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Wisconsin Natural Resources magazine

Wisconsin Natural Resources magazine

Fishing charters often provide plenty of action to hook newcomers and experienced anglers to the fun of catching fish. © Robert Queen
Fishing charters often provide plenty of action to hook newcomers and experienced anglers to the fun of catching fish.

© Robert Queen

August 2008

Hook into a good time!

Come aboard for tips on booking a Great Lakes fishing charter.

Alisa Lopez


What is charter fishing? | Why book a charter?
How do I find a charter? | When should I book?
What's the cost? | Brave out the swells
How long will I be on the charter?
What type of licenses should my captain have?
What can I expect from my captain?
Is it better if my captain has a first mate?
What do I need to know about the boat?
What kind of fish will I catch? | Who's going to clean the fish?
What is a "no fish or your next trip is free" guarantee?
Can people with disabilities go charter fishing?
Can I bring children charter fishing?
If you have any questions, ask your captain!
Helpful sites for finding a Wisconsin charter | What to bring

When my turn came around, I sat anxiously on the edge of my seat – feet tapping, hands restless and heart pounding. Oh geez! I thought, and stared intensely at the fishing lines surrounding me, waiting and listening as the tension mounted in the boat.

"There! That one!" I heard suddenly from behind me. I stood up quickly, looking frantically left, right and behind to see which line the captain was pointing to of the 16 rigs spread out before me like piano wires.

"I see it!"

The reel clicking, the rod shaking – this is it! My first fish! I ran to the rod, struggling to get my sea legs. Then I gripped the rod and started reeling.

"Keep it steady," the captain said. I started reeling my fish in, and I swear, it's a trophy, a real fighter!

My thoughts of the big catch of the day were not long-lived. After we got the fish in the boat I couldn't ignore the others on the charter laughing at my "trophy" 12-inch coho salmon. Regardless of their snickers, tome, it was a monster.

Before this mammoth first catch, I admit I was a bit nervous as we arrived at the Port of Kenosha a little before noon. That eased when I got my first faraway glance at Captain Dave Scott, owner of Resolute Charters, and realized he wasn't the eye-patch-wearing, parrot-on-the-shoulder type sea captain. Upon introductions, he was an inviting host – fun, polite, a passionate angler and a jokester who put us immediately at ease.

Four other first-time charter anglers and I boarded the Resolute not knowing what to expect during the next five hours on the water. Captain Dave encouraged us to get comfortable and take a look around the cabin. Much to my relief, the bathroom was actually a tiny room with a flushable toilet and hot running water. When I had read "stand up head" on his website, I was a little concerned, but that's common boat terminology, which to landlubbers simply means bathroom.

As we headed out from the harbor, Captain Dave told us a little bit about himself, the boat, what we would be doing for the day and encouraged us to ask as many questions as we wanted throughout the trip.

When we reached deeper water, four to five miles offshore, Captain Dave slowed the boat and began putting out fishing rods, 16 to be exact. Some were hooked to planer boards that angled those lines wide to each side. Some were hooked to heavy downriggers that plummeted those lines deeper under the water for quick release if a fish hit the line. Some were on outriggers that went out to the side just wide of the boat, and some were on long lines with flashing pieces of metal that trailed far behind the boat as we trolled. The flashers simulate a school of baitfish and attract trout and salmon that may be feeding near the surface.

The captain prepared everything as we relaxed and took in the beautiful seascape of water around us. After he explained what movement we should watch for in the lines, no more than a couple of minutes passed before a fish hit the lure.

As the afternoon went on, the sun shone high in the sky. We warmed up and so did the fishing. Each of us waited our turn to reel in fish after fish. We lost a few, but that's normal according to Captain Dave. The most fun is the anticipation as you watch the poles around you, waiting to see one get snagged or hear someone else shout out, "Fish on!" There really isn't a reason to run and scramble with your arms flailing wildly to get to the rod. If the fish bite hard, they're on for the long haul. That didn't stop each of us from feeling a sense of urgency as we rushed to get to the poles like our life depended on it, laughing the entire way. We thoroughly enjoyed the battle bringing in the strong, muscular fish that pull, dart, jump and dive as you slowly haul them in toward the back of the boat and the captain waiting with a big net.

Even experienced anglers can pick up tips on a charter about locations, lures and techniques to improve their skills.

