Jul. 28—State lawmakers became anglers Monday morning, casting lines into calm, quiet, deep-blue Lake Michigan waters — which made for rather leisurely fishing and conversation.
Scattered were state representatives from the Legislative Sportsmen's Caucus at Chinook Pier in Grand Haven to be enlightened on an industry that's worth more than $7 billion, according to Jay Wesley, the Lake Michigan basin coordinator for the Michigan Department of Natural Resources.
Aboard On The Line, Capt. Nick Keene's 33-foot Tiara, discussions centered around fishery issues and forecasts, including oversaturated, nonreporting, illegal angler guides.
Lake Michigan is home to a plethora of species of fish, and Wesley said stocking has been trending up after several down years — particularly with salmon.
"Normally we put in 100,000 to 130,000 every year, but last year it was like 240,000 to 250,000" salmon planted in Grand Haven, Wesley said. "Things are looking better, so each year we've been ratcheting up the stocking. We hit a low point, but we might be up to a million by next year lakewide.
"We stock the most coho, 1.5 million, and we only catch 16 percent," he added.
Salmon stocking fluctuation comes from the fluctuating alewife population, along with the change with zebra mussels, resulting in constant change in stocking. Wesley also said it's hard to monitor the amount of wild fish coming into the system as that ranges anywhere from 2 million to 4 million.
The 2021 fishing season started slow, but it has picked up since the later part of June, according to Keene. Despite the slow start, the captain has landed an array of large salmon and lake trout.
Wesley hopes that the wild fish will help maintain the fishery and the unclipped fish will catch up accordingly. The big, healthy salmon caught now are from the 2016 class.
As anglers continue to battle against conditions, Wesley urges all to come enjoy an ever-growing industry in Grand Haven.
"It's an amazing opportunity for people to come see Michigan," he said. "For people who don't have a boat or don't fish much, having an opportunity to go out on a charter is just awesome. There's so many tangibles of using and protecting our Great Lakes ... 20 percent of our world's freshwater comes from here."
The Pere Marquette River is a spot of Wesley and Keene's biggest concerns. The river is a hot spot for salmon and steelhead fishing in the fall and winter months.
"It's getting ridiculous," said Keene, who's in his fourth summer of charter fishing. "If you're not the first guide there, you're not getting a parking spot."
"They don't report anything," Wesley added, "so we don't have a clue of how many are really out there and what river they're on."
Without proper reporting, the DNR and guides like Keene are left scratching their heads over where and what to fish for. That's why they suggest a sufficient licensing structure to weed out all the chaos.
"When you're launching your boat, you see all the carcasses laying at the bottom of the river and it's all those guys," Keene said.
Although Wesley remains pessimistic about a day with consistent reporting, he says it would certainly help with all the speculation about the lack of steelhead in Lake Michigan.
"No one in the charter industry wanted to report back in the day either, but when the salmon first crashed with bacterial kidney disease, they all came together and said what can we do?" he said. "Well, if we had some reports and data, we can start figuring out what's going on. So I equated that to what's now going on with the steelhead."
Steelhead have been in the Great Lakes since the late 1800s and are adapting like they do out west, with seasonal runs up rivers, says Wesley.
Nick Green, the public information officer and editor of "Michigan Out-of-Doors," said getting more guides on board of filing proper reports will benefit the fishing ecosystem immensely.
"If we can get these guys in a room, it's just human nature for them to follow the herd," he said.
"Ideally, we would have creel clinics that could interview anglers," Wesley added. "That's what we have up and down the coast of the Great Lakes. But we just don't have the capacity to have creel clerks on every river system. Having guides reporting would give us some information from every river, at least the popular ones like Muskegon, Pere Marquette and Manistee."
But with most industries, no one wants more paperwork to tackle. That's where Wesley questions how fisheries can improve without any proper resource reports.
The golden example lies within charters as now trends over 20-30 years allow development in statistical catching age models for the lakes to determine how many fish are actually alive.
Green envisions positive enforcement of guiding legislation introduced in the fall.
"We've diluted it down so much that it's not rocket science to get in," he said. "It's pretty easy to do. I think if we just made a license to operate, we would probably weed 50 percent of the people out."
Age gaps in charter captains also remain an ongoing conversation, but Keene says there's a group of 24- to-30-year-olds that'll lead the next class. He noted his assistant leads a strong teenage class.