The 30-foot Baja Cruiser slowly moves through the peaceful waters of the fishing harbor at Two Rivers, Wisc. It’s headed east into the expanse of Lake Michigan, one of the largest freshwater lakes in all of North America.
Sixty-two nautical miles wide and 307 statute miles long, the second-biggest of the Great Lakes chain offers one of the most unique fishing experiences anyone can imagine. King and Coho Salmon, rainbow trout, lake trout and brown trout populate its waters in good numbers.
And as two of this craft’s fishing charter customers found out this particular June afternoon, the fish are big.
At the helm is the boat’s captain, Chad Kakes, who along with his brother Ed operate Shur-Katch Charters. When the craft passes the end of the harbor’s breakwater, the swales of Lake Michigan suddenly grow to between two and three feet high.
|Lake Michigan charter captain Chad Kakes|
Kakes turns the bow into the northeast wind and presses the throttle forward. The boat’s twin 350-cubic inch engines roar to life and the craft rapidly increases in speed. Everyone on board grabs something nearby to steady himself or herself as the craft cuts through the waves to a spot roughly three miles from shore.
A large video monitor directs Kakes to a place in 60 to 70 feet of deep blue waters where his customers have regularly caught fish. He cuts the engines down to a low purr and turns on the auto-pilot on a heading right into the 20 mph northeast wind.
Kakes and his first mate, Josh Rysticken, spring to work setting out into the water a fairly complex series of downriggers and planner boards. Within a few minutes 12 fishing lines will be attached to this system of cables and lines.
At the end of each line is a lure presentation called a “fly dodger.” A piece of reflective aluminum roughly eight inches long is attached to the end of 50 lb. test braided line. Trailing roughly 24 inches behind is a jighead with a treble hook covered with a skirt of sparkled material.
The idea, Kakes said, is that the fly dodger looks like a school of baitfish with a small fish trailing.
“The fly dodger we find is the best lure for this time of year,” he explained. “We do have spoons and plugs we use for other times of the year. (The fish) run off the color of the fly dodger, gets them closer to the lure. We use different colored flies, as well, like a maroon tinsel and an aqua tinsel.”
Kakes admits there is no rule for what color or what lure will work in each situation.
“Frankly, it’s all by trial and error,” he admitted.
Within 45 minutes a four-pound Coho Salmon and five-pound Rainbow Trout are landed. Into a large storage cooler they go and the lines are back into the water.
Kakes and his brother operate their business part-time from a pier behind their property on the East Two River, just upstream from the town harbor. Kakes says there are about 20 charter fishing operations based in this small northeast Wisconsin town.
Kakes is a full-time firefighter in Two Rivers. Running charters is his hobby. He’s been on charter fishing vessels since he was 12. He’s now 35.
|1st Mate Josh Rysticken shows one of the "fly dodger" presentations|
He loves the fishing charter business, but knows he won’t make enough money to do it full-time.
“You’d have to do about 200 charters,” Kakes explained. “Then you wouldn’t have a summer. I make good money to have a boat like this and to have fun.”
With Wisconsin winters charter fishing is about a four-month proposition –from May through late September and sometimes October.
Rysticken makes good money for a 16-year old junior at Two Rivers High School. He’ll make between $50 and $100 in tips on each charter.
When the fall rolls around he’ll be back in school where he plays basketball and runs track for his high school. He competes in the 100 and 200 meter runs and does the triple jump and long jump.
“I had one jump of 36 (feet),” Rysticken said. “That’s pretty good because this was my first year in the triple.”
He loves helping Kakes on his charters, but doesn’t know if he’d like to have his own charter boat one day.
“I’ll think about it,” he said.
The wind on Lake Michigan picks up and so do the waves. Kakes turns the boat to the east and into deeper water. It tosses the boat from starboard to port and back again. Everyone has to hold on to something
Soon the craft is pointed south, with the waves yet a cold breeze fills the boat’s cabin. Everyone zips up his or her jackets. It’s cold, even though it was 71 degrees on shore.
