The Fisherman Who Saved Fishtown

That equation saved Fishtown and helped Leland’s small commercial fishing industry to struggle along in the face of one blow after another. After the state reduced lamprey populations, lake trout and whitefish populations crept back. The state stocked the lake with salmon to eat alewives – also an invasive species – and to give sportsmen something to fish for. But beginning in 1968, the state began managing the fishery with a sportsmen’s priority, instituting new stringent criteria for commercial fishermen, including banning them from taking lake trout and salmon, and whitefish couldn’t be taken in gill nets.

Around the same time, contamination – PCBs, high levels of mercury and other pollutants – showed up in Great Lakes fish, and people reduced their consumption. Then chub fishing crashed, partly because the fish competed for food with the exploding alewife population. Commercial fishermen up and down Michigan’s coast went out of business.

In Leland, Ross Lang, Terry Buckler and Bill Carlson were still trying to make a living at fishing. The three men, working with Michigan Sea Grant, experimented with a purse-seine – a type of net traditionally used on the West Coast that works by schooling fish, enclosing them in a "purse" and scooping them up. The net would allow the fishermen to keep the permitted whitefish but throw back protected species. The purse-seine worked well, especially in Grand Traverse Bay where schools could be tracked easily. For several years the net saved their livelihood. That ended when Native Americans were awarded exclusive fishing rights to Grand Traverse Bay in the early 1980’s.

Terry Buckler gave up. Ross Lang switched to trap nets, gear that can be tricky to use in deep Lake Michigan waters, and, with the chub population up, Bill fished chub from his boat the Janice Sue. Then, another fishing tragedy: In 1998, Lang was killed when his boat flipped over on him. Bill bought Lang’s trap net gear and his boat, the Joy, from Lang’s widow, Joy, and Clay fished whitefish off of it for several years.

The Carlsons contract most of the fishing to Alan Priest now. But he hasn’t fished for whitefish in two years since the state set a 65,000-pound quota for all but Native American commercial fishermen. And this year, the chub fishing is down again. No one is sure why. Carlson’s Fisheries buys most of its fish from the Petersons, fishermen out of Muskegon, and from Native American fishermen Bill Fowler and Ed John. The tensions that had built during years of fishing treaty negotiations have drained. "After the state got out of things, we got together and said, ‘Hey, we should be working together.’ There is no problem. These are nice guys," Bill says.

Outside the fish shop’s screen door, Fishtown’s lively hubbub continues, while inside, the Carlsons have been stooped over cleaning fish for six hours. "This business has survived because we’ve been able to adapt," Bill says, as he works.

He pauses his rhythmic slicing to examine the contents of a whitefish belly – it has been eating zebra mussels. "When they [the zebra mussels] first started I don’t think their stomach was adapted to crush them up. But now you can’t find better quality meat. Mother Nature is interesting. It can make unbelievable adjustments," he says.

The survival metaphor is hard to miss: the fish; the fisherman.

By the end of the afternoon, the work is slowing down. For the umpteenth time today Bill sprays blood off his pants with a hose, then he sprays the floor – the fish-water drains down the corrugated rubber floor, through a crack in the south wall, and into the Leland River.

Clay’s wife, Jennifer, stops by with their son, Greyson, and toddler daughter, Charlise. Bill teases Charlise, dangling bobbles of bloody fish eggs in front of her face. Clay coos at her. She cries, reaches out her arms, when the fishermen turn away.

When Bill leaves the shop for the day it is as antiseptic as it was when he arrived this morning. The coffeepot is washed out. The floor is hosed clean. What he doesn’t know now, as he hangs his foul-weather pants by their suspenders, is that these long days are nearly over for him. The Fishtown Preservation society will succeed. He’ll have all that, and Fishtown preserved.

Meet the Fishtown Preservation Society

Fore more information on the Fishtown Preservation Society, visit

Elizabeth Edwards is managing editor at Traverse, Northern Michigan’s Magazine. [email protected]

Note: This article was first published in July 2007, and was updated for the web April 2008.

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