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Low water hurts fishermen more than fish

With record-low water Lake Michigan 31st Street harbor offers best optifor launching. | Dale Bowman~For Sun-Times Media

With the record-low water on Lake Michigan, the 31st Street harbor offers the best option for launching. | Dale Bowman~For Sun-Times Media

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Updated: March 11, 2013 6:38AM

Anybody wandering around the Montrose horseshoe will notice changes brought about by the historic low levels of Lake Michigan.

The bigger question, aside from the aesthetics, is the impact that will have on Lake Michigan fisheries, boaters and fishermen.

‘‘My guess is that the low water levels will have a greater impact on boaters than fish populations,’’ emailed Vic Santucci, the Lake Michigan Program head for Illinois.

Fishermen start chasing coho salmon, brown trout and yellow perch as the ice leaves the harbors, months before the start of traditional boating season.

‘‘For fishermen, we are going to have to modify our launch ramps,’’ said Scott Stevenson, the executive vice president for Westrec Marinas in charge of Chicago harbors. ‘‘The launch ramps were built a couple of decades ago during the high-water period. The concrete doesn’t go down far enough. It was extended with bridge decking.’’

More needs to be done, particularly at the Burnham and Diversey launches. The bidding process to replace that bridge decking is beginning. Launches at 95th Street haven’t been evaluated yet because of ice, and a decision hasn’t been made if any work will be done there.

Fishermen do have the benefit of the new 31st Street harbor, which opened last year.

‘‘The new launch at 31st is absolutely good,’’ Stevenson said. ‘‘Go to 31st Street if you need to get in the water before [the extension work is completed].’’

Stevenson also noted some truths known by people who work in the outdoors.

‘‘Things like this do go in cycles,’’ he said. ‘‘We do have global warming, climate change. It didn’t happen overnight. Ten or 12 years ago, we had near-record-high levels. I think we make a mistake thinking it would stay that way or wouldn’t change.’’

What kind of effect the low
levels will have on fisheries or fishing is less certain.

‘‘I don’t foresee low water levels having a lot of direct effects on fish,’’ Santucci emailed. ‘‘Of course, that depends on how much the level drops. Because Lake Michigan is such a big lake that covers a large geographic area, I would not expect the level to drop to the point where we are drying up harbors and bays.

‘‘Low waters could isolate rivers from the lake or de-water shoreline wetland areas, but those impacts will be minimal in Illinois because we don’t have a lot of that habitat in our portion of the lake.’’

Santucci thought there even might be some side benefits.

‘‘Decreasing lake levels, combined with the present clear-water conditions, may allow aquatic vegetation to expand farther offshore,’’ he emailed. ‘‘This could actually benefit near-shore fishes, like bass and sunfish or juvenile perch, by increasing structure that is important cover for prey fishes and good habitat for the production of invertebrate food organisms. Ambush predators that prefer aquatic vegetation
[e.g., northern pike] might also benefit if aquatic vegetation expands substantially due to low water levels.’’

Santucci also noted drought patterns might affect water temperatures and alter such patterns as spawning or timing of fish moving shallow.

‘‘I don’t think it will impact fish;
I think it will impact our fishermen,’’ said Brian Breidert, the Lake Michigan fisheries biologist for Indiana.

‘‘Low water levels do impact our stream fisheries [on Lake Michigan tributaries]. We saw that this year. It impacted the ability of the fish at times to run in. We saw a later run of Chinook. We didn’t see them until more toward the second week of October [nearly a month later than normal], and they came in on a rain event.’’

‘‘We make a mistake thinking we can predict Mother Nature,’’ Stevenson said. ‘‘She is fickle.’’

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