Preserving the Catch: How Tradition May Save Door County’s Fresh Water Harvest
By Jessica Luhning | Photos By Jim Klousia 0
Nets cast to a depth of one hundred feet are pulled hand over hand into the wooden 26-foot Mackinaw boat. Hands, now raw and bloodied, grip the oars seven miles and four hours from shore on a night so black only the stars and lit lanterns provide safe passage home. The wooden boat, heavy with 600 pounds of net and the day’s harvest, glides steady upon the smooth surface of the water. Once home there is time for a quick hot meal before dressing and salting the day’s catch, which is placed in the cooper’s oak barrels for storage. Tomorrow is much the same, up before sun-rise, dry nets loaded, shoulders dug in and hands to the oars. A westerly breeze may quicken the journey or, possibly, a galeforce squall at sunset, far from home. Such was the life of a Lake Michigan fisherman in the 1860s. (Account adapted from Trygvie Jensen’s Wooden Boats and Iron Men, 2007.)
As the largest body of freshwater in the world, the Great Lakes have shaped a culture rich with tradition in commercial fishing. Lake Michigan, the third largest of the Great Lakes, has produced the greatest harvest of freshwater fish with its cold water and granite bedrock islands— the perfect grounds for lake trout, whitefish, herring and chub.
Prior to 1830, most fish caught were sold or bartered within a single community. It wasn’t until the 1840s that improvements in transportation allowed for an expansion in markets, with fish being transported throughout the Great Lakes from Chicago east to Buffalo and New York City. The industry continued to grow, hitting its peak in the 1880s when over 1,500 fishermen were employed on Lake Michigan, boasting the largest fishery of all the Great Lakes.
After the turn of the 20th century, Door County fisheries faced a number of threats including over fishing, environmental pollution and invasive species. Lake trout and herring had all but disappeared, and the fisheries that remained were only able to sustain themselves and keep harvests consistent by marketing different species of fish and relying on federally-funded restocking programs.
With the fisheries struggling, a handful of the peninsula’s bustling towns transitioned from fishing communities to summer tourist destinations. One such community is Fish Creek, located on the northern, Green Bay side of the peninsula.
Fish Creek was founded by skilled cooper Asa Thorp. Asa honed his craft as a maker of wooden kegs and casks as a teenager in Milwaukee. After a brief stint making fish barrels for Door County’s Rock Island fisheries, he purchased all the land around a small cove north of Green Bay after overhearing a captain complain about the need for a wood refueling station for his boat’s steam engine. Asa named his newly acquired land Fish Creek and, with his brother Jake, built a pier, warehouse and sawmill. The village grew and supported a prospering herring industry by the early 1900s.
Today, the historic community of Fish Creek has a thriving main street full of quaint shops, art galleries and taste-worthy eateries. I can imagine the streets are bustling with activity during the summer season, but I find them peaceful on this freshly snow-covered day in January.
Fish Creek’s most loved destination, and for good reason, is the White Gull Inn. In May 2010, the White Gull won the Best Breakfast in America Challenge by Good Morning America for their Door County cherry-stuffed French toast. It is absolutely delicious and filling!
We are graciously welcomed by the friendly White Gull staff: Pam Dean, who works the front desk, and Assistant Innkeeper Patrice Champeau. They quickly make us feel right at home in our beautifully appointed weekend digs. If you happen to be traveling with a group of friends or family to Fish Creek, I highly recommend the White Gull Inn’s four bedroom Lundberg House, or any of their well-kept rooms or cottages for that matter.
After settling in, the owner of the White Gull Inn, Andy Coulson, invites Edible Madison photographer Jim Klousia and myself to meet him around the Inn’s flagstone fire ring. A University of Wisconsin- Madison alum and former Fond du Lac reporter, Andy purchased the Inn with three friends in 1972. Since then he has managed the Inn with his wife Jan.
Around the fire, we listen eagerly as Andy explains the history of not only the Inn but, with help from Master Boiler Marc Paulson, the White Gull’s famed fish boil.
The Inn was built by Dr. Herman Welcker, a German born and educated physician who moved to Fish Creek in the early 1900s. The Inn was originally named after his wife, Henriette. After Welcker’s death in 1924, the Inn had a long succession of owners before a young couple from Madison (Andy and Elsie Redmann) purchased it in 1959 and gave it its current name, the White Gull Inn.
The Redmanns started serving a traditional Door County fish boil in 1959. A customary fish boil is served with lake trout or whitefish, red potatoes, homemade rye bread and Door County cherry pie and, until the 1950s, was largely served in backyard and church picnics. While no one can be sure when fish boils started, oral histories date this traditional meal to the late 1800s when commercial fishermen looking for a quick and nourishing meal would toss the day’s catch of fresh whitefish or lake trout in a pot with a few potatoes and salt for seasoning. Early commercial fishing boats typically had a large pot belly stove perfect for preparing a kettle of fish and potatoes. Lumber camps may have also enjoyed a fish boil for their evening meal after a long day’s work.
With a backdrop of lightly falling snow, several couples and families begin to gather around the fire ring. Master Boiler Marc Paulson first places a stainless steel “net” with 40 pounds of red potatoes into the large kettle that is resting over the hardwood fire. Ten minutes later he adds a second “net” with 45 pounds of Lake Michigan white fish. Marc salts the boil with three quarters of a pound for every gallon of water. Yes, this is a lot of salt but, as any good cook knows, salt truly brings out the flavor in food, and especially in red potatoes and whitefish.
