Outdoorsman remembers when the fishing was good
October 1, 2013 1:04PM
Ski Petroski | Jeff Manes~for Sun-Times Media
Updated: November 3, 2013 6:06AM
“...Old Michigan steams like a young man’s dreams;
The islands and bays are for sportsmen...”
— Gordon Lightfoot
Ski Petroski is a retired steel worker who moonlighted for years as the captain of Pair a Dice Charters, Inc. on Lake Michigan.
Petroski, 64, also is a Vietnam veteran, an avid outdoorsman and a 50-year member and past president of Lake County Fish & Game who lives in Griffith with Jann Bouwman.
“I graduated from Hammond High in ‘67 and tried to join the service right away,” Petroski began. “But I wasn’t even 18 yet. Once I did turn 18, I hired in at Inland Steel Co. After about a year, I went to boot camp and then Vietnam in ‘69 and ‘70.”
What department in the mill?
“Power & Fuels. We called it ‘Power & Fools.’”
What branch of the service?
“I was in the Seabees. When I came home from Nam, I stayed another 10 years in the Reserves.”
“I bought my first boat in ‘87; it was a 24-foot Crestliner. Back then, fishin’ was fantastic. I worked out of Burns Ditch for five years. Then, I bought a 30-foot Trojan with a flybridge and twin engines and moved into East Chicago. I’d start the closest weekend to March 15.”
What species of fish did you concentrate on?
“Coho is the major meat in the spring. Back then, I could take six guys and they could easily limit out with 30 fish in two-and-a-half-hours. Nowadays, it’s rare to catch your limit.”
How much did that 30-footer run you?
“About $35,000 used. That’s just the boat. You’ll have $10,000 just in rods, reels and lures.”
Bear with this river rat, do Lake Michigan fishermen catch different types of fish at different times of the year?
“In early spring, you’ll catch brown trout. In mid-June–July, that’s when your steelhead would come in at Burns Ditch. When the fish ain’t there, you go out deeper for Lake Trout.
“Things have changed through the years; there just aren’t that many fish out there for close-to-shore fishing. That’s why some us were recently arguing for public access of Buffington Harbor for perch fishing.”
What species of fish puts up the best fight in Lake Michigan?
“Everybody enjoyed catching Skamania Steelhead at Burns Ditch. The next best would have to be your Kings (King Salmon). In the good old days, 20-pound Kings were not uncommon. The (Department of Natural Resources) is not as selective with the their stocking as they were. Cohos and brown trout are good fighters. The worst would definitely be lake trout. They’re no fun to catch. It’s like pulling in a boot full of water.
“But your steelhead, there’s nothin’ like it. If you hooked 10 fish and you caught three you were doin’ very good because they’re so acrobatic — they spit the hook out. They’ll run on their tail. They’ll run towards and pass up the boat.”
“Every year it changes. What worked for me years ago, you wouldn’t even find on the market. It’s really funny, if you hear out there, ‘I caught it on Monkey Puke or I got it on a Kevorkian or I got it on a Watermelon.’ Everybody knows what color those particular lures are. If you don’t have the exact color lure as say, Monkey Puke, you’ll dig into your tackle box for the closest colored lure possible. You’ll probably catch more Skamania Steelhead on red and orange or pure silver than any other color.”
In the past, there were feuds between the sport fishermen and the commercial fishermen on the Great Lakes.
“There was a guy named Bill Carr who passed away several years ago. His boat was named The Green Hornet. His parents, grandparents and great-grandparents were commercial fishermen on the Big Lake. Carr started killing so many cohos and kings in his perch nets that he took out all his nets and called all the Chicago news stations.”
“Carr burned all his nets in a bonfire and swore he’d never commercial fish again. They named that location Carr’s Beach. He became a big spokesman for us when we were fightin’ the gill netters. After one of Bill’s testimonials in Michigan City, the commercial fishermen dug up his parents’ graves the very next day.”
“All the clubs got together and formed the Lake Michigan Coalition. We fought and fought it until they changed it to trap nets which weren’t so lethal. But that was so efficient, they were wiping out the perch fishery.
“That’s when the state said: ‘OK, that’s it. You’re out. You ain’t fishin’ here anymore.’ Today, there is no commercial fishing on Lake Michigan in any of the states.”
Why did you get out of the business?
“Right now, gas is $4.45 per gallon at the marina. My boat used at least two gallons per mile. That would cost me about $10 per mile. In the summertime, you’ll have to go out about 20 miles, troll for about four hours, and then 20-plus miles back. You’re gonna have more than $400 just in fuel costs. I seen the handwriting on the wall. I put the boat up for sale about eight years ago.
“And it wasn’t just fuel costs, your dock fee for a slip is about $2,300 per year. Outside storage in a parking lot is about $1,100. Your insurance is another $2,500.”
Earlier, you mentioned Buffington Harbor.
“For four or five years, I tried to get them to open up Buffington Harbor so people could perch fish. Bobby Jones and Joe DeRosa were the top dogs running Trump Casino boat. I used to take those guys fishing. They got the OK from Donald Trump for me so that people could fish Buffington.”
“Two different mayors said no. People in Michigan City, Burns Ditch, East Chicago, Hammond and Whiting all enjoy public access to go fishing from shores or piers. But not Gary.”
From the Vietnam War to the commercial fisherman-sports fisherman feuds, the fighting Seabee from Hammond High has remained in the thick of it.