Lake testimonies: Three men’s encounters with the Great Lakes

By Heidie (Raine) Senseman

The lakes as recreation

Summer 2002. The water is warm, so the salmon are biting. Jeff Billeter is drinking Miller Lite with Pfizer pharmaceutical representative Adam Dach, six other medical industry professionals, the captain and his first mate aboard a Lake Michigan sportfishing charter. 

Charter fishing, a major Great Lakes industry, differs from typical recreational fishing. Groups pay a captain to take them out on the water in his boat and lend them his fishing equipment.

Dach organized the charter as a day of recreation for himself and his medical friends, but Billeter, a financial advisor, doesn’t fit in with the crowd. Even so, the two are close friends, so Dach titles Jeff “Dr. Billeter” for the day and tells him to play along.

Billeter and Dach’s boat sets sail from Kenosha, a city in the southeast-most corner of Wisconsin. Billeter fishes regularly at his cabin in northern Wisconsin, but never on the Great Lakes.

“Sunny day, for sure, but the water was rough,” Billeter shares. “Lake Michigan is a rough lake. It’s more like an ocean with shores closer together.”

Though Billeter doesn’t get seasick, one of Dach’s medical friends vomits over the edge of the boat shortly after casting off.

“You get tossed around. Beat up,” Billeter said. “The boat is smaller than you’d think, maybe 25 feet. It’s hard to even drink a beer without the bottle banging against your teeth.”

To combat the harsh waters, as well as manage large fish and protect equipment, captains equip their charter boats with outriggers — adjustable metal devices attached to a boat’s sides that “hold” the poles and provide stability for the people fishing.

With the outriggers in place, charter fishermen use the trolling method, a way of fishing that casts multiple baited lines into the water and then slowly tows those lines behind the moving boat.

When a fish bites, the captain pulls the pole from the outrigger and begins reeling it in.

“I think our captain used outriggers to make sure we didn’t drop his poles in the water, but after a while, he began trusting us to reel our catches in,” Billeter said.

The smaller female doctors on Dach and Billeter’s charter wear leather harnesses around their waists to give them the support necessary to reel in heavy, fighting salmon.

“It’s exciting and relaxing at the same time,” Billeter explains. “That’s what makes fishing fun.”

Everything the group catches goes in the boat’s live tank.

At the end of their charter slot, Dach and Billeter’s captain returns to shore and passes the contents of the live tank to a restaurant on the pier. There, a chef cleans, cooks and serves the Coho salmon that the medical group had reeled in during their three hours on the water.

“Best fish I ever had in my life,” Billeter said.

The lakes as a conservation effort

Paul Haver, lead fisheries biologist at the Jordan River National Fish Hatchery, stocks the Great Lakes with native lake trout for two reasons: sea lamprey and the fishing industry.

Without the efforts of people like Haver, native fish populations in the Great Lakes would plummet.

“My whole career is based on the Great Lakes restoration effort,” he explains, “and I’ve been doing this for 37 years.”

Since the arrival of sea lamprey to the Great Lakes in the 1960s, lake trout populations have struggled to survive.

Sea lamprey, an invasive species native to the Atlantic Ocean, use their circular rows of razor-sharp teeth to attach themselves to and eat thin-scaled fish. Eel-like in shape and up to 24 inches long, one sea lamprey can consume 40 pounds of fish in its lifetime. They’re like leeches on steroids, and lake trout is their meal of choice.

“Early in my career, I caught a lake trout with a sea lamprey attached to it,” Haver said. “It was like everything I worked for was all wrapped up in this one fish. It ended up on my wall, kind of like a trophy.”

In addition to the sea lamprey threat, Haver and the hatchery also stock lake trout to combat the environmental imbalances caused by overfishing.

Together, sport and commercial fishing in the Great Lakes comprise a multibillion-dollar industry, but the reason the industry flourishes so much today may, in part, be due to the effect of invasive species.

The Michigan Department of Natural Resources planted salmon in Lake Michigan in the 1960s to curtail alewife, a species of herring that began overpopulating the lake when sea lamprey wiped out the alewife’s natural predators. The excess alewives would wash up on the lake’s shore and deter tourists.

Salmon and lake trout eat the alewife, and they’ve also become the species most targeted by fishermen. If not restocked, fishermen will deplete trout and salmon populations by overfishing.

“We humans are good at that,” Haver said. “We fish until something is gone.”

Some charter fishing companies discourage lake trout restocks because their customers would prefer to catch salmon. However, those same companies will advertise “no fish, no fee” because they know they can always rely on catching lake trout if the salmon don’t bite.

