Tag Archives: Lake Superior

LITTLE GIANTS: THE UNLIKELY JOURNEY OF PINK SALMON IN THE GREAT LAKES

Biologists and anglers had attempted to plant salmon in the Great Lakes for more than a century before the spectacular success of the coho and Chinook programs of the late 1960s. Those earlier attempts had always failed, with one notable exception: the accidental release of a species that established itself in all five Great Lakes and continues to reproduce naturally to this day. I wrote a story about it in 1991 for The New York Times:

My friend Dan Donarski with a pink salmon from the St. Mary's River

My friend Dan Donarski with a pink salmon from the St. Mary’s River (photo courtesy the Michigan DNR)

IN THE GREAT LAKES, where trout and salmon can grow to be as large as small children, it’s no wonder that the comparatively diminutive pink salmon is often overlooked. Weighing only two to three pounds each at maturity, they are too small to be targeted by big-game anglers in the open lakes and are usually noticed only in late summer and early fall, when they congregate in rivers to spawn. Anglers who follow the runs use fly rods or ultralight spinning gear, and don’t often have to worry about competition.

Pink salmon—also called humpbacked salmon, for the spawning male’s deformed spine—have an enigmatic history in the Great Lakes. Unlike coho and Chinook salmon, which were transplanted from the Pacific Northwest to enliven a struggling sport fishery, pinks were introduced accidentally. In 1955, eggs from British Columbia were flown to Thunder Bay, Ontario, near the shore of Lake Superior, with the intention of raising them in a hatchery and stocking them far to the north in Hudson Bay. When the hatched fingerlings were loaded onto seaplanes and transported north, however, about 20,000 of them were inadvertently left behind at the hatchery. Rather than allow them to die, attendants released them into the Current River, a tributary of Lake Superior. No one thought any more about them.

A few years later adult pink salmon started showing up in the region’s rivers. Within ten years they were observed spawning in the rapids of the St. Mary’s River, at the outlet of Lake Superior, and in tributaries along the north shore of Lake Huron. In the years since, they’ve established themselves in all the Great Lakes and can be found in such unlikely places as the St. Clair River north of Detroit.

One of the pink salmon’s intriguing qualities is its unpredictability. In the Great Lakes it spawns in the largest concentrations in odd-numbered years, yet good runs can occur during even-numbered years as well. thousands of the fish might appear in a particular river one year, then not the next. They might spawn in abundance in a rock-strewn creek and be absent from a similar creek a half mile down the shore. They tend to show up when you’re fishing for other species, or not fishing at all. Anglers who like to fish for them find themselves frequently outsmarted. Ask them about pinks and they always shake their heads and grin.

Over the years I’ve fished for them quite a few times in the Upper Peninsula, but never with much success. The St. Mary’s River is the most likely place to find them in abundance —tens of thousands of them, some years—but that enormous and very fast river is difficult to fish and the salmon are not always cooperative. One August I joined my friend Dan Donarski, a professional guide and fellow writer, for a couple days of wading the St. Mary’s rapids. We made hundreds of casts of wet flies and streamers over pods of pinks that we saw clearly in the fast current, and managed to get thoroughly skunked. We weren’t alone. In those two days we watched a dozen other anglers catch perhaps fifty salmon, but not one was hooked in the mouth. I spent most of the second day content to observe the small, sleek females, dark on top and white below, and the males with their grotesque humps, industrious and self-important as they darted about over the gravel, chasing away rival males and fanning their early redds. I became convinced that they could not be caught on flies. Of course, a day later Dan called me at my home to say that everyone in the river was catching them.

One recent September I drove for a week along the north shore of Lake Superior in Ontario, stopping now and then to fish the mouths of the many bright, waterfall-and-rapids strewn rivers that tumble into the lake along that coast. The rivers support a heartening variety of gamefish. Any cast can result in a strike from a brook trout, brown trout, lake trout, or steelhead, or from a coho, Chinook, Atlantic, or pink salmon. There’s a good likelihood, too, of catching a pike, walleye, or smallmouth bass.

At one small river, a few hundred feet upstream from the roaring surf of Lake Superior, I cast a Mickey Finn streamer into one of the first deep pools above the mouth. A two-pound fish streaked to the surface, grabbed the fly, and dove immediately back into deeper water.  I assumed from its head-shaking fight that it was a brook trout—it would have been among the largest I’d ever caught—and for a few moments I was baffled by the silver, streamlined fish I finally brought to my net. It was obviously a salmonid, but just as obviously not a trout.  I thought it might be an immature Atlantic salmon. Then I remembered:  Of course, a pink.

Like all Pacific salmon, pinks die after spawning. It’s a fact of life that should make it easy to justify keeping them for a meal. Yet I released mine with the same care I give to wild trout, then laughed when that audacious Mickey Rooney of the salmon family dashed away to resume its important business in the river. I was reminded of Aldo Leopold’s observation about black-capped chickadees: “Everyone laughs at so small a bundle of large enthusiasms.”

YELLOWTHROATS AND AGATES

Common_yellowthroat

Common Yellowthroat—male

IN MAY Gail and I like to go to the eastern Upper Peninsula to watch birds. We do a sort of Grand Tour, from Mackinac State Park to the Seney Wildlife Refuge to Whitefish Point. Whitefish Point is a funnel for migrants, and on some days you can see hundreds of raptors soaring in “kettles” as they wait for a south wind to carry them across the lake to Canada. Sometimes a dozen kettles will be in the sky at once, each speckled with a hundred or more slowly wheeling broad-wings, sharpshins, kestrels, and others. In ponds and wetlands are ducks and geese, and occasionally yellowlegs, bitterns, rails, and other shy water birds. And the trees can be dripping with warblers.

