Fish Tugs of the Greatest Lake
A Day On Board The Elsie J
Elsie J. at the South Haven, Mich., light.
Photo by John F. Walker
Thanks to Dave Allers for this glimpse of life on Lake Michigan during trying times.
Kalamazoo Gazette, Sunday, June 4, 1961
For South Haven Crew, Hard Work, Slim Catches Mark Lake Fishing Day
by Bob Stephenson
South Haven, Michigan - Fishing is no work for a lady of refinement. But then, the Elsie J. is no lady. Like an old charwoman trudging off to work, she chugs out of South Haven every morning bound for the deep water of Lake Michigan. The 48-foot vessel is owned by Jensen's Fishery and is one of four commercial fishing boats still bucking the weather, fouled nets, poor catches and the bane of Great Lakes fishermen, the lamprey eel.
The Elsie 's day starts shortly before 7:00 A.M. when her skipper, Julius Allers, arrives on the dock. Allers, in his bib overalls and engineer's cap, gives the Elsie a quick inspection. A glance at the hazy blue sky and the feel of the wind right out of the west tells him it will be an easy run. With 46 years of lake sailing under his belt, Allers has developed a keen sense of predicting the vagaries of the weather.
The Elsie J. 's two crewmen arrive, brothers Jim and Floyd Bard. With scarcely a word of greeting, the three men start their day's toil. Jim steps aboard, into the Elsie 's cabin and starts warming up the three-cylinder diesel engine. Floyd gives the repaired, dried nets stored in their boxes a cursory glance and then builds a fire in the old sheet metal stove bolted securely to the Elsie 's deck.
The skipper jerks the bell cord and signals the engine a couple of brash blasts. Lines are cast off and the Elsie J., gleaming white in the early morning sun, moves out into the river current and heads for open water. As soon as the boat clears the breakwater, the deck starts pitching. The morning air, which on the dock had seemed so warm, tums cold.
Elsie J. leaving the South Haven harbor.
Photo by John F. Walker
Allers, at the Elsie 's worn, spoked wheel, watches the binnacle. Jim, his face covered with red stubble, tinkers on the engine while Floyd, bracing against a handrail pours himself a cup of coffee from his battered vacuum bottle. No one speaks. "Sometimes we go most of the day without saying anything," Allers says. "We know what we have to do and we do it. There's no need for talking." If they were inclined toward conversation, the trip out to the nets is the time for it. There is little to do until then. But the engine, pounding constantly and wheezing metallically, makes speaking impossible. Shouting is necessary.
After about an hour's steady run on a compass course almost due west, the Bard brothers start preparing for the day's work. They don rubber foul-weather gear and slide a forward portside hatch open. Allers, at the helm, checks the depth of the water with the electronic sounder. Soon the buoy, marking the net, is sighted. Then the real work starts. Attached to the buoy is nearly four continuous miles of net, which must be hauled aboard and cleaned of fish.
The gill nets, about five feet wide, ride on the bottom of the lake in some 25 fathoms of water. Floats on the top edge and lead on the bottom keep the nets extended. The fish are trapped as they try to swim through the wide mesh.
The Elsie 's engine is slowed and a hatch, forward on the port side, is opened. The Bard brothers bring the buoy aboard. A winch slowly draws the net in as Jim and Floyd pick out the fish and throw them in ice-lined wooden boxes. Allers takes his station at the open hatch. An auxiliary wheel allows him to control the Elsie as the nets are lifted. It takes nearly two hours to lift and clear the nets, which are stored in 1,600-foot sections and will either be set again or taken in to the fishery for repairing and drying.
Chubs, destined for the smokehouse at the fishery, are the main crop for the Elsie J. When perch are in season for the commercial fishermen, Allers and the crew will go after them. After the nets are aboard, the three men move aft and start deftly paying them out into the lake, where they will stay six days before being lifted. Nets set, Allers tums the Elsie J. for home. Lunch boxes come out and the men eat hurriedly. The sooner they start dressing their day's catch, the shorter the day will be. The skipper joins the Bard brothers forward for the dressing operation. With quick, sure motions, the men slit the chubs and clean them for smoking.
The catch scarcely fills four wooden boxes. "A good day's catch will be about 1,000 pounds," Allers says. The four boxes hold about 400 pounds. It adds up to a poor day's wages, which has been the trend lately for fishermen. "Years ago you could get as much as 30 cents a pound for chubs," the 58-year-old skipper says. "Last week we got 18 cents," Floyd Bard adds. "It makes for a mighty skimpy living. You can't get far on $21 a week." The fishermen operate the boat on shares. When the fishing goes down, so do their earnings.
Why do they stay with fishing? Allers, who has been at it since he was 12, says he's too old to try something new. Jim Bard, a veteran of 22 years on the lake, can't explain why he sticks with it. "I quit twice and came back. Why?" "It's the only kind of work I know," brother Floyd explains. "I've been at it since I got out of school."
By the time the Elsie J. is back at the dock, most of the meager catch will be cleaned. The crew must then wash down the boat and wind the nets on huge spindles for drying. That's the typical work day for Allers, the Bard brothers, and, of course, the Elsie J.
Posted to the Web on Nov. 20, 2007, for educational purposes only.