Meet Fishtown’s charter fishermen


Captain Jimmy Munoz aboard his boat Cutter. Photo by Sandra Bradshaw

By Sandra Serra Bradshaw

Sun contributor

The beloved Up North destination we all know as Fishtown has been a commercial fishing spot since the late 1800s. Located in Leland at the mouth of the Leland River, which flows into mighty Lake Michigan, it’s a portal caught back in time—a collection of well-weathered old fishing shanties, fishing tugs and charter boats that are lined up along the Leland River. Here we can watch hundreds of years of continuous history oozing with charm that unfolds, day in, day out. Here, too, we can still see and feel a connection to the long tradition of fishing in the Great Lakes, a tradition far older than even the country we live in. Visitors from all over come to visit and fish here.

An icon in Fishtown, the beloved tug Janice Sue was originally brought here by brothers Henry Junior (Hank) and Louis Steffens in 1958. She is one of the first steel-hulled tugs in Fishtown and today remains to continue the proud commercial fishing legacy. Trap net fishing began in Leland in 1982, when the hand-crafted steel tug Joy launched. Their future has been preserved.

Fishing was a primary occupation—and an extremely important one—as it provided food for the local native peoples, as well as for the first European settlers that came many years later. By the late 1800s, Fishtown became home to a small fleet of fishing vessels. These early fishermen set their nets offshore in open wooden Mackinaw-type boats rigged with sails. Around 1905, the fishermen began to replace their Mackinaw boats with gas-powered vessels.

The addition of protective cabins to boats now powered by engines enabled the fishermen to fish further from port, in more inclement weather, creating a longer fishing season. As for the sports fishing that we know today, Fishtown became a major destination in the early 1960s. This was when lake trout were re-introduced and salmon were introduced to Lake Michigan. Charter boats today provide a means for the sports fisherman and others to enjoy these magnificent fresh waters.

Four lake trout sanctuaries have been established here in Lake Michigan: the Fox Island Sanctuary; Chippewa-Ottawa Treaty fishing zone; the Milwaukee Reef Sanctuary; these allocated in boundary waters of Michigan and Wisconsin; and Julian’s Reef Sanctuary, in Illinois waters.

“Fish know no boundaries,” said Captain Jim Munoz of Fishtown Charters, the oldest running charter service in Fishtown. “The DNR releases the fish in the sanctuaries and some of them manage to come here to our local waters,” he explained patiently to me (a non-fisher).

Waters of northern Lake Michigan from the Port of Leland south to Good Harbor Bay and Sleeping Bear Bay, west to the Manitou Passage including North and South Manitou Islands, and north to the tip of the Leelanau Peninsula are the areas these charters boat work in. These sister islands, lying not too far off the mainland, help funnel hard-fighting game fish into the area to sometimes take the bait of the many anglers who fish here.

Leland has been the Lake Michigan port for big Chinook King Coho salmon since the early 1970s. Besides salmon, these waters offer exceptional fishing for lake trout, brown trout, steelhead, smallmouth bass, northern pike, yellow perch, whitefish (an ever-so-popular menu item at our local restaurants!), lake herring (aka cisco), and walleye (another popular menu item around the peninsula).

One of the largest fish ever caught in the area was caught in 1989 by Captain Bill Carlson during the “Real People Derby,” a statewide fishing tournament.  This I wrote about in my first book, “Seasons of the Leelanau,” back in 1992. His catch was a king salmon that weighed 34 lb.,12oz. His prize? Fourteen thousand dollars! In 1991, he was successful at reeling in a 32-lb. king salmon. Curious, over the Memorial holiday weekend I spoke on the phone with Bill while he was still down at Pelican Cove, Fla. “Was this today still the record,” I asked. He modestly answered that, “yes, it is!”

By talking to these charter captains individually, it does not take long to find out that the greatest thing about the Fishtown charters can be likened to an unwritten brotherhood of sorts. “We all work together and stay in touch by radio and cell phones,” said Captain Jack Duffy of Whitecap Charters. “We have all been here a long time.” In fact, his charter service, as well as Jim Munoz’s Fishtown Charter Service, are not only two of the oldest charters in Fishtown, but two of the oldest charter services in all of the Great Lakes. They also take pride in having a personal competition going among themselves. “It makes us better fishermen,” Duffy emphasized. “We all have the same goal, though. We want everyone to catch fish, we want them all back again.”

The charter season generally lasts between May and September. Charters are booked by the half day and full day; the full day is highly recommended because once you are out there in experiencing the excitement you will want to stay. Most charter boats accommodate up to six passengers and most supply all gear needed. You are responsible for bringing your own food and beverages. It is an appreciated (albeit unwritten) courtesy to bring some goodies for the captain and crew. Note weather changes before your departure, keep in touch with your captain or his designated contact should any severe lake warnings become enacted. Lake Michigan can be wily and unpredictable. Captains put safety first. Please be sure to purchase your fishing license before your trip, and bring necessary personal items such as a hat, sunscreen, and extra layers of clothing.

