SAUGATUCK — Every vacation needs a fish story. So today, we’re out on choppy Lake Michigan. It is a warm late-May afternoon, and Dave Engel and his sons Hunter and Zack have put out enough rods and lines to attract a lake trout parade. With rock music blaring, we troll west in the 36-foot yacht Best Chance, Too. We troll. We wait. We troll. We wait.
Then, a rod jiggles. Dave thrusts it into the hands of Zack’s girlfriend, Carolyn, and she pulls in a fish. Then Dave turns the boat around and slowly trolls east. Saugatuck’s Oval Beach and the dunes are bathed in a distant, drowsy golden light. Suddenly, another bite. And another. Zack thrusts a rod into my hand. I reel with difficulty, hand shaking, elbow out, harder, harder, harder, until at last, a lake trout at least 6 feet — OK, 3 feet — well, to be honest, 2 feet — long is in the boat. Flopping in the net, it must weigh at least 99 pounds, or truthfully, more like 98, or actually 11. Triumph! My heart hammers. My arms ache. In spite of the fact I did almost nothing, I grin.
“Theraputic, isn’t it?” says Hunter, grinning back.
Oddly, it is.
Hook, line, sinker
Fishing is a Michigan thing. But it’s also a lucrative tourism thing. Michigan ranks behind only Florida in fishing tourism. In 2014, there were more than 16,000 charter trips on nearly 600 boats around the state, generating $21.2 million in economic activity, according to new data from the Michigan Department of Natural Resources and Michigan Sea Grant. And you don’t have to be an expert to hire a charter. You can spend half a day on vacation giving it a beginner’s try.
“My first charter this season was a daughter taking her father out for his birthday,” says Rod Lowe, owner of Rainbow Fishing Charters in Grand Marais, in the Upper Peninsula. “We take all age groups, all levels of experience, and we supply all the equipment. All they have to bring is a (one-day, $10) fishing license, and they can get that here at the gas station or hardware store.”
In Saugatuck, Dave Engel, who is a serious competitive fisherman and third-generation charter fishing operator, is pretty much booked solid all season with corporate groups and longtime regulars. But his son Hunter takes out guys for bachelor parties and families who have never fished before and vacationers who suddenly want to try it. That pretty much describes the vast breadth of fishing tourism in Michigan’s Great Lakes.
“Fishing transcends age, gender, race and religion,” Hunter says, and that is somewhat true. Overall in the U.S., about a third of anglers are women. About 11% are African American. About 14% are Hispanic, and that number is growing. Fishing cuts across all income groups. The fish may not be happy to hear it, but fishing is right up there in popularity with running and cycling.
Allure of the lure
After we dock, Dave Engel cleans the trout in record time and hands me a ziplock bag of pale pink trout filets. I persuade the nice people at the local Maplewood Hotel to let me store it in their refrigerator overnight until I can buy a cooler over at Demond’s Supervalu for the trip home. And the next morning, I catch up with a group of Saugatuck sixth-graders who have been fishing very early in the cold. Those who didn’t get seasick are cheerfully chomping down fried trout, bluegill and salmon.
Statistics show that most people who love to fish as adults first had a fishing pole in their hands by age 12.
What would these kids like to tell other kids about fishing?
“It’s nice to get out in the world,” says Olivia Van Kampen, 11, of Saugatuck. Payton Wilson, 12, of Saugatuck was proud of not getting seasick: “I’m a trouper, that’s what they said.” Their teacher Katie Hankins from Saugatuck Middle School says fishing “gets kids out of the house and away from TV and phones and the Internet.”
Dave Engel’s two sons both began fishing “as soon as they could walk,” he says. They grew up around spinners and spoons, rods and reels. For father and sons now, being out on the so familiar waters of Lake Michigan is a family affair. Yes, it a high-tech business endeavor (rods cost $500 each and the downriggers are $1,500 each). But it is also just plain fun. And there is one more thing this year: The lakes may have fewer salmon than in the past because of changing lake conditions, but “the lake trout fishing has never been better,” Engel says. “It is the best it is going to be in our lifetime.”
And that, my friends, is no tall tale.
For more on how to book a charter fishing trip in Michigan with Dave Engel, Rod Lowe or other operators, click here.
8 fishing facts
–Top states for fishing tourism, in order, are Florida, Michigan, Wisconsin, North Carolina and Alaska.
–Michigan has 1.7 million anglers each year, about 347,000 of them from out of state.
–About 15% of the U.S. population fishes. That’s 46 million anglers.
–More people fish than play golf or tennis combined.
–About 17% of families with children at home have gone fishing.
–Most fishing trips are either spur of the moment or planned within 1 week and taken with one to four other people, usually family or friends.
–Saugatuck isn’t the busiest port , but in 2013, it had 484 charter trips with 2,249 customers, adding nearly $1 million in local impact to the economy.
–Nationwide, the annual economic impact of recreational fishing on the U.S. economy is $115 billion.
Sources: Michigan Department of Natural Resources,
American Sportfishing Association and Recreational Boating and Fishing Foundation
Contact Detroit Free Press Travel Writer Ellen Creager at firstname.lastname@example.org. ___
This article was written by ELLEN CREAGER from Detroit Free Press and was legally licensed through the NewsCred publisher network.