Gills Rock Anglers Feel Forgotten by DNR

The Gills Rock Coalition of Concerned Citizens want the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources to start stocking the area with Chinook salmon because past stocking efforts have ignored the historic fishing village at the top of the peninsula. Pictured from left, front, Dave Weborg, Capt. Paul Voight, Capt. Mike Di Iulio, Monika May and Carl Rasmussen. In back, Capt. Don Grasse and Bob Tidball.

It’s a beautiful, balmy August day when a group calling itself the Gills Rock Coalition of Concerned Citizens sat across the street from Weborg Dock and pointed out how quiet this historic fishing village is because no one is fishing here.

“You look out there and you see no boats,” said retired charter captain Paul Voight, who began sport-fishing charters in Gills Rock in 1962.

“You might have had 30, 40 boats launching every morning, so there’s definitely been a big change,” said Dave Weborg, whose family dates back a century in Gills Rock.

The problem, the concerned citizens say, is that Gills Rock has been ignored for the last seven years or more in the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources’ Chinook salmon stocking program.

Chinook are natives of the salty Pacific Northwest and, being the largest of salmon, are also known as King salmon. Its size and spunk make it a prized catch for the sport fisher.

First Coho and then Chinook salmon were introduced into the Great Lakes in 1966 at the behest of a Michigan Department of Natural Resources management team that was charged with containing the alewife problem. Alewives are an invasive species from the Atlantic Ocean and its tributaries (they spawn in rivers and streams like salmon). They first made their presence known in Lake Ontario, the most eastern of the Great Lakes, in the late 1800s. It’s believed they found their way into the Great Lakes via the Welland Canal and were first reported in Lake Michigan in 1949.

The piscatory invasion exploded in Lake Michigan to the point that some of Michigan’s beaches were unusable because of the rotting alewife bodies. Salmon thrive on alewives, so the DNR leaders tried the radical idea of introducing salmon to the Great Lakes, with the double-edged benefit of salmon being both an alewife predator and a prize catch.

Boom! An industry was born, an industry that Voight says kept him busy and happy through three generations of anglers who kept coming back to Gills Rock.

“This is the first year that no fish were caught off Table Bluff,” Voight said of the prominence on the northern end of Gills Rock harbor. “There are no fish coming here.”

“They basically have forgotten about us the last 10 years. I don’t know if it’s political or intentional or what exactly is going on,” said Capt. Don Grasse of King Fisher Charters.

Both Grasse and Capt. Mike Di Iulio, who has run Capt. Paul’s Charter Fishing since buying it nine years ago from Voight, said they are regularly losing customers because they have to tell them the truth about the lack of Chinook.

“I’ve lost three trips today alone because the fishing’s so poor,” Grasse said. “That would take my total to 15 or 16 for the year who decided not to come up because fishing is so bad. I’ll do about 75 trips a year and I’ve lost 15, so far. That’s money out of the hotels and restaurants as well.”

But the Wisconsin DNR fishery specialists have been hearing similar complaints of the lack of fish all over the lake.

“We’ve been getting concerns similar to what they expressed up and down Lake Michigan right now. Fishing generally has been, relative to last year, lower. A lot of anglers are concerned right now. They all want more fish,” said Great Lakes fisheries biologist Nick Legler of the Sturgeon Bay DNR office.

Legler and his supervisor, David Boyarski, recently met with the Gills Rock concerned citizens and tried to give the big picture that the DNR takes. The lack of fish could be due to many factors, Legler said, from weather patterns and water temperatures to forage abundance.

“Lake Michigan is a very large and complex system with many factors simultaneously impacting fishing success,” he said.

The Gills Rock folks heard all that, but believe the lack of stocking has made things even worse for them.

“Everybody’s suffering a little bit this year, but it seems we’re exaggerated as to what we’re going through,” Grasse said.

A couple of calls confirmed that it’s been a slow fishing season around the lake, but some charter captains said the fishing is starting to pick up.

“Numbers were low, but we’ve been catching some nice-sized salmon the last few days,” said Don Ward of Ward Brothers Charter in Charlevoix, Mich.

“The numbers have been way down,” said Troy Mattson of Kinn’s Sport Fishing in Algoma. “The last couple of weeks has been the best fishing of the season, but it hasn’t been great. Just fair.”

And back to the invasive alewife, Monika May, one of the organizers of the concerned citizens group, quoted a Peninsula Pulse story (“Alewives Float Onto Door County Beaches,” July 19, 2013) about alewife carcasses stinking up Door County beaches earlier this summer.

“Why do you think all the alewives were washing up from Green Bay? No Chinook. This is why it affects more than just here,” she said.

After some research, May discovered that many of the counties where Chinook stocking has been a constant bring in fewer tourism dollars than Door County, which ranks seventh in the state (an estimated $289 million.

“The major problem, severe economic impacts to Gills Rock by not planting fish here,” she said, and suggested that fish be stocked “in relation to the number of tourist dollars spent per county.”

Or better yet, she suggested in all seriousness, if the stocked salmon travel the entire lake as the DNR says they do, “Why don’t we plant all 345,000 fish in Gills Rock and they can go anywhere else in the lake? If that fish will go anywhere, we’ll take 345,000 fish right here.”

The concerned citizens have spent time on the question of how this has happened, but their mission now is to alert the citizenry to the problem.

“Fishing is a very important part of the Gills Rock area,” said former Liberty Grove Town Board member Bob Tidball, who is a member of the concerned citizens group. He arranged for the group to bring their concerns to the town board on Sept. 4.

“Somewhere something happened and Gills Rock got dropped out of the stocking,” May said. “If we don’t have people doing public outcry, they will not plant fish back in Gills Rock.”

The group has started a petition to be delivered to the DNR before the Oct. 12 meeting of the Lake Michigan Committee (comprised of fisheries managers representing Michigan, Indiana, Illinois, Wisconsin and five Michigan tribes), which determines stocking strategy for the coming year.

“So we need people to sign a petition and contact Brad Eggold,” May said.

Eggold, the DNR’s Lake Michigan fisheries supervisor based in Milwaukee, said he is happy to hear from anglers and other citizens concerned about the Lake Michigan fishery.

“I’m glad this happened that we’ve got some people interested in what’s going on,” Eggold said. “They had this meeting with our guys up there and shared a lot of information and had a good exchange of ideas. I can take comments now. Send comments to me.”

You can call Eggold at 414.382.7921, via email at [email protected], or mail at Bradley Eggold, DNR fisheries, 600 E. Greenfield Ave., Milwaukee, WI 53204.