Charter fishing industry hit hard by poor economy
Written by Grand Rapids Press   
Sunday, 03 May 2009 07:47
Fewer Chinook salmon were hooked by charter fishermen on Lake Michigan in 2008, ending a run of seven consecutive years of increasing numbers. State officials said this week the decline was expected with so many Michigan residents out of work or facing hard times.

"The number of charter excursions dropped by 9 percent, 1,500 trips statewide," said Donna Wesander, the charter boat program administrator for the Michigan Department of Natural Resources. Wesander compiles data turned in annually by Michigan's charter fishing fleet and the 580 licensed captains running charters.

"Fuel prices were higher. There was a lot of inclement weather early in the season and charters got canceled and people were not traveling as much," she said.

Dennis Grinold heard similar stories. He is the owner of Fish N' Grin charters in Grand Haven and the state affairs officer for the Michigan Charter Boat Association.

"The fuel prices were the biggest thing," he said. "People had less discretionary funds. My trips were not down, but I did find customers who normally booked two or three trips a year only booked one or two."

Other captains are feeling the pinch, he said. Some are planning to get out of the business.

Brian Butts, owner of Sea Flea Charters in Grand Haven, is holding on. He was down eight trips last year, not as bad as some. He took out 138 fishing parties.

The forecast for 2009 looks worse, according to Butts.

"This year will be really bad. People who booked last year are canceling because of the economy," Butts said. "They don't feel like they should spend the money ($450-$550 per trip)."

Eighty percent of Michigan charters operate on Lake Michigan where salmon is king. Lake Huron commands 9 percent of the state's charter fishing business. It offers a "mixed-bag" fishery that includes walleye and salmon.

Lake Erie hooks 6 percent of the state's charters. It is predominately a walleye fishery, whereas Lake Superior offers deep water lake trout fishing. Two percent of state charters operate on Superior.

Lake Michigan salmon were a draw, said Wesander, but charter anglers caught fewer of them in 2008. They landed 67,583 Chinook salmon, down from 84,600 in 2007. The coho catch fell from 10,200 in 2007 to 6,345 in 2008.

Grinold said the decline was inevitable. In 2006, the state began reducing the number of salmon it stocks in the lake.

"Up until last year, limit catches (of Chinook) were common," Grinold said. "We used to have our limit by
9 a.m. or 10 a.m. Now, it takes longer to catch that limit. We might be out until 11 a.m. or noon."

Being out longer also increases the odds of landing other salmonid species such as steelhead, lake trout, coho salmon, and possibly brown trout. That means customers may return to the docks with a mixed bag of fish, rather than a limit of Chinook salmon.

"Customers like limiting out on salmon," Grinold said. "But they are always happy to catch fish."

Butts said the salmon being caught look healthier now than a few years ago. He was in Michigan City, Ind., this week fishing "for anything that bites.

"We're catching lake trout and coho salmon, and half the catch this morning was kings," Butts said.

Lake Michigan charter catches were down for almost all salmonid species in 2008. But the lake trout catch increased, according to Wesander. That catch rose from 10,500 in 2007 to 16,000 in 2008.

Michigan City proved to be the top port for delivering the most fish per excursion of any salmonid species. Those charters delivered an average of 16.1 fish per excursion, followed by Pentwater at 12.9 fish per trip and St. Joseph at 11.7 fish per trip.

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