OFF PALISADE HEAD — It wasn’t a big lake trout, maybe 3 pounds tops, but it was the first fish of the day and Mark Mathieu was finally smiling after a slow morning of trolling.
“I admit it. I have this disease,’’ Mathieu said.
The disease is Lake Superior fishing. Mathieu caught it a decade ago when someone brought him to Isle Royale for the first time. He immediately fell in love with the big lake, big fish and big boats.
“This lake… it’s just an amazing place,’’ he said while rigging another line. “I never really got down here as a kid. Now, I don't want to leave.”
After fishing 7 miles offshore with no luck, Mathieu and his crew pulled up the 10 lines we were dragging — half spoons and half stick baits — and we moved closer to shore.
“We’re persistent. We’re not giving up until we find fish,’’ he said over the roar of the twin-turbocharged diesel engines.
We started trolling along one of the most rugged parts of Minnesota’s North Shore, between the Palisade Head bluff and the Manitou River falls that pour into the lake. Mathieu and crew kept picking out new options from the more than 1,000 lures on board his boat, trying new colors, shapes and sizes — and trying different depths and temperature ranges, too — to see what would spur a trout or salmon to bite. Eventually, they did — a few nice coho salmon in addition to the trout.
Mathieu, 47, is a born and raised Iron Ranger. He grew up in Eveleth, where he still lives. He works at U.S. Steel’s taconite mining operations in Mountain Iron. But when he's not doing his day job trying to boost the efficiency of the Minntac maintenance shop, he is on the water, or thinking about the water, of Gitchi Gummi.
This year Mathieu is running his boat, the Kingfisher, out of Silver Bay Marina, just over an hour drive from his home.
“We haven’t missed a weekend on the boat yet this summer,’’ Mathieu said. His wife and first mate, Chris, and black Lab, Goose, join him for most trips. “And it’s close enough that we can even run down for an evening cruise, too.”
Mathieu has a new boat this season, a 38-foot Tiara that's a whopping 14.5 feet wide, a boat that can take most anything Lake Superior has to dish out. It’s fitted with all the latest electronic bells and whistles, from autopilot, radar and GPS to a killer sound system and TV-size depth finders and electric downriggers — along with a full head, galley and sleeping areas and lots of room for extra anglers. It’s an upgrade from his previous, 30-foot boat.
“We like to go to Isle Royale and we don’t want to worry about whether we can go or not,’’ Mathieu said.
But he also upgraded boats to start a new venture this summer — Kingfisher Charters. Mathieu has made the jump from recreational troller to professional charter captain. But he hasn’t jumped too far — at least not yet.
“I’d like to do about 30 charters a summer. Definitely part-time. I’ve got a lot of vacation time and weekends and evenings, so I think we can make it work,’’ Mathieu said.
Sharing their love of the lake
It’s not so much that Mathieu wanted or needed to start making money on fishing trips — more that he wants to share his love of the big lake with other folks.
“We have so much fun when we take people out; friends and relatives or whatever, that I thought, let’s get more people their first (Lake Superior) experience. Or their biggest fish. That’s as much fun for me, just watching them,’’ he said. “It’s amazing how fish always make people smile.”
So far it’s been harder to land customers than fish. Just getting his charter name out has been tough.
“It’s been harder to get this going than I thought... Not the fishing part, but paying for a website and then paying Google to get your name out there, and getting on Facebook,’’ Mathieu noted. He has his offshore Coast Guard license and is a licensed guide in Minnesota and Wisconsin waters and increased liability insurance now that he’s charging his passengers.
“I’m learning a lot about the business of fishing,’’ he noted.
Lorin LeMire of Saginaw made the same jump as Mathieu a few years ago. After years of taking friends and family out on the big lake for fishing fun, LeMire spent the last four summers chartering out of Duluth as Fish of the Gitch charters. But this year he sold his big Lake Superior boats and is taking a summer off from chartering. Maybe two summers. LeMire said it was exhausting trying to schedule a full-time job (also working in an Iron Range mining operation) with charter fishing and his family obligations.
“I wanted to reconnect with my kids before they headed off to college in a few years. Last summer I was either working or chartering every day all summer. It was too much,” LeMire said.
But LeMire also said he will go back to chartering when he’s ready.
“It’s an expensive proposition. It seemed just to get my Coast Guard certificate I was running around town handing out checks to everyone… for a physical or background check or insurance or whatever,’’ LeMire said. “And there’s the boat and the (marina docking) slip fees. But It’s worth it. I miss it some days. I’ll go back to it when my kids get older.”
Peter Dahl has been a charter fishing captain for 32 years out of Duluth, part of his family’s Happy Hooker charter service that started with his father, Don, in 1976.
“It’s always good to be spending time with people when they are having fun,’’ Dahl said.
“The big thing is you have to enjoy it. I’d say 99 percent of the people are great and we have as much fun as they do,’’ Dahl said. “But there’s the 1 percent that can make it a job real fast.”
Dahl said it’s important that the entire trip, not just the fishing, goes well.
“Your reputation, especially with everyone giving reviews now (on social media) is everything in this business... You can’t help it if something goes wrong. But if it does, you have to do something else to make up for it. Don’t let them leave the boat with a bad experience or it can ruin your reputation.”
Mathieu said he’s already bent the ears of a few veteran charter captains who offered some advice.
“One said to avoid stag parties,’’ Mathieu said of trips aimed more at drinking than fishing.
“And if anyone on board gets too rowdy on any trip, just go back to the dock,” Chris Mathieu added.
“We want it to be fun, not work,’’ Mark Mathieu said as he revved up the Kingfisher’s diesels for the trip back to the marina. “We want to share this lake with people.”
About Kingfisher Charters
Kingfisher Charters operates out of the Silver Bay Marina and has full day, eight-hour trips ($700) and half day, five-hour trips ($500) available for up to 6 people. You need only bring your Minnesota fishing license and trout stamp validation, all equipment is provided. Go to Kingfisher Charters got to Kingfisherchartersmn.com or call Mark Mathieu at 218-206-6514 or email firstname.lastname@example.org or find them on Facebook at KingfisherChartersMN.