Some of the earliest human inhabitants of the Lake Michigan region were the Hopewell Indians. Their culture declined after A.D. 800, and
for the next few hundred years the region was the home of peoples known as the Late Woodland Indians. In the early 17th century, when western European explorers made their first forays into the
region, they encountered descendants of the Late Woodland Indians: the Chippewa, Menominee, Sauk, Fox, Winnebago, Miami, Ottawa, and Potawatomi. It is believed that the French explorer Jean Nicolet
was the first non-Native American to reach Lake Michigan in 1634 or 1638.
The narrow, open-water Straits of Mackinac join Lake Michigan with Lake Huron sometimes called Michigan–Huron (also Huron–Michigan). The Straits of Mackinac were an important Native American and fur trade route. Located on the southern side of the Straits is the town of Mackinaw City, Michigan, the site of Fort Michilimackinac, a reconstructed French fort founded in 1715, and on the northern side is St. Ignace, Michigan, site of a French Catholic mission to the Indians, founded in 1671. The eastern end of the Straits was controlled by Fort Mackinac on Mackinac Island, a British colonial and early American military base and fur trade center, founded in 1781.
With the advent of European exploration into the area in the late 17th century, Lake Michigan became part of a line of waterways leading from the Saint Lawrence River to the Mississippi River and thence to the Gulf of Mexico. French coureurs des bois and voyageurs established small ports and trading communities, such as Green Bay, on the lake during the late 17th and early 18th centuries.
The first person to reach the deep bottom of Lake Michigan was J. Val Klump, a scientist at the University of Wisconsin–Milwaukee. Klump reached the bottom via submersible as part of a 1985 research expedition.
In 2007, a row of stones paralleling an ancient shoreline was discovered by Mark Holley, professor of underwater archeology at Northwestern Michigan College. This formation lies 40 feet (12 meters) below the surface of the lake. One of the stones is said to have a carving resembling a mastodon. So far the formation has not been authenticated.
Lake Michigan fishing
Lake Michigan is home to a variety of species of fish and other organisms. It was originally home to lake whitefish, lake trout, yellow perch, panfish, largemouth bass, smallmouth bass, bowfin, as well as some species of catfish. As a result of improvements to the Welland Canal in 1919, an invasion of sea lampreys, and overharvest caused a decline in native lake trout populations, ultimately causing an increase in the population of another invasive species, the alewife. As a result, salmonids including various strains of brown trout, steelhead (rainbow trout), coho and chinook salmon were introduced as predators of alewives to decrease the alewife population. This program was so successful that the introduced population of trout and salmon population exploded, resulting in the creation of a large sport fishery for introduced species of salmon and trout. Lake Michigan is now stocked annually with steelhead, brown trout, and coho and chinook salmon, which also have begun natural reproduction in some Lake Michigan tributaries. However, several invader species introduced such as lampreys, round goby, zebra mussels and quagga mussels continue to cause major changes in water clarity and fertility, resulting in major changes to Lake Michigan's ecosystem, and threaten the vitality of fish populations.
The Salmon Experiment: The invention of a Lake Michigan sport fishery, and what has happened since
By Howard Meyerson | The Grand Rapids Press
on April 18, 2011 at 8:00 AM, updated April 18, 2011 at 12:01 PM
HASLETT — Howard Tanner knew the idea of introducing salmon into Lake Michigan was risky — even more so converting a dying commercial
fishery into a sport fishery. But in 1964, Tanner, the new state fisheries chief, had just been told to "do something spectacular."
The directive had come from Ralph MacMullan, the new director of the Department of Conservation, the agency that would become the Department of Natural Resources.
It was an audacious moment at a crucial point in time. Lake Michigan's fisheries were in trouble, according to historical records. The native lake trout were extinct in Lake Michigan and nearly so in Lake Huron, due to overfishing and sea lampreys. The whitefish were on the wane. Millions of alewives lay dead and stinking on the Lake Michigan beaches in summer. Shoreline tourism was in decline because of the stench.
