Every year in late winter and early spring the words "the fish are in" spreads among the fishermen who love catching coho salmon in Lake Michigan.
What "in" means is the fish are in the shallows, often a stone's throw from the beaches and breakwaters. The "in" also stands for IN or Indiana because it's along Indiana's Lake Michigan shoreline the fish show up first and hang around the longest. Here's why.
Lake Michigan is 300 miles long and the climate at the northern end is much cooler than at the south end of the lake. Cohos prefer water temperatures in the low 50s and in autumn, the northern reaches of the lake drop below that preferred temperature much earlier than at the southern end.
Cohos swim thousands of miles in the Pacific Ocean during their life. In Lake Michigan migrating ever southward to stay in comfortable temperatures is not an epic journey for the two-year-old fish.
By early December, all the cohos in Lake Michigan have migrated to the south end of the lake and, having nowhere else to go, they overwinter in deep water mid-lake. There, Michigan stocked cohos co-mingle with Illinois fish, Wisconsin cohos and the ones stocked by Indiana - millions of them.
In early spring a second migration occurs. Just as the shallows in a pond warm more quickly than the deep water, when spring’s sun and warm weather occurs, the shallows along the Indiana shoreline warms more quickly than the deep, mid-lake waters or the shoreline waters farther north in Michigan or Wisconsin.
Once the millions of offshore cohos detect the warming shallows, here they come. How can the fishing not be good when all the cohos in Lake Michigan are crammed into a narrow band of water no more than a quarter mile from the shoreline?
I had a TV crew on my boat in mid-March a few years ago. The action was non-stop. Eventually, the TV angler told me, "I've got to tape an intro and wind-up to splice in at the beginning and end of the episode. Can we get somewhere we can have a few minutes without a fish biting?"
I'd been staying in 15 to 20 feet of water, just off the beach. I turned the boat due north and once we went a couple hundred yards offshore to 30 feet of water, the fish stopped biting and the star could do his work uninterrupted.
No wonder people from across the country come to fish and head home with limit catches. The fish come "in" sometime in March, depending on the spring warm-up. This year it was an early warm-up, other years it can be towards the end of the month. The near shore fishing remains good, most years right into early or mid-May.
Boaters can access the lake from marinas located in Hammond, Whiting, Portage and Michigan City. Indiana hosts a fleet of charter boats with experienced captains available to take out individuals or groups up to six anglers.
Fishing with members of Indiana's North Coast Charter Association is all-inclusive. All needed tackle and lures are furnished. You can buy a fishing license right on board the boat at the beginning of the trip and the fish you catch will be cleaned and packaged for you at trip's end. Now's the time - the fish are "IN."