Andy Stuth reeled in this 4.6-pound lake whitefish from the Green Bay waters off Door County during the ice fishing season. Two-pounders are far more common. / Special to the Advocate
Drew DeFere of Southern Door County shot his first turkey April 12 during a two-day youth turkey hunt with his godfather and mentor, Elton Londo. The double-bearded tom weighed 23 pounds. / Submitted
Winter weather and state regulations, not a dropping whitefish population, led to some shortages of the popular species this spring.
An Associated Press story across the U.S. this week correctly tied in a harsh winter with impacting the catch, but tried to blame some of the shortage on falling whitefish populations and impacts from invasive species.
That doesn’t hold water in Door County.
“It’s not a stock problem,” said Wisconsin Commercial Fisheries Association president Charlie Henriksen of Sister Bay, a commercial fishermen who sets nets in both Green Bay and Lake Michigan. “It’s a Mother Nature problem.”
Winter-like weather arrived early and stayed late, and a rule closing the net-through-the-ice season March 15 kept them from supplying as many fresh whitefish as distributors would have liked.
Dennis Hickey of Hickey Brothers Fisheries in Baileys Harbor said he’s going to try to get the rule changed.
“The last two years we could have kept fishing for three weeks after that,” Hickey said. “It seems kind of biased. I don’t have a problem with the deadline to remove shelters, but the (sport fishing) guides can keep fishing, and we can’t?”
The rule does not apply to Lake Superior commercial fishermen, he said, and tribal netters on the bay off the Upper Peninsula can also fish until common sense tells them it’s time to wait for open water.
Hickey said there was three to four feet of ice on much of the bay in mid-March, including a few areas where his 4-1/2-foot auger wouldn’t even break through.
“I had to chisel the last few inches,” he said.
Guides are required to report their catch, but Hickey said he’s heard that many aren’t — and aren’t getting cited.
“We have to fill out our catch right away, and if we don’t, look out — we’ll get a citation,” Hickey said.
DNR natural resources program specialist Al Blizel acknowledged the rise in chartered ice fishing trips for whitefish in recent years but said it’s a staffing issue, with the DNR short-handed.
Henriksen said the two — sport and commercial — should be held to the same reporting standards.
Blizel said there were 32 commercial fishing licenses targeting Lake Michigan whitefish in 2013, representing about 17 different businesses.
They reported landing 1.25 million pounds of whitefish in the three zones, including close to 980,000 in Zones 1 and 2 from Green Bay up to the tip of the Door Peninsula on down to a line just south of Algoma.
Windy fall weather and an early blast of cold likely reduced the late-year harvest, as the previous high in the past decade of 1,524,000 pounds was made just a year earlier.
Henriksen said there’s been enough whitefish out there to allow both a vibrant commercial and sport fishery, and though DNR data last spring didn’t show an improvement in growth, he thinks it will this year.
“I think over the summer the fishery made a surge,” Henriksen said. “I think the growth rate is coming back a little.”
Part of that, he said, may be that the fish have learned to forage — make that gorge — on abundant round gobies, an invasive species.
Henriksen said many of the whitefish caught stay here to supply boils and markets in summer, but more than half his spring and fall catch is sold to distributors who then ship it all over the world.
“We take pretty good care of our local customers,” Henriksen said. “Most of the shortage in recent weeks was outside the area.”
While prices are at a record high due to the demand — $3.50 a pound wholesale — they’re far short of some of the ocean or farmed species like salmon or Lake Erie walleye and yellow perch.
Billy Smith of Bearcat’s Fish House in Algoma buys his whitefish from Door County netters, and said Friday that whole whitefish (gutted, scaled and de-headed) were selling for $5.65 a pound, smoked for $6-$7 and fresh fillets (scaled and pin bones removed) for $7.75-$8.
That compares to nearly $10 a pound for salmon, $11.75 for perch and $12.50 for walleye.
A Great Lakes staple through the years, bloaters — more commonly known as chubs — were Lake Michigan’s most expensive catch earlier this winter at $12.99 a pound smoked. They’re no longer available.
Anyone advertising fresh smelt was likely instead offering frozen, Smith said, as few were available. He’ll be getting his first shipment of medium size unfrozen smelt from Lake Erie this week, with about 20 fish to the pound and a likely cost of $6.49/lb..
One of the best bargains right now is Lake Superior lake trout, $3.99 per pound dressed and $4.39 filleted.
“The demand was so high during Lent that there was sticker shock, but our markup was really minimal,” Smith said. “I think we’ll see whitefish start to go down soon.”
Henriksen and Hickey agreed, but added that ice floes that can mess up net sets in Whitefish Bay are still drifting down, and there’s also nuisance algae, cladophora, that can gunk up nets and reduce the catch.
Mark Richard and Tom Savage are running a trapper education course this spring on three nights — April 29, May 6 and May 13 — followed by a full-day demonstration.
A $12 fee includes a new textbook, and Richard recommends participants begin to study a week before the first class, which will be held at the Door County Rod & Gun Club.
There are limited openings. Get more info by calling Richard at (920) 421-0828.
— Kevin Naze is a freelance outdoors writer. Email him your thoughts at firstname.lastname@example.org.