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Bayfield, Wisconsin’s Rich History of Fishing on Lake Superior: A Boutin Survival Story

A fishing boat floating on Lake Superior

This one’s going to be a little different.

Bayfield has officially entered its quiet season. The leaves have fallen, and the apples are picked. It’s the time of year when most of us can take a deep breath after the hustle and bustle of the summer tourist season.

Well, except for the commercial fisherman. November means it’s herring season. This quick but grueling season is where they brave the unpredictable waters to go fishing on Lake Superior.

Every November, when the herring are spawning, the fishermen have a chance to bring in full nets of this delicious fish and its roe to be sold in their fish markets and in local restaurants.

Many restaurants in Bayfield and the Chequamegon Bay claim their Friday Night Fish Fry is the best – we’re going to leave that argument for another day. But I have to say there’s something a little extra special when herring is on the menu.

Something else that’s special is our family’s historic ties to fishing on Lake Superior.  

Bayfield is Isaac’s hometown. But his roots go deep, really deep. His grandmother’s family, the Boutins, settled here over 150 years ago to make their living fishing on Lake Superior.

His great-grandfather Allison was the captain of the Allison B., a commercial fishing tug. His uncles and dad worked as deckhands when they were in high school. His grandmother and aunt tell stories of picking bones out of fish nets. 

One story that’s told over and over again is the story of his great-grandpa Allison and brother Wilfred (Manny) Boutin. The two spent five grueling days drifting on Lake Superior in the winter of 1932.

This week, we’re taking a bit of a break from our usual content to tell their story.

A Brief History of Commercial Fishing in Bayfield, Wisconsin

Bayfield is one of the only places left in Wisconsin with a thriving commercial fishing industry. 

This long-standing tradition dates back to the late 1800s when the port of Bayfield was home to the largest number of commercial fishermen in any Lake Superior port. 

In fact, when the Boutin family arrived, it wasn’t just a single household. Seven brothers, their wives, and children all came – over 100 members in all. The Boutins came to seek a better future and fortune in fishing and logging (another robust industry at the time). 

The Apostle Islands and its shallow waters were rich in fish and other natural resources, like its old-growth forests and brownstone quarries. Bayfield, at one time, was dubbed the new Chicago because of its business potential and unique port. 

Since this time, the Boutin family has lived and continued to fish on Lake Superior. 

In 1932, Isaac’s great-grandpa Allison and brother Manny were fishing with their father and other members of the Boutin family when the unexpected happened.

Lost on Lake Superior in the Winter of 1932 

It was January 13, 1932, when Allison and Manny disappeared. They were staying with their father, Ulric, and several other fishermen at a camp on Michigan Island. 

Allison and Manny went out in the late afternoon to set their lines when a sudden squall hit their 21-foot fishing boat with nothing but a canvas tarp for a roof. Three big waves came over the stern and killed their engine about 7 miles from shore. 

The heavy winds blew them out into the open water of Lake Superior, drifting aimlessly. In an effort to slow their drift, they took three fish boxes to make a type of drag, but it didn’t seem to help much against the strong winds.

Afraid of falling asleep and freezing to death, Allison and Manny worked through the night to get their engine running. Early the next morning, it slowly fired up. 

In the morning light, as they began to steer their boat east toward Michigan Island, they realized their boat was caked in six inches of ice and started to “roll like a drunken sailor.” 

Allison and Manny found a pipe and a hammer and went to work breaking the ice off of their boat so they could head back to camp.

By this time, they had drifted about 25 miles away from Michigan Island. With their engine running and boat free from ice, they made a run for it right into the gale that sent them adrift in the first place. 

After about two hours into their trip, the engine sputtered out of gas, and they were pushed back into the open lake.

Over the next few days, Allison and Manny were completely at the whim of the wind and currents of the lake, slowly drifting east toward Ontonogan, Michigan – about 40 miles from their camp on Michigan Island.

Getting what little sleep they could, they took turns sleeping to make sure neither of them froze to death. They had no food. Only chewing tobacco to suppress their appetite until even that ran out four days later. 

A small sheet iron stove kept them from freezing. They burned every bit of wood they had or could pry loose from the boat. When the wood ran out, they burned old rags and an old jacket they dipped in oil. The oil burned black, covering their faces in a thick layer of soot.

After five days, the wind finally drifted them toward the only sandy beach at Union Bay near Ontonagon, Michigan. Starved, frozen, and exhausted, they climbed out of their boat and stumbled toward a fisherman’s cabin about a half mile from shore.

