Northern Michigan Fishing: Tales of a Legendary Fishtown Captain

Northern Michigan Fishing: We ask Brian Price, longtime executive director of the Leelanau Conservancy who previously crewed for years under legendary commercial fishing captain Ross Lang, to share memories of the man and their days working the water.

How did you end up on Ross Lang’s boat?

I was out of college less than a year and a little at loose ends. It was March 1973, and I came down to the Leland docks to see if there were any jobs on fishing boats. Carlsons said we don’t need anybody but that I should talk to Ross Lang because their main crewman was getting called up for the military. They were still out on the lake fishing that day, Ross and his dad, Fred. I still remember standing there on the dock waiting for them, and then watching them come in with the boat.

Were you intimidated by him, a seasoned captain and all?

No, he was a nice guy, maybe about 34, 35 at the time. He was quiet. He didn’t really talk a lot until you got to know him. A lot of guys are like that. But I think he was just sort of waiting to see if I’d make it, because a lot of guys wash out.

Was Ross a lifelong Leland Fishtown guy?

No, the Langs were the last fishing family to move into town. They were from the Garden Peninsula, where they fished out of Fairport. When the fishing wasn’t so good up there, they moved to Alpena and fished Lake Huron. And when the fishing wasn’t so good there they put the nets on the boat and came around Mackinac and down through the Manitou Passage and were setting a gang nets off North Manitou Island, this was about ’67, ’68, and apparently they caught so many chubs they thought, well, this looks pretty good. Let’s see if we can find a place to tie up. And Joy, Ross’s wife, really liked Leland.

Why were you thinking commercial fishing for a job?

I really wanted to learn about the lakes—I’d been thinking about a master’s in limnology but I didn’t want to go back to school—and I think I was attracted to the culture of fishermen to some degree. And I thought these are the only guys that experience the Great Lakes in all seasons of the year. Nobody else is out there in the winter, not even the guys on freighters, because the shipping channels are iced in.

Share a lasting impression you have of Ross.

One thing that was amazing about Ross to me is … I don’t want to call it athleticism … but it’s something people have who work doing physical things all the time, a kind of economy of motion, of movement. He would hate that description. He wouldn’t want to think about that. But one of the things I learned from Ross is you have to not only do things well, you have to do them fast. Nobody wants days to stretch out to 10 or 12-hours when you can be done in less time. If you are faster and better at running the nets and picking fish out and set back at a faster speed, you get more done.

The margins are very thin in this business, so little things matter. For instance, he watched me clean fish after he taught me how to do it, and you have to do it in like two motions, and I wasn’t very fast for some reason, even though my knife work was all right. And Ross said, “Your problem is you are not picking up your next fish quick enough.” And I hadn’t really thought about that. There is a way to dump the fish you just gutted and pick up the next one all in one motion and have it turned the right way, with the belly to the right and head forward and that actually takes longer than it takes to clean the fish.

And Ross taught me the value of really hard work. How to do that. I mean sometimes we’d put in a 12-hour day, and you are on your feet all the time and working really hard sometimes. And at the end of the day, Ross was practically jogging up the dock with a box of fish that weighed 80 pounds. And you think, well, if he can do that, maybe I should try to do that.

Talk about the element of risk in commercial fishing.

You mean as in going out on days that other people, if they have any sanity at all, would stay on shore? Yeah, well, if three fishing boats go out on the lake and then the weather forecast says it doesn’t look good and two turn back because they say, yep, it really is going to blow a gale, but one boat goes on and gets their day’s work in, they made money that day and the others did not. And over the course of an entire fishing season, that could be the difference between making money and not making money. It’s not just a simple calculation about being safe every day. If you were just trying to be safe, you’d never make any money.

How’s about an example.

When we fished Lake Superior a couple of years. In 1976, Ross moved the boat up to Lake Superior, Munising, because the chub population had crashed lakewide in Lake Michigan and the DNR shut down the fishery there. Ross figured that would mean the Lake Superior chubs would bring good money. He asked me to go, and I remember thinking, Lake Superior, that ought to be interesting.

And it was great through the summer, but then fall came and it was unbelievably bad weather, almost kind of surreal. Feet of snow on the ground in October that never left. We stopped on December 10, and what stopped us is there was so much drift ice out in the lake that it kept plugging the entrance to the bay. So we’d return to the harbor and we’d be hammering away at these ice floes for hours just to get in to the dock.

o work Munising, we’d fly up from East Leland on Sunday afternoon and stay till Thursday—Ross was a pilot. Fly to the tip of Leelanau and then kind of island hop to the south tip of Garden Peninsula. It only took about 45 minutes by air to reach Munising. We stayed in a cabin up there, and each morning we’d get up about 4 and be on the lake about 5. Most of the time we were fishing way out, three hours off shore in over 600 feet of water. So we’d get to the nets about 8, lift for four hours and clean fish on the run home—the boat on auto pilot. We were catching a lot of fish, and sometimes we couldn’t clean them all by the time we got to port, so guys there would help us.

At one point, we hired a couple of brothers who wanted to be fishermen to go out on the boat with us, but they only lasted a few days, I think because we just basically scared the living crap out of them. Especially because back then we were really loathe to say it’s too rough and turn around, mostly because we were away from home and we wanted to get home on Thursday night. If we didn’t get our work done, we’d have to stay extra days.

To most people, it’s probably a surprise that fishermen are three hours into Superior in November, the notorious month the Edmund Fitzgerald went down. Tell us about that.

