Sep. 26—ELBERTA, Mich. — Each fall, as sure as the leaves take on colorful coats, the cider mills snap out of their slumber, and white-tailed deer suddenly become more invisible, crowds of anglers return to the banks of the Betsie River here, and at a number of other waterways in the state that play host to strong runs of chinook salmon and steelhead.
A similar scenario plays out in northeast Ohio's Steelhead Alley, around some of the traditional yellow perch and walleye fishing hotspots on Lake Erie, and, later in autumn, on the piers along the lake that are popular during the phenomenon known as the "night bite" for walleye.
Anglers pack these locations, because this is where the fish are concentrated at specific times of the year. Unfortunately, a few of the fishermen leave their manners on shore, at home, or missing in action.
Joe Molnar, the district law supervisor for the Michigan Department of Natural Resources, oversees enforcement in the northwest Michigan region where the Betsie, the Pere Marquette River, the Platte, and the Big Manistee River see legions of fishermen chasing kings and steelhead every fall. He said that along with the masses of anglers come the associated problems best described collectively as a lack of fishing etiquette.
"Local businesses and communities open their doors and welcome anglers," Molnar said. "Many people treat the area and fishing resources with care and respect, but those who live and work in these communities are tired of those who continue to snag fish, litter and exhibit poor behavior."
Trash, trespassing, and rude behavior tend to spoil the experience for all. Molnar said violations of the fishing rules and regulations become more common during the chinook run, when hooking up with 20- and 30-pound fish is possible. Snagging, the illegal hooking of a fish without the fish taking the bait in its mouth, is a persistent issue on the rivers that support chinook runs.
"Snagging, littering and trespassing are common violations we see during the fish runs," Molnar said. "Landowners have gone above and beyond to clearly post their private property but continue to experience trespassers wandering their land to get to the next fishing spot — often leaving a trail of litter."
There have also been many testy exchanges between anglers who feel others are encroaching on their fishing area, or those staking a claim to a river site that they have fished previously. When the kings are thick in one section of the river, some anglers cast decorum to the wind and tempers spike when the tight quarters result in tangled lines and heated give-and-take.
MDNR's Central Lake Michigan Unit manager Scott Heintzelman said bad behavior on the rivers and streams by a few can have a negative impact on future fishing opportunities for all. "Following conservation laws and being good stewards of these aquatic systems is one way anglers can ensure strong salmon fisheries into the future," Heintzelman said.
The etiquette problems on the piers, where the fall walleye fishing can be explosive at times, have led to confrontations, threats, and physical altercations. At Luna Pier, where the anglers often arrive a couple of hours before sundown in order to stake out the best locations, others have showed up at dark and claimed to have the rights to a certain section of the pier.
Last fall, one particularly belligerent would-be Luna Pier fisherman demanded others clear out of a space on the public pier that he considered his. He eventually got the worst of a rough and tumble exchange.
Similar issues involving an absence of decorum arise on the piers in Sandusky, Huron, and Catawba Island State Park each fall. Some anglers attempt to "hold" spots on the piers for their late-arriving buddies, while other ill-mannered and impolite individuals will actually step into another fisherman's space while that angler is taking off a fish or changing baits.
An incident at the Huron Pier last fall had one angler show up just before the prime fishing hours, angrily tell another fisherman that he was "in my spot" before engaging in a shouting match and eventually kicking some of the first angler's gear into the water.
There are also acts of disregard for the fishery and fellow anglers that draw the ire of those working the fall night bite. Anglers that are careless, sloppy, or just ignorant of the ways of the walleye will flash their headlamps across the surface of the water while changing baits or unhooking fish, an action which is guaranteed to spook any of the light-sensitive walleye in the area. There are also instances of anglers not taking the wind into consideration and casting across the lines of other fishermen, a sin often repeated during the spring walleye runs in the rivers.
Out on the big lake, with miles and miles of open water, there is no refuge from the rude and discourteous behavior of some. Charter captain Eric Hirzel of Erie Gold Fishing Adventures said his first choice is to always avoid the crowd, but the aggressive nature of some fishermen prevents that effort to find sanctuary from the conflicts.
"I usually try to find my own spots, because the way I look at it the first part of etiquette is try to avoid the need for it," Hirzel said. "I will try to stay away from the groups, but it always seems like somebody finds you."
He said that when the walleye fishing gets a little tougher, some anglers will push up against a boat that is trolling, assuming that the active fishing means the first boat has marked or landed fish.
"For the most part, fishermen respect each other, but there some of the bigger boats who do what they want and go where they want, and they just don't care about manners," he said. "And there are guys out on Lake Erie who think they own the lake — this is my spot, and if you get within 100 yards of them and they are screaming at you."
Hirzel said that despite how frustrating and discouraging the rude and boorish behavior of others can be, he often chooses to go elsewhere once a breach of fisherman's etiquette is observed.
"Once it gets too crowded or someone starts yelling at other fishermen or blasting their boat's horn, I just leave and avoid it," he said. "My dad always told me to never argue with an idiot, because people watching won't be able to tell the difference."
First Published September 26, 2021, 8:00am