Charter boats serve all ages with a timeless experience.
Lake Michigan is not only a Great Lake, geographically speaking, but also a great lake, historically speaking, for charter boat fishing.
“It’s an ever-changing fishery and an experience that can’t be found at too many other places in the world,” says Captain Doug Iliff, owner of Anglers-Adventure Fishing Charters. “You never knowing what’s going to bite next, which excites my charter customers.”
“I’ve been fishing Lake Michigan for over 30 years, and the lake is still full of new experiences every day,” says Iliff, a member of Indiana’s North Coast Charter Association. “Exposing new people to this world is what keeps us charter boat operators doing this every season.”
Lake Michigan teems with coho and Chinook salmon, lake trout, steelhead and several strains of brown trout, according to the organization’s members.
“Every charter is different,” Iliff says. “Some clients want to help set lines, pick lures and they’re very interested in seeing what salmon fishing is all about. Other groups are content to just sit back and reel in fish.”
More than 50 charter boat operators dock in Northwest Indiana, primarily out of East Chicago, Portage and Michigan City marinas. Some operators are full time while others run their charter boat as a second business. Full-time skippers with a smart marketing strategy can be busy nearly every day throughout the charter boat season from late March through September, weather permitting.
“My customers come from all over the world,” says Captain Mike Schoonveld, owner of Brother Nature Charters, which operates out of marinas in East Chicago and Portage. “I have local Northwest Indiana customers as well. Many of them are hosting friends or family for several days and are looking for activities to do with them. A day on the lake fills the bill and offers them a chance for a grilled salmon barbeque for their evening meal.”
All member operators/captains are U.S. Coast Guard and Department of Natural Resources licensed, and all vessels are fully inspected and insured for guests’ safety, the organization states. Also, all boats are fully equipped with required safety gear, modern electronics, radios, fish and depth finders, GPS navigation systems, downriggers, rods, reels, coolers and all the rest of the gear needed to make each trip a success.
“We typically take out six passengers during an average charter,” Iliff says. “We also enjoy having kids on the boat who are always thrilled with the experience and fishing in general, so those trips are a highlight for me.”
In today’s high-tech, fast-paced Digital Age, charter fishing on a Great Lake remains an anchored enjoyment for grandchildren of retirees, operators agree.
“I get retired couples and they often have grandpa and grandkids on board, too,” Schoonveld says. “I host plenty of retired people each year. Sometimes groups are retired friends looking for some adventure. The oldest customer I ever had was 98 years old.”
Many anglers who hire a charter operator in this region live several hundred miles away. But instead of driving to Canada, Minnesota’s North Woods, or other distant fishing destinations, they come to Lake Michigan–usually for a two-to-four-day fishing excursion. Others drive to the casual coast on an afternoon, stay overnight at a local hotel, fish the next morning and drive home the following afternoon.
“Most of these people are either avid fishing buddies or fishing families who fish often together where they live,” Schoonveld says. “They want to try something different or catch something larger than they are able to hook nearer to home.”
The guests’ most common question is as timeless as it is timely: “When is the best time to come?”
“I wish I could definitively answer that,” Schoonveld replies. “Fishing success varies with the weather and moods of the fish. It’s almost unheard of for any charter boat to go out and not catch any fish any day of the season but some days are certainly better than others.”
In very general terms, higher numbers of fish are caught from March to early summer, but the fishes’ size is smaller. Conversely, from mid-summer through September fewer fish may be caught but the average size of each fish is larger.
Tips for new customers include making reservations as far in advance as possible, calling a charter captain beforehand to get comfortable with the captain’s style, and surfing the group’s website, www.charterfish.org, to find an operator who fits your sensibility and affordability.
“Most captains love the lake, enjoy fishing, and like taking people fishing,” Schoonveld says. “Their business allows them to be on the lake often, afford the best equipment, and to be out fishing almost as much as they want.”