Fifty years ago the biggest story in the history of freshwater fisheries was unfolding in northern Michigan. Vast numbers of coho salmon had returned, were feeding rapaciously, and anyone who cast a lure into the water could catch them. “Coho fever” went rampant. Anglers from across the country hurried to Frankfort and Platte Bay, launched boats ranging from forty-foot-yachts to twelve-foot canoes, and caught salmon until their arms ached. And then a storm came up. My family and I were there that day, September 23, 1967, and would never forget what we saw.
I’ll post a new story every day this week exploring some aspect of the history of salmon in the Great Lakes, culminating Saturday with my account of the Coho storm of September 23. If you’re in the area that day, I hope you’ll consider attending “Coho Fever: Boom or Bust,” where I’ll join Peter Payette of Interlochen Public Radio on stage at The Garden Theater in Frankfort, Michigan. Doors open at 6:00, for a social hour with food and beverages. The conversation begins at 7:00. Admittance is free.
So, to kick off Salmon Week, here’s my remembrance of what was probably my family’s first day fishing for coho:
WHEN I WAS A KID not much lived in the Great Lakes except carp, sea lamprey, and alewives. Especially alewives. Somebody calculated that if you netted a hundred pounds of living things from the lakes, ninety of those pounds would be alewives. These small, silvery fish had invaded the Great Lakes in the 1930s and ‘40s from the Atlantic via the Erie and Welland canals. Now they were a plague. So many swarmed through the lakes that they periodically annihilated most of the microorganisms they fed upon and caused themselves to starve. In the spring and early summer, especially, they died by the millions and their carcasses washed up in stinking heaps so large that front-end loaders had to be brought in to clear them from public beaches.
There weren’t enough predator fish to keep them in check. Sea lamprey had seen to that. The lamprey is an eel-like fish that, like the alewife, had invaded from the Atlantic. It feeds on large fish by attaching to them with suckers, rasping through their skin and sucking their bodily fluids until the hosts die. By the 1960s virtually all the native trout and whitefish were gone from lakes Michigan, Huron, Erie, and Ontario. Lake Superior was the last of the lakes to be invaded and still had some fish, but it was only a matter of time. Most people figured the Great Lakes were ruined.
Then biologists released coho salmon smolts into Michigan’s Platte River and everything changed. Suddenly the Great Lakes were alive again. More alive than ever. The salmon gorged on alewives and grew faster than any of the biologists had anticipated. Nobody was quite prepared for what happened when the mature salmon returned to Platte Bay in August 1967, seeking the river of their birth.
I was thirteen that summer, and my parents and brother and I were waiting to meet the salmon. The day I’m remembering might have been our first try for them. We were in our fourteen-foot fiberglass runabout, a small boat that thought it was bigger, with a covered bow and a 35-hp Johnson outboard. We had never heard of down-riggers or sonar fish locaters and didn’t even use rod holders—none of the specialized big-water equipment that anglers would later import from the West Coast and transform Great Lakes fishing into what writer John Geirach once called a “high-tech war on the fish.” We were just fishing, with spinning rods and reels that held a hundred yards of eight-pound monofilament and the same plugs and spoons we used for pike, bass, and walleye on inland lakes.
It was soon obvious that the best way to find schools of salmon in Platte Bay was to look for a crowd of boats. Anglers scanned the water with binoculars, and when they saw congestion and bent rods, they sped to that vicinity and began trolling silver and orange Flatfish, Rapalas, and Tadpollys.
At first my father resisted doing that. He was an old-school guy who preferred to fish in solitude. Later we would fling ourselves into the fray and catch salmon, hundreds of them. But now, on this early trip, Dad refused to follow the herd.
We motored away from shore, toward the open lake. Wisconsin was out there somewhere, far beyond the horizon. We went miles farther than anyone else that day, until shore was a low band of green and the water beneath us was a deeper blue than I had ever seen. Dad kept the boat on plane, bound for the horizon line, determined to go even farther.
At some point I saw a swirl off the side the boat. Then another. Then a fish vaulted into the air ahead of us, flashed silver in the sunlight, and landed in an explosion of spray. It was a big fish, a very big fish.
Dad cut the motor, and the boat heaved in the wash and stopped. A foot or two beneath the surface, all around us, blue streaks shot past. They looked like bolts of lightning, an electric invasion of blue streaks that would impale you if you got in the way or would fire straight through. Suddenly in every direction fish were swirling and porpoising. Then we saw alewives skittering across the surface like thrown gravel.
We grabbed our spinning rods—they were already rigged with silver Rapalas—and cast wildly. Fish slammed the lures, first Dad’s, then my brother’s, then mine. My fish struck ten feet from the boat, nearly yanking the rod from my hands. It leaped instantly, then dived beneath the hull and leaped again on the other side—covering the distance so quickly that I thought it must be two fish that jumped. Then it tore line off my reel in a lunatic run. It went a hundred feet in the time it took me to shout for help. I didn’t know any fish could be that fast or as strong. I was never in control of it. Not even for a moment. Dad netted his fish and Rick’s, a brace of spectacular ten-pounders, but mine ran so far that I panicked. I tightened the drag—cranked down on it to try to slow the fish—and the line broke and the fish kept going, leaving me wanting more.
Fifty years later I still can’t cast a lure or fly into big water without expecting something extraordinary to happen. I expect to be suddenly surrounded by schools of marauding predators, to hook an unstoppable fish, to tap forces I have no control over. Who could have guessed that these lakes, once so close to destruction, would thrive again?