“Most people don’t look closely enough to see how interconnected the Great Lakes’ problems and industries are,” Haver added. “But everything in the lake system affects something else. Invasive species, commercial fishing, it’s all connected.”

So, the Jordan River National Fish Hatchery and Haver continue with their restocking work. At times, Haver feels discouraged that his restoration efforts are futile — that he won’t live to see the day when the lakes no longer need artificially stocked — but he combats that feeling with memories of successful projects, like how Lake Superior’s native species no longer require stocking to maintain their populations. The hatchery has also significantly reduced its stocking work in Lake Huron due to similar levels of restoration progress.

The hatchery also experiments with alternative restoration techniques, like restocking Lake Huron with cisco, also known as lake herring, to restore the lake’s natural food chain.

“At times, my work can feel depressing because you invest in restoration and it doesn’t always work out,” Haver said. “But we have to remember that we’re the leading edge. Nobody else in the country does what we’re doing. We’re writing the book on how to move forward.”

The lakes as a place to work

In his 13 years on the Great Lakes as a Coast Guardsman, Randy Strobridge came to understand the lakes. He collected stories about them. He gathered impressions.

Strobridge joined the Coast Guard directly after graduating from Cedarville High School in 1973. He was stationed on an icebreaker ship in northern Michigan that serviced Lakes Michigan and Huron.

“In the winter, everything’s white and hard,” Strobridge explained. “Not all the lakes freeze, but probably 80% of Michigan freezes, maybe 50% of Superior. The ice gets 3 or 4 feet thick.”

Ships like Strobridge’s break ice so that shipping freighters, carrying iron ore from Duluth, Michigan, to northern Ohio, can continue their routes into the winter months.

Strobridge worked as a navigator during this first stint of service. To direct the crew and indicate ice patches in need of breaking, Strobridge climbed up to the ship’s wheelhouse.

“I could always see what was going on up there,” he said.

Strobridge describes the Great Lakes in contrast to the oceans, though he seems to have a sort of reverence for the sheer grandeur of both water systems.

“On the oceans, you get big, rolling waves, but the lakes give you big, choppy waves,” he explained. “But when you get a storm on one of the lakes, man, they’ll change far quicker than the oceans. Superior, for example, can get very bad. I’m talking 30, 40, 50-foot waves.”

And yet, for as much power as the lakes have, they also seem to possess a gentle, pure quality.

“The lakes have this beautiful, cold freshwater, very pristine in a lot of places, very clean and clear water,” he said.

Clearly, Strobridge knows the lakes.

After four years of active service on the icebreaker in northern Michigan, Strobridge went into the reserves and returned to his hometown to attend Cedarville College. He graduated in 1981 and thereafter resumed his full-time Coast Guard service, this time with a commission as an officer.

Strobridge joined a ship stationed out of Grand Haven, Michigan, giving him more time on Lake Michigan. He and his shipmates serviced buoys and lighthouses along the whole coast of Michigan, Illinois, Wisconsin and northern Indiana.

And those years of work, combined with his pre-college years, left Strobridge with numerous stories.

Often, his crew escorted yacht races from Chicago to Mackinac Island or from Port Huron to Mackinac Island. The wind force during races can blow the mast off a boat, leaving those inside the vessel in need of assistance.

Strobridge’s ship conducted all sorts of rescues — not just at races.

Recreational boaters comprised the majority of rescues, but so also did the many fishermen and freighters who called “mayday” on their radios for Coast Guard aid.

“Seeing all those rescues gave me a healthy fear of the lakes,” Strobridge explained. “Even the fishermen don’t always prepare. Those waters get dangerous, especially when they’re deep and cold.”

Once, Strobridge’s ship was home-ported at the tip of the lower peninsula of Michigan in the dead of winter. He and his crew received a radio call that a woman on Mackinac Island, a relatively barren and inaccessible location in the winter, had gone into labor without any medical support. The lake was frozen and blizzard conditions prevented planes from coming in, so Strobridge’s ship broke ice for nearly two hours to escort a doctor to her.

Also in the winter, Strobridge’s ship had a tradition of picking up Christmas trees from Chicago and delivering them to people at lake ports. They became known as the “Christmas Ship.”

At the end of his 23-year career in the Coast Guard, Strobridge retired in Michigan, where he and his wife stayed for another 25 years. He only recently returned to his hometown — Cedarville, Ohio — and will soon celebrate his 50-year high school class reunion.

Perhaps he’ll have a story or two about his time on the lakes to “break the ice” with some old high school friends.

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