TRAVERSE CITY — Lake trout mean big business for charter boat owners on Grand Traverse Bay, and they're a fun and tasty catch for many more people besides, charter captain Jeff Shaw said.
So he and other charter operators are concerned about Michigan Department of Natural Resources plans to curb lake trout hauls in the bay for 2019 by changing the season dates or, in one possible scenario, cutting the daily catch limit to one fish for part of the season.
Shaw said he's also concerned that two of the three scenarios the DNR is considering could leave early summer customers with little else to catch before lake trout season would open. He said he still could take anglers out, but instead of catching one to two lake trout per person, targeting steelhead, brown trout or cisco could leave them with one or two fish for the boat.
"It's about the experience of being out there, but having said that, it's a lot more fun if you actually get to reel something in," he said. "So if you take that away from us, that's pretty significant."
Charter and recreational anglers with DNR licenses caught an estimated 93,146 pounds of lake trout in the bay in 2018, DNR Fisheries Biologist Heather Hettinger said. That's well over the 77,200 pounds of total allowable catch for these two groups.
The estimate comes from mandatory reports from charter captains, and figures from creel catch survey clerks who visit boat launches around the bay, Hettinger said. So DNR-licensed anglers must cut roughly 32,000 pounds of lake trout from 2019's catch limit.
Current regulations allow anglers to catch two lake trout 15 inches or longer per day from Jan. 1 through Sept. 30. Proposed changes would push opening day back to as late as July 1, and one of three possible changes would drop the limit to one from May 25 through June 30, according to a release.
The total allowable catch stems from a consent decree between the state and the Grand Traverse Band of Ottawa and Chippewa Indians, said Bill Rastetter, an attorney for the tribe — four other Michigan tribes are signatories to the decree. Both state- and tribal-licensed anglers must abide by a court-ordered yearly lake trout catch limit for the bay's waters, he said. Commercial anglers with Grand Traverse Band licenses get a larger limit for the shared resource, he said.
Tribal-licensed commercial fishers had a 94,300-pound cap in 2018 and came within 5,000 pounds of that cutoff but didn't exceed it, said Dave Caroffino, a DNR Great Lakes biologist with the Tribal Coordination Unit. That's according to preliminary figures.
The Grand Traverse Band has previously closed the fishing season early as regular reports indicated commercial anglers hit their limit, Rastetter said.
He said he's concerned that the band's commercial fisheries would be wrongfully blamed for the reduction.
"The tribes have lived within the requirements of the court order, and this is a situation where, unfortunately, some of the state-licensed fishers harvested more than anticipated," he said.
The pending reduction for 2019 is a penalty of sorts for state license-holders exceeding the total allowable catch beyond a 15 percent threshold, Caroffino said — a smaller overshoot wouldn't require a penalty under the consent decree.
The DNR has a reactive approach to over-catch, Hettinger acknowledged. Biologists are working with data from the last season, and even monthly monitoring during summer would have its drawbacks. Rule-making procedures mean any changes to fishing regulations require at least 30 days' notice, so any catch limit reductions would be voluntary during that period.
State regulators have considered other approaches to addressing over-catch, Hettinger said. The DNR's methods could change under whatever agreement replaces the consent decree between the state and tribes, set to expire in August 2020, she said.
Part of the over-harvest by DNR-licensed anglers comes from the presumption that 41 percent of all lake trout thrown back die afterward, Hettinger said. They're a fish that don't fare well after being hauled in and let go, especially if caught in deep waters, she said — they can be found at depths of 100 feet or more, depending on water temperatures.
Shaw said the proposed scenarios confuse him, as two of the three would delay opening day to months when lake trout are more likely to be in deeper waters, and less likely to survive catch-and-release.
Both Shaw and charter boat captain Cameron Garst said they would rather see the DNR outlaw targeting lake trout once anglers have hit their daily limit.
Garst said that would be hard to enforce, but there are certain tackle setups that are used to target the species. He called targeting the fish for catch-and-release after hitting the daily limit unprofessional and unethical given the high chance of post-catch mortality.
"That goes against the theme of what the limits are; they're set for a reason to protect the fishery," he said.
Both Shaw and Garst plan on being at a March 6 open house where the DNR will hear comments on proposed lake trout regulations for the bay. Garst said he figures at least 90 percent of his charter boat trips involve targeting lake trout, even during salmon season — a popular tactic is to target salmon just before dawn, then seek out lake trout later.
Caroffino acknowledged that anglers won't be happy with any of the proposed reductions.
"It's going to be painful for folks, there's no way to get around that," he said. "It's just a matter of how do we try to minimize that."