© Robert Queen
Even experienced anglers can pick up tips on a charter about locations, lures and techniques to improve their skills. © Robert Queen

We got really lucky. All five of us caught our bag limit that day, and because we moved about and fished different depths, we brought in a mixed bag of cohos, a king salmon (Chinook), lake trout and steelhead (rainbow trout). Fortunately, the rest of my fish were considerably larger than that first 12-incher. Any previous nervousness before our charter adventure had long since washed overboard and as I write this, I'm making plans to take another day trip.

If you enjoy fishing, being out on the water, feeling the sun and wind, and being in the company of good friends, create your own memories by booking a charter trip. Wisconsin offers endless opportunities for charter adventures at 14 ports from Kenosha north to Washington Island, another 14 ports along both shores of Green Bay, and 11 ports on Lake Superior from Saxon Harbor west to Superior, as well as different kinds of guided fishing opportunities on inland lakes and streams. To help guide you in your quest, here are commonly asked questions and answers about charter fishing. Though most of these questions are aimed to help you plan your strategy for a Great Lakes charter, a lot of this advice will hold for inland lake charters as well.

What is charter fishing?

Charter fishing is when a professional guide provides you with the boat, equipment and expertise to provide a fishing experience within a specified time limit. Most Great Lakes charters fish by trolling, where the fishing lines are baited with lures or bait fish and are drawn through the water behind the moving boat. What this means for the angler is a relaxing ride until the fish bite.

Why book a charter?

A licensed, experienced captain not only ensures a safe, enjoyable trip, but also increases the odds of catching fish because they know the waters and fish on a regular basis.

"When you book a charter, you're hiring the captain, his/her expertise, the boat and the equipment," says Dave Scott. "Captains have a great network of information of what the fishing is like and where the fish are, providing customers with the best opportunities to catch a lot of fish."

Being a fairly new angler myself, one of my main concerns was the fact that I had very little fishing experience, but since Great Lakes charters are almost all trolling, you don't have to worry about holding your rod or casting. And with the help of your captain, you don't even have to take the fish off the hook! Similarly, inland lake guides help their clients learn effective casting and jigging techniques.

"We take out people who have fished all their lives and also people who have never touched a rod and reel," says Scott. "Our job is to give you the instructions you need to use the equipment and have fun doing so."

Even avid anglers can benefit from the knowledge of a charter captain.

"A lot of people take a charter out to try to find out where the fishing is good, what lures and baits we use, and also which techniques work, so they have more information when they go out on their own boat," says Scott. "It's a quick way to get information versus trial and error. Five hours on a charter boat can save you a lot of time and effort as you learn how to do things."

Case in point, anyone can go, have fun and learn something from charter fishing, regardless of experience level.

How do I find a charter?

There are many ways to help you locate a charter. The Internet is a great resource since such a large majority of charter businesses have their own websites with details such as cost, amenities and pictures of boats and previous trips. Try searching on "Great Lakes fishing charters" or "fishing charters" followed by the port from which you want to depart – Kenosha, Port Washington, Sheboygan, Algoma and so forth. Many full-time captains also advertise online and at sports shows. Another good way is by word ofmouth. Ask locals in the area or the chamber of commerce for recommendations. don't overlook asking friends who have enjoyed past charters.

When should I book?

If you're interested in charter fishing, start looking early and book as soon as you find a guide you're comfortable with. As with any service that requires reservations, you want to book as far in advance as you can as weekends book up the quickest. Most charters take reservations up to a year ahead of time. The Great Lakes season starts sometime in April, depending on weather, and runs through mid-October. Also remember to call your charter a few days before your trip to confirm the date, find out if weather might delay your trip and reconfirm departure times and travel directions to the dock.

What's the cost?

Charter trips generally cost around the same price whether you are booking the boat for one person or six. The costs of running the boat out and back are the same regardless of the number of people aboard, which is why the price may only differ a little if you have two people or a full load. If you like to keep the price low and you only have a couple of people, ask about booking with another small group if possible.

Prices between charters in the same general area shouldn't differ by more than $40 or $50. For example, in the Kenosha area, the cost of a six-person, five-hour charter runs between $450 and $500. Most fishing charters accept cash, check or credit card. If someone is offering a charter for $100 or less, there's probably a reason, according to Scott. "It's not always that way, but the old saying, 'You get what you pay for,' might apply."

