Charter Boat Captains Maintain Upbeat Lure

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LANSING — Despite high fuel prices and a staggering Michigan economy, some charter boat operators on  Lake Michigan and Lake Superior predict a successful — even robust —season.

“The people with money are going fishing,” said Capt. Glen Buehner, now in his sixth season. “I’ve got more trips scheduled now than I ever did this early in the year.”

Buehner’s Ludington Charter Service runs the 31-foot Raptor and 28-foot Encore.

“I’ve been doing shows, sending out mailings and the Internet stuff I’ve been doing all along,” he said. Most early bookings are from Ohio, with many repeat customers and referrals.

Along with captains in Traverse City and Marquette, he’s among the northern Michigan charter operators who sound far more optimistic than their counterparts on lakes Erie and Huron, in part because they don’t draw a large proportion of their customers from Southeast Michigan.

Buehner bumped up his rates this year, but would have done so regardless of fuel prices because he’d kept them lower while building his business. Even so, “I’ve got to run almost all year, till August, until I make a penny,” he said, citing fuel, maintenance, inspection and licensing fees, insurance, docking and other expenses. “It costs more for us to put a boat in the water than for a fun fisherman.”

At the same time, he said many anglers who go out only a few times a year are turning to charters as cheaper alternatives to using their own boats. “The guys that fish salmon every weekend starting April and May, they’re going to be out fishing on their own boats. People who do it every once in a while and just want to get out and have fun, they’re just booking charters,” Buehner said.

In Traverse City, Capt. Ben Orr of Daydreamer Charter Service said area operators experienced “a decent increase in business” in 2007 despite higher fuel prices. For this year, he predicts a decline in business and the need to raise his rates by “a small amount per trip,” probably about $25, to cover extra fuel costs.

“You’ll have less people able to afford it,” said Orr, who’s been in business for five years.

His 25-foot Daydreamer, which leaves from Leland, Traverse City and Frankfort, uses five to 25 gallons of fuel per day. “It depends on how far you have to travel. Sometimes we don’t go far at all. Some days we go 10 miles or more.”

And in Marquette, Bill Duckwell, the captain of the 29-foot Uncle Ducky II, lists three reasons the outlook isn’t as dark as some charter operators fear, at least for his own enterprise. One is diversification.

“We’ve expanded into a lot of areas,” he said, pointing to fly-fishing tours and canoe and kayak rentals and tours. “The other parts are growing a lot. The charter business isn’t growing as much.”

Another reason for optimism, Duckwell said, is marketing. “The Internet is taking over the marketing,” said Duckwell, who began his company 15 years ago and now gets 90 percent of his bookings online.

As for fuel, “If your costs go up, you’ve got to raise your prices and work harder to find customers who will pay it,” he said. And although a price hike is possible if gas prices continue to climb, “I offer $50 off as a gas credit if people book two trips. I’m not letting the fuel thing stop my business.”

But things are a lot gloomier for many charter operators on lakes Huron and Erie.

For Capt. Ron Dubsky, skyrocketing fuel prices have already proven devastating.

“My business alone has dropped 80 percent in two years,” said Dubsky, a Lake Erie charter boat captain whose 27-foot Ice Breaker docks at Bolles Harbor.

This season for the first time in his 20 years on the lake, he’s tacking on a $10- to $20-per-person fuel surcharge, with the price of regular unleaded gas expected to top $4 a gallon, contrasted with a $2-plus pump price two seasons ago.

“The shoestring budget is over,” Dubsky said. “If we do bad this year, I’m done.”

Dubsky isn’t alone. He’s secretary of the Romulus-based Michigan Charter Boat Association, which has lost 15 percent of its membership in the past year.

Charter operations on the east side of the state, which depend heavily on local clients, are suffering in light of Southeast Michigan’s economic woes, he said.

And with gas at $4 a gallon — even when Alpena-based Capt. Larry Sanderson of Bounty Hunter Charters trailers his 27-foot boat to a regular gas station to save $1 a gallon from the marina price — half a day’s $400 charter fee goes for fuel.

But fuel is only part of the industry’s dismal equation in his view along the state’s eastern and northeastern coast. Compounding the situation are the economic downturn and a decline in the bait fish that larger fish feed on in Lake Huron. For example, cormorants are consuming vast quantities of bait fish, he said.

“I’ve had days when you’d see thousands on the lake,” he said, while in the air he’s seen flocks stretching a mile long and half a mile wide.

Last season, he took clients out for only 18 trips, contrasted with 80 or so five years earlier. That doesn’t count the days he went out alone scouting for fish, earning no money but burning lots of gas.

As for the economy, Sanderson, a charter operator for more than a quarter of a century, tells of one long-time client from Ohio who won’t be fishing for brown trout aboard the Bounty Hunter this summer because he lost his job and is getting divorced. The customer told him, “I guess fishing’s the last thing on my mind.”

Capt. Steve Jones of Harrison Township sounds more fortunate than others on his side of the state. His bookings remain strong, even without many of the corporate trips that used to be common for auto industry suppliers and pharmaceutical companies. Yet he’s expecting a $5,000 or so hit in his profit margin this season due to fuel costs.

“The biggest problem is my rates are set for what gas prices were four or five years ago,” said Jones, a veteran of nearly 35 years in the business.

But he’s not raising his daily rates, which already run $100 to $200 higher than many competitors whom he says have poor business skills and don’t recognize that they won’t get higher rates unless they ask for them. “Even if it costs them a couple of trips, their profit is going to be well ahead, and they’ll have more time.”

Duckwell, the Marquette captain, sees potential even for would-be charter captains who are thinking about buying a boat and joining the industry. He offers this advice:

“Remember, it is a business. You’re not just doing this so you can go fishing more. If you have free time, don’t go fishing. Spend it promoting your business. You’ve got to like being in business and having a business. You can’t just go fishing all the time. Those types of businesses always fail.”

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