Broad-winged_hawk_kettle_by_Steve_Baker

Broad-winged Hawks Kettling. Photo by Steve Baker for the Mackinac Straits Raptor Watch

We’re solid intermediate birders but we’ll probably never be experts because of our attention-span problem. We can’t pass a river without wanting to canoe it or fish it. We can’t drive through an aspen woods without stopping to search for morels. If we’re in the mood for chaos and artifice, the casinos draw us in. And every rocky beach beckons with the promise of agates.

One of our favorite agate beaches is at the end of a long, fairly treacherous trail that appears on no maps. Last year when we were there Superior was in a rare mood: calm and steel-gray to the horizon, with small waves lapping the shore. We had found a few small agates in the gravel when, from a thicket of osiers at the top the beach, came a distinctive call—“Wickity wickity wickity.” We were baffled for a moment, then it came to us: the common yellowthroat, a warbler I’ve always thought was not in the least common.

Farther down the shore we discovered half a dozen logs stranded on the beach. They were large—sixteen feet long and two feet in diameter—and worn smooth and bleached nearly white by water and weather. The ends of the logs were stamped with marks to identify the companies that owned them. Most of them were imprinted with the letters “OK.” The others were simple heart shapes.

I remembered meeting a man once on the north shore of Superior who had worked as the skipper of a tugboat that hauled similar logs across Superior. He said the logs were gathered into booms the size of football fields, and his job was to push them across the lake to the sawmills in Sault Ste Marie. He told a story about getting caught in a storm that shoved his tug backward across the lake until the boom broke up against the Michigan shore. Stray logs sometimes drift in the lake for years, he said. Eventually they sink or wash up on beaches.

It was impossible to tell if the logs Gail and I found on the beach that day had been floating in the lake for a year or a decade. Maybe they had been lost from one of those massive booms. I imagined the storm that could shove a tugboat backwards against its thrust and bust chains and scatter logs across a hundred miles of water. If you’ve seen a Lake Superior storm you’ll have no doubt who wins such a contest. Tugs are powerful machines, but the smart money is on Superior.

 

(Originally published in Michigan Blue Magazine.)

 

SPRING: LOON CALL

They say spring advances fifteen miles a day, the pace of a leisurely walk, which is why I could experience three springs last year. The first was in March, in Ohio, on the shore of Lake Erie’s Maumee Bay, where new grass was sprouting in farmers’ fields and clusters of broad-winged hawks circled overhead in kettles. I counted 200 broad-wings one day, but a local birder said they sometimes numbered in the tens of thousands and even hundreds of thousands—whole galaxies of hawks spiraling slowly northward with the wind. In the marshes and woodlots were other early migrants—red-winged blackbird, yellow-rumped warbler, ruby-crowned kinglet, and a brown thrasher that perched at the top of a tree beside my cabin for an hour and performed tireless variations of “Here I am, look at me.”

brown thrasher

Brown Thrasher
photo by Steve Shelasky

Three weeks later, those same birds were showing up 300 miles north, near Traverse City. The snow was finally gone from the woods; forsythia and trilliums were in bloom. Suddenly morels were popping beneath the aspens and trout were gobbling mayflies in the rivers.

Then it was time for the third spring, so I drove north again, crossed the Mackinac Bridge into the Upper Peninsula, and followed county roads until I banged up against the shore of Superior. I had the key to a friend’s cabin but had to shovel a drift away from the door before I could open it. Remnant bergs sat melting on the beach. Overhead the sky was stacked with hawks waiting for a south wind to carry them across the big lake.

Spring is the most complicated season. It arrives with reluctance, pulling its clanking train of machinery, and we recognize that the name we’ve given it is all wrong. It doesn’t spring, it creeps, two steps forward and one back—and often it backs off entirely and you have to wait a  few days or a week before it tiptoes forward again.

common loon

Common Loon
photo by Jerry am Ende

One morning I stepped from the cabin to listen to those clanking gears and turning wheels and caught the first warm wind of the season. A familiar warbling call sounded high overhead and I looked up to see a loon hurtling past, bound for Canada. Then came another, and another, each making its ululating call.

This was the clarion announcement, the very emblem of the wild north, a song that has always stirred something deep in the souls of those who value solitude and unspoiled places. It’s the music of mist-shrouded lakes and tannin-colored ponds, a boreal timelessness best heard from a canoe. But coming from the sky above Superior it was the sound of a different wildness, one in transit, like us, winging northward into the lengthening days of the season of hope.

ON THE GREAT LAKES: THE STORMS OF NOVEMBER

Every year on November 10 countless people remember the Edmund Fitzgerald, which sank in Lake Superior with 29 crewmen on 11/10/75. I remember also November 10, 1998, when I drove to Whitefish Point during one of the worst storms since 1975, saw Lake Superior in turmoil, and met a man who was caught in the 1975 storm in a small boat and somehow survived. If you’ve ever wondered why the storms of November are so ferocious, here’s the meteorological explanation:

“November is the deadliest month. Ask any sailor. The Great Lakes still embrace some of summer’s heat then, but the air above has turned to winter. A meteorologist for the National Weather Service once calculated that on average the greatest difference between the temperature of the Great Lakes and the temperature of the air above them occurs on November 10. That differential causes the remaining warmth in the lakes to be sucked into the air, releasing energy and creating wind. With so much energy available over such large bodies of water, even minor storms are intensified. Most of the most devastating storms on the Great Lakes have occurred on or near November 10. And it was on this day in 1975 that the mighty Edmund Fitzgerald went down with all hands on Lake Superior…”

(From The Living Great Lakes: Searching for the Heart of the Inland Seas, by Jerry Dennis (NY: St. Martin’s Press. 2003)