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Bob Gwizdz: Splendid splake: Lab cross between lake and brook trout is large, fast

Nov 16, 2018 06:33AM ● By Editor

By Bob Gwizdz - Outdoors columnist - The Traverse City Record Eagle - November 16, 2018

COPPER HARBOR — Mark Martin, standing on the front deck of his Lund, stopped fishing for a half-second and turned toward me.

“You know how people say, ‘You should have been here yesterday,’ ” he asked. “Well, this is yesterday.”

Yes it was. We were enjoying one of the more outstanding fishing experiences I’ve ever had and it showed no signs of letting up. I mean, we were cracking up it was so much fun. And it happened out of the blue.

We’d gone to Copper Harbor in pursuit of splake, the laboratory products of a male brook trout/female lake trout crossing. The cross was first made on the East Coast of the United States in the late 1800s, but failed to capture fisheries managers’ imaginations until Canadian fisheries biologists planted some in British Columbia to jump-start a failing lake trout fishery. Like many hybrids, splake show rapid growth; they grow faster than purebred lake trout and much larger than typical brook trout. But unlike many hybrids, splake are reproductively viable, though the popular literature says it rarely happens naturally.

Splake — the name derives from marrying speckled trout (a common brook trout nickname) with lake trout — often produce outstanding fisheries in the vicinity of where they’re stocked, though they are by no means universally loved in the fish management community. Many biologists dislike them as they have the potential to back cross with their parent species; attempts to reinvigorate the coaster brook trout populations in the Great Lakes, for instance, could be jeopardized if the coasters are out there spawning with hybrids instead of their own. And they may be more aggressive and better able to compete for limited resources than the purebreds. (Hybrid vigor, remember.)

But I digress. I’ve been fishing for splake with Martin for a number of years, generally in late October, and always within Copper Harbor. We either troll or cast (and sometimes a little of both), mostly with minnow baits (Rapalas or Thundersticks) though swim baits and spoons will work, too. And that’s how we started this day, despite seemingly negative environmental conditions.

The water in Copper Harbor is typically so clear you can read the date on a dime a dozen feet down. But Lake Superior had been ornery for several days prior to our arrival and the water had more color to it than seemed ideal. Still, we started trolling with Rapalas (Eskos, models that are made for the European market that Martin swears by). We caught a 17-incher — they must be 15 inches to keep — almost immediately and over the course of the first hour, we caught nine more. The problem? None would measure. They ranged from about nine inches to 14 and change; they would have been dandy brookies if they didn’t have that lake trout gene in them.

So Martin suggested we go out in Lake Superior — it was an unusually calm autumn day — and see if we could improve the size structure of our catch. An hour of trolling produced ... nada.

And that’s when Martin had a brain storm. He’d caught them on jigging Rapalas through the ice before, he explained, so he piloted his boat into a cove where there was pea gravel on the bank, where he thought they’d be spawning, and lo and behold, the depth finder lit up like a Christmas tree. We dropped our baits over the side of the boat in about 20 feet of water, and, wham, we both hooked up immediately.

Martin lost his fish when it straightened out the treble hook. I hauled mine — about 5 pounds, one of the best splake I’d ever caught — upside the boat and steered it into the net, which was a feat in itself as it was pulling like a tractor and gyrating like a saddle bronc.

While Martin retied a new bait, I caught another. And I hooked a third, which broke me off on the hook set.

So While I was retying, Martin started catching them. And before you know it we were throwing fish back, putting the fish that looked like males in the live well, letting the females go. Still we had our six keepers in no time.

So we left, right? Get out of here. We stayed and played CPR (catch, photograph and release) for another hour or so, catching a trophy-caliber fish every few minutes.

And what fish these were! Big trout. There was a fair degree of variance in their appearance; some looked more like lakers, with more forked tails, less spectacular coloring and plentiful vermiculation on their backs. Others looked more like brookies with squarer tails, gorgeous spots and orange bellies. But almost all of them had that distinctive look of spawning brook trout — bright orange pectoral fins with a white leading edge — that practically demanded you take them to a taxidermist.

We stayed on them and caught them until the daylight started to fade; we hadn’t started until up in the afternoon as we’d spent the morning taking down a ladder stand that Martin had been (successfully) bear hunting out of this fall. I wanted to try to get some set-up photos while we still had light, so we left them biting. We probably caught about 40.

My guess is the dark water was the key; they probably would have spooked out of there if it was typically gin clear.

Some Department of Natural Resources biologists would just as soon do away with the splake program because of the potential drawbacks. Personally, I’ll challenge them to a fight if they try.

Bob Gwizdz is a longtime outdoors writer and has also worked in public affairs for the Michigan Department of Natural Resources.  To read the original article and see related stories follow this link.

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