A Life of Subsistence Fishing on Grand Traverse Bay

They’re married, they’re Native American, and they make a living fishing on Grand Traverse Bay. Ed and Cindy John share thoughts about subsistence fishing during a windy day setting nets.


“When you look at the lake you see a calm beautiful surface, but when you talk about the fishery, when you go underneath, it’s like a metropolis down there,” says Cindy John, her piercing eyes darting from depth sounder to GPS coordinates to husband Ed, precariously braced against a gunwale. Today, West Grand Traverse Bay is anything but a calm surface. Two days into a ferocious summer blow, the blue-green miles of water between the peninsulas are a jagged fabric of whitecaps that skitter crates of netting across the Linda Sue’s tilting aft deck. Sideways to the wind, the heavy trawler wallows in the wave troughs, its growling diesel outdrive pushing steadily toward the edge of a deep-water bank, where the Johns hope to intercept schools of whitefish and lake trout in their summer pattern.

With any luck the nets won’t be pushed off their mark by wind and current or fouled by drifting masses of algae. With any luck, in a few days Ed and Cindy—members of the Grand Traverse Band of Ottawa and Chippewa Indians—will be back to haul up 300 to 400 pounds of fish, those spotted and silvery citizens of the underwater metropolis, pack them in ice and then motor in to trade nets for knives and begin hours of meticulous filleting. At the end of the day, Ed and Cindy’s wet, dangerous work will be manifest in neatly labeled bags of pearlescent whitefish fillets and tawny, fragrant sides of smoked trout laid out at Treaty Fish Company’s stall in Traverse City’s Sarah Hardy Farmers Market. With any luck, as is often the case, there won’t be any left to pack up at market day’s end.

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Calm in the marina, rough on the bay

Ed and Cindy John, however, only narrowly invest in the province of luck. What’s more reliable is the experience of 30 years spent fishing the deep-water basins between Northport and Elk Rapids, and countless hours learning the undulant underwater geography of these bays and what it means to the fish that swim in them. This Native fishing family has watched as the complex ecosystem that sustained their ancestors has been progressively invaded by sea lampreys, alewives, Pacific salmon, zebra mussels and round gobies; each forcing the native lake trout and whitefish, staples of the Johns’ livelihood, to adapt or perish.

The story of Treaty Fish Company is also embedded in the new story of Grand Traverse Bay. Ed and Cindy John’s small subsistence fishing enterprise has contended with barriers imposed by nature and man and adapted, like their quarry, into a vital symbol of the region’s local food movement.

“We’re not out at the crack of dawn like a lot of typical fishermen; that’s because of me,” Cindy John says, smiling as the Linda Sue’s engines roar to life. She deftly threads the lumbering vessel between dock and pylon. It’s 9 a.m. on a summer morning, which is when the Johns typically launch their alternating rituals of setting or pulling nets.

Ed, wearing fishermen’s coveralls, stands amidships watching the fast-moving cloud masses and methodically untangling 300 feet of nylon gill net, while Cindy steers past the breakwall and noses the boat into the wind. The two work with a quiet, familiar efficiency learned over decades of fishing together. “When this all started Ed was running trap nets with Art Duhamel, and I was a civilian freaked out by the smell,” Cindy laughingly recalls. “When Ed would come home I made him undress outside and put his clothes in a garbage bag.” There’s no such squeamishness now as the couple routinely works 16-hour days hauling, icing and hand-cutting hundreds of pounds of fresh lake trout and whitefish to take to market.

The Johns struck out on their own in the late 80s when Ed resolved to quit drinking. Thinking back nearly 30 years, Ed recalls, “There was a lot of alcohol on the bigger trap net boats in those days. I needed to stay away from that, so me and Cindy started fishing by ourselves.”

fishing on grand traverse bay

Cindy John surveys conditions on the big lake

With limited resources, Ed and Cindy commandeered a 21-foot skiff, a small craft only marginally capable of handling Lake Michigan’s volatile moods, and began to set and pull their nets by hand. “That can be dangerous fishing,” Ed remembers, his fingers working madly through a snarl of mesh. “Those nets are your livelihood, and sometimes you go pull them no matter what. We once saw a guy in a little open boat like we used to run get hit by lightning and go under. When the boat popped back up the motor was still running, and he went to get them fish.”

