The great white way
A Lake Michigan fishing family still runs traps with its fourth generation of whitefish netters
By Dan Denov
Eric Petersen backs the 52-foot steel trap net boat Petersen Brothers away from the dock on Lake Muskegon just as the sun is popping up over the buildings of Muskegon, Mich., four miles to the east. Steaming toward the pier head of the channel to Lake Michigan, the boat's wake is the only disturbance to the glass-smooth surface. The March day's chilly start is expected to wane with the rising sun and clear skies.
Commuters of another kind, six of us aboard the trap net boat stash our thermoses and lunch buckets, establish our places, and settle in for the 25-minute jaunt to the first of the three trap nets the crew plans to lift today. Joel Petersen, the youngest of the family fishing company, is at the wheel now, on a heading of 167 degrees at 13 knots.
"I love doing this job," he says, despite shifts in the regulatory climate, increased costs and complications that come with invasive species. "The lake is different every day; you never know what you're going to encounter," he says. "And it's in my blood."
The Petersens have fished Lake Michigan for four generations. The senior member of the family, Ken Petersen — whose father, Ben, started the family fishing tradition — still helps with chores around the fish shed, lives at the shoreside head of the dock and brings out coffee when the boat gets in. His sons, Bill, Alan and Chris, make up the third generation, with Bill's son Eric and Alan's son Joel the youngest of the fourth generation.
The family has witnessed the evolution of commercial fishing on the Great Lakes. They and the neighboring Jensen family this year combined operations and share the total allowable catch for the two non-tribal licenses in Zone 8 of Lake Michigan — 308,000 pounds on the Petersen license and 196,000 on the Jensens'.
Their combined licenses allow them to set up to 20 traps, most of which are now are polyester, because it requires no maintenance. But they still set some older nylon traps, which need to be recoated every couple of years to stay stiff.
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