SHEBOYGAN – Dawn arrives in early summer in Wisconsin.
And time passes so fast. Years even.
At 5 a.m. on June 20, a pink light filled the sky over Sheboygan Marina.
“Ready to go?” said Captain Dan Welsch, 55, owner of Dumper Dan’s Sportfishing Charters in Sheboygan. “The fish are out there waiting.”
Our crew of 12 people moved to the pier behind the tent in front of Dumper Dan’s seafront.
Three of Welsch’s fleet of six 28-foot cruisers have already departed. The others were idling at their moorings, waiting for us to load.
Welsch took us to the boats and waved us goodbye. We split four each and in a few minutes we set off on an adventure to the Big Pond.
The silver gulls fluttered above our heads, the mighty boats boarded the plane, the fresh air of the lake dragged our cheeks.
Some things never change.
Others are markedly different.
It looks like yesterday Welsch was a 14-year-old first officer with Captain Gary Schrimpf of AAA Charters of Sheboygan and they had a fishing party with writer, DJ and outdoor narrator George Vukelich of Madison.
Vukelich did as he was told that day in 1981 and brought a large refrigerator. It was necessary.
Fishermen landed eight fish on an afternoon outing, including a 15.5-pound chinook salmon that struggled for 30 minutes.
He started a Vukelich family tradition of fishing outside Sheboygan that continued through the evolution of the local fishing industry. A few years later, when Vukelich called to arrange an excursion, Schrimpf said “do you remember the first companion you had?”
And Vukelich began booking trips with Welsch and Dan’s Dumper, his new business.
In 1985, Welsch made 26 fishing trips to the Big Pond.
This year, with the strength of a fleet of six ships, Dumper Dan’s will run more than 1,000.
“In the blink of an eye, here we are,” Welsch says.
On June 20, the “we” included a family link to Welsch’s professional history.
Vince Vukelich of Greendale, son of George, was aboard the Dumper Dan VI along with Dain Maddox of Wauwatosa, Marcus Stanford of Madison and myself.
Among the other boats were Vince’s wife, Sue Conwell, and their sons Taylor and Tyler Vukelich, Sam Austin and their son Will, Pete Jurgeleit, Jeff Krueger and Jay Neuman.
All are Wisconsin residents who are friends, co-workers, former co-workers or relatives of Vince Vukelich.
Vukelich organized the outing to honor the past and introduce family and friends to fishing.
George Vukelich died in 1995 at the age of 67, truncating what would no doubt have been a spicy life with more fishing trips.
“I have fond memories of the trips my father and I made here,” Vince Vukelich said as the ship headed southeast from Sheboygan. “And I hope that by bringing out other people we can create similar experiences and maybe even start a tradition.”
When Welsch was born in Sheboygan in 1967, there was no fishing industry to talk about.
Lake Michigan was barely recovering from an onslaught of invasive species, including the sea lamprey that had devastated the populations of the two largest native predatory fish, the lake trout and the lotus.
To help control the overpopulation of another invader, the alewife, the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources had begun storing non-native rainbow trout (steelhead) in 1963 and the Fish and Wildlife Service of the The US had started planting lake trout in 1965.
Coho salmon was not part of the mix in Wisconsin until 1968 and chinook until 1969.
What started as an experiment was successful. And when Welsch was a teenager, Lake Michigan had recreational and charter fishing for trout and salmon.
Welsch, whom George Vukelich described in the 1980s as a “California surfer” and a “young Robin Yount,” began working as a first mate.
After losing one or two fish in network attempts next to the boat, a friend christened him “Dumper.”
He got hooked. And after Welsch graduated from high school he knew what he wanted to do. I wanted to be a full time charter captain.
He was licensed to captain the Great Lakes 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 her business in 1985, her mother said it could only be one thing: Dan’s Dumper.
And so it was, and it is.
Welsch has withstood economic cycles and ecological changes for the past 37 years.
“I’ve seen many other captains of the letter come and go,” Welsch said. “It’s certainly not an easy way to make a living, but it’s the only thing I’ve wanted to do and I’ve found a way.”
In the late 1980s, for example, lake chinook salmon suffered from bacterial kidney disease, causing a sharp decline in one of the most popular species.
“The kings had basically disappeared,” Welsch said. “So we moved on to other species.”
Welsch said he is lucky to be in Sheboygan, where he can fish the top five species of lake trout and salmon: brown trout, lake trout, steelhead, chinook salmon and coho salmon.
The chinook returned after BKD, but then the zebra and quagga mussels began to change the lake. Invasive mussels filtered plankton from the water, removing critical foods for forage fish and making the water much clearer.
Fishermen have had to modify their methods to take into account the clear water of gin, Welsch said.
But as with the other challenges, it has adapted.
Out-of-state fishermen make up a large portion of their business. Many come from Minnesota.
A group from Japan once made sashimi on the boat with freshly caught salmon.
Recognizing the opportunities, Welsch expanded its business in recent years to include condominium units, which it rents to its customers, and a store in the marina.
He even has a taxidermist available to do fish assemblies for his clients.
Dumper Dan’s is now one of the largest rental companies in the Great Lakes.
Welsch still manages a boat most days, but his success has forced him to sacrifice one day a week to stay in the office and get paid.
So during our trip the Dumper Dan VI was led by Captain Dave Nitze and First Officer Cody Long, both from Sheboygan.
We walked south between 280 and 300 feet of water. The water temperature was 49 degrees at the surface and 44 to about 50 feet.
Nitze and Long published 16 lines, covering a wide range of water depths, mostly with flies and spoons.
At 6 in the morning the first rod bounced off to the sleep of a fish. Stanford, on his first fishing trip to Lake Michigan, grabbed his rod and landed an 8-pound lake trout.
“I think I like that,” Stanford said.
Thirty minutes later, Maddox caught the next fish and turned out to be a 7-pound steelhead.
Both fish had adipose fins, that is, they were wild and naturally reproduced fish.
This is another change in the lake: today a more natural reproduction is being observed than at any time in the modern era of trout and salmon fishing.
And so it went for the next four hours as we cut south about 12 miles, and then turned north. When we pulled the strings 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 southwest wind of 10 miles per hour. The cool lake also helped keep us comfortable.
When we entered the track at 10, the air temperature was already in the 80s and we were on our way to a 95 bogosos.
The fact that we landed the same amount of fish that his father did in 1981 on his first outing with Welsch was not lost on Vukelich.
“This resort and the fishermen who know it so well are amazing,” Vukelich said. “This (exit) would make my father happy.”
We got together to take group photos on the south pier, then Long took the fish to clean and fillet.
The experience was world-class, from leaving the harbor early in the morning that Maddox described as an “Indy 500 race” to hours of sea fishing overlooking the Wisconsin coast, through silver torpedoes to bring home delicious fish dinners.
After a pause, more fishermen came to rent the six boats from Welsch in the afternoon. This is the high season for Michigan Lake rental companies.
No one is busier than Dumper Dan.
Welsch said the lake appears to be in good condition, with plenty of forage available for trout and salmon and a decent natural breeding rate among several species. But he knows that nothing is guaranteed.
“It’s been a roller coaster ride,” Welsch said. “What’s going on, I don’t know. But I’m still enjoying and enduring.”