Lake Michigan Leads Great Lakes Charter Fishing

November 5, 2007
| By Pete Daly |
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GRAND HAVEN — Business was good this year for some of the charter fishing operators on Lake Michigan — in spite of expensive gasoline, a weak Michigan economy, smaller salmon, and threats from invasive species and fish diseases.

Key to their success is how many chinook salmon customers catch.

"As far as tourism and charter fishing, the big hype is on (chinook) salmon," said Dick Stafford, who runs a charter business out of Gladstone near Escanaba, and who is president of the Michigan Charter Boat Association. Chinook have long been the superstar of Great Lakes charter fishing because they can range up to 30 pounds and fight ferociously.

Stafford said the 2007 chinook catch on Lake Michigan will probably be rated "a great year again."

Despite the good fishing, not all Lake Michigan charter fishing companies had a good year for business. Stafford, a retired teacher who has operated a charter for more than 20 years, said his business this year was "down about 50 percent of what it was in other years."

"I firmly believe tourism is down in a lot of areas of Michigan," said Stafford.

Ron Westrate, captain of Cohooker Charters in Saugatuck, said he did about 90 or 95 trips this year, about the same as last year. But, he said, "A lot of (charter boats) were way down. I think a lot of that has to do with the economy and the high gas prices."

Research conducted by the Michigan Sea Grant Extension in 2002 revealed that fuel and oil was the highest annual expense for a charter boat, above labor, dockage, maintenance and repair, insurance, license fees — in short, everything else. According to that research, the average charter boat used $2,362 in fuel and oil — and that was in 2002, before petroleum prices went higher than the mainmast.

Most charter boats "are burning from three-fourths of a mile to the gallon to one mile to the gallon, and that really cuts down on what you are trying to make," said Stafford. A boat can easily cover 40 to 50 miles or more on a trip.

Mark Veurink, owner of Reel Action Charters out of Grand Haven, said he adds a surcharge to his fee when gas goes over $3 per gallon, but "it just covers the extra expense."

"Fuel has been our biggest Achilles heel," said Kevin Hughes, captain of the Sandpiper III out of Onekama. In the last year, sometimes it would cost more than $1,500 to fill up his twin 225-gallon tanks, he said. His boat gets one mile to the gallon.

"You can up your prices, but actually you are pricing yourself out of business," said Stafford. "We want to keep it affordable for a family to go out, and it's getting more difficult to do that," he said, because of the price of fuel, berthing fees and other costs.

Berthing fees can run from $1,500 up to the $4,180 per year paid by Capt. Willis Kerridge for berthing his charter boat, Thunderduck, at the city-owned Chinook Pier in Grand Haven.

The official 2007 stats aren't in yet, but according to the Michigan DNR's 2006 annual report on the charter fishing industry, there were 16,147 excursions in 2006 on the Michigan waters of the Great Lakes. They were provided by 605 operators who had 68,572 paying customers. Seventy-five percent of the excursions were on Lake Michigan, followed by Lake Huron with 11 percent, Lake Erie with 10 percent, and lakes Superior and St. Clair with 2 percent each.

Ludington is the busiest of all 25 Lake Michigan charter fishing ports — but Grand Haven is No. 2, with 1,643 excursions originating there in 2006. Slightly over 7,200 anglers on Grand Haven charter boats landed 10,751 chinook in 2006. Ludington reported that 7,797 fishermen on 1,753 excursions caught 16,675 chinook.

Kerridge makes about 130 or more trips each season, more than most charter boats. He said charter boats charge from $420 to $500 for four people on a half-day trip (which can range from four to six hours). For a party of six, Kerridge charges $650. He often makes two trips a day, weather permitting — and the water on Lake Michigan was very calm this year.

As far as the amount of business, Kerridge said he was up from last year. "I was surprised at that," he said. His surprise was due to the fact that about 60 to 70 percent of his charters are businesses treating customers or clients to a fishing trip. Despite the weak Michigan economy and problems some companies are having, his business charters were not down this year.

"Most of my (corporate) customers are pretty strong," he said.

The Chinook catch in 2007 was, overall, probably one of the best in the last three or four years, said Kerridge, who has been charter fishing for 35 years, 28 as a captain.

"Of the guys I talked to, everybody did pretty well this year," in terms of the numbers of fish their clients caught, he said. "Obviously, it helps to have better fishing. If our fishing was in the dumps, it would be a different story. The last four or five years, our fishing has been outstanding. We didn't have real big ones — the 25 and 30 pounders we used to get. But we had a lot more of the 16 and 18 pounders."

In the past, a trophy chinook weighed around 30 pounds, Kerridge said. Now a trophy chinook is a 20 pounder.

Lake Huron's charter business is hurting now, according to Stafford, because the chinook catch suddenly dropped off a couple of years ago and has not recovered.

"They ran less charters than they did last year," said Stafford. "They have a lot of walleye and a lot of lake trout, and what they are minus is a lot of salmon."

A few years ago, the Lake Huron salmon catch was "really good — pretty much up to what we see on the Gold Coast," he said, referring to the eastern shore of Lake Michigan.

Veurink, of Reel Action Charters, said his bookings were about the same this year compared to previous years, in spite of the Michigan economy. What helped, he said, was having a good number of out-of-state clients who hire his boat every year. He has about a dozen regular groups from Ohio alone, and one of them charters his boat three days in a row.

"The people that came from out-of-state made up for the people from Michigan who didn't fish," he said. This year he had clients from as far as California, Arizona and Texas. He made more than 100 trips this year, about 52 of them in August, the best month for chinook fishing.

Hughes said his business this year was "good." But, he quickly added, "This is my 27th year as a captain. I have a very well-established clientele, almost all repeat business" — much of it from other states.

"We're in a one-state recession. It's only Michigan," said Hughes. "I've got a big Texas clientele, I've got people from out East ..." And those clients are still coming.

So are the corporate customers, which Hughes relies on, as do many charter captains.

Golf outings are a business tradition for wooing clients or customers, but fishing charters are serious competition for that business. Hughes noted that the nearby Arcadia Bluffs Golf Club charges up to $180 per person in August, which is prime Chinook season, and he can take up to six people on a five-hour charter for $575.

Hughes and other captains mentioned that a fishing trip has the edge over a golf outing for focusing on the customer, because out on Lake Michigan, he said, "You've got a captive audience."

"I've had multi-million dollar deals made out on the boat," said Kerridge.

All deals are off if the chinook population in Lake Michigan tanks like it apparently has in Lake Huron. Daniel O'Keefe is a fisheries researcher in Grand Haven who works for Michigan Sea Grant, out of the MSU extension office. He said the quagga and zebra mussels are suspects in the Lake Huron chinook problem, although he cautioned it is "very hard to pin down" one particular invasive species as the culprit.

The quagga mussel is similar to the zebra: Both filter nutrients out of the water that support the diporeia, a tiny, shrimp-like creature that has nearly disappeared from Lake Huron. Alewives feed on the diporeia, and salmon feed on the alewives.

The quagga mussel apparently can tolerate a wider range of extremes in temperature and water depth than the zebra mussel.

"We have gone from high densities of diporeia to none, and huge densities of quagga mussels," said O'Keefe. The quagga has spread throughout lakes Huron and Michigan over the last 10 years, he said, but its population "exploded" after 2000.

O'Keefe suspects there may still be chinook in Lake Huron, but they are now feeding on native baitfish such as the emerald shiner. He noted that the lake trout catch in Lake Huron is "very good."

O'Keefe said that with the changes in the food web distribution in Lake Huron, the fish are adapting, and it may just be a matter of the fishermen adapting, too.

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