When my family and I find ourselves trolling the waters of Lake Michigan on warm summer evenings, we get a lot of time to chat.
A semi-frequent topic of conversation is an estimation of the actual odds of getting a fish on the end of our line.
We generally always land a couple of fish on our trips on the big pond. But, think about it: what are the chances that, in the vast expanse of 1 quadrillion (that’s 15 zeros) gallons of water, you manage to put a 5-inch-long lure in front of a hungry fish?
Let’s do some rough math. Each year, roughly 2 million king salmon are planted between Wisconsin, Indiana, Illinois, and Michigan’s stocking efforts. Even if every one of those fish survives to maturity, that is only one king salmon per every 500 million gallons of water planted annually.
It’s kind of amazing that anyone ever catches anything.
This thought exercise is a great way to maintain gratitude for the resource.
So as I have started to fish the spring steelhead and fall salmon runs, I’ve come to appreciate the seemingly astronomical odds of catching a fish even more.
Each spring, mature steelhead make their way into Lake Michigan’s tributaries to spawn. Once their job is done, most fish return to the lake.
In autumn, chinook salmon follow a similar pattern. However, spawning marks the end of the life cycle for these fish and they die shortly after.
Though chances of reproduction on our side of the lake are slim, the hard-wired instincts of these fish have no way of knowing that. So they persist, just as nature intended.
This parade of fish that occurs twice a year is a sight to behold. These resilient beings overcome obstacles, currents, and occasional low water levels all while dodging predators and anglers to carry out their natural duty of attempting to create another generation.
Recently, my dad and I found ourselves on a guided trip trying to capitalize on the salmon run. We each managed to land three kings.
Tangling with these powerful beasts is an incredible experience. It’s like setting a hook into a log, only to find the log has been tied to the bumper of a truck that’s about to drive away.
Fights often last north of five minutes, even in the restricted confines of the river. While most species of fish panic when they feel a hook in their mouth, kings simply get angry. They are bound and determined to spawn and, to them, getting caught by an angler simply isn’t an option. Their lives are often on the line in these battles and they fight accordingly.
Heck, even seeing these fish navigate the rocky shallow waters en route to their spawning grounds is worth the price of admission. Sometimes, I go on walks just to watch the fish do their thing. The sight of a salmon, weighing over 20 pounds, shooting upriver after a recent rainfall will never get old.
At some point during our recent trip, I got to thinking about our many conversations on the boat about the seemingly immeasurable chances of landing a fish on Lake Michigan. Then I applied that logic to the fish we came into contact with during our morning on the river.
Let’s break it down.
First of all, in order to be caught, these fish need to be born. As mentioned before, on the Wisconsin side of the lake, that is a tall order.
To overcome the general lack of natural reproduction, nearly all of the salmon and trout species found in Lake Michigan are planted, to some extent.
One method of making that happen is the utilization of fish hatcheries. During the run, salmon are captured by DNR and other government officials. Their eggs and sperm are collected and the spawning process is simulated.
The fertilized eggs are then raised in a controlled setting that greatly increases the chances of viability.
In spring, the eggs that hatch have grown into fries or fingerlings. These fish are then transferred to pens in different Lake Michigan ports for additional rearing.
When conditions are right, the fish are released into the harbor.
Then comes the next obstacle: actually making it to the lake.
There are plenty of hungry birds and predatory fish that view these releases as a free buffet. Some of these tiny salmon never make it to true open water.
Thankfully, many of them do. But their journeys are far from over.
Now, the fish must progress through its natural life cycle which, in most cases, is four years. During this time, they have to avoid predators, find sufficient food, and manage to not get caught by the anglers who feverishly pursue them.
Assuming those stars align, the salmon will reach the final portion of its time on this earth.
When fall sets-in on that fourth year, something in that fish’s DNA will tell it to start making its way to the nearest river. When conditions are right, it will begin its journey upriver until it finds a suitable spawning location or something stops it.
There are several rivers for these fish to choose from in Wisconsin. Sheboygan County alone has three.
Had these fish been hatched naturally, they would likely return to the river in which they were born. But, the way to process plays out in our state, this is kind of a crapshoot.
Here’s where anglers like me come back into the equation.
Even with the assumption that a fish can even survive all of the circumstances listed above, the work of catching one is far from done.
After choosing which of the many tributaries to fish, you still have to be in the right spot, in the right moment, with the right bait, to get one on the end of your line. Then, you have to land it.
That pesky little detail can cut your odds of success in half.
When reflecting upon everything a fish has to go through to even make it to sexual maturity, what are the odds of that one fish, being in that particular river, at that specific time, ready to feed on the exact type of bait you happen to be offering?
It’s tough to quantify. Though I would say the average person is better off buying a lottery ticket.
But when it all comes together, it is a genuinely beautiful thing.
It’s like catching a miracle.