TRAVERSE CITY —Soni Aylsworth wouldn’t return to his home town of Empire until he could own his own business.
“I always wanted to have a hot rod shop, build engines and cars, but the demand for that really isn’t around here,” he said. “I went to my next favorite thing, and that is fishing.”
Aylsworth opened Empire Outdoors, a bait and tackle shop, in the old location of the Sleeping Bear Store in Empire. He stocks fudge, beach supplies and Sleeping Bear Dunes swag for the small town’s visitors, but he really wants to reach the customers who head past the beach and into the water. He wants to be a local fishing supply store that can thrive among the chains.
That’s one reason he stocks local products such as Jonah Jigs, Warrior Lures and an inland lake fishing guide.
Recreational fishing is big business in northern Michigan. A 2011 study from Michigan Sea Grant reported an influx of more than $9 million into the economy from vacationing Lake Michigan charter fishing customers who spent money on food, transportation, lodging and other activities. Those customers spent almost $220 million between 1990 and 2009.
But the industry’s future relies heavily on enough people who have an interest in the sport.
Charter guides, bait shop owners and tackle manufacturers need a new school of fishing customers to stay afloat.
Benzie Printing owner John Ratcliffe released his third guide to inland lake fishing spots this year. The guide is a booklet of maps, public access sites and fishing information for Benzie, Leelanau and Grand Traverse counties. Ratcliffe sells advertisements to cover costs and drops off the guides at area fishing stores for them to distribute for free. He estimates the project brings in $3,000 a year.
“It’s not a big money maker for me, but it’s something I enjoy doing, to get people into fishing,” Ratcliffe said. “Our newest generation, there’s a lack of interest there and it’s actually a problem.”