For anglers along the St. Joseph River, excitement is building. The best fishing of the year is rapidly approaching.
I refer, of course, to the autumn run of steelhead, king and coho salmon, fish that come up from Lake Michigan to spawn in the river and its tributaries.
The St. Joseph River and its tributaries host one of the largest spawning runs of migratory salmonids in the Great Lakes. Steelhead, chinook and coho salmon make up the majority of the run. The most adventuresome fish traverse 63 miles of the river from Benton Harbor to Mishawaka. Along the way are six dams, five of which have fish ladders allowing passage upstream.
The sixth dam — Twin Bridges in Mishawaka — has no fish ladder and blocks further upstream migration. Both Michigan and Indiana work together to regulate and stock salmon and steelhead.
In my explorations over the past couple of weeks along the Mishawaka-South Bend stretch of river, the fishing has been steadily improving. Early-run steelhead fishing has been productive. Two recent outings produced six hookups on each trip. Biologists at Berrien Springs, MI., also have reported the first runs of coho and king (also known as chinook) salmon, but to date I have not hooked one.
Many anglers mistakenly assume the salmon-steelhead fishery is of recent origin. But research reveals the first stockings in the St. Joseph River were conducted by the state of Indiana in 1889. Several thousand steelhead were released after previous stocking intiatives in Michigan proved successful.
The steelhead flourished until the 1950s, when a combination of factors doomed the fishery. Pollution and over-fishing were the main cause, along with the invasion of lamprey eels from the Atlantic Ocean. The lamprey attaches itself to a fish and eats away at the flesh, often killing its victim. Around the same time the lakes were ivaded with alewives, a small baitfish also from the Atlantic. Alewife populations exploded without any significant predator species to keep them in check.
Millions of foul-smelling, dead alewives soon began washing up on Lake Michigan beaches, causing tourists to stay away. Michigan first took action in defense of its shorelines. The Michigan Department of Conservation began stocking coho salmon in 1966.
A total of 600,000 young salmon were introduced to streams along Lake Michigan. The salmon adapted well and growth rates were exceedingly high due to the tremendous amount of available alewife forage. Anglers quickly focused on to the sporty salmon and a new fishery was born.
In 1967, the state of Michigan added king salmon to its stocking efforts, as as well increased numbers of steelhead. Michigan began its modern-day St. Joseph River stocking program in 1969.
Indiana started its salmon stocking program in 1968 with small cohos planted in Trail Creek followed by chinooks a few years later. The first returns Indiana waters were recorded in 1971 when biologists trapped several coho in Trail Creek. The St. Joseph River wasn’t stocked with salmon by Indiana until 1984 with returns three years later, although a lack of fish ladders initially blocked upstream runs to the South Bend-Mishawaka area.
Between 1975 and 1990 five fish ladders were constructed at dams below Twin Bridges. The river could now support runs all the way to Mishawaka. As both Indiana and Michigan resumed stocking programs of steelhead, chinook and coho the fishery grew. Indiana’s first return of adult chinooks in the St. Joseph River came in the fall of 1994. Angler participation was high, creating an economic boomlet.
The late 1990’s produced historical high runs of fish each autumn, but like any man made fishery, problems soon arose. Year to year numbers of returning fish changed dramatically. Crashes of alewive populations were blamed, along with overfishing and pollution. Lampreys added additional problems. The majority of the salmon and steelhead I have taken in the past couple years show scars from the loathesome eel.
Stocking programs also have changed quite a bit over the years as well. In 2001 Indiana abandoned its salmon stocking program for its strech of the St. Joseph River in favor of additional steelhead. Biologists found returns of chinooks were extremely low. The Skamania strain of steelhead became the major focus for Indiana. Michigan cut back its stocking program as well, mainly due to budget restraints. Aquatic diseases such as VHS have also put new restrictions on stocking programs between the two states but the fishery remains strong.
An angler can catch a steelhead any day of the year in the St. Joseph watershed. It may not be easy but it can be done. Different strains are stocked so the fish run upriver at different times of the year. Most return at 2-4 years of age and can weigh anywhere from 5-20 pounds. The main run is in the spring when most steelhead spawn. Unlike Pacific salmon, steelhead will return to Lake Michigan after spawning and may repeat the process 2-3 times before they die.
Coho and chinook salmon begin to push upriver in late August and early September. Usually by late September the salmon are throughout the entire system spawning on gravel beds. All coho and chinook salmon die after spawning. Late in the run you often see large chinooks barely alive struggling to pass on their genes. For fishing and eating purposes the early part of the run provides the fighting-est and tastiest fish.
While the man-made fishery of the St. Joseph River is fairly new the future looks good. The fishing remains strong throughout the river and its tributaries and returns are somewhat predictable. Indiana expects to see 10,000 steelhead return to our waters in both the spring and again in the fall. Since June 1,399 steelhead, 58 chinooks and 169 coho have passed the South Bend fish ladder. As the fall progresses and water temperatures cool the steelhead and salmon numbers will increase quickly.
Over the next two months you can find some of the best fishing of the year on the St. Joseph River.
Salmon and steelhead can be targeted in several ways. Many hardware fisherman like to use large spinners, spoons and plugs in the deeper parts of the river. Baits such as nightcrawlers, wax worms and spawn bags fished on the bottom remain popular as well. Fly fisherman can use a variety of flies from small nymphs for steelhead to large streamer style bunny leeches for early run salmon.
When the water is warm it is best to target cold water drainages or the deeper holes where fish will stack up to stay cool. As the river temperatures cool one can find salmon spawning on gravel bars or holding in deeper water below spawning areas. Steelhead will also hold below spawning salmon, gorging themselves on salmon eggs drifting downstream. Early morning and late evening are the best times to target these lake run species.
All this is created by two states willing to spend the time and money to advance a fishery that began 40 years ago. Millions of dollars and millions of fish later we have arrived at what we see today. With any luck this fishery will remain successful for years to come.