Monday, November 5, 2012

Binders Full of Salmon

See what I did there?  But really, the history of members of the Family Salmonidae in the Great Lakes could fill several binders.  Most species that are common here now are fish that do not occur here naturally, while our native species are represented by diminished populations, hardly representational of their former abundance.  One species has even been driven to extinction.  As an angler, I think it is important to know the history of the fish you fish for to better appreciate them.  So I am going to consolidate binders full of history into a few paragraphs.

The only members of the Family Salmonidae that are native to the Great Lakes are the lake trout (Salvelinus namaycush), the brook trout (Salvelinus fontinalis), the atlantic salmon (Salmo salar), and the arctic grayling (Thymallus arcticus).
The arctic grayling population was decimated by the logging industry and by the stocking of nonnative species.  They have been extinct since the 1930s.  All efforts to reintroduce this beautiful fish to its native streams have failed.
The atlantic salmon was only native to Lake Ontario but they have been stocked in other Great Lakes tributaries with mixed results.  Torch Lake is still stocked with the atlantic salmon in Lower Michigan, and in Upper Michigan, the Saint Marys River between Lake Superior and Lake Huron is supposed to be just about the best atlantic salmon fishing on the continent.
Lake trout were driven to the edge of extinction by overfishing and invasion of the sea lamprey, but efforts to save the species have been successful, even though their population is a fraction of historical levels.
Brook trout are still found in native streams, and stocked in other streams outside of their native range. They only thrive in the most pristine waters, mostly in the upper portions of the Great Lakes and mountain streams.
I'm not sure, but I think some species of whitefish are native to the Great Lakes too.  Other than those few species, all others are nonnative.

Lake trout with lampreys attached

Brook trout

Atlantic salmon

Arctic grayling

The members of the Family Salmonidae that have been introduced into the Great Lakes are the brown trout (Salmo trutta), the rainbow trout (Oncorhynchus mykiss), chinook salmon (Oncorhynchus tshawytscha), coho salmon (Oncorhynchus kisutch), and pink salmon (Oncorhynchus gorbuscha) as well as a lake trout X brook trout hybrid that is commonly referred to as splake.
A German guy, the Baron Friedrich Felix von Behr helped introduce brown trout from his favorite streams of the Black Forest to the USA in the 1880s.  They were first introduced into a tributary of Lower Michigan's Pere Marquette River-- And then from there, just about every imaginable body of water in the nation.  In the Great Lakes, we have both stream resident brown trout, and lake run browns.
Rainbow trout were introduced in a similar fashion to brown trout starting around  the 1860s.  We also have stream resident and lake run rainbows.  Lake run rainbow trout are commonly called steelhead.  Steelhead are one of the most sought after fish in the Great Lakes.
Chinook and coho salmon were introduced into the Great Lakes originally in the 1800s, but they failed to thrive and eventually disappeared, probably because of mismanagement.  Again, chinook and coho were stocked in the Great Lakes to fill the apex predator role left vacant by the waning lake trout population starting in 1966.  With the lake trout on the verge of extinction, invasive species such as the alewife ran rampant, and annually, billions of alewives would die and wash up on the beaches of the Great Lakes.  This was not great for tourism.  But you know what is great for tourism?  Salmon fishing in the Great lakes!  Win win!
In the 1950s, pink salmon were planted in Lake Superior accidentally when about 100 tiny little yearling salmon escaped from a pen while they were being loaded onto a plane headed for Hudson Bay.  Then again, when about 20,000 "excess salmon" yearlings were "disposed of" in a sewage drain-- that led into a stream-- that fed into Lake Superior.  The idea was that the small fish would have no chance at survival amongst the predators of Lake Superior, let alone a sewage drain.  Pink salmon are pretty well established in the Great Lakes today.
Splake are raised in hatcheries and stocked in the Great Lakes almost strictly for sport fishing.  They are bred because they grow faster than either parent species and because they are highly unlikely to breed in the wild.  Since they are so unlikely to breed in the wild, the splake population is easy to control.

Great Lakes brown trout in spawning colors,
late summer 2008.

Great lakes brown in the spring of 2008.

Steelhead

Rainbow trout

One of the prettiest chinooks
I have ever caught,
late summer 2007.

I caught this fish in the spring of 2008.
I was never too sure, but I think it's a coho.

Coho

Spawning pink salmon

Splake

It can be pretty hard to identify some salmonids,
this is the guide that comes in the Wisconsin
trout and salmon rulebook.

When I was younger, I believed that the salmon we had in the Great Lakes had to swim all the way in from the Atlantic Ocean-- I just knew they came from the ocean.  Most people probably don't think twice about where the fish come from, or why they're here now.  It's a shame that our native species are so few in our lakes and streams, but we still have most species.  And I'm glad we have the introduced species for now.  Knowing about the history of these fish has made me more appreciative, this is why I practice catch and release the vast majority of the time.  In a later post, I'll talk about catching some of these beautiful fish.  There is nothing like the rush of catching your first chinook in a secluded wooded section of stream in the middle of nowhere.

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