SNORKELING MICHIGAN RIVERS
As many of you know, the season of spawning salmon, a migration that starts in late September, is one of Michigan's most cherished nature events. It is indeed one of snorkeling’s greatest thrills to be surrounded by hundreds of these 20-30 pound creatures, both King (Chinook) and Coho, something you have to experience to believe it.
The salmon are driven by an overpowering instinct to reproduce in the tributary in which they were born. In mature salmon, this urge is brought on by shorter days and lower temperatures. The vast majority of our salmon start out in northern Michigan hatcheries and are kept in various tributaries in holding areas until they are large enough to release.
By that time, the scent of that particular river or stream is imprinted on their senses and with unerring instinct they will jump barricades, falls and other obstacles in a frenzy to get back to their spawning grounds.
The salmon do not eat during this long journey from the Great Lakes to their origins, and there is substantial weight loss along the way, so they are exhausted and spent when they finally reach home, spawn and then always die. The longer the salmon have been in the river, the more weather-beaten they look, as fights with other salmon for the female of their choice can produce some nasty cuts and bruises. They absorb protein from their scales to gather nutrients and this also leads to a rather scruffy appearance.
There are many entrances from both Lake Huron and Lake Michigan where the salmon pour into the rivers, giving snorkelers a great variety of choices.
My book deals only with Michigan inland lakes, where currents are not an issue, but a river is a decidedly different breed of cat. There can be strong currents, and the water is somewhat colder, so a wetsuit (preferably a 6 mm neoprene 2 piece, if it is September or October), is a must. I would want to be an experienced snorkeler before tackling a river, but I actually found the task quite manageable, even with an underwater camera in one hand, and even though I have below average strength. The trick is to stay nearer the sides if the current is strong and go into only the areas of the river that are shallow (1-5 feet deep) and look around you for strong branches and stumps to grab onto--don’t let go of whatever you’re holding unless you see opportunities ahead to stop or slow yourself down. I never had a problem with finding ways to stop--if necessary, just going sideways to shore. More often, the problem came when the water became too shallow, and I stood up and walked over the gravel a few feet to get to deeper water to snorkel in. Once you get used to it, it’s a thrill a minute--I never for a second felt in any danger, and there’s so much to see. Loads of small trout and steelhead (migrating rainbow trout), as well as the salmon, and if you’re lucky, some brook and brown trout.
Don’t snorkel any river that isn’t clear (many of them are) and wait several days after a rain or you won’t have the clarity to enjoy the experience. I snorkeled the Pere Marquette River near Baldwin after a week of no rain, and it was so gin clear I thought I was in the Caribbean with lush green vegetation and long stretches of creamy white sand.
You must enter the river quietly, make no abrupt movements and make yourself a part of the environment. They soon accept you, and I was thrilled to come within a foot or less of spawning salmon, so consumed by their ritual that to them I was nonexistent. Needless to say, I got some fabulous video of tussling chinooks and bright red Coho. The males (and the females to a much lesser extent) go through some astounding anatomical changes in their jaws, developing a strong hook that is called a kype, which ultimately makes them sometimes unable to close their mouth. With this strong hook they look like hawks when you view them underwater, and I can only say that the sight is mesmerizing.
The salmon are silver in the Great Lakes; shortly after entering the river, the kings start to turn black, and after death they are mostly white or gray. The Coho, which are somewhat smaller, start out silver, then turn a pale blue and pink. They are ready to spawn when the male turns red on the sides and the female turns brown with red accents. As in the bird kingdom, the male Coho has the vivid colors.
Behind the salmon, you will often find the steelhead, patiently waiting for the salmon to spawn so they can steal the eggs. The ugly sculpin is also often around to feast on the eggs if the opportunity arises.
After October 1, fishing in certain parts of the Pere Marquette River is no longer permitted, making it perfect for snorkeling. Just be careful that you obey the “keep out” and “no trespassing” signs so that you are not treading on private property.
Because the salmon spawning beds are so near the surface, you can actually observe a great deal by standing or kneeling behind a tree or bush and watching the entire courtship from there. The male vibrates his entire body every few seconds to stimulate the female and she responds by “tailing”, that is, lying on her side, laying the eggs and vigorously slapping her tail against the gravel bottom. This scenario plays out for hours and goes on to a greater or lesser degree from late September to late October. Some runs start as early as mid-August. To snorkel or stand by the rushing river surrounded by fall color and complete wilderness is an exhilarating experience.