The Return of the King

The King is coming back to Gills Rock – 30,000 Kings, to be exact.

Nine people gathered in the net building at Weborg’s Marina in Gills Rock the night of Feb. 6 to hear Sturgeon Bay-based Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources fisheries biologist Nick Legler talk about the DNR’s Chinook salmon – sometimes known as King salmon – stocking strategy for 2014, which includes the first stocking of the fish in Gills Rock since 1996.

“Right now our plan is to stock 30,000 fish in Gills Rock because that’s where you told us you wanted them,” Legler said, referring to the group of concerned Gills Rock charter captains and residents who questioned why the DNR stocked Chinook in Ellison Bay instead of Gills Rock.

Asked why stocking stopped in Gills Rock, Legler said he’s only been at the Sturgeon Bay office for two years, so did not know the history, and he wasn’t successful in tracking down retired DNR staff for the backstory on stocking, but everyone present was in agreement that Chinook haven’t been seen in Gills Rock for five years or more.

Legler gave an overview of the DNR’s stocking strategy, emphasizing, “When you stock Chinook in Lake Michigan, they don’t stay put,” which implied that stocking in Gills Rock is not necessarily going to mean the big salmon will stick around to be caught by anglers.

But Capt. Don Grasse of King Fisher Charters suggested just because Chinook travel thousands of miles in their native Pacific Ocean doesn’t mean they behave in the same fashion in the very different ecosystem of the Great Lakes.

The DNR hopes to know much more about these salmon that were first unsuccessfully introduced into the Great Lakes in the 1880s and, more successfully, in 1966.

Since 2011, all Chinook stocked in Lake Michigan have had a coded wire tag implanted in their snouts. The tag tells where the fish was reared and stocked. Anglers are asked to return the heads of Chinook they’ve caught so the DNR can make some educated stocking decisions in the future.

In the meantime, Legler said the DNR will give stocking a shot in Gills Rock instead of Ellison Bay. “My general feeling, it’s not going to make a difference if you stock in Ellison Bay or Gills Rock,” he said. “Without that public input that we recently had, we would still have stocked in Ellison Bay.”

The Gills Rock anglers decided they would like to help the young Chinook implant on Gills Rock waters by holding the fingerlings in pens until they smolt, and then maybe doing a nighttime release to increase their survival rate. The idea is that if the fish imprint there, they will return to spawn in the fall.

The DNR is finalizing details on the process of fish holding pens, a procedure that was just approved by the Legislature in the fall, and should have details for public comment by the end of the month. In the meantime, Grasse said the Gills Rock group will be doing the legwork on the sort of equipment they will need to hold 30,000 fingerlings for several weeks, as well as having volunteers on hand to watch and feed the young salmon.