Throughout my three-decade run on this earth, I’ve certainly taken my fair share from the outdoors. Nature has supplied me with delicious food, relaxation, and more memories than I can count.
And while it sounds cliché, to be sure, enjoying the outdoors is a give-and-take situation.
This is particularly true on Lake Michigan. You see, the overwhelming majority of salmon and trout that call our local Great Lake home are stocked. There is little to no reproduction of these species. It is a bit depressing to think about but, to a large extent, the fishery in Lake Michigan is little more than an enormous fish farm, at least as it pertains to salmon and trout.
When referring to the trout and salmon populations on the lake, a local fishing guide once told me “these fish are basically put in here for us to kill. That’s really about it.”
That blunt assessment stuck with me. Though I have a hard time arguing with the logic, that statement made me think long and hard about my place in the food chain.
Of course, there are many benefits to aquaculture on this grand of a scale. Charter fishing is a significant part of the economy up and down the lakeshore. Not to mention the thousands of anglers from near and far who enjoy the angling opportunities that come from the presence of these large, hard-fighting fish.
My family and I are proud members of that extensive cohort. My late grandfather often said some his fondest memories in life were made out on Lake Michigan.
Each year, we pull a couple dozen fish from the cold local waters and enjoy the bounty at family gatherings and simple dinners at home.
Recently, I was given the chance to give back to the lake that has given so much to me and I knew I had to take advantage of it.
It all started with a post I saw on a Lake Michigan fishing Facebook group. A local club, Great Lakes Sport Fishing Club, Ozaukee Chapter, was assisting with the stocking of 69,000 King Salmon and they were looking for volunteers to assist in each aspect of the process. These fish encompassed nearly six percent of all Kings that were to be planted in Wisconsin this year. Folks were needed to help with everything from getting the holding pens in the water, to feeding the fish prior to their release.
I always knew, at some level, that local clubs often assisted with fish stocking efforts. But I had no idea the extent of their involvement, in some cases. I had assumed the Department of Natural Resources basically handled almost everything. Though that is frequently true, I quickly learned that is not always the case.
Despite my hectic schedule, I wanted to make time for providing as much assistance as I could. I signed up for morning feedings, not knowing how many shifts would be required or how many people had already signed-up.
But, as I discovered, there was much work to be done before feedings could take place. A large, coordinated effort was required to get the holding pens in the water prior to delivery of the young fish. These pens would help the new members of the ecosystem get acclimated to their surroundings before being sent out on their own.
Once in the water, the three pens were stocked with the small salmon a couple days later. Then, the pens were towed by boat from the drop-off point to their home at the end of one of the slips in the marina.
The feeding process occurs twice a day, once in the morning and once in the evening, until the fish are ready to be released.
It’s a pretty simple thing, but the feedings do require some training and elbow grease. Food is measured and placed into zip-top bags. Each pen receives one of those bags per feeding. Before the food is dispensed, however, measurements of water oxygen content and temperature are taken with a special tool and recorded via an online form. This feedback is closely monitored and helps ensure the fish are being put in a position to flourish.
When I arrived at the Port Washington marina for my training session, I was greeted by an unseasonably chilly morning. Though the sun was shining bright, temperatures were below freezing and that is never a welcomed feeling in late April.
I met up with Mike, a club member who was responsible for the morning’s feeding. Naturally, we talked fishing as we gathered the necessary equipment and headed down to the end of the slip. He walked me through the measurements that I needed to take and showed me how to gather the information in the most accurate manner possible.
Next, it was time to dispense the pellets. I reached into my plastic bag and grabbed a handful of feed. I sowed the pellets into the first door of my pen. Instantly, the water exploded with hundreds of fish vying for nourishment at the water’s surface. It was quite the site to behold.
I continued working up and down the slip, doing my best to evenly distribute the food. Once everyone was fat and happy, we collected the empty feed bags and packed away the measuring tool. After a brief rundown of the reporting process, we went our separate ways.
The work is far from done, though. Feedings will continue for the next month or so. I have a pair of shifts remaining on my calendar.
Once the fish are released, the pens need to be towed back to the boat launch and taken out of the water. All of this requires even more volunteer hours (not to mention boats).
This experience has opened my eyes to the amount of effort it takes to make one of the fisheries I enjoy a reality. And so much of it is driven by volunteers who invest immeasurable time and energy into tasks such as planting fish they may never catch for the enjoyment of people they may never meet. I am incredibly grateful that such selfless folks exist.
Though it is likely impossible to quantify the impact I have been able to make through my small actions, it is nice to know that I am getting closer to balancing the scales of my symbiotic relationship with this beautiful lake.
Maybe I will even get to encounter one of these fish again someday. If I don’t, that’s fine too. It just feels good to try and do my part.