By Louie Stout
Lake Michigan is known for its big lake trout, steelhead and salmon.
But lurking out there in the dark abyss are a few other prized fish that go unnoticed by most anglers except for a few who are trying to keep it a secret.
The photo related to this story is living proof. That’s Lake Michigan Assistant Fisheries Biologist Ben Dickinson showing off a mega fish his crew trapped in a 35-foot deep gillnet near the Michigan City breakwall during a recent DNR lake trout survey.
How big? Dickinson is kicking himself for not having the certified scales on the research boat at the time, but it was 31 inches long and had the biggest girth he’s ever seen on a walleye.
And yes, it was released safely back into Lake Michigan.
Nor was it the first behemoth walleye that trout and salmon researchers have captured off Michigan City.
“We’ve caught two others the past couple of years that weighed over 13 pounds,” said Dickinson. “This year’s fish was similar in length but had a lot bigger girth. It’s quite possible this fish was a state record.”
The Indiana record is 14 pounds, 4 ounces and was set 43 years ago on the Kankakee River. It was tied again in 1977 with a fish caught from the Tippecanoe River.
In all likelihood, fish like that don’t exist in either of those rivers today.
But they do in Lake Michigan.
“There is little doubt in my mind that the state record walleye is swimming somewhere between Michigan City and Portage, Ind.,” said Dickinson.
That’s not to say there is a huge population of walleyes out there. The lake trout gillnets have a large mesh so they generally only capture fish three pounds or bigger, but Dickinson said they always collect a few each fall during the survey.
Some also are caught incidentally by shore anglers targeting trout and salmon at the Port of Indiana and off the piers. An occasional walleye is caught by boaters trolling for lakers.
“There are a few walleye anglers who fish Lake Michigan waters, but they are very hush-hush about it,” said Dickinson.
Most of the walleyes that show up in the big lake are transients from St. Joseph River stockings. Those that do move out into the lake feed on abundant protein-packed gobies along the bottom and go unmolested by anglers.
Dickinson said the fish pictured is probably in its teens, age-wise, and a big reason why he encourages anglers to release the large ones.
“They take years to get that big so we hope anglers who catch them to treat them like trophy muskies and return them safely back in the lake,” he said.
The area between Michigan City and Portage tends to produce most of these unexpected walleye discoveries because it has the best habitat with rocky breakwalls and other irregular rocky features. The rest of the Lake Michigan’s bottom is like a sandy desert with little habitat.
The biologist said that, because of the limited habitat in Indiana, a walleye stocking program would produce limited results.
The western basin of Lake Erie, on the other hand, is prolific for walleyes because it’s shallower and offers ideal habitat.
“Lake Erie has 2 percent of the water of the Great Lakes but contains 50 percent of the fish biomass (game and forage fish),” said Dickinson.