It's been a tough summer so far for Lake Superior charter captains
Charter fishing captain Peter Dahl snugged his boat, the "Hooker Too," into its berth at the Waterfront Plaza Marina on Monday afternoon. In his cooler lay seven lake trout that his clients had caught that day on Lake Superior. The largest was a 10-pounder, and the anglers had thrown back four more lakers.
It was a good day on the big lake. But it's been a tough season for most charter captains in the Twin Ports. Several said their business is down about 25 percent, and high gas prices for the big fishing boats are cutting into profits.
"It's down appreciably," said Dahl, who has been chartering for 21 years. "There are a lot fewer boats going out. I'm fortunate. My business hasn't suffered too much. Even on weekends, only three or four boats are going out. Normally, it's everybody."
About a dozen charter captains work from the Waterfront Plaza Marina, and several more work out of Barker's Island in Superior.
"It's down 25 percent, probably," said Barry LeBlanc, eating a burger aboard his boat, the "White Water," before an afternoon charter Monday. "It's the whole darn economy. Everyone is tightening their belts. There is no extra spending money."
Steve Johnson of Hard Times charters agreed with LeBlanc's assessment that business is off about 25 percent. He attributes part of the drop to a general decline in tourism in Duluth this summer.
"We're not seeing the bodies on the breakwall when we come in," Johnson said. "They used to be lined up there. Now there are 20 or 30."
He believes fuel prices are a factor in people's reduced travels.
"Everyone's feeling the sticker shock," he said. "Everyone's worried about heating their homes this winter."
Dave Koneczny of KDK Charters out of Barker's Island says his summer is going well, thanks mainly to repeat business and referrals. But he knows the charter business is off.
"Yes, it is down for a lot of the guys. I hear it," Koneczny said.
The people who do come aren't booking as far ahead as they have in other years, he said. As a result, sometimes motels are booked with people coming for other attractions, such as this weekend's air show. And some motels ask a two-night stay.
"I get a lot of folks complaining about having to spend two days in a motel room to fish one day," Koneczny said.
Double-whammy on fuel
Fuel prices also affect the operating costs of charter captains, all of whom run big boats that consume lots of gasoline.
"I burned more than $100 worth of fuel today," Dexter Nelson, who operates First Mate charter service out of the Waterfront Plaza Marina, said Monday afternoon. "It took me four hours to find the fish today."
He had a successful outing, catching about a dozen lake trout with his party from Duluth and Kansas.
Most charter captains saw the fuel increases coming and raised their rates about $30 per trip to offset the increased costs. A half-day charter runs from about $350 to $400 for up to four customers.
"We're at the point now that if we raise [rates] any more to cover our costs, the trips won't go," Johnson said.
Better fishing now
Fishing on the big lake has begun to pick up in the past two weeks after a month-long tough stretch, LeBlanc and other charter captains said. Strong westerly winds had pushed warm surface water out, allowing cold water to come in from below. That made fishing tough through much of June.
"We had been steering some people away, asking them to come a little later," LeBlanc said.
Until recent east winds blew some warmer water back in toward Duluth, LeBlanc said he was getting only one to six fish per day. The top part of the water column is about 50 degrees as of Monday, he said.
"The lake should be in the mid-60s on top, and it's not," he said.
"The west wind has killed us," he said.
If anyone can find lake trout and salmon on Lake Superior, it's a charter captain. And this week, the charters were getting fish.
"That last northeast wind brought in warmer water, and the bigger fish are showing up," Dahl said. "Today [Monday], we had 50-degree water down to 110 feet."