Northwest Lower Michigan Fisheries Heritage: Travel, tourism and fish

Historically, and still today, recreational and commercial fish and fishing for northern Lake Michigan communities reflects an important way of life.

Fish tugs, Janice Sue and Joy, in Leland's historic Fishtown. Photo credit: Keith Burnham.
Fish tugs, Janice Sue and Joy, in Leland's historic Fishtown. Photo credit: Keith Burnham.

Coastal northwest lower Michigan is filled with scenic landscapes, orchard and agricultural abundance and coastal towns—and rich in Great Lakes fisheries heritage and tradition. These coastal fishing towns are known today for diverse tourism, recreational boating and fishing opportunities. In fact, the Lake Michigan coastline of northwest Michigan and its Leelanau County peninsula was once lined by numerous commercial fishing operations fishing. 

Still active today, there is a strong remnant of these commercial fisheries—both tribal and state licensed commercial fishers operating out of Pewshawbestown and Leland’s historic Fishtown. Fishing for food, they return catches of whitefish (Coregonus clupeaformis) and other species for local restaurants and families. In addition, fishing for fun (and food), recreational fisherman actively troll and fish waters of Grand Traverse Bay and open Lake Michigan for a variety of species including King & coho salmon, lake trout, perch, smallmouth bass, and others. Both the commercial and recreational sides of fishing on Lake Michigan reflects a way of life for many in this region, contributing  to community culture and character as much today as they have in the past.

A new Michigan’s Great Lakes Fisheries Heritage Trail offers a great opportunity to learn about fish and people of northwest Michigan, bringing to life today’s Great Lakes fisheries through exploration of the historic fisheries of our past. This statewide trail highlights a wealth of places and experiences available to those interested in learning more about our Great Lakes fisheries. Michigan Sea Grant and Michigan State University Extension have been collaborating with many museums, university, agency and fishing industry partners from across the state in establishing this heritage tourism trail as a resource for communities and travelers, alike.

Here are a few places well worth exploring to experience fish and fishing heritage and traditions of northwest Lower Michigan:

  • Leland and Leland’s Historic Fishtown—at Fishtown, you can experience a living active fishery, both tribal and state licensed, where food fish arrive dockside several times per week. Whitefish are caught in trapnets and brought aboard historic fishboats, such the Joy and Janice Sue. You can enjoy the smell of smoked fish in the air, purchase fresh or smoked fish at Carlson’s Fishery or grab dinner at the Bluebird Restaurant & Tavern where authentic images of commercial fishing families of Leland hang; you might also want to visit the Leelanuau Historical Museum just a few steps away from Fishtown where various museum displays are available.
  • Glen Haven and Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore— visit the fishing vessel Aloha on display at Glen Haven, and explore the world of small boats at the Cannery Fishtown 50th anniversary celebration image.Boathouse Museum in Glen Haven (largest public exhibit of Great Lakes small craft); also consider stopping by the Sleeping Bear Point Coast Guard Station Maritime Museum while in Glen Haven— this original Sleeping Bear Point U.S. Life-Saving Station was used to rescue mariners from the treacherous waters of Sleeping Bear Point and the Manitou Passage.
  • Northport— Great Lakes sport trolling was invented and pioneered off Northport in the early 1920s. George Raff was the first to discover that lake trout could be caught by trolling in Grand Traverse Bay's protected waters, and this method that he and his wife, Nell, developed has spread throughout the Great Lakes. A Michigan Historical Marker notes this key development inside the G. Marsten Dame Marina in downtown Northport.
  • Pewshawbestown— fish may be available for purchase near the Arthur Duhammel Marina.
  • Greilickville—Kids looking for a place to explore and learn about fish? Visit the Great Lakes Children’s museum where fun hands-on activities are found in abundance. Also see the rest of the Discovery Center – Great Lakes, which includes the Grand Traverse Bay Watershed Center and the Maritime Heritage Alliance, and schooner Madeline
  • Suttons Bay— visit the renowned Inland Seas Education Association education center and sail aboard schooner Inland Seas where you can learn about native Great Lakes ecology and aquatic invasive fish like the Asian carp, which threaten to enter the Great Lakes.
  • Traverse City—How about hands-on fishing with captains of the Michigan Charter Boat Association? A future fishing pier is under active planning and development in Traverse City at the mouth of the Boardman River in Downtown Traverse City.

Interested in learning more about our Great Lakes fisheries of past and present? Michigan Sea Grant offers online educational resources, including publications such as “The Life of the Lakes: A Guide to the Great Lakes Fishery.”

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