By Louie Stout
For years we’ve talked about Skamania steelhead running into the St. Joseph River this time of year.
This year is no exception. The fall run is underway and anglers are catching quite a few fish from the Twin Branch Dam down to the mouth of Lake Michigan.
And while your neighbor may have been telling you about catching some nice “steelhead” from the river the past week or so, it’s likely that many of those fish he’s catching actually are coho.
The confusion is understandable. It wasn’t until the past couple of years that the fall fishery in South Bend was limited to steelhead.
But that’s definitely changed with solid stocking efforts of coho the past three years and a change in stocking schedules that are sending bigger and more numbers of coho into Hoosier waters this fall.
As of Thursday, more than 1,600 coho had been counted passing through the South Bend fish ladder through the first three weeks of September. Some 1,200 steelhead have moved up since June 1, but only 500 last month.
Both of those numbers are expected to climb with coho being the more prevalent fish for now. Unlike most salmonids, coho waste little time shooting as far up river as they can go when they know it’s time to spawn.
Coho spawn in the fall. Although steelhead don’t spawn until spring, the Skamania version will venture into Lake Michigan tributaries during summer and into fall when water temperatures get right. Michigan’s “winter” steelhead will add to the mix later this fall and into winter.
We saw a similar pattern last year in September when more than 4,000 coho moved into Indiana compared to 881 steelhead.
That’s why it’s likely anglers may be catching more coho than they realize, in addition to the fact that steelhead look very similar and telling them apart isn’t always easy during the early fall.
“It’s even difficult for biologists and not a determination you can make at a glance,” said Lake Michigan Biologist Brian Breidert. “We have to examine them closely.”
Breidert said inside the steelhead mouths are whitish while coho have a slightly grayer coloration. Steelhead also tend to have more spots on their tails.
“And,” added Breidert, “the coho have a little downward hook to their noses this time of year while steelhead do not.”
Anglers who clean fish and examine their eggs will find another discernable difference. The coho eggs are more mature (larger) than those in steelhead right now.
But does it really matter what you catch? Hooking these powerful fish is fun, regardless of the species.
The mature three year olds are running between 6 and 10 pounds a few are cracking the 12 pound mark.
“There’s a lot of nice chunky coho in the river that run 5 to 8 pounds as well,” said Breidert.
That’s what Breidert and his staff envisioned when they amped up coho stockings in the St. Joe a few years ago. In addition to stocking 60,000 a year in the St. Joe, they delayed some of the typical fall stockings until the next spring to get the fish bigger and give them a better chance of survival. They also fin clipped the Indiana fish to track their travels.
“We are very pleased with what we are seeing,” the biologist said. “The coho are not only contributing to the fall fishery, but the lake (Lake Michigan) fishery during spring and summer. We’re getting reports of them being caught from the mouth of St. Joseph up to Wisconsin waters. It’s a fish that provides opportunities for boat, shore and stream anglers.”
Admittedly, the coho aren’t as aggressive as steelhead but they will bite and tend to be easier to catch than the fall chinook (king) salmon. Kings are no longer stocked in Indiana St. Joe waters, but a few do make it up to South Bend.
Coho will hit plugs, jerkbaits, spinners, spawn, crawlers or even shrimp.
This year’s steelhead run shouldn’t disappoint, either. In Trail Creek at Michigan City, where the steelhead run is a little more advanced, fish weighing into the teens are being caught “and a lot of 8 to 12 pounders,” said Breidert.
“It’s another example of how the reductions we made in the lakewide fishery are paying off,” said Breidert.
He was referring to king salmon, lake trout and brown trout stocking cuts made over the past few years to reduce pressure on the alewife forage base.
“The fish that are out there are getting more to eat and it’s producing bigger, healthier fish,” he said. “Even with those changes, we still have some of the best salmon fishing in the world.”
If the fish keep coming and the river doesn’t flood out this fall, St. Joseph River anglers can expect to experience some of that in the coming weeks.