Outdoors: Some fishing captains find it tough to stay afloat

Published 12:00 am Tuesday, July 28, 2009

OAK HARBOR, Ohio (AP) ó Gulls shrieked overhead as Bob Hall lugged a pair of plastic 5-gallon gas cans down the dock to fill up his fishing boat, then hopped on a golf cart and headed to a gas station for another load.
Hauling the fuel rather than buying it at higher-priced marina pumps will save $20 ó a worthwhile effort when bookings are down 30 percent for his charter fishing business on Lake Erie.
Fishing boat captains all along the Great Lakes are struggling to stay afloat this summer, some losing half of their customers because of the manufacturing and economic slump in the Midwest.
“Fishing is a blue-collar sport,” Hall said. “And a lot those guys are getting laid off.”
Many companies have eliminated annual fishing outings that they would use to reward employees, said Bob Zales II, president of the National Association of Charterboat Operators.
“If you’re laying people off, it’s hard to justify taking the others out to have fun,” he said.
Along the Great Lakes, longtime customers who fish for walleye, salmon, perch, bass, and trout are canceling trips or booking shorter stays. Some charter captains have put their boats up for sale, while others are barely able to cover their costs.
“For the guys that are making $800-a-month boat payments, it’s going to be very tough,” said John Atwell, who runs a charter boat on Lake Huron out of Port Austin, Mich. “They may not be around next year.”
Charter captains on the East and West coasts and along the Gulf of Mexico say it’s been a rough ride, too. But states surrounding the Great Lakes have been hit particularly hard by auto plant closing and extended summer shutdowns. Michigan, Ohio, Indiana and Illinois all have unemployment running in double-digit percentages.
Auto workers accounted for one out of every 10 customers a few years ago, Atwell said. Now barely any are booking trips. One customer who had been fishing with him for eight years pulled out last week, Atwell said.
“Let’s face it, fishing is an option,” he said. “It’s not a necessity.”
Dave Matako, who lost his job as a warehouse manager in May, decided he couldn’t shell out $150 this year for the annual Lake Erie fishing trip with his buddies.
“This was pretty much our outing for the year,” said Matako, of Massillon in northeast Ohio. “I just love the water. I grew up fishing; it’s my out.”
Sport fishing in the Great Lakes is big business ó Wisconsin, Michigan, and Ohio are among the top 11 states when it comes to fishing’s economic impact, according to the a 2006 survey from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.
In Ohio alone, it brings in $1.1 billion through the equipment, fuel, food and hotels.
For many, fishing trips are as much a part of summer as a trip to the ballpark.
But not even increasing advertising or cutting prices by 10 percent have helped this year, said John Milbourne, who runs fishing boats on Lakes Michigan and Erie.
“You could take them for free, but if they can’t afford to travel, they’re not coming,” he said.
Jim Kaske, a charter captain who operates out of Winthrop Harbor, Ill., said he has weekend dates open for the first time in five years.
“A lot of people who call are asking us to cut our rates. But when you start adding up the gas, maintenance and storage,” he said, it’s not really worth the effort.
Charter trips for groups can cost about $100 per person or more for a full day of fishing.
Corporate fishing outings also have been cut back dramatically, several charter captains said.
“There’s not much wining and dining going on anymore,” said Paul Bellitto, whose boat goes out on Lake Erie from Eastlake near Cleveland.
Some were longtime customers who didn’t bother calling for reservations this summer. “I’ve been with these people for years,” he said. “I was wondering whether I was doing something wrong.”
Those who have been around long enough to build up a large list of customers are doing better than those just starting out.
“Our numbers are right where we should be,” said Dan Welsch, who runs five boats out of Sheboygan, Wis. He’s been in business 25 years and said his operation is on pace to make 1,300 trips this year.
Most come to western Lake Michigan to fish for king and coho salmon, which were first stocked there in the 1960s.
“Fishing packages are pretty affordable compared to most vacations,” he said. “Plus, you’re going to go home with a couple hundred pounds of salmon and have something to show for the trip and money spent.”
Mark Cedergreen, head of the charter boat association in Westport, Wash., an ocean town known for its salmon fishing, had few complaints.
“We had two or three seasons in a row of poor fishing, but this year has been great so far,” he said. “We’d be up a lot more if it weren’t for the economy.”
On the Net:
National Association of Charterboat Operators: http://www.nacocharters.org/