Salmon, snagging, and Big Fish Fever
Back in the mid sixties, the Michigan DNR was looking for a way to revitalize the fishing on the Great Lakes. The native populations of lake trout and other game species had just about been wiped out by the sea lamprey, an invasive species that had made its way into the great lakes through the Saint Lawrence Seaway. The lampreys are parasites that attach themselves to the fish, then feed on the fish by sucking out the fish’s blood. With the loss of predators like lake trout, the populations of bait fish like alewives, itself an invasive species, exploded to the point where there were massive die offs of the bait fish, as there were too many of them for the food available. This left piles of rotting fish on the beautiful beaches of Lake Michigan in particular, hurting the local tourism industry immensely. The efforts to control the lampreys were working to a large degree, but lake trout are a very slow-growing species, and hard to raise in fish hatcheries. So the DNR had the great idea of planting salmon native to the Pacific Ocean in the Great Lakes to feed on the bait fish, and to provide a fishery for sportsmen. It worked, or at least it seemed to.
Coho and chinook(kings) were the two most widely planted species, they grow fast, and are relatively easy to raise in a hatchery. The problem with Pacific salmon is that they only live a couple of years, then they swim up rivers to spawn, then die. They spawn in the fall, and late in the summer and early fall, they go on a feeding frenzy just before they enter the rivers to spawn. This made for great fishing, soon thousands of fishermen from all over the world were coming to Michigan and other Great Lakes States to take advantage of this new-found fishing opportunity. Then the trouble started. Instead of piles of rotting bait fish on the beaches, we had piles of rotting salmon in our rivers. The people who lived along the rivers were not pleased with the stench they had to endure every fall. While the fishing for salmon in the Great Lakes added to our tourism industry, the rotting fish in the rivers subtracted from it.
At the time, it was thought that you couldn’t catch salmon in the typical manner once the salmon had entered the rivers. Salmon don’t actively feed once they enter a river to spawn, so the DNR had another great idea, they would allow people to snag the salmon in the rivers. It seemed logical, the fish were going to die anyway, and the DNR didn’t think the salmon spawning in our rivers would be successful anyway, so why not let people harvest them like a crop? That was both a success and an epic fail. Yes, thousands of fishermen descended on the rivers like madmen, ripping the fish out of the water like there was no tomorrow. But, that in itself created an entirely new set of problems. The “standard” tackle for snagging was a huge treble hook with a large lead weight tied or molded to the bottom of the hook. This was cast out and allowed to sink to the bottom, then ripped back by the “fishermen” in a series of jerking motions. The fish schooled up in places there was an obsticle in the river, such as a dam, that prevented them from migrating any further upstream, and the fishermen schooled up in the same places. Soon, the river bottoms were covered in treble hooks, lead weights, and huge balls of fish line, to the point where it became dangerous to any one using the rivers in these places. The DNR also found out that if you allow snagging in some areas for some fish, fishermen would think it was OK to snag any fish, anywhere. The crowds of fishermen were destroying the riverbanks, and trespassing was a huge problem, like never before. There were even fistfights over fish and fouled fishing lines, in short, it was a mess. And, the old saying is true, once you let the Genie out of the bottle, it is darned hard to get it back in. It was the largest known mass outbreak of Big Fish Fever I have ever seen, or hope to see.
I don’t know if Big Fish Fever is a disease or an addiction, it has aspects of both, but it is a terrible thing to see when hundreds of people have it all at the same time. It does seem to affect different people in different ways, my dad had it, not to the point of becoming a snagger though, and I have to admit that I have a touch of it myself. After catching a few dozen salmon that weigh over 30 pounds, a 10 inch trout just doesn’t seem to be that big of a thrill anymore. When most fishermen are struck by it, they give up on trying to catch smaller fish, and only fish for the big ones. It takes most of the fun out of fishing, or it does for me. But for some people, it becomes almost a matter of life and death to them, they have to catch the big ones, no matter what it takes. It can be ugly, I have had groups of fishermen threaten me with physical harm when they see that I am fishing to a large fish, they run me off so they can go for it. I have seen guys in trees dropping large rocks in the river, trying to strike the fish with the rocks. People will risk life and limb for a large fish, in fact, many have drowned in their efforts to get a big fish.
