Living in Wisconsin since the Braves were in Milwaukee, I’ve fished everywhere from Monona Bay to the Turtle-Flambeau Flowage. I’ve landed some monster northerns from a canoe in Canada’s Quetico and caught gorgeous brown trout while backpacking the South Island of New Zealand.
But I’d never ventured out on a Lake Michigan deep sea charter boat until last week. Now, after spending a memory-building day with friends—and coming home with a freezer full of filets—all I can say “What took me so long?”
Madisonians love to gush over the local lakes, and I won’t dis the home waters despite their challenges. Still, there’s no comparison between Lake Mendota and the expanse of Lake Michigan. The Great Lakes are truly inland seas, and Lake Michigan is special simply because it’s so accessible. Take a 75-minute drive east on Interstate 94 and it feels almost like a visit to the ocean.
Farther north, places like Kohler Andrae State Park let you relax away from the big city while enjoying breezes off the water. And Door County is a Wisconsin version of Cape Cod, appealing to one-percenters in pressed slacks among others.
But it was deep sea fishing that sent us to Port Washington just north of Milwaukee during last Monday’s solar eclipse. We hadn’t paid much attention to the calendar when booking two months out. As the day approached, I started to worry just what affect the heavens might have on the underwater crowd. Our captain for the day, Brad Clark of Harbor City Charters, wasn’t sure either.
“Fishing could be good or it could be bad,” offered Clark, who started chasing salmon out of “Port” as a teen and as a University of Wisconsin–Stout grad now splits his time between summer guiding and winter selling of real estate.
But within minutes of setting out eight trolling lines behind the boat, Brad saw one rod twitch and our grinning middle schooler got to reel in the biggest fish of his life—a 20-inch Chinook salmon.
Over the next four hours on the water, we landed a half-dozen fish, including three big rainbow or “steelhead” trout. Unlike a salmon, which dies after spawning, steelhead trout spawn, return to the lake and migrate back upstream to spawn again several times.
Of course, it doesn’t always matter how much spawning is going on in Lake Michigan these days. The Department of Natural Resources dumps nearly a billion Chinook or “king” salmon into the lake each year to support Wisconsin’s recreational fishing industry. I guess that makes us job creators, given the economic impact is estimated at well over $100 million by the American Sport Fishing Association.
Either way, a half-day charter on Lake Michigan runs about $500, which includes the fish-finding expertise of the captain. The cost is the same whether you go with one person or six, so for a group it’s a pretty good deal.
Back at harbor, Brad took 10 minutes to clean and filet our catch. Yes, we’d remembered to bring a cooler, although Lake Michigan remains under a fish eating advisory due to PCBs and mercury contamination. The DNR recommends no more than one meal a week for smaller salmon or trout and once a month for larger fish, with women under 50 and children advised to take extra precaution.
Still, the state managed to sell 178,000 Great Lakes trout stamps last year and business remains good.
Unfortunately, all is not well in the fishery. Lake Michigan has become less productive due to the invasion of quagga and zebra mussels. The clumping mollusks clear the water by eating plankton, the main food for smaller fish like alewife. Fewer small fish means bigger fish suffer.
The decline in alewife numbers has spurred the Great Lakes Fishery Commission to recommend a sharp reduction in Chinook salmon stocking across the lake. The aggressive, fast-growing “king salmon” grab the lion’s share of alewives, threatening the native species.
Michigan, Illinois and Indiana all agreed in 2017 to dramatically reduce Chinook stocking to help balance the ecosystem. Wisconsin officials have not followed suit, however.
The Wisconsin Lakeshore Business Association, including charter captains and marinas, successfully lobbied the DNR to maintain Chinook stocking at 2016 levels, some 810,000 fish, according to the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel. Biologists are now watching closely see if there is any impact.
Setting aside the politics of fish management, a Great Lakes charter still makes the picture-perfect Midwest family outing. It keeps everyone off their devices and teaches the difference between steelhead and lake trout.
Mike Ivey writes the Footloose blog for madisonmagazine.com.