Most charters require a deposit which is essentially an insurance policy to give customers incentive to show up. No deposit and a no-show the day of the charter, means that a captain just lost a job that he or she may have booked 60 times over. Always ask in advance about the cancellation policy so you know the time allotted to cancel or reschedule. If something comes up, just give your captain as much notice as possible and see if anything can be worked out.

If weather becomes an issue, remember that good captains or guides will not risk their passengers' safety and will be upfront about the weather conditions.

"If the weather is going to be bad and you don't think people will have a good time, you expect your captain to let you know and either postpone or cancel and refund the money," says Scott. "If it's going to be dangerous, you expect your captain not to take you out at all and also refund or reschedule."

When your charter comes to an end, it's customary, although not required, to tip about 10 percent per person. As with any tipped service, show your appreciation for the experience you had.

Brave out the swells
Tips to prevent motion sickness:
  • Get plenty of rest before your trip.
  • Eat breakfast and bring a lunch, but stay away from greasy or acidic foods.
  • Drink plenty of water.
  • Avoid alcoholic beverages.
  • Avoid the cabin/enclosed spaces or lying down.
  • Sit in the center of the boat.
  • Focus on a fixed reference point on the horizon.
  • Talk to a pharmacist about over-the counter preventatives or consider a prescribed remedy and follow directions. Start taking it before you board.

How long will I be on the charter?

Normally a half-day charter will run around five hours, typically starting at dawn to just before noon. Afternoon charters start about noon or 1 p.m. Your charter may include dock time for filling out licenses and cleaning fish upon your return, or it can mean that the clock doesn't start until you begin fishing and doesn't end until your allotted time is up, or your bag limits have been reached. Captains have different ways of assessing the time, so ask before hand.

Six- and eight-hour charters are also offered as well as two-day charters with overnight stays and a meal or two included.

What type of licenses should my captain have?

Every charter captain should be able to show you a U.S. Coast Guard License, which allows captains to take passengers for hire and also show proof of liability insurance, which protects you and the captain.

Your captain isn't the only one who needs a license. Any angler 16 years or older is required to have either a valid annual fishing license (with a Great Lakes Stamp) or a two-day Great Lakes license (resident or non-resident), which includes the price of the Great Lakes stamp. Sometimes you can purchase these at the charter dock but always ask ahead of time. Fishing licenses are available online, at 1,500 licensing outlets and at DNR Service Centers.

What can I expect from my captain?

Your captain is a vital part of the charter fishing experience. Good captains work hard to make sure you have a great time and hopefully catch fish. You should expect effort, education, honesty, a clean and safe environment and an overall great experience.

When you're calling around and talking to different charter captains, follow your instincts on whether the captain sounds knowledgeable and has his or her heart in the business.

Years of experience are important. Whether charter fishing is the captain's sole job may be less of a factor in your decision.

"There are some really good young captains fresh out of school who are right on top of things and there are some who have been in the business for 50 years and are just going through the motions," says Scott. "It's a similar situation with part-timers. They can be just as qualified and also excellent captains, but because nearly 80 to 85 percent of our business is based on referrals, you can be fairly confident that if someone is doing this full-time, their customers have had a good experience with them."

Is it better if my captain has a first mate?

With high-tech gadgets and modern equipment such as autopilots, firstmates aren't really necessary. Some captains prefer them, some like towork alone, but themajority of captains don't use them.

What do I need to know about the boat?

Part of the charter fishing experience is being out on the water, relaxing with friends or family and having a good time. That said, you want to be comfortable as you will spend hours out on the Great Lakes. The size of the boats will vary, but most are 30 feet or larger, with an average boat being between 32 and 36 feet, according to Scott. Some people run smaller boats, but will advertise for only two to three people, while charters on larger vessels can take up to six clients.

The age of the boat is not really relevant if it's kept in good condition. Wear is normal, neglect is not. Wear would be things such as scuff marks, battle scars and wear spots, whereas neglect would be broken equipment. Unfortunately, you probably won't get a good idea of a boat's condition until you arrive at the dock and by then, it might be too late to cancel the charter.