As I said, my dad had it, I didn’t realize what it was or how badly he had it until I was much older. He used to take us kids out fishing with worms and bobbers for panfish like bluegills, but I knew he didn’t really enjoy it. As I got older, it dawned on me that he only fished in places and in ways as to try to catch the largest fish he could, and as a result, often caught nothing. That’s the way it is when some one has a really bad case of Big Fish Fever, it clouds their judgement, and often they are the most unhappy fishermen to be found. And, just as often, they are fishermen that don’t catch anything, as it was with my dad. Some guys do get the Big Fish Fever and are successful at catching large fish on a regular basis, but they are few and far between. I have known guys to spend all their money and end up divorced because they spend every free minute they have chasing the big ones.
Maybe I was one of the lucky ones who only got a mild case of Big Fish Fever. To begin with, I found the thought of snagging fish to be repulsive in the first place. Growing up in a family of sportsmen, I was taught that it was the challenge and the chase that mattered, not the kill. Watching the snaggers in action only confirmed my belief that I wanted no part of it. Watching those guys standing shoulder to shoulder, yelling and cussing each other out when their lines got tangled together, and seeing that they were “hung up” on the bottom more than they were “fishing” all made it a big turn off to me. Another lucky thing happened about that time, Spud was hired in where I worked to be my assistant.
Spud and his girlfriend, later his wife, had just moved to Grand Rapids so that she could attend Kendall Art College. He was also going to school as well, but part-time, and working full-time until Chris finished at Kendall. Spud was one of the few fishermen in Michigan who seemed to know that you could catch salmon in the rivers without resorting to snagging. He and I started fishing together, we fished the rivers where snagging wasn’t allowed, or at least it wasn’t legal. We ran into many a snagger in those days, it was a huge mistake for the DNR to have ever allowed any snagging anywhere. We would often see the local CO (Conservation Officer) standing back in the woods along the Rogue River with a pair of binoculars, watching people fish. When he saw some one keep a foul hooked (Snagged) fish, he would pounce and write them a ticket. It didn’t stop the snaggers, some of whom would harvest the eggs from the female salmon so they could sell it as bait. They would gut the fish right there in the river, keep the eggs, and leave the rest of the fish to rot on the bank. A few people made a lot of money that way, and made conditions on and in the rivers that much worse for the rest of us.
What always befuddled me was, Spud and I caught fish, lots of fish, and the snaggers seldom connected. We would be walking out with 2 or 3 fish apiece, and the snaggers would be all over us wanting to know where and how we got them, as they weren’t getting any. We never told them where, only how, but they still continued snagging rather than switch to legal methods that worked. Never could figure that out. I don’t think they believed us, but even when they saw us land legally hooked fish, they would claim it was all luck, and that you couldn’t catch salmon consistently like that. Even when they saw us add that fish to a stringer full of fish, they didn’t believe us. Big Fish Fever does cloud people’s mind.
For the record, Spud and I did foul hook a lot of salmon over the years, it comes from fishing schools of large fish packed into small areas, and the fish milling about all the time. 99% of the time, as soon as we knew the fish was foul hooked, we would break it off, often catching the same fish legally later on and retrieving the lure we had broken off earlier. Every once in a while we would land one we thought was fair hooked only to find we were wrong, those fish were released immediately. Even less often, we would land one that was fouled hooked just to get our lure back, but I can only think of one or two times we did that.
