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Rogers City, Michigan: The “Nautical City” has a “Sporting” Fishery

By Tom Carney

The first notions of daylight added just a touch of color to the shirts and caps worn by the shadows scurrying around the parking area and dock at the Hammond Bay State Harbor. Actually, the shadows didn’t scurry; they moved with a combination of efficiency, precision, deliberation and singleness of purpose. Got to get on the water!

If it’s late July on northern Lake Huron, that unity of purpose is focused on one objective: king salmon.

Before full color had entered the scene Dave “Gumby” Gumtow had cast off the lines of the Emma J and Captain Dave Hija had piloted her clear of harbor. About 10 minutes into the cruise, Gumby began setting lines.

“You’ve got cold water right off the bat today,” said Hija. “We’re trying to stay in 70 feet or less. “In fact,” he continued, counter to local conventional wisdom regarding kings, “we haven’t been fishing in 70 to 80 feet of water all summer. Our best fishing has come from 45 to 55 feet.”

That’s because the current situation with Lake Huron’s salmon fishery has caused anglers to toss conventional wisdom to the wind.

Disruptions in the food chain over the past several years have had a drastic effect on the lake’s Chinook salmon population. Simply put, the salmon’s favorite food, alewives, aren’t around anymore. Without alewives, the salmon don’t get big and fat.
As the saying goes, when life hands them a basket of lemons, some folks figure it’s time to make lemonade. That’s how Rick Colonna views the current situation.

Colonna, president of the Hammond Bay Area Anglers Association, says the fishing in 2007 was “great, because of the lack of pressure, actually. I mean we would go out and get fish just about every day. With that lack of pressure, there wasn’t a day we didn’t get fish. You’re not going to get the large fish that you used to get. But there are still fish to be caught.”
Back on the Emma J, Hija observed, “The fishing has slowed down, but we still have good numbers of fish. There have been some excellent days in there for those who did not leave. The size is a little smaller, but they’re getting them anywhere, I’d say, from 8 to 20 pounds consistently.”

Colonna says because of lower alewife numbers, the fish have changed their feeding habits. “You gotta’ find what they’re feeding on.”

Hija had the lines set that 45 to 55 foot range because that’s where he had been finding the Chinooks’ current baitfish of choice, sticklebacks.Gumby had set rigs at several depths because, he said, “Sometimes, they’re up higher in the water column.”
Their strategy paid of; less than 15 minutes after they started fishing, those rigs had produced a small lake trout and a small king.

“The salmon,” Colonna explains, “are foraging for what they can find. They like a temperature lower than 56 degrees, but they will move out of that looking for food. They’re not afraid to come out of their comfort zone to feed.” He sees the fact that fewer anglers have been heading to northern Lake Huron in recent years as a good thing for those who do: “With the lack of pressure you’re able to get on some fish and fish ‘em. You don’t have 20 boats around you picking them off while you’re trying to fish the area.”

Hija agreed. “I like it better,” he said, “There’s not as much traffic. There’s plenty of room now. The fish aren’t spooked as much.”
The fall off in boat traffic, he added, “is noticeable. There were days when it was like the parking lot at a Wal-Mart out there.”
The decreased traffic makes a difference off the water as well, Hija said. “There are no long waits for the fish cleaning station or to launch your boat.”

For traveling anglers looking to escape the crowds even farther off the water, the Rogers City area of Michigan is tough to beat,
Located at the tip of the index finger of Michigan’s mitten, the town is close enough to be within an easy drive from most places in the state, yet remote enough that the causal tourist won’t be able to just stop by on a whim.

The city has plenty to offer the person who wants to get away from it all—especially the crowds. Some of Rogers City’s selling points are a small downtown, two nearby state parks, plenty of trails and local parks, and enough shops and restaurants to satisfy one’s desires, needs, and appetites, but not so many that the town loses its charm and quaintness. A couple indications of the degree to which the town identifies itself as a Great Lakes port: it is nicknamed “the Nautical City,” and the town’s Catholic church was designed to resemble a Great Lakes freighter.

Although lake trout have taken over as the main game fish, on the positive side, Michigan DNR Research Biologist Jim Johnson notes Rogers City’s catch rates for kings have been higher that those further south for several years now, and remained so in 2007. As one who takes lemons and makes lemonade, Hija treats the evolving fishery as a new challenge.
“Now you have to go out and work for the fish,” he said. “It’s more sporting now.”

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