The phones of Twin Ports charter captains started buzzing back in June 2020, just after the first COVID-19 shutdown began to ease and guides were again allowed to take customers fishing in Minnesota.
Business hasn’t slowed much since, as the post-pandemic outdoor recreation splurge shows little sign of ending.
For the second straight summer, the two dozen or so charter boats in the Duluth-Superior Harbor have been as busy as they want to be, with a flood of guests eager to get out and experience the trout and salmon fishing Lake Superior has to offer.
Some are repeat customers. But many have been first-time big-lake anglers, including folks who usually go to Canada and still can’t cross the border, groups of guys looking for a new way to gather and families looking to bond on the water.
“We’ve had people who said they drove by here every year on their way to Canada and never knew what we had out here,” said James Hall of James Addiction charters. “Now they say they’ll come back every year … maybe on their way home from the Boundary Waters or from fishing up north. We’re already seeing people coming back who went out last year for the first time.”
Hall is one of the six members of the newly formed Lift Bridge Charter Association, all of them in their 30s, the next generation of captains in Duluth’s growing charter fishing fleet. They became friends on the dock at Lakehead Boat Basin while cleaning fish and sharing stories after trips with customers on the big lake.
But unlike the competitive days of chartering in the past, these guys actually helped each other, sharing timely information on hot baits and bites. Their on-the-water texting group-chats are a goldmine of information, especially when all five boats are out hunting for fish at the same time.
“People (clients) love it when we say we have five boats out there looking for fish. … And they sort of get into the competition when they hear one of our boats just landed a big fish or landed one more than us,” Hall said.
In addition to Hall at James Addiction, Cory Sundeen is Lake Affect Charters, Alex Cuzzo is Angler Management, Parker Bambenek is Superior Pursuits and Jordan Korzenowski and Kent Paulsen are Fish North MN. You can find all six of the young gun charter captains at liftbridgecharters.com, and if you can’t book a date with one they will work together to get you out on another boat in the group.
Like many captains and fishing guides, members of the Lift Bridge group say they started chartering to help make boat payments, cover hefty gasoline bills and pay for docking fees. But they also like the interaction with people and a chance to spend more time on the Gitch.
And like other guides who have made the move from recreational angling, there’s something special about the satisfaction of being successful on the water when someone else’s trip is on the line, not just your own. Most of these guys have spent a decade or more on the water and about five years formal chartering experience, with Bambenek the grizzled veteran at seven years as a pro and more than 20 fishing the big lake.
"We're seeing some younger captains out here now and I think they bring some fresh ideas, trying new things,” Paulsen said.
Bambenek, a traveling contract nurse when he’s not fishing, is able to take summers off and charter full-time. Hall just left his job of 13 years as a manager for U-Haul in the Twin Ports to become a full-time charter captain. Cuzzo recently quit a 10-year career with a freight company to focus on his charter business. Korzenowski, a longshoreman, Paulsen, who works at Arrowhead Juvenile Center, and Sundeen, who works at the Duluth Air National Guard base, are keeping one foot in their day jobs on land.
“I got tired of managing other people. I wanted to do something for myself, on my own,” Cuzzo said during an evening meeting of the group on the dock. “Having to deal with people, putting out fires every day, kind of wore on me. … Dealing with people out here is much better.”
“Life is better at the marina.” Hall chimed in.
“Life is better on the water,’’ Sundeen added.
Each of the Lift Bridge captains will make dozens of charter trips this season, which can run from April into October depending on the weather. Bambenek said he had planned on about 140 charters this summer. Instead, it’s been so busy that he’ll end up closer to 200, about three-fourths of those half-day charters.
“I’m going through Sept. 12 and then I’m going elk hunting in Idaho, so that will be the end of the season for me,” Bambenek said.
Bambenek said the influx of new customers appears to bode well for the charter business in the Twin Ports, another draw for tourism, another activity for tourists to try while visiting the Northland. But there are also local residents who long to get out on the lake that they see every day but who maybe can’t handle, financially or physically, a boat of their own.
“I think we’re tapping into a whole new market. People who never knew this existed,” Bambenek said.
