The Great Lakes

The Great Lakes

Could it be that fishing the Great Lakes tributaries is more rewarding than, say, New Zealand or Tierra del Fuego?

  • By: Paul Guernsey

A few days ago, I fished Montana's Madison River in the company of a guy who had some unrealistically high expectations. He said something about a"five-pound brown" once too often, and finally our guide smiled at him and gently set him straight.

"Listen," the guide told him."We probably won't catch a five-pound trout no matter how good we are. If we catch a 20-inch fish, we'll be doing very well."

The exchange made me think back to a brutally raw day last November when I stood watching a data collector for the New York Department of Environmental Conservation as she worked her way through a pile of trout that had been caught—and not released—in a tiny Lake Ontario tributary. She hooked a fish onto her hanging scale, hoisted it, and upon observing that it weighed just about five pounds she remarked,"Boy, these little browns sure are pretty."

The fish was little too, compared to many of the ones that surrounded it. Not only that, but just about everyone I saw fishing that day caught a bunch of fish that were five pounds or larger.

Now, it happens that good brown-trout tributaries are fairly rare in the Great Lakes region—but good steelhead water, places where you can sometimes catch 5- to 15-pound fish all day long, are almost a dime a dozen. You'll find these steelhead streams in just about every one of the Great Lakes states. In addition, the region has rivers that host silver salmon and king salmon—and even a spot or two where you can catch Atlantics.

Of course, there are some drawbacks to Great Lakes angling: The scenery, while pleasantly rural near some productive rivers, is decidedly industrial near others. In addition, while several trustworthy guides have told me that uncrowded angling often is just a hike away from the road, most of the best streams attract jostling throngs of spin-, bait- and fly-fishers.

And fly-fishers from other parts of the country are in for a bit of culture shock when they visit the Great Lakes for the first time. Although lead-free, sinking-line fishing and even Spey fishing have been catching on there, chuck-and-duck angling, with lots of toxic split shots festooning the leader, is still the preferred method for many fly-fishers. A lot of Great Lakes fly anglers also seem closer to their spin- or bait-fishing roots than many of the rest of us; for instance, plenty of them still unabashedly kill as many fish as the law allows, and camouflage clothing doesn't seem to be the anathema it is elsewhere. Aside from the use of lead, I'm not saying that any of this is necessarily bad; it's just different, and for some of us it takes some getting used to.

In any case, the Great Lakes trout and salmon fishery has gotten nowhere near the attention or respect it deserves from anglers who don't live in the region. I'll tell you this: If my life depended on catching a half-dozen trout or steelhead over five pounds in a single day and I could travel anywhere in the world at any time of the year to get the job done, I'd make a beeline for Michigan or western New York—although the St. Joseph's River in Indiana would do in a pinch. That's right; given the stakes (my life!) I would pick the Great Lakes over New Zealand and Tierra del Fuego, and maybe even Kamchatka. The fish there are that big, and that abundant.

My hope is that Great Lakes fishermen—regardless of their fishing methods—resist the temptation to take their incomparable resources for granted, and that they continue joining and working together to preserve fish and fish habitat, and to maintain the health of the lakes and their tributaries.