A few important aspects of a charter boat can directly affect your fishing experience. First things first, a private restroom is something you want to ask about. Generally, most charter boats will have this, but it's also something you don't want to make an assumption about. Other amenities that might be important are whether or not there is a cabin, if there is heating or air conditioning, and if a sink or refrigerator is available to clients.

When it comes to the equipment, most charter boats will advertise and should have:

  • All fishing tackle
  • Marine radio
  • Radar
  • Autopilot
  • Global Positioning System (GPS)
  • Electronic fish finder
  • Downriggers
  • Electronic temperature sensor
  • All safety equipment

Although many advertisements will show name brands of the different equipment, this isn't really anything that should influence your decision. According to Captain Dave, the captains are "mostly trying to impress each other when they advertise brand name equipment."

What kind of fish will I catch?

A wide range of fish can be reeled in while charter fishing on Lake Michigan and Lake Superior, but different ports have different peak times. Many species including lake trout, brown trout, rainbow trout (steelhead), walleye, Chinook (king) salmon, coho salmon or Atlantic salmon can be caught throughout the year, but each species has its peak seasons. If you're seeking a particular fish, ask your charter captain to tell you the best time to catch what you're looking for. Regardless, the best time to fish is, of course, anytime you can.

Who's going to clean the fish?

Fish cleaning varies per charter. Some captains include fish cleaning and filleting in the cost of the charter, while some will charge per fish for these services. Plan to bring a small cooler with ice for your food and beverages and leave a large cooler in your car to take your fish home. Ice is sometimes provided at the site, but more than likely, you'll have to buy ice locally to keep your catch cool.

If you want your fish smoked, ask your charter captain if there is a smokehouse in the area, but remember that the smoking process could take a few days, at which time you might not be within driving distance to pick it up. Also check out smokehouse opportunities near your home before your trip so you can drop off your catch if you have a good day.

Back on shore Captain Dave Scott fillets the catch as part of his chartered service. © Robert Queen
Back on shore Captain Dave Scott fillets the catch as part of his chartered service.

© Robert Queen

What is a "no fish or your next trip is free" guarantee?

This is a marketing promise that guarantees if you don't catch a single fish during the allotted time, then your next trip is free. It's not a trick, and captains who use this guarantee normally stand by their word, but it shouldn't really influence your charter choosing decision.

According to Captain Dave, many captains don't use this guarantee, because i''s usually not an issue. Getting "skunked" is uncommon for almost any captain.

Can people with disabilities go charter fishing?

Yes! Check with your captain ahead of time, but charters do serve people with various disabilities.

Andy Janicki, a Department of Natural Resources accessibility coordinator, joined our charter fishing expedition, wheelchair and all.

"The charter was really great for me because I like fishing but have trouble doing the 'dirty work' myself," says Janicki. "Before my injury I enjoyed going fishing occasionally, but without the function that I used to have, doing things like baiting a hook and taking a fish off are nearly impossible. With the charter captain taking care of everything, all I had to worry about was reeling the fish in!"

Can I bring children charter fishing?

Children are allowed on most charters and each captain will have his or her recommendations when it comes to age. However, it is usually left up to the parents' discretion. When it comes to the actual fishing, as long as the children can demonstrate the ability to use a rod and reel, captains will often help out and encourage them to reel in their own fish. But, it's important to keep in mind that a charter trip could last more than five hours and that a confined space with no other activities can make any child restless. Come prepared with snacks, plenty of water and space-friendly activities such as coloring books.

If you have any questions, ask your captain!

Charter captains are in the fish business and the people business. Feel free to ask any questions to a potential captain until you have all your answers. A good captain will take the time to make sure you are fully satisfied and comfortable when booking a charter with them. Keep in mind, they are often out on the water for long hours, most days of the week, so if they don't get back to you right away, they'll get back to you as soon as they can. Have fun and get hooked on charter fishing!

Alisa Lopez communicates about fisheries issues for the DNR's Education and Information program.

Helpful sites for finding a Wisconsin charter
What to bring
  • valid Wisconsin fishing license with Great Lakes stamp
  • layered clothing
  • raingear
  • sunglasses
  • sunscreen protection
  • hat
  • soft-soled shoes
  • camera
  • gloves
  • food (snacks and sandwiches)
  • beverages (water, soft drinks, etc.)
  • motion sickness medication, if needed
  • empty cooler and freezer bags for your fish