SHEBOYGAN – It’s dawning early in the Wisconsin summer.
And time goes by so fast. Years even.
At 5 a.m. on June 20, a pink light filled the sky over Sheboygan Marina.
“Ready to go?” said Capt. Dan Welsh, 55, owner of Dumper Dan’s Sportfishing Charters in Sheboygan. “The fish are out there waiting.”
Our crew of 12 moved to the dock behind Dumper Dan’s waterfront store.
Three of the Welsh fleet of six 28-foot cruisers have already left. The rest were idle at their anchors, waiting for us to load.
Welsh took us to the boats and waved us goodbye. The four of us split up and within minutes were off on a Big Lake adventure.
Herring gulls flapped overhead, the powerboats boarded the plane, the cool lake air blazed on our cheeks.
Some things never change.
Others are significantly different.
It seems like just yesterday that Welsh was a 14-year-old first mate with Capt. Gary Schrimpf of AAA Charters of Sheboygan, and they were throwing a fishing party that included writer, DJ and storyteller George Vukelich of Madison.
Vukelich did as he was told that day in 1981 and brought a large cooler. It was necessary.
Anglers landed eight fish during the afternoon outing, including a 15.5-pound chinook salmon that fought for 30 minutes.
This started a Vukelich family tradition of Sheboygan fishing that continued through the evolution of the local charter fishing industry. A few years later, when Vukelich called to arrange a field trip, Schrimpf said, “Remember that first mate I had?”
And Vukelich began booking trips with Welsch and Dumper Dan’s, his new business.
In 1985, Welsh conducted 26 fishing trips on the Great Lake.
This year, with a fleet of six boats, Dumper Dan’s will operate more than 1,000.
“In the blink of an eye, we’re here,” Welsh says.
On June 20, the “we” included a familiar link to Welsch’s professional history.
Vince Vukelich of Greendale, George’s son, was aboard the Dumper Dan VI along with Dane Maddox of Wauwatosa, Marcus Stanford of Madison and myself.
Scattered across the other boats were Vince’s wife Sue Conwell and their sons Taylor and Tyler Vukelich, Sam Austin and his son Will, Pete Jurgelite, Jeff Krueger and Jay Neumann.
All are Wisconsin residents who are friends, colleagues, former colleagues or relatives of Vince Vukelich.
Vukelich organized the trip to honor the past and introduce family and friends to fishing.
George Vukelich died in 1995 at the age of 67, cutting short a life that would undoubtedly have been spiced up with more fishing trips.
“I have fond memories of the trips dad and I took here,” Vince Vukelich said as the boat headed southeast from Sheboygan. “And I hope that by bringing others out, we can create similar experiences and maybe even start a tradition.”
When Welsh was born in Sheboygan in 1967, there was no charter fishing industry to speak of.
Lake Michigan was barely recovering from the onslaught of invasive species, including the sea lamprey, which had devastated the populations of the two top native predator fish, the lake trout and the cutthroat.
To help control overpopulation of another invasive species, the alewife, the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources began stocking nonnative rainbow trout (steelhead) in 1963, and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service began stocking lake trout in 1965. Mr.
Coho salmon were not part of the Wisconsin mix until 1968, and chinook until 1969.
What started as an experiment turned out to be a success. And by the time Welsh was a teenager, Lake Michigan featured recreational and charter fishing for trout and salmon.
Welsh, whom George Vukelich described in the 1980s as a “California surfer” and a “young Robin Yount,” started out as a first mate.
After losing a fish or two trying to catch a net near the boat, a friend nicknamed him “Dumper.”
Stuck. And after Welsh graduated from high school, he knew what he wanted to do. He wanted to be a full-time charter captain.
He got his Great Lakes captain’s license when he was 18 and his parents helped him get a loan for his first boat.
When it came time to choose a name for his business in 1985, his mother said it could only be one thing: Dumper Dan’s.
And so it was and is.
Welsch has been able to overcome business cycles and environmental changes over the past 37 years.
“I’ve seen a lot of other charter captains come and go,” Welsh said. “It’s certainly not an easy way to make a living, but it’s the only thing I wanted to do, so I found a way.”
In the late 1980s, for example, the lake’s chinook salmon suffered from bacterial kidney disease, causing a sharp decline in one of the most popular species.
“The kings weren’t really there,” Welsh said. “So we switched to other species.”
Welsh said he is fortunate to be in Sheboygan where he can fish for the top five species of trout and salmon in the lake: brown trout, lake trout, steelhead, chinook and coho salmon.
Chinook came back after BKD, but then zebra and quagga mussels started to change the lake. The invasive mussels filtered plankton out of the water, removing critical food for forage fish and making the water much cleaner.
Anglers have had to change their methods to account for the gin-clear water, Welsh said.
But as with other challenges, he adapted.
Out-of-state anglers account for much of his business. Many come from Minnesota.
A group from Japan once made sashimi on the boat from freshly caught salmon.
Recognizing the opportunity, Welsh has expanded his business in recent years to include apartments he rents out to his clients and a store in the marina.
He even has a taxidermist to make fish mounts for his customers.
Dumper Dan’s is now one of the largest charter companies in the Great Lakes.
Welsh still runs a boat most days, but his success has forced him to sacrifice one day a week to stay in the office and make payroll.
So, on our trip Dumper Dan VI was manned by Captain Dave Nitze and First Mate Cody Long, both of Sheboygan.
We were traveling south over 280 to 300 feet of water. The water temperature was 49 degrees on the surface and 44 down about 50 feet.
Nitze and Long cast 16 lines covering a wide range of water depths with mostly flies and spoons.
At 6 o’clock in the morning the first rod bounced in the sounds of fish. Stanford, on his first fishing trip in Lake Michigan, took the line and landed an 8-pound lake trout.
“I think I like that,” Stanford said.
Thirty minutes later, Maddox took the next fish and it turned out to be a 7-pound steelhead.
Both fish had adipose fins, meaning they were wild, naturally reproduced fish.
This is yet another change in the lake, with more natural reproduction occurring today than at any time in the modern era of trout and salmon fishing.
And so it continued for the next four hours as we traveled south about 12 miles, then turned north. When we pulled in at 9:30, we had eight fish in the box, including an 18.5-pound lake trout landed by Stanford.
Mother Nature was kind to us, with waves of no more than 2 feet and a 10 mph southwest wind. The cool lake also helped us feel comfortable.
When we pulled into the paddock at 10, the air temperature was already in the 80s and approaching a muggy 95.
The fact that we landed the same number of fish as his father in 1981 on his first outing with Welsch was not lost on Vukelich.
“This resource and the fishermen who know it so well are just amazing,” Vukelich said. “It (a walk) would make my dad happy.”
We gathered for group photos on the south pier, then Long took the fish out for cleaning and filleting.
The experience was world-class, from the early morning departure from port that Maddox described as an “Indy 500 race” to hours of offshore trolling overlooking the Wisconsin coast to reeling in silver torpedoes to bringing home a delicious fish dinner.
After a break, more anglers came for afternoon charters on all six Welsch boats. It’s a busy season for charter companies on Lake Michigan.
No one is busier than Dumper Dan’s.
Welsh said the lake appears to be in good shape, with plenty of forage for trout and salmon and a decent rate of natural reproduction among several species. But he knows nothing is guaranteed.
“It’s been a roller coaster ride,” Welsh said. “What’s next, I don’t know. But I’m still enjoying myself and holding on.”