Well, yeah, like I say, the weather that fall was awful, and we were often in big seas, 10-foot waves and more. And to handle that, as any boater knows, you keep your bow pointed into the wind and waves. But when you are hauling up a net, you can’t always keep pointed into the seas because the net might be stretched in another direction. And so every once in a while you can get caught in a trough and when you are, two bad things can happen. One is that the boat doesn’t rise quickly enough to the sea that’s coming and the sea can flood in the lifter door [about a 3-by-5-foot opening] you have open to bring the net into the boat. The water can just flood in there and knock everybody down.

But the other thing that can go wrong is you are there in the trough and a wave will broadside you and lay the boat right over on its side, deck completely vertical. So you are inside, swinging from handholds that are there for when that happens and everything sort of just pauses for like 10 or 20 seconds. And you are hanging there, with the boat laid over, wondering if the next wave will have enough oomph to actually roll the boat. Both times it happened to us, the boat came back down. They have a lot of ballast, old railroad iron welded into the hull, so they really couldn’t stay upside down. But there are plenty of stories of Great Lakes gill net boats rolling. Everybody gets mixed up a bit, but is generally fine. I wouldn’t make too much of that, it only happened to us a couple of times, and only once on Lake Superior.

Actually, the bigger danger In November and December on Lake Superior—the worst thing—is ice on the deck and rigging. The boat starts to get really top heavy and it wallows. And fresh water creates ice better than salt water does, so we have it even worse than ocean fishermen. If it builds up enough, you’d have to tie yourself to a line that ran from the pilot house to the bow and you’d clip yourself in and go out there with a sledge hammer. Sometimes the ice was like four or five inches thick. Thing is, when the weather is rough and the seas are washing over the deck, it doesn’t make ice because the water is above freezing. It’s when you are running in light seas and the boat is making spray and mist. So, it’s like 10 degrees, but this might be the best day you’ll have for a while, so you have to keep going and go bust off the ice. And you think, what are we doing, three hours into Lake Superior, just two of us on the boat, and one of us tied to a clip line banging away with a sledge hammer.

Wasn’t the Gordon Lightfoot song about the Fitzgerald popular about then?

Right, it was just a year or so after the sinking and that song was on the radio all the time. It was kind of driving you crazy. We’d hear it in the truck driving to the docks that fall in Munising. Not exactly what you want to hear on your way to work. I’d just reach over and turn it off.

What would you guys make in a good year?

Well, it’s fairly easy to figure out, the catch records are all submitted to the state. So let’s say Ross caught 140,000 pounds in a season—a very good year—and the average price he got was 60 cents a pound. So that’s less than $100,000 gross in a good year. From that he had to buy fuel, pay me, sometimes hire a third guy, some other expenses. It was hard to make very much money, let’s put it that way.

Ross was kind of legendary for his resourcefulness, can you think of something that puts that on display?

Well, Ross could fix anything, and not only fix anything, but build anything and invent things that he felt would allow him to get things done faster. He was kind of a genius that way. So, the Joy, the trap net boat, he built the Joy. But he wasn’t a draftsman or a marine architect, so he did it by looking at a bunch of other boats and thinking about what he liked and then he just carved the shape out of a piece of styrofoam and built it from that model. I don’t remember ever seeing a drawing. He and George Stevens built it in George’s airplane hangar over in East Leland. George is like Ross in that he also could build anything. Like, they even made the winches on the boat. They didn’t order them from some winch dealer somewhere. It was cheaper to do it themselves and they got exactly what they wanted.

So, for ten years, the two of you were on the boat, what were those hours like, the day to day?

There were lots of hours where we never said anything and there was just the work. I mean, after a certain amount of time, all the stories have been told and there’s just a job to be done. But also there was a fair amount of nonverbal communication between us, just a gesture, a look, because we’d worked together for so long.

For instance, we’d be out and it was bad and I’d know Ross was thinking maybe today isn’t going to work out, like he didn’t like the conditions either. And if I kind of waited and let him think about it for 20 minutes, and we got really slammed a few times, with rollers coming over the front of the boat, I’d let him make a good show of it, but at some point, if I turned around and looked at him, he would look back at me for a moment, then just nod his head and … time to go home. But I really tried not to do that. It’s his call, and I trusted him. Completely.

Thinking back on your years fishing with Ross, what’s just sort of the overall sense you are left with?

You know, we’ve talked about the dangers, but you don’t think of it as a dangerous environment. It’s largely very peaceful. The fact that you were challenged sometimes … that’s not what you dwell on. You remember that it’s endlessly variable, the lake and the environment, and you are trying to get some work done within that and you feel very lucky. And you remember weather conditions that were just really unusual, strange, and it’s just fun to be out seeing the lakes in all the seasons, including winter—not many people get to do that … Simple things, like sometimes I’d sleep on the run out, and I remember Ross waking me up to see the Northern Lights in October, before dawn, because he knew I’d want to see them.

Fishtown Preservation Society

The Carlson family sold Ross Lang’s trap net tug Joy to the nonprofit Fishtown Preservation Society in 2007, along with the gill net boat Janice Sue and the wharfside collection of shanties known as Fishtown. The transaction ensures that Fishtown will remain a vibrant, historical tie to the harbor’s fishing heritage. Read a feature story about the preservation effort at MyNorth.com: The Fisherman Who Saved Fishtown (a profile of Bill Carlson).

This article was first featured in August 2012 Traverse, Northern Michigan’s Magazine. Click here to order your copy!

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