The view of a beach and Lake Superior.

With barely enough strength to knock, the door opened. The man who answered the door was Louis Cook. Startled by the sight of the two dirty and haggard men, Louis attempted to shut the door on Allison and Manny. 

But after he heard their story, he welcomed them into his cabin and quickly offered a bite of rabbit stew. But because Allison and Manny hadn’t eaten in five days, he quickly denied the men food for fear of harming them. Too tired to argue, the men watched as he took the bowls of stew away.

Instead, Louis sent for the local doctor, who also denied them food until the next day, introducing a little bit at a time. 

As soon as they could, Allison and Manny sent a telegram to their father, “Arrived here at 10 this morning, all ok.” 

Their father wired them some money so they could repair the boat and make the journey back home.

At three o’clock in the morning, over a week after they went missing on Lake Superior, the Boutin brothers docked their boat back in Bayfield. 

A line out of one of the newspaper articles describing their tale read, “Only a Boutin could survive.” 

Survive, they did. Allison and Manny continued to fish and passed down this tradition of fishing on Lake Superior to their sons and grandchildren. 

Members of the Boutin Family Are Still Fishing on Lake Superior Today

Two fishermen are cleaning fish on Lake Superior.

The commercial fishing industry isn’t as strong as it was back in the 1930s. But it’s still an integral part of what makes Bayfield and the Apostle Islands unique. And some of the fishermen who climb aboard fishing tugs and skiffs are descendants of the Boutins. 

Allison and Manny Boutin had a little brother named Morris. And it’s Morris’s daughters and their families that have carried on the commercial fishing tradition into today.

Hoop’s Fish Market

Craig Hoopman, Morris Boutin’s grandson, continues the legacy by bringing fresh fish from his boat to your plate every day. 

When you dine in Bayfield or the Chequamegon Bay, there’s a good chance the fish you’re eating came from Hoop’s. And if you want to take some home, you can get fresh:

  • Trout
  • Whitefish
  • Herring 

You can find Hoop’s Dockside Fish Market right on the water in downtown Bayfield or just across the street from Seagull Bay at Hoop’s Fish Market.

Not only can you get fresh fillets pin boned and skinned, but you can also pick up:

  • Fish dip
  • Smoked fish
  • Whitefish livers – a rare delicacy 😋.

When you stop into either one of Hoop’s Fish Markets, you’ll see pictures of Morris, his dad, and brothers fishing on Lake Superior.

Halvorson Fisheries

Just a few miles from Bayfield is Cornucopia, Wisconsin – an old fishing village located on the South Shore of the Bayfield peninsula. Here, its beach is lined with old abandoned fishing tugs – like gravestones in a graveyard.

But alongside these ghost ships is Halvorson’s Fisheries. Halvorson’s Fisheries is owned by Dean, Maureen, Mark, and Cliff Halvorson. Maureen is the daughter of Morris, and together with her family, they have rooted themselves as one of the leading commercial fishing families in the area.

When you visit their fish market, you’ll find fresh trout, whitefish, herring filets, whitefish livers, and fish dip.

You can also visit Fisherman’s Hideout in Cornucopia and enjoy the fresh catch of the day.

I love hearing stories like this. And even better, I love that the tradition of commercial fishing on Lake Superior lives on in our community.

Enjoy Fresh Fish When You Visit Us in Bayfield, Wisconsin

King Sized bed and kitchenette of Seagull Bay Motel in Bayfield,WI.

Whether you order it from the menu at a Bayfield restaurant or you buy fresh fillets from Hoop’s Fish Market, I hope you enjoy this natural resource we’re so lucky to have.

And maybe, just maybe, you’ll remember this story when you’re looking out onto the lake from one of our balconies or your own private deck. 

Seagull Bay and Bay West both look to the east toward Michigan Island. And on a clear day, you can see the horizon of the Upper Penisula of Michigan near Ontonagon, where the Boutin Brothers landed almost 100 years ago.

You can also watch the fishing tugs come into shore with their catch. Flocks of seagulls follow these tugs all the way to the docks after a long day of fishing on Lake Superior.

Book your room and plan on enjoying the fresh catch of the day when you visit.

Enjoy the View!

Mollie, Isaac, Axel, Ridge, and Banks

QUICK LINKS:

Hoop’s Fish Market | Bayfield WI | Facebook

Halvorson Fisheries | Cornucopia WI

The Fisherman’s Hideout  

November 27, 2023

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