ALPENA - Anglers are filling their coolers with lake trout at the Michigan Brown Trout Festival this year, and they're seeing more and more wild fish.
On day four, tournament anglers brought in more than 50 of the native predator fish out of more than 175 caught that day, according to leaderboard figures. That brings the total to just under 200 lake trout out of nearly 700 fish caught over four days, including one lonely brown trout. Some of them are big; on Wednesday evening, tournament Weighmaster Roger Barc weighed a 16-pound fish, but it wasn't big enough to make the leaderboard.
"The lake trout are exceptionally good," Bounty Hunter Capt. Larry Sanderson said. "A lot of the lake trout, about 50 percent of them, have no (fin) clips on them. That means they're natural-born."
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Weighmaster Roger Barc, left, and assistant Kyle Urban hold up two big lake trout brought in Wednesday. While these two fish were stocked, as denoted by their clipped fins, more Michigan Brown Trout Festival tournament anglers are bringing in wild fish.
Sanderson said he and his boat mates are getting limit catches of lakers, especially out around Thunder Bay Island. They're bigger than the ones he caught last year, and they're stuffed full of gobies. While the fish look healthy, a lot of them have wound marks from parasitic sea lampreys. One had a mark so fresh that it looked as if the lamprey had just detached.
Barc said he's seen a lot fewer lamprey marks than before, although they're still out there. Controlling lamprey populations will help the fish recover, as will restoring bait fish populations.
Department of Natural Resources Fisheries biologist Dave Fielder had predicted good lake trout catches before the tournament. Drawing from research findings and creel catch survey reports, he said anglers should have no trouble catching their limit of lake trout. The tricky part will be catching the big fish.
Lake trout took a serious hit when sea lampreys invaded through the Welland Canal, and a vitamin deficiency caused by eating alewives hurt their natural reproduction, according to state and federal fisheries biologists. Now, anglers are catching lots of younger fish that don't have the telltale missing fins to show they were stocked.
That includes Rick Ashley and Todd Zak, who said they've caught lots of lakers, even before heading to their lucky spot for the species.
"I've seen a lot of smaller lakers, lots more than we've seen before," he said.
After years of supporting introduced fisheries like brown trout and Pacific salmon, Lake Huron seems to be reverting to a more natural state, Kyle Urban said. The Lake Superior State University fisheries biology student was helping Barc weigh fish Wednesday, and said lake trout are eating invasive species like gobies.
Barc said the species has adapted well after the alewife crash of 2003, eating aquatic insects, invasive fish and native bait fish like smelt and herring.
While Ashley is glad to see healthy lake trout populations, they're not as exciting to catch as a brown trout or salmon, he said. He believes they won't draw anglers to Alpena like a good sport fishery would. He's hoping to see more steelhead and Atlantic salmon being caught in the area.
Lake trout are good to eat, Sanderson said, adding he's served the fish with salmon before and his dinner guests couldn't tell the difference. They have to be cleaned just so, and he urged anyone who doesn't know how to cook them to ask him for his not-so-secret recipe.
Tournament Chairman Doug Niergarth said lake trout can help an angler win the tournament, but it's a matter of catching the big ones. He doesn't see the species' resurgence as a detriment to the tournament, and other more sporting species like steelhead are out there.
"I hear some fishermen tell me, 'Anyone can catch lake trout,'" he said. "Whatever. Put up or shut up. They say that, but they're not the ones winning the Super Tournament."
While brown trout aren't filling the coolers like before, there are a lot of other species biting out there. Before weighing a cooler filled with lake trout, Barc weighed in three sizable steelhead and a diminutive pink salmon. At over six pounds, one was the biggest steelhead of the day.