By Paul Hartman

Special to the Kewaunee County Comet

EDITOR’S NOTE: Paul Hartman, who has served as president of the Minnesota Muskie Guide Association, sent us this story and photo of a catch-and-release encounter with a huge Chinook salmon in Lake Michigan off Kewaunee on Labor Day. We thank him for thinking of us!! – wpb

Last weekend my wife, Kimberly, and I brought her daughter Regan Werner, who is 14, and son Owen Werner, who is 17, over for their first time salmon fishing. After a scenic drive from the Twin Cities, we arrived at the Scenic Shores Motel in Algoma. We did not land any fish on Friday evening due to the lines constantly fouling up with debris washing into the lake from the recent heavy rains. I decided to bring us down to Kewaunee for Saturday morning to try our luck there instead.

Saturday’s waves and heavy fog kept us close to shore. While Regan was able to land her first salmon, which was a small coho, the larger fish we hooked all managed to get free. We went into Accurate Marine and spoke with Mike who was working there, looking for some advice. He suggested we swap out our stuff, muskie rods, so we picked up a half dozen softer action fiberglass rods specifically designed for Great Lakes fishing from him. We also stopped using the spoons and crankbaits that we had – with small hooks – and upsized to some J plugs with larger hooks to try and keep the fish from getting free.

The next morning heavy fog kept us close to shore again, but with Mike’s advice we were able to round up and impressive batch of five King Salmon which were all four year olds. We ended Sunday with each of us having caught our personal best ever salmon. Storms pushed us off the lake, but we were thrilled to celebrate our fishing success with free corn and lively music over at the city festival.

On Labor Day, Owen and I headed out for one final morning of fishing on Lake Michigan. Once again the Kewanee King Salmon were cooperative. By 9:30 a.m. Owen had landed three and I had landed one salmon. All of these fish were beautiful four-year-olds. Kimberly and Regan had stayed back to sleep in but called to have us pick them up back in the harbor. By 10:30 we had lines back in the water, with just one hour of time until we needed to head back home.

While putting the lines out, Owen had a big fish grab one of our plugs, but it was able to get extra leverage and quickly snapped the line. As we continued to troll up the shore, we got our next bite and Regan started her epic battle with the largest salmon I’ve ever seen. Over the course of the next 15 minutes, she went toe-to-toe with this long-running and hard-fighting Chinook salmon. I continued to troll as she fought the fish, running a wide circle around the area where the fish was fighting.

At this point Kimberly hooked up with another beautiful fish, so Owen and I quickly cleared the remaining lines, hoping that we could land both of the fish. After just five minutes Kimberly got hers close enough to net, so I quickly scooped up her beautiful 12-pound rainbow, which was by far her largest trout ever. Before we could pull the fish from the net, Regan’s fish also came outside the boat, and we were able to scoop up this immense Chinook salmon as well. We measured her fish at 42 1/2 inches long with a 26-inch girth. The fish weight formula for salmon (which is length times girth X girth/740) estimated this fish to be 38 pounds 13 ounces.

We had talked at length over the previous two days in discussions about why some salmon grow up to be 15 pounds while other ones grow to an excess of 40 pounds. I had speculated with them that genetics had to play at least part of the role in this huge variation among the 4-year-old salmon sizes.

Regan felt that it would be best to put this uniquely huge specimen back into the lake to continue its spawning run. We had fish to take home, and she thought it would be a shame to kill such a unique fish right on the doorsteps of its spawning grounds after its having evaded anglers for the past four years of its life.

I was incredibly proud as we watched this massive fish return into the depths of Lake Michigan to continue its journey. I believe this is the largest salmon released on Lake Michigan water so far this year based on all of the information we’ve been able to compile. I certainly enjoy the beauty of Lake Michigan, all along its Wisconsin shores and the incredible hospitality of all the people we’ve met there. We are counting the days until our next visit…