The Fisherman Who Saved Fishtown

Back in 1971 only a fool would have bought the broken down old fishing shanties on the banks of the Leland River. Thankfully, Bill Carlson thought differently.

This Traverse Classic was published in the July 2007 issue of Traverse, Northern Michigan’s Magazine. Subscribe here.


Early on a July morning in 2006, Fishtown is peaceful. Below the wharf, a foot of mist hovers over the moss-green Leland River, and Leland Harbor is a soft, waking-up shade of Wedgwood blue. In a few hours, the hodgepodge of fishing shanties, collectively one of the region’s most iconic tourist attractions, will come alive. A line will form for fresh-made sandwiches at the Village Cheese Shanty, children will cast into the river, hoping to land one of the fish that dart back and forth around the wharf pilings, and people will leave Fishtown’s pint-sized boutiques loaded with shopping bags.

But at 7:15 a.m., Fishtown looks as it did a half-century ago, when it was simply a fishing port. The commercial fishing boats, the Janice Sue and the Joy, bob slightly on gentle wakes left by charter boats heading out of the river. And smoke drifting from the crooked-arm chimneys of a smokehouse beside the white clapboard Carlson’s Fisheries is a sign that the business of fish mongering is well underway.

Inside, a second pot of coffee is brewing in the big Bunn coffeemaker, and a hundred pounds of whitefish have just lost their pinbones to the deft hands of four Carlsons: Bill Carlson, owner of the fishery and of Fishtown, his wife Jennifer, his son Clay, and his great nephew, Chris Herman. Clad in suspendered foul-weather pants, streaked now in blood, the foursome has worked shoulder-to-shoulder for over an hour. They banter as they work—Bill quips that his white hair is really blonde, turned from eating too much fish. And they all toss out jokes for the benefit of Geromy White, a brawny football player for Suttons Bay High School they call The Rig, who has been busy moving 20-pound trays of whitefish into the smokehouse all morning. They work steadily—and no one takes time even to glance out the small, open window with its harbor view.

At age 63, Bill has been working the long, grueling hours of a commercial fisherman since he was 11. He has pinboned fish, gutted fish, filleted fish and caught fish—by gill net, chub net and purse-seine—in weather that has iced the boat over and battered off its doors, and on days when he had to bail to make it back to Leland Harbor. Arguably, only God has touched more Lake Michigan fish than Bill Carlson.

He looks 10 years younger than his age, he’s strong and tall, though he says he’s “wearin’ out.” He’s ready for, at least, semi-retirement. It’s time to sell Fishtown, and he hopes it will be to the Leland-based nonprofit Fishtown Preservation Society. If the organization can come up with money to match the price, Bill will hand over 200 feet of river frontage, his seven buildings—divided into 11 businesses including his fishery—five charter boat slips along the wharf, and his two boats, the Janice Sue and the Joy. Under the terms of an 80-year lease held by the preservation group, Clay will operate the fishery.

It has taken two years to agree on a price: $3 million. The negotiations, set in this small, close-knit village, were often tense. There is no real estate formula for what Bill Carlson did with Fishtown. There is a way to calculate what cobbled-together buildings are worth, what river frontage is going for, and what property suited for luxury condominiums will bring. But what is just compensation for almost single-handedly saving a village’s heritage—a slice of an entire region’s past that had all but vanished?

Bill knows that it is a long shot for a fledgling nonprofit to raise that kind of money—and he doesn’t want to think what will happen if they don’t. But he has reason to believe that people will rally around preserving Fishtown. Bill grew up in the shadow of a story that embodies the emotional bond between Leland, its fishing industry and its fishermen.

On an August morning in 1941, two years before Bill was born, his father, Lester, and his grandfather, Will, loaded their 34-foot wooden fishing boat the Diamond with gill nets and motored out of the Leland River.

The scene the father and son left behind as they headed to the fishing grounds between North Manitou and South Fox islands had changed little in a half-century. In those peak decades, Fishtown housed about eight fishing operations, each with two to three partners. Fishing started with the spring breakup and lasted until Christmas. The catch was shipped on ice by rail to Detroit, Chicago and New York City. The fishermen used the dozen or so shacks clustered at the river mouth to store equipment and to huddle inside when foul weather meant time to mend nets. At night, after the catch was emptied, the fishermen boiled the nets in huge kettles out in the sandy dirt behind the shanties—the nets rotted if they weren’t kept clean—then dried them wound around wooden reels that lined the wharf.

That day, out in the deep blue triangle between the port and the two islands, Fishtown had blurred into the horizon when the Diamond’s gas line sprung a leak and ignited the engine. The Carlsons had a fire extinguisher aboard, and they almost had the fire under control when the extinguisher ran out. But with gas still pouring from the line, the entire boat caught fire. Lester had just time to give his father the least burned of the boat’s two life jackets. Then he pulled the cork (the material then used in life jackets) out of the more damaged life jacket and tied it into his shirt. Burned and already exhausted from fighting the fire, Will, 63, and his 31-year-old son began the long swim to North Manitou Island.

Hours passed, the cold numbed their bodies, and they had made little headway to the island. After 11 hours Will died. Lester towed his dad’s body until he could no longer hold him. Before he let go, he turned his father over so that the birds wouldn’t peck his eyes.