You may remember Korzenowski as the captain whose customer, Steve Gotchie, back in August 2019, caught what might have been the new state record lake trout — if it had been kept and weighed. Instead, they released the monster fish that was 45½ inches long and 31 inches around the belly. No one had seen a lake trout in western Lake Superior that big in decades, and the measurements indicate it might have topped the current Minnesota state record of 43 pounds, 8 ounces caught in 1955 near Hovland in Cook County.
“The fishing has been consistently good. We have a self-sustaining wild lake trout population out there that’s doing pretty well,” Korzenowski said.
Lake trout caught on a daily basis probably average a bit under five pounds, a good size for eating, but lakers 8-10 pounds are fairly common and there’s a realistic chance at a trophy 20 or 30 pounder, the captains noted.
Both the number and size of lake trout being caught in recent years is a testament to the big lake’s recovery from near total game fish devastation a half century ago due to the influx of invasive, parasitic sea lamprey. Long-running efforts to kill lamprey in the streams where they spawn, and a renewed push by natural resource agencies to focus on native lake trout instead of introduced salmon, have helped keep the population of lakers pretty strong.
The Minnesota Department of Natural Resources has mostly ended its stocking program for Lake Superior, except for steelhead trout, to focus on fostering native lake trout. But there are just enough salmon coming from stocking in other states and provinces, and some reproducing in the wild now, to keep it interesting. Coho or silver salmon are small but fairly common and very tasty. And the hard-fighting kings, or chinooks, are just numerous enough to keep an angler's hopes up.
“Everybody wants to catch a king,’’ Paulsen noted. “And it still happens on a lot of trips.”
Over at the Minnesota Slip dock in Duluth, Capt. Peter Dahl of the Happy Hooker fleet of charter boats, said the 2021 season picked up right where 2020 left off. He agrees more people are discovering the big lake’s charm.
“We didn't get busy until late June last year when people finally could get out... This year we were busy from the start,” said Dahl, who has been chartering for 34 years on Lake Superior.
Dahl said he hopes the Minnesota DNR would resume stocking salmon again to provide more fish for his customers, especially as more small-boat anglers try using their walleye boats on the big lake creating more demand for a supply of fish limited by the cold, sterile nature of the big lake.
“This spring, even before the ice was out of the harbor, there would be 100 boats out there on some days,” Dahl said. “The lake belongs to everyone, that’s great. … But there’s more competition now for the same number of fish. I think we’re seeing the average size go down some because of that.”
Still, Dahl said most of his customers leave the dock happy with their experience.
“And it’s not always just about the fish,’’ Dahl said. “Just this morning I had a family from Iowa out there and they didn’t care to keep any of the fish they caught. It was just about the experience of being out on Lake Superior.”
Tips from the Lift Bridge charter captains
Don’t bring bananas on board a boat. It’s bad luck.
Don’t ask if the captain has ever been skunked. It’s bad luck.
Don’t ask what the limit is, especially if the fish are biting. It’s bad luck.
Bring warm clothes. On Lake Superior, the temperature can go from 80s to 40s in an instant.
Keep a positive attitude. People with bad attitudes catch fewer fish, or none at all.
About Lake Superior charter fishing
Early season fishing for salmon in April and May is great close to shore.
June, July and August provide warmer conditions and good fishing not far out from the Twin Ports.
September can be the best month for big lake trout.
Half-day (5-hour) and full day (8-hour) charters are available, with morning charters leaving the dock by 6 a.m. and afternoon charters by about noon.
Half-day charters run about $500-$550 for 1-4 people, about $50 for each additional person; full-day charters run about $750-$800 for 1-4 people, about $50 for each additional person.
Multiple charter operations run out of Duluth and Superior, including the members of liftbridgecharters.com; Happy Hooker charters at lakesuperiorfishing.net; Fishingchartersduluth.com; Optimum Charters at lakesuperiorfishing.com; Idratherbefishinglakesuperior.com; Impulse Outdoors at duluthsportfishing.com; Superior Marine Charters at superiormarinecharters.com; Silver Fox Charters at silverfoxchartersonlakesuperior.com; Lake Superior Hatteras Fishing at duluthhatterasfishingcharter.com; Action Fishing Charters at actionfishingduluth.com; and Looper Charters at fishingbooker.com.