Two years on the skiff was more than enough, and the Johns were able to secure financing to commission a 27-foot boat, so they could participate in a government study on the feasibility of small-boat trap netting. “It was like asking a minivan to do the work of a semi,” Cindy bitterly reminisces. “I submitted a detailed report showing that small-boat fishing isn’t economically feasible. The government shut down the program, and we went shopping for a more durable boat.”

What they found was an eight-ton, 46-foot, steel-hulled trap net boat riveted at a Cheboygan shipyard in 1947. The Johns named it Linda Sue after Cindy’s sister. “This boat can handle pretty much any weather the Creator wants to throw at it,” Cindy says with confidence, as the boat shudders into neutral at the targeted coordinates, and Ed launches a buoy off the stern while waves pummel the cabin.

Apart from GPS and a high resolution Lowrance depth sounder that shows bottom contour, the technology on board Linda Sue is little different from that used when the boat first plied the Great Lakes nearly 70 years ago. “This is a small, family operation and Ed and I do all aspects of it,” Cindy proudly states. “We build our own nets, sometimes we have to be mechanics, sometimes we have to be electricians,” she says. She casts a sardonic glance at a hodgepodge of wiring running through the cabin.

The Johns fish with 300-foot-long, handmade monofilament gill nets, whose mesh is specifically sized to catch eater-size lake trout and whitefish and allow smaller fish to pass through unharmed. The nets are retrieved with a “lifter,” which is basically a broad-spooled power winch, and the Linda Sue is equipped with a pressurized wash-down pump used to blast away masses of algae that can foul the nets and render them ineffective. For the Friday farmers market, the Johns set nets on Wednesday and retrieve them Thursday to ensure the freshest possible product.

Cindy is quick to point out that gill netting, so called because fish are caught by their gills when they try to swim through, can be a maligned and misunderstood method of commercial fish harvesting. “Some people are under the impression that gill netting indiscriminately kills everything that swims, but that simply isn’t true. Our nets are placed at depths and structures where really only trout and whitefish live, the mesh is designed to catch only fish that size, and as we never leave nets out for a more than two days the fish are alive when we pull them in.”

fishing on grand traverse bay

Ed inspects the fine mesh of his fishing nets.

Ed and Cindy John’s understanding of when, why and what gets pulled up in their nets attests to a life spent on the water. Where they place their nets is directed by a knowledge of the fish’s response to seasonal fluctuations in water temperature, oxygen levels, currents and prey.

“I never think too much about the life of a fish,” Ed confesses. “I just know where to go catch them. Cindy’s the philosopher on this boat.”

“It’s humbling because you can’t always figure it,” Cindy adds. “So much has changed in the lake since we started; it’s amazing to see how the trout and whitefish have adapted.”

These adaptations have been the necessary price of survival as the effect of invasive species has destabilized and reshaped the lake’s food web. Sea lampreys decimated the Great Lakes native lake trout populations in the mid-20th century, and alewives, an invasive herring, proliferated in the predator vacuum that followed. As biologists found methods to control the lampreys and restocked lake trout, alewives became the staple of their diet and significantly changed the quality of the fish. “Up until just about five to ten years ago everyone referred to lake trout as ‘greasers,’ because they were so fatty and oily from eating alewives. I would only eat them smoked,” Cindy remembers.