When the fishermen didn’t return to Leland, Lester’s wife, Rita, called the Coast Guard but was told no officer was available to authorize a search plane. The fishermen formed their own search party, coming back after dark empty handed. But two stayed out. “They were known for their consumption of alcohol and had taken a couple of jugs with them,” Bill says. “After they’d searched for hours with no luck, one of them said, ‘Let’s just follow that moonbeam over there,’ and they took off on this trail to follow the moonbeam, and they just about ran over my father.” After 20 hours in the water, Lester was still alive. Will’s body was recovered several days later.

Lester recuperated, and Bill remembers his father as a strong, “full of the dickens” man. Even so, the incident was so traumatic he didn’t talk about it unless asked. And then he didn’t offer much: “I wanted to know, What did they talk about in the water?” Bill says.

But Bill did grow up with a tangible ending to the story: the Goodwill, a boat the Carlsons fished on until 1966. The boat was a present from the people of Leland—the locals and several of the families who summered in the town—made so that Lester could fish again to support his young family. The name was for Will and for the spirit behind the gift.

But even the benevolence of a village couldn’t prevent the disasters Lake Michigan’s commercial fishery faced over the next half-century. No sooner had Lester, now fishing with his uncle Gordon, launched the Goodwill than the sea lamprey brought the fishery down. The creature, with a toothy, showerhead-shaped mouth, sucks the blood from host fish and kills them. It first migrated to the Great Lakes through the Welland Canal in the 1920’s. By the 1940’s lampreys had spread to Lake Michigan, and within a decade they’d all but decimated the lake trout and whitefish populations. So, like other Lake Michigan commercial fishermen, Lester and Gordon switched to fishing for chub—the small, oily fish is a delicacy when smoked.

Disaster almost struck again in 1963 for the fishermen when the Goodwill, with Lester and Gordon aboard, was hit by a freighter in a snow squall. But the fishermen and their boat came through intact. By this time, Bill had graduated from Northwestern Michigan College. He’d considered becoming an engineer but decided that was “way too much work.” He’d had some luck modeling locally for magazine and television commercials, then he’d moved to California to try acting. He’d been there seven months, long enough to miss home, when his Uncle Gordon got sick. Lester asked him to come back and fish with him.

In his hometown again in the late 1960’s, Bill took a look at the state of the commercial fishing industry and the forlorn shanties and had several revelations. The first was that his family needed to change the way they did business. “I said to my dad, ‘We’re never going to feed the world’s population with what we can catch here. Let’s just feed who we can locally, and let’s catch them, process them and distribute them here. Let’s get the highest economic return we can.’ ” The Carlsons had always sold fish out of their small Fishtown building, but they enlarged it, and opened a retail store in Traverse City. “We created a tremendous local market and developed products like whitefish pâté,” Bill says.

Bill saw in the old shanties the basis for a symbiotic relationship: fill them with businesses to attract tourists, who would also buy fish; customers who came for fish would have reason to spend more time in Fishtown. In California he’d been out to Monterey’s Cannery Row and seen the old buildings deteriorating. “There was a tourist business there, but they weren’t utilizing those excellent old buildings,” he says. “I thought, How sad that is.”

Proof of what fate awaited Fishtown if someone didn’t step in to protect it was as close as Falling Waters Lodge, a three-story hotel that was wedged into the picturesque Fishtown scene in 1968. The hotel sits where the fishermen once pulled up their boats and where they stored the stakes for their shallow-water pond nets.

When the largest piece of property in Fishtown, with four buildings on it, went on the market in 1971, Bill bought it. “They wanted $100,000 for it and everybody thought that was ridiculous because the buildings were falling down,” he says. “I didn’t have any money, so I went to a local banker and borrowed a down payment. He’d been a charter boat fisherman, so he understood.”

To pay off the mortgage, Bill, working with his friend Jim VerSnyder (whom he credits with having the needed renovation skills), went to work fixing up the buildings so they could be rented, trying to be as historically accurate as possible. They replanked the old wharf using thick hemlock boards that matched the original sections. When a shanty needed a new foundation, they hauled in fieldstone from an old Leelanau County barn.

As Fishtown property came up for sale over the years, Bill bought it. The purchases included the Carslon’s Fisheries building from his great aunt, and the old icehouse where fishermen had once stored ice cut from Lake Leelanau and covered in sawdust. In the late 1970’s Bill’s brothers, Leon and Mark, became silent partners.

From the beginning, Bill hoped an organization would step forward to buy Fishtown and preserve it—to that end, years ago, he approached the National Park Service and the Michigan Department of Natural Resources. But nothing ever came of it. So year after year, he put the rent from the shops back into Fishtown’s upkeep. “Every penny of it,” he says.

By midday the sun beats down and Fishtown is packed. A preschooler darts around the back corner of a shop called The Crib, his blue moon single-dip just misses Darrell Herman—who with Clay’s help is opening the doors of one of the smaller of Carlson’s two smokers. Heat and smoke radiate from the black interior, just feet away from a woman inspecting a white shirt at the open door of the boutique, Haystacks. This is Bill Carlson’s Fishtown, where tourism meets fishing; land meets lake.

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 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.

Elizabeth Edwards is managing editor at Traverse, Northern Michigan’s Magazine. lissa@traversemagazine.com

This Traverse Classic was published in the July 2007 issue of Traverse, Northern Michigan’s Magazine. Subscribe here.

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