Some people don’t know there are salmon in Lake Michigan. Some people think there has always been salmon in Lake Michigan. The fact is, there are millions of salmon in Indiana’s Great Lake and they were put there by the states which share Lake Michigan’s waters.
The story of how salmon native to the Pacific Ocean revitalized the Great Lake’s sportfishing industry, became a core activity for tourism from northern Minnesota to New York and spawned a billion-dollar fishing industry is a long, complex tale. The first Pacific salmon were stocked in Lake Michigan by the Michigan DNR more than fifty years ago.
Why they stocked them is a part of the story, why coho salmon were chosen is another part and there are many other chapters to the story. Indiana’s tiny portion of Lake Michigan would be mentioned in many of those chapters for a variety of reasons; but if you were reading the tale, the first mention of the Hoosier state would likely be how fishermen in Indiana were the first to actually catch salmon from the Great Lakes.
One year old, fingerling coho salmon were stocked into the Great Lakes in northern Lake Michigan in 1966. Whether they would live and prosper was unknown. Where the salmon would go was unknown. As far as anyone could guess, their fate could possibly remain unknown for two more years when any that did survive would hopefully return to where they were stocked as mature adults. It didn’t take that long.
In the early spring of 1968 anglers fishing shoreline areas at Michigan City, East Chicago and Whiting, Indiana started hooking these “funny looking trout” instead of the perch, panfish or whatever other fish they were hoping to catch. Some of the lucky anglers took the fish to Indiana’s DNR - Lake Michigan office where biologists identified them as coho salmon.
With a minor amount of sleuthing, the mystery was solved. These were the “experimental” salmon stocked by Michigan. They were alive, healthy and growing well. Eventually, they did return to their stocking site and hundreds of thousands of them were caught up there. But they were here in Indiana first.
These initial catches were newsworthy. Reporters from northwest Indiana newspapers as well as those from Chicago and elsewhere showed up. Prior to these fish, Lake Michigan was absent of any large game fish and overpopulated with tiny alewives, an invasive species.
These cohos were the green flag, signaling the start of the race for each Great Lakes state to gear up or expand their fish hatchery systems to produce cohos, king salmon, steelhead trout and brown trout to fill up their own portion of the lake for their anglers to catch.
From an angler’s perspective, Great Lakes salmon fishing started here in Indiana and even after more than a half-century it continues. What has been established is that each year most of the coho salmon in Lake Michigan, now annually stocked by Michigan, Illinois, Wisconsin and Indiana, show up along Indiana’s shoreline in late winter and crowd the shallows through most of the spring months.
To catch some of these for yourself, there are shoreline access areas for fishing in Hammond, Whiting, East Chicago, Portage and Michigan City. Or hire a pro. Captains from Indiana’s North Coast Charter Association know where the fish are located and how to catch them. Check out www.charterfish.org for details.