Lake to Table: The Fishing Industry

Historically, Door County has been a maritime hub for Great Lakes shipping and fishing in Wisconsin. Many of the villages and towns you know and love started out as fishing ports dotting the Lake Michigan shoreline. For example, Baileys Harbor has been a fishing port since the late 1800’s and was founded after Captain Justice Bailey, a regional shipping captain, sought safe harbor for his vessel during a storm in 1848. He recognized it as being the only safe harbor north of Sturgeon Bay. In the next two years, nearly 2,500 cord of lumber were shipped from Baileys throughout the Great Lakes.

There are two types of fishing currently happening in Door County: Commercial Fishing for mainly whitefish through companies like Hickey Brothers in Baileys Harbor, Henriksen Fisheries on Sand Bay, J & M Fisheries & Voight Fisheries in Gills Rock and Ken Koyen’s outfit on Washington Island. Sport fishing for salmon, trout, bass, walleye, and other species have grown in popularity over the past few decades with ports primarily in Baileys Harbor, Gills Rock, and Sturgeon Bay using a number of locally run charter boats.

Summers in Door County bring balmy weather, crystal clear waters and thousands of pleasure boats. Come fall, the boats slowly disappear one by one leaving only the commercial boats like the tug, trap net, gill net boats and let’s not forget the freighters. Sturgeon Bay is a winter destination for many of the Great Lakes shipping fleets because of the boat yards located along the canal. Sturgeon Bay is also the proud home of a Coast Guard Station providing a vital resource for vessels in distress in our area. Lake Michigan, especially in the waters around Door County, can be treacherous for even the most seasoned captains. They don’t call the passage between Northport and the island chain to the north Death’s Door for nothing. Changing winds, rogue waves, and sudden storms are just a few of the risks that give our beautiful lake a menacing reputation.

Presently, only five ports still remain viable: Gills Rock, Washington Island, Sturgeon Bay, Sand Bay and Baileys Harbor.

It’s a family tradition of ours to watch the commercial fleet get launched in Baileys Harbor every spring. Luckily, my brother works for Yacht Works as one of the main drivers so he let us know last spring when our friend Will’s boat was getting launched. Bright and early on a cool morning in March, we woke Andrea up and headed down to the marina. For those of you with little kids, you know that they don’t cooperate after being woken up, so excuse her outfit. J Max pulled in with the massive truck hauling the beautiful boat called Roamer owned by Henriksen Fisheries. It takes about 30 minutes to successfully launch a boat of this size and complexity. For a time lapse video of the launch, check out this link. Andrea squealed and waved at the guys while they prepped and launched the boat. If you ever see one of these boats being launched, definitely stop (out of the way, of course) and watch. It’s pretty impressive.

Speaking from experience, I think fishing gets in your blood. Being from Baileys Harbor, I’m most familiar with the companies based here but DoCo is a small community so it’s like a large family. I grew up watching the charter boats come and go filling up coolers of massive King Salmon and Brown Trout and have known the charter captains for many years. Admittedly, my first crush was a first mate on one of the local boats. He was a couple years older than me and looking back, he always smelled like fish. (Don’t judge, I was 15…) I went to church with Jeff & Mark Weborg from J & M Fisheries, Charlie Henriksen of Henriksen Fisheries is one of my father’s best friends and his son Will is like a brother to me. John Koessel, pictured here, another die hard fisherman, went to prom with my little sister Willie. Like I said, it’s a small town. The men that navigate these fleets are testaments to a way of life that is hardly seen anymore. They are hardened with the wind and waves and have the stories to match. I am incredibly lucky to call some of them my friends.

When I was very little and before I was born, my dad fished on and off for several years. I remember him telling me a story about one nasty winter day after leaving Gills Rock on a tug steaming out to check the nets in some pretty heavy waves. They took a wave directly to the side of the boat and the tug rolled over so far that water came down the chimney pipe of the woodstove and put the fire out. I used to wonder why he quit fishing after that, now that we have a child, I get it.

My friend Will Henriksen, pictured above, literally grew up on his father’s boats. They have pictures of him as a toddler in a car seat set up in the captain’s chair of one of his dad’s boats one summer while they worked on it at the dock. After high school, Will left Door County to pursue baseball in college but he couldn’t stay away. After a few short years, he decided to return home to his father’s fleet and now he’s an integral part of the operation, stepping in for Charlie for extended periods of time and maintaining the fleet throughout the year.

Today, the commercial/sport fishing industry makes up a substantial part of our economy. Did you know when you go out to eat at a Door County restaurant, the only local fish that you can order off the menu are whitefish and lawyers? These fish were caught by our local fishermen, hauled to local processors, and delivered to our local restaurants. Don’t know what a lawyer is? Just ask Kenny Koyen from KK Fiske’s on Washington Island. He’s made a name for himself serving up the freshest fish including lawyers, a local favorite that when cooked right has the consistency of lobster.

I spoke with Carin Hickey Stuth, third generation of Hickey Bros. Fishery right here in Baileys Harbor, because I wanted to get a grasp on just how big of an impact commercial fishing has on Door County’s economy. They fish about 10 months a year for wild caught whitefish, chubs, and smelt using live traps. In the summer, they fish on the bay and in the fall they move the fleet to Baileys Harbor as the lake cools off. Two thirds of their catch leaves the county for destinations in Chicago and New York. The remaining third is for sale at their market on Ridges Rd in Baileys Harbor. The market is open Memorial Day to Labor Day and offers both locally caught fish and wild caught Alaskan Salmon. Another division of their business employs about twenty guys out west doing research contract work for areas like Idaho and Montana where they work to eradicate the invasive whitefish that were planted in inland lakes back in the Depression. They work with several Indian tribes to develop sustainable fisheries and in Yellowstone and Glacier National Park where they successfully removed the invasive whitefish from the parks. Currently they are looking a little closer to home to prevent the invasive Asian Carp from entering Lake Michigan, as it would decimate the native fish populations.

There is a movement afoot called Eat Wisconsin Fish. Here in Baileys Harbor, we’re getting in on that with the upcoming Blessing of the Fleet Festival featuring the brand new Lake To Table Culinary Event featuring locally caught whitefish as the special at our local restaurants throughout town. For more information on the upcoming festival, check out BaileysHarbor.com.

Fishing has, and hopefully always will, be a part of Door County’s heritage and economy. In a recent class I took, the speaker said that the average millennial (people born between 1982 and 2000) have a three generation disconnect from the farm, meaning that their great grandparents were the last generation that may have lived on a farm. I think in Door County, it goes the same for fishing. I’m hoping by writing this, you’ll have a better understanding for the men who work long hours to sustainably fish our waters, and order the local fish next time you dine at one of Door County’s many amazing restaurants.