The Michigan Charter Boat Association provides a directory of professional fishing charter captains fishing from the port of Leland. Here’s a list of charter boats awaiting you. All captains are U.S. Coast Guard certified. For details, visit the individual websites or call the captains listed below:

Fishtown Charter Services: Captain Jim Munoz runs the Carol D. Captain Jim Munoz, Sr., started professional charters in 1972. “I have always enjoyed being around people,” said Captain Munoz, Sr.  “Learning different techniques over the years; and there are different ways to catch fish,” he noted. “It’s more than just putting a line in the water. Everyone has a different philosophy how to make fish bite. There has been a lot of business, a lot of great people, and a lot of good memories,” he added with that jovial lilt to his voice. (231) 256-9639

Manitou Charters is run by Jim Munoz, Sr.’s son Jimmy. He takes people aboard his boat, the Cutter. Jimmy’s life is as ingrained into Fishtown as anyone’s could be. Not only did Jimmy grow up charter fishing with his father, he and his wife Megan also run the Manitou Transit. (Megan is a fourth-generation of the ferry service). “We offer a great time while catching fish, and enjoying a day out on the lake,” explained Jimmy. “The best 100 days of the year are those we spend in Fishtown.” And he means it! (231) 218-5853

Whitecap Charters: Come onboard Whitecap with Captain Jack Duffy, a master angler, featured in Outdoor Life and Sports Afield magazines. This is his 50th year charter fishing. Captain Duffy says, “Fishing is one of life’s great experiences.” Duffy’s motto: “There are fishing trips and then there are fishing adventures. A fishing trip may be nothing more than catching panfish on live bait near home. A fishing adventure is something else indeed. It is a happening, a wonderful outdoor experience, and one filled with angling excitement that will keep a hot fire burning inside every person aboard the boat.” (231) 883-7530

Fast Break Charters: Captain Jeff Tropf and Fast Break Charters have been providing memorable charter boat fishing experiences here aboard the Fast Break. “We work hard every day so that you and your family will have far more Leland charter boat fishing memories than a cooler full of fish; At the conclusion of your Leland charter boat fishing experience, your catch will offer exceptional table fare. Whether prepared on your grill or prepared by one of the fine local restaurants, your crew will enjoy one of the finest and freshest fish dinners possible. Captain Jeff works hard every day so that you and your crew will have “far more Leland charter boat fishing memories than a cooler full of fish,” promises Captain Jeff.  (231) 432-0040

Maevelous Leland Charters:  Or come Fish with Captain Jeff Tropf’s son David, the newest charter in the Fishtown fleet, aboard with Captain David Tropf on the Maevelous. “Join us for an adventure along the picturesque shoreline of the Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore or out to the Manitou Islands in search of trout and salmon. Take in the sights while fishing in an area renowned for its crystal-clear water and natural beauty,” says David. “The Maevelous is a well outfitted Tiara, fully equipped to make your time on the water enjoyable, safe and successful.” Captain David Tropf is a second-generation captain out of Leland, growing up working on his father’s charter fishing boat. David now guides fishing full time, spending his summers in Leland on the Maevelous and the remainder of the year guiding fly fishing and wingshooting with Hawkins Outfitters. (231) 409-0440

Mariah and Pier Pressure Charter Fishing: “Fishing the Great Lakes is more than an activity, it is an experience,” says Wes Smith. “Our goal is to make that experience a memorable one for you, your friends and your family. Your time with us on Lake Michigan will be filled with exquisite views of the Manitou Islands and Sleeping Bear National Lakeshore, and BIG fish and memories that will last a lifetime.” Captain Wes; email: 231-883-2146; Captain Bob; email: (231) 883-5638

FishBilly Charters: Captain Bill Stephenson says, “Our goal is to put you on fish and provide you with an experience you will remember forever. We are happy to tailor a trip to your specific interest.  We pursue the best bite throughout the year and target a variety of fish so you can be successful. Our passion is fishing and we want to share it with you.” This aboard the FishBilly II. “These prolific waters are abundant with freshwater species that are delicious and also fun to catch at the same time.  Let us show you an amazing time on Lake Michigan and get ready for an incredible adventure you won’t soon forget.” (208) 966-7984

Captain Bob Schlitts: Come aboard with Captain Bob aboard his boat, the Beaker. With more than 40 years in Fishtown, he has taken generations of customers fishing in Lake Michigan’s clear waters. What he likes best about running charters is, “Watching people catch fish for the first time or catching the BIGGEST fish they’ve ever caught. We love fishing with kids of all ages, it’s really exciting,” he enthusiastically says. (231) 883-7642