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Dick Ellis Blog:
10/28/2022
New direction needed at DNR Dick Ellis Candidate for governor Tim Michels indicated in October that if elected he would break up the Department of Natural Resources (DNR) to serve 1) business and 2 ) the hunting and fishing, or sporting community. “It’s not my opinion that the DNR is broken,” Michels said. “It’s what I hear everywhere I go.” Better days. John and Jim Ellis with a memorable opening mornin...
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FENCEROWS...A Day in Harbor

By John Luthens

When the October winds take a sharp turn out of the northwest, and Lake Michigan starts whipping itself into a white capped frenzy, it only makes sense to head for a harbor.

The salmon run into there every year. They sense it, and it seemed to make sense to me too, although I wasn’t heading to a safe port from the lake.  I came in from the road to the Port Washington harbor.  I came to sit on the docks and stand on the harbor walls with countless others in a yearly campaign.

Port Washington is a city built into the bluff system of the Lake Michigan shoreline. A restored relic of a lighthouse stands on a high hill next to a church, and sloping streets run back from the lake, with countless shops and restaurants tucked away at odd angles. Along the lower reaches, an expansive harbor system guards the rising city from the rolling waves of the great freshwater lake.

It was cold and windy, with early morning sun rising over the lake and highlighting the fall colors along the shoreline. There was the city of Milwaukee down the southern shore, and to the north, nothing but white sand and waves riding all the way to the Door County peninsula.  It looked like autumn. It smelled like autumn.  It was a day made for harbor salmon.

The chinook (or king) salmon come first, followed by the coho later on. Or was it the other way around?  Then there are brown and steelhead trout thrown in. I’ll admit that I can’t always remember which fish begin their autumn spawning run first.  I needed some guidance before climbing up and down the docks and boulder crags of the harbor.

I was looking for the Bait Box tackle shop, hoping to glean some salmon pointers. I knew that it stood watch somewhere above the marina, where the lift trucks were pulling boats onto flatbed trailers in anticipation of the coming winter.  I couldn’t remember exactly where the bait shop was tucked away.  I needed to wander a bit first.

I ended up walking the long breakwater that stretches into the lake to the working lighthouse at the harbor’s mouth.  It’s a harrowing stretch of about a quarter mile, with a twenty foot drop into submerged cold water boulders on either side of the narrow ledge. It was daunting enough in the wind.  When it ices up in winter, it can become downright dangerous.

Port Washington Lighthouse

The Port Washington lighthouse stands watch at the mouth of the harbor.

The lighthouse arched over the lake, with nothing but miles of water stretching from the other side.  A solitary charter boat trolled back and forth in the shelter of the harbor.  Sometimes harbor trolling is the better part of valor in the high winds of autumn, and the size of the salmon that run close to shore at this time of year can often make a two mile run out into the lake pointless.

Walking back in, I noticed that even the flocks of ducks were hanging close to shore.  There were multiple species.  I recognized some mallards, but after that I get as lost on the different species of waterfowl as I do on the differences in salmon types. I suppose they were all local ducks, but something about seeing them like that in the high cold wind of fall seemed properly wild.

Working my way over the docks, I passed the charter I’d seen from the lighthouse. It was tied up at its slip, and the crew was hosing down the deck. Hailing the captain as to the days catch, he smiled and shook his head, lifting one finger, meaning one fish, and not the finger meaning that I should go and mind my own business. Even charter boat fishing isn’t always a sure bet.

The docks in the marina were lined with fishermen, sitting on buckets and folding chairs, watching their slips bobbers float in the sheltered water.  There was an armada of bobbers, hoisted and dropped in a dizzying display, as the fishermen pulled up to check spawn sacs, before dropping them back into the calm, sheltered harbor waters.

I saw a bobber go under, once, twice, and then gone.  There were shouts of “fish on,” and everyone in the vicinity of the hooked fish reeled in their rigs to watch the battle. A long handled net was dipped into the water, and a silvery slab of fish was hoisted onto the dock.  It looked to me to have gone a good five, or six pounds, as the fisherman tapped it on the side of the head and dropped it into a waiting cooler.

It was over so fast, that I didn’t see what kind of salmon it was. The victorious fisherman didn’t seem in the mood to talk when I tried to strike up a conversation.  He was intent on tying on another spawn sack and getting his rig back into the water as quick as possible.  He was getting jealous glares from his neighboring bucket sitters.  I could relate to his predicament, and I’ve been in the business long enough to know not to pump a burly, close mouthed fisherman for information.  I minded my business and moved on towards the Bait Box.

Jim and Tammy Champeau have run the Bait Box tackle shop for ten years. They provide live bait, along with any kind of Lake Michigan tackle you can imagine.  Their children get involved during the summer, when it becomes seven days a week and crazy, with charters and sport fishing boats cruising in and out of harbor nonstop.

Jim was working on the roof of the place when I stopped in, and he kindly came down for a chat.  “Actually, I’m glad you came in,” he said.  “I hate working on that roof.”

“The chinook run is winding down,” he said, when I asked about the harbor fishing.  “This year was phenomenal fishing out on the lake. Now that they’ve started coming in close, they’ve been getting the silver fish from shore for the last month with spawn, spoons and Thunderstick crank baits.”

“The coho are moving in now, and the steelhead and browns will follow.  Sometimes all the species overlap, and you never know what will hit,” he said.  “There are reports of high numbers of alewives in the lake, and hopefully the baitfish will stick around by the power plant discharge on the south end of the harbor. If that happens, the brown trout will stay all winter.”

I asked about female salmon I’d seen in the sloping shallows of the break wall, rolling on their sides to shake the eggs loose.

“They don’t really spawn here,” he said.  “The whole Lake Michigan salmon fishery on the Wisconsin sided is based on stocking. There just isn’t enough fresh, flowing water.  But they still come in and go through the motions.”

Spawning salmon cruise the shallows of the Port Washington breakwaters.

Spawning salmon cruise the shallows of the Port Washington breakwaters.

The bait store talk ran on, from deer and ducks, to wolves and elk. Jim Champeau closes up shop around the first of November, and hunts nearly nonstop during the harbor off-season.  “I love the business, and I love talking to all the people I meet,” he said.  “But I haven’t had a weekend off all summer. The hunting season is my weekend off.”

I thanked Jim, finishing my harbor tour on the high wall next to the Port Washington power plant.  The fishing spectacle there is something to see this time of year, with enough lines in the water to provide entertainment even in the slow fishing moments. And someone is bound to catch something sooner or later

There were more than enough stringers of fish dangling over the wall, showcasing a good glimpse into the fantastic autumn fishing that Port Washington provides.  Chinooks, coho, and brown trout were duly accounted for along the power plant wall.

A brown trout adds some autumn color to a pair of coho salmon.

A brown trout adds some autumn color to a pair of coho salmon.

There were scores of fish rolling, jumping and tailing the water.  It was entertainment enough to just lean on the wall, listening and watching. Then I had to run home for my tackle.

In the interest of journalistic integrity, I’d purposely neglected to bring my fishing rod. A heavy line and a long-handled net are the real essential tools here. It’s a good place to be a tourist, but a camera and notepad have severe limitations in the true scope of autumn harbor fishing.