Some places are so damned fishy that even speaking their names sounds like a heathen incantation aimed at conjuring the angling gods. Montauk. Ocracoke. Islamorada. Franklin Park, Illinois. What was that last one again? To many, sportfishing brings to mind blue water, a tuna-towered convertible, and an angler tethered fast to a leaping marlin. The Great Lakes? Nah! Last we heard, the water's so polluted it catches fire. And all those big cities...what could be worth catching there? Plenty. Or so we were told. To see for ourselves, we rigged a Doral Thundercraft 240HT with the latest gear and set out from the biggest big city on the lakes: Chicago. Our quarry? The hard-fighting, gastronomically correct salmon. Will a trip to the lakes get your drag singing, your heart thumping, and your charcoal grill sizzling?
A LITTLE HISTORY
Cleveland's waterfront caught fire over a decade ago. Fish carcasses washed up on Great Lakes beaches because of hypoxia and other pollution-related diseases. And no one doubted that, for more than a century, our quintet of inland seas was used largely as a communal toilet by the scores of Rust Belt manufacturers ringing its shores. The fisheries suffered accordingly. Yeah, some people call that progress.
But things have changed. Legislation, most notably the Clean Water Act, a ban on phosphate-laden detergents, and a shift in manufacturing to overseas locations, has allowed the water quality of the Great Lakes to improve dramatically since the 1970s. Apparently, the hand of man can give as well as take.
It should come as no surprise, then, that the biggest, baddest, best-tasting gamefish in the Lakes-coho and chinook salmon-are present in fishable numbers only because of human intervention. Sure, Lake Ontario has a native Atlantic salmon population. That lake has been naturally connected to the ocean by the St. Lawrence River for eons. But it's the stocking of the non-native, Pacific imports that's created a world-class fishery that makes running or trailering your boat to Rochester, Green Bay, or even Franklin Park worthwhile.
How many fish are there? According to a report published by the Michigan Department of Natural Resources, coho and chinook have been stocked to the tune of 18 million fish per year-that's nearly 55,000 fish per day, since the mid-1960s. The current total biomass is estimated to exceed half a billion fish.
Why such an intensive effort? Money. The revenue generated from salmon fishing in Michigan alone is estimated at $4 million per year. Head up to any of the cities bordering the Great Lakes and you'll find no lack of marinas, launching ramps, or tackle shops. Yep, the fish are numerous. And you don't have to go out to the boonies to catch them. Better still, they fight hard and grow big. Though most fish caught average under 10 pounds, coho salmon, also known as "silvers," can reach 20 pounds, and chinook, a.k.a "king salmon," often exceed 40 pounds, according to Capt. Mike Okoniewski of the Sagittarius Charter Service in Chicago. Big or small, plan on filling your cooler. Size and catch limits vary according to species and state, but most are generous. That means keeping the kids and beginners interested will be easy. Which leads to the best part about big-city Great Lakes salmon fishing: You can kill 'em and grill 'em with a clear conscience. Unlike most sport fisheries, this one is primarily put and take. Why? Because, simply put, after spawning, salmon die.
So the fish are plentiful, worthy game, and great to eat. Pursuing them in the shadow of skyscrapers means you won't lack for services or amenities. And all the post-fishing activities of an urban hub are at hand. How do you get started?