Hybrid of pink and chinook salmon resulting from natural breeding
The sun was falling below the horizon on Sunday and Mark Sondreal of Minneapolis was exactly where he wanted to be: trolling for salmon on the waters of Lake Michigan east of Algoma.
“We’re trying to hit low-light periods, especially,” said Sondreal, who was fishing his 26-foot boat Sunday with friend Landen Rodemeyer of Prior Lake, Minnesota. “Early morning and evening. Chinook (salmon) action always seems to be the best then.”
When a fish hit a downrigger line at 8 p.m., Sondreal thought it might be a chinook or a “king”.
The strike came on a spoon fished 95 feet in about 260 feet of water.
He grabbed the fishing rod from its holder and began to reel.
“There was no long run, as kings often do,” said Sondreal, 59. “But he still fought well and when we brought him to the surface we could see he was a good sized fish.”
Rodemeyer did the honors with the net and hoisted the fish over the stern.
As the solidly built 29.5-inch-long fish rested on the floor of the boat, veteran anglers did a double take.
The fish in front of them was, to borrow a line from “The Wizard of Oz”, a “horse of a different color”.
The five most common species in Lake Michigan are chinook salmon, coho salmon, lake trout, brown trout, and rainbow trout (also called rainbow trout).
Other salmonids caught with much lower frequency include brook trout, Atlantic salmon, and pink salmon. Hybrids are also present, including splakes (a cross between brook trout and lake trout) and pinooks (pink and chinook).
“I’ve never caught a rose but when we caught this one we thought, holy cow, it had a spotted back like a king, and a bump on it and the start of a hook jaw, so I thought it might be a pink,” Sondreal said. “But we didn’t really know.”
Sondreal was also aware of several recent captures of pinooks in Lake Michigan, including a state record.
The men weighed the fish on a hand scale and found about 12.5 pounds.
“I thought it might be close to a record or at least notable,” Sondreal said. “So we put it in a cooler on ice and tried to keep it in good condition.”
His intuition was right on the money.
The next morning, outdoor writer and avid Lake Michigan fisherman Kevin Naze of Algoma took a look at the fish and identified it as a pinook.
Naze also witnessed the weighing of the fish on a certified scale: 12.46 pounds.
Later Monday, Logan Sikora, a fisheries biologist with the Department of Natural Resources, did a thorough taxonomic “grasping” of the fish, including counting the rays on the fins and the number of teeth on the tongue. His conclusion was also that it was a pinook.
The fish has been officially proclaimed a state record pinook.
Now the only question is: how long will this last?
The fish comes amid a wave of pinook catches in Wisconsin waters of Lake Michigan, including two more in the past two weeks that topped the state’s long-standing record.
A 9.1-pound pinook caught in Door County waters held the brand since 2016 before the recent frenzy.
A Michigan fisherman briefly put his name in the record books with an 11.67-pound pinook caught Aug. 5 in Sturgeon Bay. The next day a 10.4 pound pinook was landed off Algoma.
And Sondreal set the bar higher on Sunday.
Why all the pinooks and where do they come from?
Pink salmon are native to the Pacific Ocean but have been introduced elsewhere.
The Great Lakes population of pinks and pink hybrids is a legacy of an accidental stocking of pink salmon in the 1950s in the Ontario waters of Lake Superior.
In 1955, pink salmon eggs from British Columbia were flown to Thunder Bay, Ontario, with the intention of raising them in a hatchery and storing them far north in Hudson Bay, according to author Jerry Dennis.
However, when the hatched fry were loaded onto seaplanes and flown north, approximately 20,000 of them were inadvertently left behind at the hatchery. Rather than letting them die, attendants released them into the Current River, a tributary of Lake Superior.
The fish survived, and a few years later, adult pink salmon began to appear in area rivers.
Within a decade, they were observed spawning in the rapids of the St. Mary’s River in eastern Lake Superior and in tributaries along the north shore of Lake Huron.
In the years that followed, they settled in places around the Great Lakes.
The first record of pink salmon in Wisconsin waters of Lake Michigan was in 1977 below the Peshtigo Dam, according to the DNR.
Although pinks are observed in the spawning grounds of the Menomonie, Peshtigo, Oconto, and other rivers, no natural reproduction of pink salmon or pinooks is known in the Wisconsin tributaries of Lake Michigan.
What is known is that pink salmon generally spawn earlier than other salmon, and if some adults linger in the rivers, they can successfully spawn with other salmon species.
The phenomenon is part of the natural reproduction of introduced species of salmon and trout in the Great Lakes. The fish were stocked in the area to take advantage of a surplus of alewife, a non-native forage fish that polluted beaches in the early 1970s, and provide sport fishing.
The experiment worked and created a world-class fishery. Wild fish that spawn naturally now make up about half of the lake’s annual catch. Most natural reproduction occurs in tributaries in Michigan, Minnesota, and Ontario.
The rose-chinook cross is the most common hybrid seen in the Great Lakes.
“We don’t know exactly where (the pinooks) come from,” Sikora said. “But it seems likely that the roses and the pinooks had quite a successful spawning a few years ago.”
In addition to recent pinook catches, pink salmon are being landed in Lake Michigan.
Captain Nolan Koepp of Nolan’s Top Gun Charters in Port Washington posted a photo of a group he took out this week that landed five roses among their catch of 11 fish.
Ultimately, it pays Lake Michigan anglers to pay close attention to their catch.
Sondreal were certainly happy to have consulted Naze before cutting their Sunday night hold.
“I still find it hard to believe, but that’s the way it is,” said Sondreal, an attorney who travels to Algoma to fish about 10 weekends a year. “My first pinook is a record. It’s pretty cool.”