Charter fishing continues to boost tourism in coastal towns

Charter fishing on Lake Huron picked up steam in 2017 while other lakes held strong.

Young boy holds up walleye while standing on a boat.
Walleye have been increasingly important to Lake Huron’s charter fishery, rising from 6 percent of the harvest in 2002 to 61 percent in 2017. (Data provided by Michigan DNR.)

Charter fishing catch and effort statistics from 2017 are now available from the Michigan Department of Natural Resources’ Charter Boat Reporting Program. Each year, the economic impact of charter fishing is calculated by Michigan Sea Grant based on the number of fishing trips that charter captains report to the DNR.

Despite the many problems that challenge the future of Great Lakes fisheries, charter fishing continues to provide an important component of coastal tourism. In fact, the economic impact of tourism generated by charter fishing in Michigan rose to $25.4 million in 2017. This represents a 4.5 percent increase from 2016 to 2017 after adjusting for inflation.

Lake Michigan holds steady

The Lake Michigan fishery has experienced a lot of uncertainty in recent years, but the lake’s charter fishing industry has been remarkably steady since the late 1990s. Fluctuations in charter fishing effort (and resulting economic impacts) have not been closely linked to catch rates, in part because fishing success has ranged from good to fantastic since Chinook salmon recovered from a bacterial kidney disease (BKD) epidemic in the mid-1990s.

In 2017, charter captains logged 12,122 fishing trips in Michigan waters of Lake Michigan, generating tourism that created over $7 million in personal income and over 322,000 employment hours. This was very similar to the economic impact of 11,791 trips reported in 2016, and reflects the continued high level of interest in charter fishing for salmon and trout.

Lake Michigan offers anglers a variety of trout and salmon species, but Chinook salmon are often considered the premier gamefish. Charter fishing produced an average of 2.1 Chinooks per trip in 2017, which is similar to catch rates in 2015 and 2016. Prior to 2013, Chinook salmon targeted catch rates were much higher (up to 7.4 per charter trip) but fishing effort and economic impacts were similar.

Catch rates are calculated by the Michigan DNR, and these rates represent the number of Chinooks caught per trip targeting salmon and trout of all species. These targeted catch rates are used to exclude incidental salmon catches taken by anglers fishing for walleye, bass, or other fish that are targeted using different gear or methods.

The resurgence of Lake Huron

Much of the angst surrounding declining Chinook salmon catch rates on Lake Michigan is related to the crash of Lake Huron’s salmon fishery in 2004. After Chinook salmon targeted catch rates fell from 2.4 fish per charter trip in 2004 to 1.2 fish per trip in 2005 the Lake Huron charter fishery was cut in half.

Although Lake Huron’s charter industry was never as large as Lake Michigan’s, the impact of lost tourism and fishing opportunities was devastating to many coastal communities. From 2006 to 2015, Lake Huron captains logged fewer than 2,000 charter trips per year, but in 2016 things started looking up. Fishing effort rose to 2,154 trips in 2016 – just below the long-term average of 2,176 (1990-2017). In 2017, Lake Huron rose above this long-term average for the first time since 2004 with 2,548 trips logged.

The economic impact of Lake Huron charter fishing has increased by roughly 45 percent since 2015. In 2017, charter fishing generated tourism that created over 90,000 employment hours and $1.2 million in personal income for coastal communities on Lake Huron. When adjusted for inflation, this looks more like the good old days than the “collapsed fishery” we have heard so much about.

There are some big differences between today’s Lake Huron charter fishery and the fishery of 2002, though. For one thing, Chinook salmon remain scarce in most of the lake for most of the year. In fact, anglers targeting salmon and trout caught fewer than one Chinook for every two trips taken in 2017. The resurgence in Lake Huron’s fishery is not due to any recovery of Chinook salmon, but solid lake trout fishing, phenomenal walleye catch rates (over 25 fish caught per charter trip targeting walleye), and changing regulations on Saginaw Bay may have had positive impacts. Saginaw Bay now accounts for 41 percent of charter fishing effort on Lake Huron, up from a low of around 8 percent in 2005.

Since 2015, anglers on Saginaw Bay have been able to keep up to eight walleye per day, and the minimum size limit was reduced from 15 to 13 inches. The long term biological goal is, in part, to reduce the number of walleye preying on yellow perch. Historically, yellow perch have been extremely important in drawing anglers to Great Lakes fisheries so this could be an additional boon in years to come.

While things do seem to be looking up on Lake Huron, it is also possible that 2017 was just an exceptionally good year relative to the “new normal.” It would be premature to assume that other species have effectively filled in the gap left by the loss of Chinook salmon, but results from last year’s charter season are definitely encouraging. Anecdotal reports from the 2018 season suggest that fishing effort and harvest may be a bit lower on Saginaw Bay because of high winds that result in cancelled trips and warm water that caused walleye to leave the bay earlier than usual.

Other waters continue to offer world class fishing

Although salmon get a lot of attention when it comes to charter fishing, many Michigan waters offer incredible fishing opportunities for other species. Lake Erie provides fast fishing for walleye, with 2017 being no exception. Lake Superior’s vast expanse of cold water attracts lake trout anglers. Some Superior charter captains offer trips that focus on casting or jigging, which offers a fun alternative to trolling methods used in most Great Lakes lake trout waters. The St. Mary’s River hosts a run of Atlantic salmon, which is renowned for its tendency to jump repeatedly when hooked. Atlantics are also starting to show up regularly in northern and southern Lake Huron due to expanded stocking.

Detroit may be the largest urban center in Michigan, but it also provides some of the fastest fishing around. The St. Clair River, Lake St. Clair, and the Detroit River offer catch-and-release charter fishing options on some of the best smallmouth bass and musky waters in the world. The musky is known as the “fish of 10,000 casts” but in 2017 charter fishing in Lake St. Clair produced an average of 2.7 fish per trip. Charter trips targeting bass on Lake St. Clair produced over 25 fish per trip in 2017. Yellow perch and walleye also provide great fishing for charter anglers who prefer to keep their catch. The Detroit River is a hotspot for walleye in the spring, and walleye charters harvested an average of 16 fish per trip in 2017.

No matter where you are in Michigan, quality charter fishing is never very far from your doorstep.

Michigan Sea Grant helps to foster economic growth and protect Michigan’s coastal, Great Lakes resources through education, research and outreach. A collaborative effort of the University of Michigan and Michigan State University and its MSU Extension, Michigan Sea Grant is part of the NOAA-National Sea Grant network of 33 university-based programs.

This article was written by Michigan Sea Grant Extension Educator Dr. Dan O'Keefe under award NA14OAR4170070 from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, U.S. Department of Commerce through the Regents of the University of Michigan. The statements, findings, conclusions, and recommendations are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the views of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, the Department of Commerce, or the Regents of the University of Michigan.

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