The Water is Wide - Beaver Islanders still making a living off Lake Michigan
There is a long and ancient history of Native Americans plying the waters off the Beavers for trout, sturgeon, and, principally, whitefish. The shoals, reefs and sudden deep waters help to make the archipelago one of the Great Lakes best whitefish habitats. And so, from before memory, men have gone to sea in boats to catch these fish.
Very much like it happens today, a clear, hot July morning, as Skip DuHamel steers his fishing tug, the Myron K, out from Paradise Bay and toward the Island's western waters. His lone assistant, Mike Podgorski, arranges gear in the stern. The wake of the boat is spreading out like a fan, the air is cool despite the temperature, and the water is flat and blue.
Skip has been fishing for over a decade. Before basing his operation at St James, he worked out of Peshawbestown. He has seen a lot of changes, both in the Tribe as well as in the fishing industry as a whole. He answers to the DNR, to the Tribe and to the federal government. A recent treaty was renewed last year in Traverse City between the State of Michigan, the Tribe, and sport fishing interests, letting Native Americans have nearly all commercial fishing rights. The move was intended to help increase whitefish populations by eliminating gill netting in favor of trap netting, and allowing the indigenous people of Michigan to retain one of their primary sources of income. The final document took two years to create. Passions are as high about these issues as the nets are set deep.
Skips boat is from the 40s, constructed entirely from steel and powered by a Cat 3208 diesel, as trustworthy an engine as you could find. Having just cleared the shoal off Indian Point, we turn west, High Island beginning to come into view through a haze that has yet to burn off. There are four nets that we will pull this morning; and the hopes of the day are the same, be it a commercial fisherman or an eight year old with a cane pole.
Skip talks fondly of his love for the people of Beaver Island. The first year of operation was marked with low yields, old nets, and loads of repairs. Through it all, no matter what help was needed, a hand was extended. The man whose name is mentioned the most is Ernie Martin. Ernie not only helped by providing side work and tools, but his family's fishing knowledge of the area's waters has proved invaluable.
Past Sandy Island, the top of a shoal off High Island where people used to collect seagull eggs, the first net is reached. The nets themselves are like giant minnow traps. The door is wide and high enough to let the fish think they are swimming in open water, whereas actually they are swimming down a funnel into a box about 30-foot square. The idea is to find where schools of whitefish run, place a net or two, and hope for the best.
Whitefish yields have been down in recent years. There is no one single reason, but rather a series of dynamics all occurring at the same time: zebra mussels, the introduction of salmon for sport fishing, destroyed habitat, lack of ice cover in warm winters, cormorants, and of course the simple fact that whitefish taste so good and have been fished so hard for the last forty years. This is not the first time the whitefish population has been knocked down. Just over one hundred years ago, the decimation of the whitefish was likened to the culling of the buffalo.
When the main line has been secured around the capstan, the net is being raised to the surface. The back two-thirds of a trap-boat is open to allow the net to wash right over it. In this way, the lead line, the harness (where all the lines attach), and the funnel can smoothly cross the boat for inspection. The box follows the funnel, and with its approach Skip and Mike cast anxious eyes to the water for the tell-tale signs of a great catch.
It is not to be. The water doesn't boil over with fish; the nets are not bursting at their seams. The box is kept in the water to the port side of the boat as Skip scoops the thirty or so fish out with a long pole and net. A mix of whitefish and lake trout are thrown into coolers, the lake trout sorted out and tossed back over the side once the net has been repositioned.
The other nets produce the same results. A weary crew begins the task of scaling and filleting. While he fillets the fish, Skip talks about previous years, about the seasons and which months yield the most fish. They had had high hopes for the first net, it having just been set in a new location, but as Skip has said, July is a terrible month for fishing; the air and the water are too warm to produce a lot of movement amongst the schools.
With the sun just beginning its slide into the western waters, we turn back into Paradise Bay. At one time this bay was so full of lake perch that it was not uncommon to catch three hundred fish in a couple of hours. Though the promise of yields like that may be a distant memory, the need for whitefish still sustains an industry. The Tribe has constructed a beautiful new dock and a building for ice. Skip has plans to put in a retail shop next to the ice building and sell most of his catch to Islanders and tourists. As long as there is a demand for whitefish, there will be Skips and Mikes, casting off lines in the dawn's light, setting out to distant nets with that same spirit that has driven fishermen in these waters for years: the hope of the catch.
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