Enjoy boating on the Great Lakes this summer - but don’t get trapped

Commercial fishers use trap nets in the Great Lakes, so all recreational fishers and boaters should learn to identify trap nets to avoid accidents.

May 9, 2012 - Author: Ron Kinnunen, Michigan State University Extension

Trap nets are used by state licensed and tribal commercial fishers in parts of Lakes Superior, Huron, and Michigan to catch lake whitefish. Recreational fishers and boaters should learn how to identify and avoid these nets to prevent from being tangled in them.

Trap nets are usually found in water depths of less than 150 feet. Trap nets are typically fished perpendicular to the shoreline from shallow to deep water. The leads of these nets originate from shallower water near the shore and can be as long as 1500 feet. For deep water trap nets, leads may extend off the bottom 45 feet. These leads consist of thick, 14-inch mesh nets that go lakeward to deeper water where the lake whitefish are led into the heart of the net. The heart has wings or net sections that form a v-shape and are supported by floats and anchors. Once inside the heart, whitefish swim through a tunnel and become trapped in a box-shaped pot.  Trap net illustration.

Sport trolling is not advisable near or above trap nets. Once set, repositioning a trap net is a complicated process because nets are anchored in place for extended periods of time, sometimes an entire season. On a typical fishing ground, trap nets are fished shallower in the fall and spring than in summer. Recreational fishers and boater should learn how to identify the flags and buoys associated with these nets.

A flag buoy or float marks the lead end of a trap net (closest to shore) and the main anchor end (lakeward). Some fishers mark the lead end with a double flag to distinguish it from the main anchor end. Red, orange or black flags attached to a staff buoy at the pot must be at least four feet above the surface of the water. Flags will be approximately 12-inches square and bear the license number of the commercial fishing operation. During rough water or heavy currents, these flags can lay down or are obscured by high waves. Floats may also mark the ends of the wings and/or each anchor. The floats may vary according to the fishing operation.

To avoid becoming entangled, give wide berth when passing trap net buoys and flag markers, as nets have many anchor lines extending in all directions. Do not pass or troll between trap net buoys, as propeller blades and/or fishing gear may easily snag net lines. If tangled in a trap net, always keep the bow of boat facing into the wind. Shut off the boats engine if the propeller becomes tangled. Snagged downrigger cables can be dangerous, so release any tension on cables and cut them free. Do not enter the water to untangle nets and if you find yourself in a dangerous situation, radio the U.S. Coast Guard. If you have lost fishing gear, contact the commercial fisher. If possible, they will return your equipment.

For a copy of the Michigan Sea Grant publication “Don’t Get Trapped”, visit the Michigan Sea Grant website.

Tags: fisheries & wildlife, lakes, msu extension, streams & watersheds

Michigan State University Michigan State University Close Menu button Menu and Search button Open Close