predators they attract, never venturing more than 800 yards from the harbor entrance.

Our primary company was terns and gulls, which dived into the 2- to 4-foot waves and swells to grab alewives.

Fox, 61, is a native of Milwaukee who first worked on a Lake Michigan fishing charter when he was a freshman at Marquette University.

That was 43 years ago.

Many things about the Big Pond have changed over that time. Invasive species, especially zebra and quagga mussels, have significantly altered the ecosystem.

And a lake trout restoration project has helped re-establish natural reproduction of the lake's top native predator fish.

But some others are pretty much the same as when Fox started.

Exhibit A was dancing on a rod 15 minutes after we landed the first pair of fish.

"Another coho," Fox said. "Gotta love 'em."

Coho salmon and steelhead were the first Pacific Ocean strain of fish stocked in Lake Michigan in the 1960s as part of the effort to reduce numbers of beach-fouling alewives and hopefully provide a sport fishery.

The experiment worked extremely well and produced what for 40 years has been heralded by many as a world-class fishery.

For just about all of that time, cohos have formed the foundation of a strong spring bite for anglers out of southeastern Wisconsin ports.

John Mazzari of Grafton reeled in the third fish, a 4-pound coho. Next, Jim Shanahan of Brookfield brought in a coho, also known as silver salmon, of similar size.

And finally, Jim's brother Tom Shanahan of Wauwatosa caught another coho of about 6 pounds.

All the fish were plump in build and platinum in hue. Cohos are prized by anglers for their eagerness to strike a variety of offerings and for their unsurpassed value as table fare.
A tinsel fly trolled behind an orange or red dodgerBuy Photo

A tinsel fly trolled behind an orange or red dodger is a time-honored, highly productive presentation for coho salmon. (Photo: Paul A. Smith)

The fish all hit a small tinsel fly trolled behind a dodger in the top 20 feet of water.

The only question our group had was: How many rotations would we get at the rods?

The spring coho fishery has produced dozens of long-standing relationships and fishing traditions for Fox and his customers.

"The hardest part for many people in this business isn't catching fish," Fox said. "It's having enough clients to stay busy."

Fox has earned repeat business over the decades and is among the most successful charter captains on the lake. On this day, he ran trips in the morning, afternoon and early evening.
A coho salmon is visible at the surface of Lake MichiganBuy Photo

A coho salmon is visible at the surface of Lake Michigan as it is reeled in during a fishing outing near the Port Washington harbor. (Photo: Paul A. Smith)

Roesler began his tradition with Fox in 1991. At the time, Roesler was a Milwaukee firefighter. He would round up a crew of his comrades and they'd head up to Port Washington for a half-day of fishing.

The trip was always in spring, timed to coincide with good coho action.

Roesler missed just one outing over the last 28 years.

Now retired, he has continued the annual charter with Fox, mostly with an extended group of friends.

"It's a great time to get together, have a new experience and tell some old stories," Roesler said.

When it comes to coho fishing in southern Lake Michigan, there is no need to "guild the lily."

Anglers harvested 125,964 coho in 2016 in the Wisconsin waters of Lake Michigan, up from 41,010 in 2015 and second-highest in the last decade (157,367 in 2011), according to Department of Natural Resources estimates.

The coho catch last year trailed only chinook (139,082), and topped steelhead (76,846), brown trout (23,789) and lake trout (19,137).

Ozaukee County led with 41,879 cohos in 2016, followed by Milwaukee (29,159), Sheboygan (20,145), Kenosha (14,658), Racine (10,446), Manitowoc (5,336) and Kewaunee (3,440). The regions of eastern Door County (882) and Green Bay (19) also registered some coho.
Dan Fox of Fox Brothers Charter Service holds a 5-poundBuy Photo

Dan Fox of Fox Brothers Charter Service holds a 5-pound coho salmon caught by John Mazzari in Lake Michigan waters just east of Port Washington. (Photo: Paul A. Smith)

What's more, the coho, chinook and steelhead caught last year were heavier than the year before, according to Brad Eggold, DNR fisheries supervisor.

Although alewife levels in Lake Michigan are at or near historic lows, the fishery has benefitted from three chinook salmon stocking reductions, including one in 2013.

And the amount of forage fish over the last year apparently has been enough to sustain the fishery at current levels.

Further cuts, including a controversial move to reduce brown trout stocking by 50%, are planned by the Wisconsin DNR in 2017. Michigan, Illinois and Indiana officials opted to cut chinook salmon, the species that relies most heavily on alewives.

It's not advisable to gauge the balance of predator and prey in the lake from one outing.

But all the coho we caught looked well-fed; their stomachs included a variety of prey, including alewives, insect larvae and bloody red shrimp.

It's unclear what the future will hold for Lake Michigan trout and salmon. Many fear a further downturn of the alewife population followed by a collapse of chinook salmon similar to what occurred a decade ago in Lake Huron.

But last week, there was no doubt: The spring coho bite was plenty strong to keep the tradition for our group alive.
Captain Dan Fox filets a coho salmon in Port Washington.Buy Photo

Captain Dan Fox filets a coho salmon in Port Washington. (Photo: Paul A. Smith)

Over four hours of fishing, we boated 13 fish and had three others come unbuttoned.

The catch was all coho except the steelhead reeled in by Roesler.

The fish ranged from 3 to 6 pounds. In my estimation, cohos in this size range are the best-eating trout or salmon found in the Great Lakes.

Should alewives go bust in the lake, cohos are expected to fare better than chinook since cohos have a more varied diet.

Fox cleaned the fish at the dock and our group split the bounty of orange-fleshed filets. The coho action typically continues into summer, Fox said.

As summer patterns set up, he'll begin trolling more for chinook, steelhead and lake trout. For now, coho is the name of the game.

"It's coho time," Fox said. "I know you can't take anything for granted. But we've been extremely fortunate for decades to have this coho run and it shows no sign of stopping. What a beautiful fish."

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