I did have a mild case of Big Fish Fever, I lived for Steelhead and salmon seasons, fishing for smaller fish, like trout, was only filling time until the “real” fishing started. I guess it is understandable, like I said earlier, after catching 30 pound salmon or 8 pound steelhead, catching panfish and small trout aren’t nearly as much of a thrill. Unlike my dad, and others, who had a much worse case than I did, I continued fishing for the little ones. For one thing, I caught enough big trout while trout fishing to satisfy my case of Big Fish Fever, and I like panfishing for reasons other than just the fish. Sitting in a boat on a lake with a buddy or two on a nice day is still a great way to spend a day in my opinion, and I catch a lot of them, maybe not big, but numbers make up for size.
Then a couple of things happened around the same time that I thought had cured me of Big Fish Fever forever. One was that Spud moved out of the area, and we seldom got the chance to fish together any more. Chris had finished her schooling and landed a job in Lansing, that also fit well with Spud continuing on for his degree at MSU. The state also finally got around to banning snagging, something it should never had allowed in the first place, it was like trying to put the genie back in the bottle. Banning it didn’t stop it, and the DNR really cracked down on it where it had been most prevalent before. The snaggers didn’t stop snagging, they spread out over every river there were salmon or steelhead in.
The final straw, that I thought had cured me, was my annual fall salmon fishing trip. It was a disaster, everywhere I went, the snaggers were out in full force. I would start fishing, and gangs of 3 to 6 of them would crowd me out. I walked around a bend and saw 2 or 3 snaggers in action, with another of them up in a tree directing the ones doing the snagging. I walked around another bend, and there were two of them in a tree with large rocks, chucking the rocks at the fish in hopes of killing them, anything to be able to take home a big fish. The fish that were in the river were so spooky from being attacked everywhere they went that you couldn’t really fish for them. I walked back into the most remote place I knew of where there would be fish, and found a small school on the other side of the river. As I was making my first cast, the entire school took off for parts unknown, before my little spinner even hit the water. They were so spooked, the little number 2 Mepps I was using was enough to scare them off while it was still in the air.
I told myself that “that was it”, I was never going to be part of that zoo anymore. I took my rod apart, walked back to my truck, vowing never to go steelhead or salmon fishing again. Maybe I was spoiled, for years, Spud and I had large stretches of rivers almost to ourselves, with just a few other real fishermen that we saw once in a while. It was no fun anymore, so for years, I lived up to my vow, and I thought my case of Big Fish Fever had been cured.
That changed a couple of years ago. I took Larri trout fishing on the Pere Marquette towards the end of September. It had been so many years since I had done any salmon fishing, it didn’t dawn on me that we would run into salmon on our trip, but we did. I have to tell you that seeing dozens of big salmon swimming around brought it all back! I was going to tough it out, not fish for them, not give into Big Fish Fever, but after a couple of hours of not catching any trout, I caved. I cut off the little trout fly I had been fishing with, tied on a big gaudy streamer, added a couple of split shot to the line, and started in fishing for salmon. As soon as I had the first one on, there was no going back, I realized the addiction was as strong as ever! I didn’t land that fish, or any fish that day, my trout rod couldn’t handle fish the size of salmon, but that didn’t stop me from trying.
So, I have decided that Big Fish Fever is an addiction I am going to have for the rest of my life. I have been salmon fishing a couple of times since that day with Larri, and steelheading a couple of times as well. But this time, I am not going to let it run my life as it used to, for one thing, it is a lot of work, even more than I remembered. And, I don’t want it to interfere with how much I enjoy trout fishing like it did in the past. This fall when I was up in the Pigeon River Country, I fished a stretch of the Pigeon that I knew wasn’t going to produce any large trout because of a fish kill that happened a couple of years ago. It was still one of the most enjoyable days on the river I have had in some time, even though the largest fish I caught only went 12 inches or so. I picked that stretch of river to fish to reconnect with one of my favorite rivers, and to see how well the trout are coming back after the fish kill.
A lot has changed over the years, or I should say that I have changed a lot over the years, which will be the subject of a future blog. But anyway, I no longer fish to land the big fish, or the largest number of fish, I fish to get outside on a beautiful river, and if there happens to be salmon or steelhead in the river, I’ll try for them. I think I have a pretty good handle on my case of Big Fish Fever, I guess time will tell.