December, 2023

2023 Season Recap – Glory Days

Hello everybody and welcome to the 2023 Season recap. I hope everyone had a great Thanksgiving and Halloween and my heartfelt wishes for an even better holiday season. The purpose of my newsletter is to tell you a little about how the 2023 season went, offer some insight into the potential ‘why’s’ behind it, and offer a little peek into the 2024 season and beyond. Plus, tell you about a couple exciting purchases/investments I made to not not only possibly jazz up your onboard experience with me but also continue to expand your online experience at the Windycitysalmon Facebook Page (and Instagram) when you are not on the boat.

It was an excellent season by most accounts! Several overriding themes dominated; early early early coho and the best season for chinook (king) salmon in eight or so years. It felt a little like the old days, a taste of the glory days, and a ‘traditional’ season in terms of fishy behavior. Let’s start with the chinook, I had been looking to the 2023 season as the one to watch as Wisconsin kicked the number of stocked chinook by 50% three years ago, back to pre-cut levels. Our chinook mature in their fourth year, spawn, and die. While remembering that their first year or so is spent in the hatchery growing from egg to four to six inch fingerling. So, the 2023 season was the season we should feel the difference in the number of mature kings caught. And we definitely did feel a difference. So hopefully the 2024 season for chinook will be about the same or perhaps better as Michigan kicked up their chinook stocking by 54% last season. That should mean a better year class for two-year old chinook in 2024. Then, we’ll really be excited for 2026 and beyond when that year class enters their maturity year. The other variable also needs to be considered in that whole mix is natural reproduction. Biologists believe there is a high level of successful chinook reproduction in Lake Huron’s Canadian rivers and many or most of those fish are believed to migrate south through the straits of Mackinac and inhabit Lake Michigan waters for much of their lives (as well as natural reproduction in northern Michigan rivers too). However, numbers, or levels of success likely varies year by year based on a wide variety of conditions. It is estimated that 55-70% of the lake’s chinook population is naturally bred year to year. You may recall my newsletter last year talked about all the pink salmon we saw caught in 2022; all naturally reproduced fish as they are not stocked! Natural reproduction levels was a major consideration in the stocking cuts that occurred ten years ago, which have and continue to be reversed.

