One of the most important parts of Fishtown’s history and present are fish and fishing. In a previous blog, I dive into this history after working for a day at Carlson’s Fishery here in Fishtown. My experience at Carlson’s was amazing and I learned so much about the history of the business and of commercial fishing, but I discovered that it’s also wonderful getting out on a boat at 6:00 am and catching the fish yourself.
Not born into a fishing family, I had never been charter fishing before. Actually, I’d never fished at all before, not even as a kid dropping a line off a dock. When Fishtown Preservation Society told me that I could go charter fishing with FishBilly Charters, who docks his boat in Fishtown, I was excited for the opportunity, until they told me to be there the next day at 5:45 am. My next thought was, do the fish disappear at 10:00 am? Clearly not a morning person, I still made it to the docks that next morning, wearing what I hoped would be the right gear for hours on the lake.
Arriving at the dock I was greeted by Captain Bill Stephenson, waiting for me on board the very cool 29’ HewesCraft Alaskan charter boat. Already there were Bill’s his wife Barbie, his first mate, Griffin with his partner Calli. I was glad to see that it was a small group of people on my excursion because I had no idea what to expect and this was outside of my comfort zone.
We left the Fishtown dock at 6:00 am and headed out onto Lake Michigan. The morning air was crisp, and I was happy that I decided more layers were better than less. I was also thankful that we had a relatively calm morning on the lake and the waves were not too large. As we headed away from shore Bill explained to me that there are certain areas in the lake that are better for fishing for a certain type of fish, and that today we would be fishing for Lake Trout.
When we neared the spot on the lake that Bill deemed the best, Griffin set up 4 fishing rods into the water. Using a navigator that tracks thermal heat in the water, fishermen can detect where a large pod of fish are no matter the depth. Bill said that the depth of the fish depends on the temperature of the water. If the water is warmer, the fish will swim deeper, if the water is cold, they are closer towards the surface. On the day that I went fishing the fish were probably only 25 feet down.
We all stood on the back deck waiting for a bite, which gave us time to enjoy the sun rising along the horizon and the view of Leland from offshore. I had the honor of bringing in the first catch of the day. Bill handed me the fishing pole and as I started reeling in the fish I quickly discovered how hard it was to reel the fish in! Talk about an arm workout. As the fish flopped out of the water and into the net that Griffin was holding, I was surprised at the size of the Lake Trout, much larger than I was expecting and more than half the length of my arm. Bill and Griffin took care of the line and hook in the fish and handed it to me for a photo. Hoping they wouldn’t make me kiss the fish, I grabbed onto it hesitantly and posed for a picture, then practically threw it back into Griffin’s hands.
Barbie, Calli and I continued to take turns reeling in fish, taking photos, and cheering each other on as we reeled in Lake Trout after Lake Trout. They made me feel welcome and I enjoyed their company and the camaraderie of the experience on this lovely morning.
Bill explained to me that for charter fishing, you’re only legally allowed to bring in two fish per person on the boat. Since there were five of us total on the boat, we could bring up to ten Lake Trout back with us. I was surprised to learn that, just as there are for commercial fishermen, there are many regulations on charter fishing. Learning about these regulations and rules has given me a better understanding as to why we do not see as many commercial fishermen in the area and why Fishtown is such an important spot for the history of commercial and charter fishing.
After three hours on the lake, we finally caught our tenth fish of the day and began to make our way back to the Fishtown docks. I was proud of myself not only for catching the biggest fish of the day, but also for doing something that I would never have done if it weren’t for this internship. After one morning spent on the boat, I better understand the excitement fishermen feel when they reel in a good catch.
After we tied the boat to the dock, Bill hung up the ten fish on his FishBilly Charters sign in Fishtown and we took some photos to capture the memory. I worried that I would have to take the whole fish home with me, so I was pleased when Bill took our Lake Trout to Carlson’s Fishery, where the fish would be beautifully hand fileted, ready for us to take home and prepare however we’d like.
I am grateful for the experience that Bill and Barbie gave me. I think it was the perfect adventure for me, immersing me in another aspect of Fishtown’s fishing culture. Bill, who has been fishing since childhood, is aware that each person he takes out on the water, whether families or groups of friends, can not only have a great time and catch fish, but also learn more about the waters of the Manitou Passage, and how they have changed over the years. If charter fishing is something you are interested in while in the area, Fishtown is the best place to do so to get the full experience!