Pacific salmon, first introduced into the Platte River in the 1960s, were a hungry silver foil to the unchecked masses of alewives and proceeded to devour them, along with the smelt, shad and chubs, first in Lake Huron and recently in Lake Michigan, effectively starving themselves out of a food source. It may have been conceivable that an inverse predator-prey imbalance to that caused by the lamprey could have taken hold were it not for an insidious Caspian hitchhiker called the Round Goby. This blunt-headed sculpin-like fish rode across the Atlantic in ballast tanks and quickly colonized the lake floor. The native bottom-oriented predators such as lake trout, whitefish and smallmouth bass happily incorporated them as a dietary staple.

“Gobies have turned out to be a blessing for the lake,” Cindy says as she steers the Linda Sue toward today’s final coordinates, “I believe they may have saved the viability of this fishery.”

One thing the Round Goby has certainly saved is the reputation of lake trout as prized table fare. Once discarded by sport fishermen and valued well below whitefish, fresh lake trout fillets are now a cornerstone of Treaty Fish Company’s business. “When they fed on alewives the fish were pale and had a thick layer of fat.” Cindy, a meticulous documentarian, illustrates with old photographs of trout fillets pulled from a file crate in the ship’s cabin. “Now that they’re eating gobies the fish are healthier. The meat is bright orange, lean and beautiful. I actually prefer it to whitefish.”

fishing on grand traverse bay

A shimmery Lake Michigan whitefish.

Hungry for a locally sourced fish with flavor and texture superior to the ubiquitous, if bland, whitefish, restaurant patrons have made these lean beautiful trout fillets wildly popular at local restaurants like Mission Table. Treaty Fish Company is also seeing increased demand for whole fish from their farmers market clientele. “Who would’ve ever thought that we could sell lake trout faster than we could catch it,” Cindy marvels.

With three nets set, which, with any luck, will be heavy with lake trout and whitefish tomorrow morning, Ed joins Cindy in the ship’s cabin for a welcome respite from the relentless wind and lashing summer rain. “Most other commercial fishermen will set three or four times this much gill net,” Ed remarks. “We’re only looking to catch what we can process in one day.”

For Treaty Fish Company, whose only sales outlet is a single farmers market stand, one day typically means a 50 percent yield on a 200 to 400 pound catch. The fish are packed in crates of ice as they’re pulled out of the nets, and upon returning to dock, Ed and Cindy sort them by size. “Cutters,” or those fish optimally sized for fillets, are processed immediately. “Our popularity is because of the texture of our fish,” Cindy confides. “We fillet them down from the back. If the meat splits when we bend the fish, that fish automatically goes to the smoker. All of our fresh fillets have to be perfect.”

Ed and Cindy’s practiced perfectionism has created a high demand for their products, but that doesn’t mean an imminent expansion for Treaty Fish Company. “The two of us do everything, we’re a subsistence commercial fishery. Of course we’d like to grow a little and maybe have a bigger processing trailer with more refrigeration space, but we’re very grateful for what we have,” Cindy says. “We’re able to guarantee to our customers that they get to eat fish right out of our bay, and we’re proud to be ambassadors for these pristine and beautiful waters.”

Sun breaks though the clouds and Peshawbestown’s tribal marina comes into view as the Linda Sue slips into calmer water inside the breakwall. The diesel engines cease their growling as the boat is made fast against the weathered dock cleats, and we step ashore on shaky legs. “There are times when you’re grateful to touch the ground again,” Ed says smiling. In a small adjacent slip a fellow fisherman with a long braid down his back blasts gospel music and readies a set of small-mesh perch nets in his 16-foot runabout. This is a precious way of life for Ed and Cindy John and all the Native fishermen living off the waters of Grand Traverse Bay. Whether skimming over a glassy surface or bouncing in angry chop, they pull up their nets so that we can all get a taste of the underwater metropolis.

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This feature about life on the Linda Sue and fishing on Grand Traverse Bay was originally featured in the June 2016 issue of Traverse Magazine.
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All photography by Andy Wakeman.


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Article Comments

  • doc

    Ah,The small of a fish tug !!