On board this afternoon is Mark Keller an avid fisherman who typically spends his free time on one of Wisconsin’s many lakes or rivers trying to hook a walleye, smallmouth bass or northern pike. This trip the fishing is totally different.
|Mark Keller reels in a King Salmon on Lk. Michigan|
“Fishing on Lake Michigan is unique,” the retired Appleton, Wisc., police officer said. “We use all artificial baits, trolling. If we hook a fish, the boat has to keep moving so you really fight the fish.”
Though it’s expensive to charter a boat like Kakes’, Keller knows the experience and the fish you typically catch make it worthwhile.
“You’re going after bigger fish,” Keller said. “Plus, the water you are on with bigger currents and wave action, how it can suddenly kick up. These charter boat captains know where the fish are and they make it a very pleasant experience.”
An hour-and-a-half passes with no nibbles, Kakes begins to turn the craft but one rod begins to violently bounce around. Keller takes the rod and begins to reel in the catch.
“That King Salmon was peeling line right off the reel,” Keller recalled later.
Ten minutes later the fish is near the bow of the boat. Kakes dips a large net into the water and pulls out a 30-inch salmon. He drops the fish into the storage cooler. Rysticken with a pair of pliers pulls the hook out of the mouth of the salmon.
“If he continued the fight, we’d begin pulling in the other lines,” Kakes said. “Otherwise we’d have a bunch of tangled lines.”
A half hour later another five-pound rainbow is hooked.
The bag limit on Lake Michigan is five fish apiece. Some days Kakes has a very short excursion with customers.
“One time I took out guys from the Green Bay Fire Department. We were back at 7:30, out at 4:30, and we had 20 fish,” he recalled. “It was chaos. We had one line set and another would go off.”
It’s an expensive proposition to run a charter boat. It’s not just the cost of the craft, which need to be at least 30 feet in length to navigate Lake Michigan, and the gas and maintenance on the engines. It’s also the cost of tackle. Each fly dodger with weights is around $20.
Kakes uses eight-foot long rods with large baitcasting reels. The rods are under constant pressure during trolling.
“The handles get torn up being pulled in and out of holders all the time,” Kakes said.
This charter started at 3:30 p.m. It’s now 8:45 p.m. and Kakes and Rysticken begin reeling in all fishing lines and the downrigger cables. That takes about 20 minutes.
During the reeling in of one line, there’s a strike. Keller reels in an eight-pound lake trout.
The sun turns a bright orange as it is setting behind a small cloud bank, turned a deep purple in the twilight.
The engines roar to life again as the craft is pointed back to the west where the outline of the Wisconsin shore is now quite diminutive. This excursion finished almost six miles off shore in 140 feet of water.
It takes a long and bumpy 15 minutes before the vessel is back in the quiet waters of the Two Rivers harbor. Now it’s dark as Kakes directs his craft back to his dock.
The fishermen step out onto the pier as Kakes and Rysticken both grab the handles on each end of the cooler holding the day’s catch.
Once on land, Rysticken places each fish on a hook under a sign, “ShurKatchCharters.Com.” Photos are taken of the catch. Smartphones send the images to friends, family and Twitter followers.
|From the left - a 10lb. King Salmon, an 8lb.Lake Trout,|
a 5lb.Rainbow Trout, a 5.5lb. Rainbow Trout, a 4lb. coho Salmon
Kakes has to turn on a lamp so he has the light to fillet the fish for his customers. He hands the fillets to Rysticken who puts them into a large plastic bag. These fishermen go home with 18 pounds of freshly caught fish.
“I want to work tomorrow,” Rysticken says to Kakes. He nods.
“We shove off at 4:15 a.m.,” Kakes says. Another charter early the next day.
It’s going to be a short night for the captain and his first mate.