The sky blue waters surrounding the Door County provide some of the best fishing in Lake Michigan. Just ask Charter Fishing Captain Don Grasse who grew up on the northern end of the Door Peninsula and started fishing these waters as a kid.
Grasse said, “Up on this end of the county we have a little less of the numbers of fish that they do in Sturgeon Bay. But I think we have better scenery. And the fish are usually a little bit bigger here too.” Don should know, after retiring from teaching he bought a large boat and opened a charter fishing business out of Gill’s Rock where he can find the fish just around the bluffs.
Grasse said, “We only have to go about five minutes and we’re already in more than 100 feet of water. And that’s a very unusual aspect of this area. This was a premiere fishing area. Go out around the point and there’d be 60-80 boats and then the ferry would come through the middle of them all and everyone had to get out of the way whether they had a fish on or not.”
As a charter boat captain Grasse’s day starts before sunrise. He’s up by 3:30 a.m. to get down to the dock by 4. He gets the boat ready, puts ice in the cooler and gets his passengers onboard so the fishing can begin. Grasse said the catch of the day is, “Mainly Chinook Salmon, or we call them King Salmon. And they’re running anywhere from 3 pound range up to as big as in the 30 pounds range.” The fishing is normally fast and furious right in the morning and Grasse is eager to get at them.
To catch the big one it’s going to take more than just throwing a line in the water. Grasse explained, “You’ve got a number of things to check. You’ve got the color patterns the lures, you’ve got temperature, you have what the wind has done to the lake, the depth that those fish are at.” Grasse says the drill goes something like this. “I’ll get the riggers in first. Then planer boards are used to get our lines out and away from the boat so we can run more lines without having them get tangled. And they’re out about 400 feet. If something is off a little bit in your presentation, say the speed might be off, the color isn’t right, or the location isn’t right, you can fish for weeks without having any luck whatsoever. And you need to understand that fish are a creature that sometimes are willing to bite on metal object and plastic objects, and some days they’re not.”
Lake Michigan seems to change every couple of years in the eyes of this fishing captain. Grasse says there’s new invasive species all the time. Grasse said, “When I grew up in Door County, the predominant fish out here was Lake Trout and Lake Herring. Then the (Sea) Lamprey moved in. Alwives moved in. Smelt moved in and changed the lake. Once the Lamprey killed off a good population of the Lake Trout, then the salmon were put in and it changed again with the introduction or the escape of the Zebra Mussels. They have filtered the water so much that a lot of the native species have a hard time reproducing because there isn’t much to eat.”
Grasse gives this example of what those changes have meant for the treasured lake perch and those Friday night fish dinners. He said, “Perch and some of the native fish were really reduced in numbers because there just wasn’t really anything for their young hatchlings to eat and then we see another mussel, the Quagga Mussel, which is much like the Zebra Mussel but can go much deeper. From what I’ve been told by the DNR, they take up most of the biomass in Lake Michigan. That has changed our lake considerably.” Grasse has learned to take it all in stride. “It’s almost getting to the point where we’re kind of numb to it. Every so often we would get a warning that this is in the lake and it’s going to wreck your lake. Lake Michigan is never going to recover and it seems like these animals or organisms are able to somehow adapt.
For instance, we have Gobies in here. They’re a Mediterranean fish or they are not native to our area and we see that the Small Mouth Bass, walleyes, some salmon and a lot of the trout are eating them and are growing pretty good on them. What was once thought to be a bad fish in there, an exotic species, is having benefits to our native fish.”
And on this particular day in addition to the non-native species, harsh weather and difficult conditions are making matters worse. Grasse said, “We had a heck of a storm move in last night and we had lightning and thunder all night long. High winds. 40 to 49 miles per hour. Heavy rains and those conditions really destabilize where those salmon are located. Besides that, the waves were three to five feet so we had stability problems with some of the clients.” On this day those are all factors favoring the fish and the fishing is slow.
Grasse has another fishing hole he wants to try. “I got one more spot here. It will be quiet. Fishing probably won’t be that hot but ya never know.” And then his luck changed, Grasse yells, “There’s fish, fish… sweet!” He said, “You know when there’s a fish on because you see me running to the back of the boat.” This catch was a little Jack Salmon and as any angler knows your luck can change just like that. Grasse remembers one day in particular when he was on the water. Grasse said, “I was out here with four clients, and for the first half an hour we did not catch anything and it looked like it was going to be a slow morning. Then one of the rods hit. Then they all went. We only had six in the water. We ended up with 19 fish that day and I think the smallest fish was 15 pounds. So it was quite a morning.”
Grasse says the thrill for him is seeing other’s enjoy the thrill of fishing. “A lot of these people that come out fishing with me have never caught a fish in their life or the biggest fish they’ve ever caught is an 8-inch blue gill. For them, to catch a 12 pound fish is a fish of a lifetime.” It’s an unforgettable experience for the anglers and for Grasse as he watches them reel in the catch of the day.
Grasse said, “I’ve been out here with people from Saudi Arabia, from South Africa. I took three people out from the country of Belgium.” Grasse says he thinks that the main objective is that they enjoy the trip. Have a good time whether it’s reeling in a lot of fish or telling stories, or just the camaraderie that you get. Grasse’s philosophy is simple, “If you can do something that is your hobby and make some money out of it, I don’t think you are working a day in your life, so teaching was fun and great, but there comes a time to move on to something else, and this is… just perfect retirement.”
Grasse says his office has some of the most beautiful scenery in the area and, “I love fishing.”