That’s the first big takeaway; the best season for chinook in quite a few years while the other overriding theme was the early and often coho salmon; Glory Days?! I got out to fish for fun, with my wife, in very early April, I set a spread of lures targeting a mix of brown trout and coho … with far less expectations of catching coho as they are rarely here that early. There is some crossover in lures for the two species but when specifically targeting the two, the lures are very different. What did we find? We began catching coho on all the lures as I was setting lines. It was a holy cow moment and we quickly caught our limit of coho. The takeaway .. were questions; were many coho already residing here .. even before our schools of baitfish had arrived? The bait arrived about five days later, early also but typically the bait gets here before the coho. This is where the questions arise; why were they here already? Did they ever even venture and winter offshore at all as biologists believe many or most coho (and baitfish populations) do. What would keep many coho near shore? That answer could be the other forage fish; the goby, an invasive from the Black Sea which coexist with mussel populations. Maybe that was the case as we probably witnessed the most goby in coho stomachs, in aggregate, over the course of the 2023 season. But one more ingredient could be the absence of near shore lake trout in the early season. We’re pretty certain we have identified a correlation with the lack of early coho with a high quantity of near shore lake trout. We think these early, nearshore lake trout harass the coho before they begin heavily feeding on alewife (herring) and achieve a little larger sizes. We’ve caught plenty of coho with large bite scars on their body. And this past season the early season lake trout were not here. Why? Who knows. Random happenstance? We’ll never really know but that’s one more thing that makes this so much fun… the mystery of it all and trying to figure out just a little bit more in each successive season to become better captains. So we had the best coho salmon catches over the course of April than any other recent years. There’s also an old pattern we’ve seen over the decades that the earlier the coho, the tougher June can be for us to find and catch them. Potential gloom therefore lay ahead for fear of a tough June. As we continued to see excellent catches of coho throughout May, early June arrived and we began to see our catches fall off. We nodded at each other for the spot-on forecast. And then were quickly humbled, as cocky anglers often are, as our catches of coho accelerated again only a week or so later and remained solid through the rest of June and July and even into August. 
Many many days in 2023 we saw coho and chinook schooling together or at least nearby each other; that glory days feeling remained welcome and warm. And when it was time to begin targeting offshore lake trout around the middle of August and the remainder of the season when the coho and chinook moved on, we saw some of the best and reliable lake trout biting and catching that could ever be expected. Where the three most caught species handed us an excellent, world class season, our numbers lacked when it came to steelhead and brown trout. Funny though, in the good old glory days, we observed those two species as mere bonus fish. Indeed they still CAN be viewed as bonus species but there are special times and circumstances where large, heavy catches of steelhead and browns can be experienced. And sometimes that’s next level stuff; taking far bigger risks in strategy and get handed those big payoffs in all steelhead or all brown trout catch. As far as steelhead go, we catch most of our steelhead in the farther, sometimes much farther offshore waters, often times when we are hunting for any kind of respectable catch when we can’t find much life nearer to shore. We just didn’t really need to do that last season since we reliably had so much of everything else. And most times that’s a sigh of relief; it’s a really big lake out there. Meanwhile the lower numbers of brown trout were a function of several but similar reasons. We reliably catch many of our browns in April and early May and with the numbers of coho already here, we were geared out much more for them as well as not exactly fishing for the browns in the locations I like to; we didn’t need to go there. However just about every season, we also get several periods of specific winds which create cold water upwellings near shore where I have successfully targeted summertime browns in July and August. And, sidenote here, it’s July and August when I have caught the biggest browns; 15-31lbs! But we never got those winds or the legit upwelling setup in July or August to try that. Unheard of and kind of disappointing. While I did attempt to target browns a few times, under a cold water scenario in later May and again in September and early October after we caught our limit of offshore lake trout, the locations where I do well with them in the summer (and in April), were not the kind of result I was looking for. Why? I simply don’t know. This brown fishery is still one that we have figured out a bit less than the other species. The irony in there is that where the browns generally reside, is not a big lake out there. They are shallower water fish. The shoreline is one boundary while the deeper water is the other boundary. But still the amount of territory we need to cover on a fish hunt, remains immense. Just not even close to as immense as the offshore deep, blue water dimension for steelhead. And lastly, we only have so much time. But many of you know I love targeting brown trout when the time and place calls for it and I continue to put a big effort in that direction each season; figuring out those other times of year when we can maybe do reliably well on them. However much of this depends on the right conditions as well as the habitat we perceive them to inhabit; the shallows. Where in the early spring, other species will very much coexist with the browns. However at most other times in the season, it’s browns or bust. Making that a difficult choice unless conditions are just right.
I hope I didn’t bore you too much with the technical side of fishing. I wrote with my heart there and it’s a pretty deep peek into just some of the thoughts running through my head on a nearly steady basis.
Those of you who follow on the facebook page know that I’ve been trying to put out more video content but it’s challenging as it’s just myself and my two hands, which are usually handling rods and the net. I was able to figure out a crude but effective workaround last season where I could lodge my phone in a spot under the hardtop to shoot while I worked the deck and the net. That’s been a decent workaround and I’ll do more of that in the future but I can add something else to the mix now too; Meta Glasses! Meta as most of you know is now the official parent name of Facebook. Meta has teamed up with Ray Ban and has come out with a set of glasses that have motion and still cameras at each corner of the glasses. I’ve wanted something like this for years. Whereas Snapchat has had this before, my research suggested that it was a cumbersome interface with Facebook, where I primarily reside on a social basis. Google had come out with their own version years ago but they didn’t take for a variety of reasons. So here we are with Meta’s Ray Bans where I can shoot video and take photos in the easiest way possible, through my point of view while I wear them .. and in the action! Only downsides are FB Pages still only allow a video with a minute maximum and you won’t see me in action but rather ‘thru my eyes’. But I will still use the crude method of shooting with my phone too, showing the back deck … until I decide to possibly take further steps and mount dedicated cameras for that sole purpose on the boat. So I’m pretty excited for this in 2024 as I continue an attempt to branch off into a broader content form of Windycitysalmon experiences when you aren’t on board. One more reason, if you aren’t already, to follow me on Facebook’s Page.
Coolers! We have new coolers for the Independence for the upcoming 2024 season! I haven’t fought the trend of the higher end coolers that have come to market in recent or more years. However I had to weigh the need versus the cost (they are much more expensive) as well as their heavy weight etc. As my current coolers and cushions, which lasted seven years, have shown signs of pretty good wear in a variety of ways, I decided to take that path of moving into new, higher end, but slightly smaller Cordova coolers. Cordova looked best to me from a more attractive relative price standpoint as well as design, size, ease of use, and they are made in the U.S. Good, good .. all around. While we may have to use both coolers on some of the heaviest and largest catches at times in the upcoming seasons, requiring cleaning two coolers afterwards (my least favorite part of being a captain) I still think it’s the best course of action and I’m a little fanatic when it comes to keeping your fish cold. Especially when doing so even more efficiently. 
Yes, start to finish it was really a great season, my 16th as a captain. One for the books and one we’ll likely remember in unique ways. Perhaps even one we refer to farther down the road as ‘just like the glory days’. But as Bruce Springsteen sings in the song, ‘Glory Days’; 
“Yeah, just sitting back
Trying to recapture a little of the glory of
Well, the time slips away
Leaves you with nothing, mister, but boring stories of
Glory days”
 You see, the danger of glory days thinking is just what the Boss pointed out. Glory days are fun to reminisce about. But many times it means the best lay in the past. And all we have are fond memories of them, perhaps boring to others, told over and over again. Glory days, yeah, but I believe an equally bright future of our fishery lay ahead of us. We very well could be at the very early stages of some good old glory years we’ll be trying to recapture a few decades from now.
The 2024 season is already about 35%  booked and booking season has officially begun over the past couple weeks. And one last thing I need to tell you about is, some things will change a little starting next season; I will be fishing less on weekends than in the past with my daughter being six years old now. What that means is still the same for weekdays, still Saturday mornings, but less Saturday afternoons and not nearly as many Sundays. There will be some exceptions to that. April for instance I will book both Saturday and Sunday mornings. And if you are already booked for a Saturday afternoon and/or Sunday morning, you are all good and have nothing to worry about. So please take those details under consideration if you are tossing around dates for 2024. Fastest way to reach me is to text 773-791-7990. 
One very last item I want to mention is that I am running a promotion for reservations made for all of April and up to Friday, May 3; six hour charters for the price of five hours, an added value of $100.
As always, thanks very much for reading if you made it this far. I’ll hopefully have another newsletter for you in March.
Best wishes for a happy and safe new year and I hope to see you in 2024!

Capt Rick

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