Tanner faced a daunting situation, made worse by an entrenched, but shrinking, commercial fishing industry that had the support of the federal government's commercial fishing bureaucracy. The federal government was more interested in restoring the lake trout.
"If we do this, I will either be a hero — it is going to work — or I will be the biggest bum to come down the street in a long time," Tanner, now 87, recalls of the decision he made the night he got a call informing him of an available surplus of coho salmon eggs out West.
"I didn't sleep all night," he said. "I sat in the chair most of the night and it dawned on me in rough outline what I was talking about."
What would come of that decision to stock 658,760 11/2-year-old coho salmon smolts on the Platte River and Bear Creek, both tributaries of Lake Michigan, would be hailed by many as transformative, a conservation success that created an economic boom. But it also was a decision others thought shouldn't have been made.
Some anglers feared the river-spawning salmon would ruin river trout fisheries. Shoreline communities later complained they had been unprepared for the onslaught of fishermen that converged on their communities in the first years of what would be an explosion of salmon. There were not enough boat launches, parking areas or public bathrooms.
"They ran out of Flatfish (lures), they ran out gasoline, and then they ran out of beer and they were really in trouble," Tanner said with a chuckle. "But they also enjoyed that trouble. People would tell me that tourism ended Labor Day and this extended the season another 30 to 50 days."
Tanner and his chief assistant, the late Wayne Tody — who would succeed Tanner and introduce chinook salmon — also were introducing a non-native species into the fresh waters of the Great Lakes. That decision, today, would require an environmental impact statement, according to Dave Dempsey, author of "Ruin & Recovery, Michigan's Rise as a Conservation Leader." There was no such thing as an environmental impact statement back then, although Tanner and Tody examined alternative species, including striped bass."
"A lot of guys said: 'This guy (Tanner) is nuts. You can't put salmon in Lake Michigan. Those are saltwater fish,'" said captain Ken Neidlinger, owner of SilverKing Sport Charters in St. Joseph. "But, by golly, when those coho came back, they were in the 20-pound range."
The coho, having an unlimited amount of food, grew fast. Tanner said the first coho caught, a 4-pounder, in August, 1966, had grown seven inches between April and July.But it was 1967 when the fall fishery fully erupted in Platte Bay, drawing national media attention, including Sports Illustrated magazine. The coho returned as mature 3-year-old fish ready to spawn.
Thousands of boats were seen floating offshore. Some anglers lost their lives that September on a stormy day when the Coast Guard was called to rescue approximately 150 anglers whose boats had swamped in the high seas.
"Fishermen came from everywhere," Tanner recalls. "They had no downriggers, no fish finders. They had small boats and no experience. People who never thought of catching salmon were able to go out and catch their limit. The fish were porposing and they fished with whatever they had."
"They had salmon fever," said Preston Kuks, a 76-year-old Grand Rapids angler and semi-retired charter boat captain. "There were so many boats on Platte Bay you could just about walk on them."
Kuks began actively fishing Lake Michigan in 1969. He and his brother bought their first 16-foot boat. It proved inadequate. That led to a 24-foot boat and later a 30-foot boat, better gear and stout tackle to handle fishing salmon on the occasionally storm-tossed waters.
"We would do real good out there. We always got bigger fish. Thirty pounds was average in those days," Kuks said.
Tanner said the decision felt right that trying evening after the phone call. He was sure the experiment would work.
During the course of four years as chief of fisheries research for the Colorado Department of Game, Fish and Parks prior to coming to Michigan, Tanner had become aware of other places where coho salmon thrived in fresh water.
Changing state policy to emphasize sport fishing over commercial fishing also seemed right, according to Tanner, who grew up, and learned to fish, in Bellaire. He espoused the philosophy of "doing the greatest good for the greatest number of people for the longest period of time." More would benefit from the lake having a sport fishery.
Tanner is sanguine about the decision so many years later. It was an era of change. Gov. George Romney was the state CEO, he said. It was a time of growing prosperity and people had more leisure time. Economists and others saw outdoor recreation as a means to promote economic development.