Soon the fat from the fish floats to the surface of the boiling water and, with his watchful eye, Marc knows exactly when to fuel and stoke the fire as the flames rise up and meet the over-flowing, cascading fat. At that exact moment a tremendous glow and rush of warmth overtakes the audience. The “nets” are pulled and taken to the kitchen. Fully aware of the grand feast that awaits us, we quickly make our way into the dining room. The whitefish and potatoes are served with coleslaw, freshly-made bread, butter and, yes, Door County cherry pie. The whitefish, although quite a bony fish, is delicate with a sweet mild flavor. The red potatoes are a perfect match and, coupled with the butter, make for a truly special local Wisconsin meal. Marc Paulson has genuinely earned the title of Master Boiler, making the transition from fish boil historian to diligent kettle observer and chef with ease. What a feast indeed and reason enough to make a return trip to Door County and the White Gull Inn.
The Last of His Kind: A Door County Commercial Fisherman
A thirty minute drive north of Fish Creek is the tiny village of Gills Rock at the tip of Door County. The White Gull Inn sources all of its whitefish from fourth generation fisherman Mark Weborg, whose trapnet boat with faded blue paint, Heather J, sits alone dry-docked in frozen Hedgehog Harbor. In not too many years past, a visitor to Gills Rock may have seen as many as ten boats in one dock.
During the winter months Mark spends three to four days a week fishing the open waters off of Rowley’s Bay on the Lake Michigan side of Door County. Today, a cold Saturday in January, is an “off” production day, and even while distracted with the insurance and legal aftermath of a recent fire that completely destroyed one of his three fishing boats, he has agreed to meet me and share his story.
When you meet Mark you know he has lived a thousand lives on the waters off northern Door County. He is a tall, slender-framed man with broad shoulders. He is warm in demeanor and welcoming with a strong, weather-worn handshake. Mark greets you with his left hand, an awkward adjustment for us right-handers, having lost most of his right arm four years ago while operating a winch on his boat. Lifting an anchor, a knot in the line caught and tangled his right sleeve, lifting him off the ground and violently twisting him 60-80 times around the wench before it was powered down. A tragedy lasting only a few seconds has left Mark with phantom pains in his right arm. Accidents like his are quite common in the fishing industry and not unusual for someone who has been at it for over 40 years.
Mark’s great grandfather, Andrew Weborg, came to Door County in 1860 from Hammer, Norway. Andrew began fishing with only a www.ediblemadison.com 31 rowboat and a few linen nets made by his wife Anna. Following his great grandfather’s footsteps, Mark joined the family fishing business in 1970, partnering with his brother, Jeff, and father, Marvin.
Their fishery, J & M Fish Company, was thriving by the 1980s and expanded with the purchase of processing equipment, including a scaling machine and filleting machine allowing them to process over 3,000 pounds of whitefish every hour. Today, Mark continues to work with four to six other independent fishermen who are each captains, fish cleaners and businessmen in their own right. Together they are the largest commercial fishery in Wisconsin—operating three boats and supporting six families.
Mark’s fishery harvests an average of 10,000-20,000 pounds per day. Peak harvest occurs during the shallow water feeding months of April and May, as well as October when the fish head to their near-shore spawning grounds. During the non-peak summer months they can expect 2,000-3,000 pounds per day. The yearly quota limit for commercial fishermen is 500,000 pounds per year. Mark has not caught his quota in over 15 years.
Most of their sales are in Door County, totaling roughly 125,000 pounds of whitefish per year. The tourism industry and largely the traditional Door County fish boils sustain the local fish market. Mark also ships frozen fish to New York, Chicago, Russia and Europe. The countries of Estonia, Finland and Denmark also have a large demand for whitefish because the waters in their Nordic region contain the same species as northern Lake Michigan. Whitefish caviar, a valueadded product, sells for $20 an ounce in European markets.
While the market remains steady, Mark sees no major growth on the horizon. In fact, he feels that his 38-year-old son-in-law and fifth generation Weborg family fisherman may be the last. “It just keeps getting more difficult every year. There are too many changes in the water. Fish habitats are constantly changing and exotic species threaten whitefish numbers.” According to most in the industry, non-native Zebra mussels have all but destroyed the whitefish’s high-protein fresh food supply of small fresh water shrimp. Thirty years ago, a whitefish would reach legal length (17+ inches) in three and a half years, but today, legal length might take seven to eight years.
I can’t say that Mark is hopeful about the future of commercial fishing in Door County. He likens the future of the industry to trends in conventional agriculture: “You have to either get big or get out.” However, getting big is not in Mark’s future business plans. He hopes instead that Wisconsin consumers and the Door County tourism industry will realize the financial returns provided by Door County fisheries.
Proud yet humble, Mark represents what could be one of the last generations of commercial fishermen to make a living on Lake Michigan’s great harvest of freshwater fish. As consumers, we can support families like Mark’s by sourcing our fish locally. Look for Lake Michigan whitefish at your local market. Visit northern Door County and immerse yourself in the history and culture. Enjoy a fish boil at the White Gull Inn year round, or join Mark and the community of Gills Rock for their Memorial Day and Labor Day weekend fish boils held right at the dock on Hedgehog Harbor. Maybe we’ll see you there.