Few people have the knowledge, tackle, and proper boat to fish the vast and often unpredictable waters of Lake Superior. For 56 years however, one Bessemer, Michigan resident has found his calling running a fishing charter out of Black River harbor, not only providing his customers with an experience of a lifetime, but also creating lifelong friendships off the shores of the largest freshwater lake in the world.
Although Jim no longer runs his fishing charter business, his introduction to Lake Superior fishing began as a child. His parents and older brother would leave their family farmhouse in Wakefield, MI, and spend summers at Black River harbor, on Lake Superior, due north of Bessemer. They would live in a tent on the beach during those warm months.
Jim fondly remembers one of his first memories on Lake Superior, when he was a child. “We were quite a ways out in the Lake maybe eight miles or something, Jim said, “and it was in the hot time of the year and I wanted to jump in the Lake. So my dad said, ‘go ahead.’ It was dead calm, but he made me put a life jacket on and it was so warm out that I thought it’d be nice and refreshing. When I jumped in, it wasn’t warm out there in the water. By the time I got to the back of the boat, I was glad they lifted me out. That was one of my early memories. I’ll never forget that.”
Throughout his youth, Jim would often fish with his father but with limited success. Then, in the 1950s, fellow Black River harbor fisherman, Gust Kuismi, invented trolling skis. The trolling skis were made out of cedar planks and allowed fishing crews to set as many as 10 lines at once with lures reaching depths up to 150 feet. A trigger mechanism notified the crew when a fish struck a lure. The invention of trolling skis would forever change fishing at Black River harbor and Lake Superior.
“We went out quite a bit, but the fishing wasn’t good at all then,” Jim remembers, “and that was the time when Gus Kuismi invented the skis. It was kind of interesting because all of a sudden, he started coming in with fish. Gust Kuismi took me under his wing. What I learned about ski fishing, anyways, I really learned from him.”
Jim then served four years in the Marine Corps, including one year overseas in Thailand and Japan. When he returned to the US, Jim received training as a machinist under the GI Bill. He found a job near Milwaukee, but soon realized that he missed his home and fishing on Lake Superior. “I worked just north of Milwaukee in a machine shop there in the winter,” said Jim. And I followed the geese north and said I’m never going back to the city again. I figured I was going to stay up north, no matter what I did. I would make a living somehow.”
The year was 1963. Jim decided to start his fishing charter business at home, at Black River harbor. It was only fitting that Jim’s first boat had strong ties to harbor, as well. “I just had an old double end boat that had been built right at Black River Harbor, Jim remembers. “It was built for commercial fishing. So then I just took people. I didn’t do too much business in the first year. But little by little I acquired a business. It’s not a big money making business. You have to love it in order to really do it.”
Four years later, in 1967, Jim married Darlene. Even as his chartering business continued to grow, they always found time to take their annual trip to Isle Royale National Park. Jim used his training as a machinist to supplement their income during the winter. “And we lived but not too well, but we lived,” Jim recalls. “The pension plan wasn’t very good. A lot of times that don’t make no difference.”
Over his 56 years of chartering, Jim has evolved to the myriad changes that have impacted Lake Superior fishing. Some changes include lighter, faster boats, more reflective lures, and the introduction of salmon to the Great Lakes. But the one constant, however, is Jim’s passion for sharing the experience of fishing on Lake Superior with his crews. Many of them returned year after year to fish with but also visit with their skipper and friend, Jim Johnson.
“The year before last, I still had one guy that came out with me for almost since I started, Jim remembers. “And he was 90 years old, and everybody in his original crew had passed on, so he’d come out with a couple of his sons. That one crew there, they were with me for almost 50 years, I think. So I miss that. That’s what kept me into it for that many years. It’s just I had those old customers and we were friends. But I enjoyed doing it. I met a lot of good people, and I just love the Lake.”
This spring, Jim will be out with his friends on Lake Superior competing in the 17th annual Lake Trout Classic fishing tournament in Ontonogon, MI. He’s been competing in the tournament since its inception in 2004.
In case you’re wondering if anybody has chartered longer than Jim, his answer combines both his easy natured personality and his sense of humor: “I think I hold the record. If I didn’t think so, I wouldn’t have sold the boat.”
Images: Jim Johnson at Lake Superior