Tanner bristles lightly at what he considers a mistaken public idea that the salmon were stocked to solve the alewife problem, a popular misconception.
"Tody and I said we are going to produce the world's greatest freshwater fishery. That was our goal and we were sure it was going to work," said Tanner, who later would go on to become the director of natural resources for Michigan State University for eight years, then director of the Michigan Department of Natural Resources for eight years. Tanner was elected in 2008 to the National Fisheries Management Hall of Excellence by the American Fisheries Society.
"We were fishery people, not alewife control people," Tanner said. "You don't grow cows to keep the grass short. We wanted the alewife to be the foundation of the food supply and thought it would be nice to keep them off the beaches."
Tanner, who lives with his wife, Helen, in Haslett and has three sons, said the decision to plant two species of salmon — coho and chinook — was to provide "redundancy" in the fishery. If something happened to one, the other might still prosper.
The choice to emphasize salmon rather than lake trout boiled down to each species' appeal to anglers, according to Tanner. Coho had more angler appeal and greater potential to stimulate personal spending and the economy.
"We said we wanted coho, a fishery that was exciting enough that people would make the investment of time and money to participate," Tanner said. "They can't get that with lake trout. You have to have an exciting fishery that fits the food supply, which is why salmon was a perfect fit."
Tanner said another common public misperception is that early salmon plants solved the dead alewife problem on Michigan beaches. The alewives, he said, followed the pattern of most invasive species; they explode in an empty ecological niche, then peak, level out and decline.
"In 1967 the alewives on the beaches were the worst ever." Tanner said. "That fall the salmon fishery erupted. The next summer there were no dead alewives on the beach. Everyone said: 'It is just like they said.'
"We didn't have enough salmon then to put a dent in the alewives, but the peak had gone up and the crash had occurred at precisely the right time."
A little bit more scientific information about the Salmon in Lake Michigan
Freshwater salmon were introduced into the Great Lake system as early as the late 1800's. The main types are Chinook, Coho, Pinks, Kokanee
(Sockeye), and two strains of Atlantic salmon.
Chinook: Chinook were introduced in the 1870's, but they eventually disappeared. In 1966 there was a collective effort from Michigan, New York, Wisconsin and Ontario to reintroduce them. Chinook males generally live for 1-2 years and females from 3-4 years. The mature females are obviously larger. Unlike Chinook in the Pacific Ocean, land locked Chinook stay in water less than 100 feet generally. Pacific Chinook can often be found from 100-200 feet of water, unless they are following the route they took as a smolt. Chinook in the Great Lakes take longer to mature than ocean run Chinook, mostly because of feed sources.
Rivers: In most rivers Chinook (Kings) start making their way up during late August and early September. By early October most Chinook have turned very dark and the run is almost at its end. This is similar to the spawning habits of Chinook on many parts of the west coast of North America.
Taste: Landlocked Chinook don't taste anything like Chinook from the Pacific Ocean because the diet is much different. Pacific Chinook feed on a variety of things including herring, pilchards, shrimp, squid, krill, anchovies and needlefish. Landlocked Chinook feed on alewives and other small fish that are resident to fresh water.
Coho Salmon: Coho have been in the Great Lake system for around 50 years. They generally spawn in October, as they would in the Pacific Coast. Coho salmon can generally be caught casting from shore until it warms up in June. After that, they head towards the cooler deeper water. Coho can be caught trolling while fishing Chinook and trout since all three feed on the same bait fish.
Rivers: Coho follow about the same timeline as Chinook (Kings) in most rivers coming from the great lakes. Coho are outnumbered by Chinook in most rivers.
Pink Salmon: Pinks were introduced during the 1950's. Pinks usually spawn every two years, however, some pinks take longer to grow in the lake system and therefore take up to three years to mature, so some pinks will be in the river system every year.
Big Bird Charters
143 Anchors Way Slip 94
Saint Joseph, MI 49085
Phone: Capt. Jim 269-470-4149
Capt. Eric 269-243-0633