Apostle Island Fish Company

The blood of Lake Superior fishermen runs strongly in the veins of fifth-generation fisherman Mike Peterson, son of Red Cliff’ fisherman Cecil Peterson. Cecil, along with his brother Gilmore, continued to build the family’s commercial fishing business inherited from their father, Wilfred Peterson. Wilfred grew up fishing Lake Superior with his father Martin and great grandfather, Martin Peterson Sr.

AIFC families
A joint endeavor between the Mike Peterson and Keith Bresette families led to the opening of the Apostle Island Fish Company in May 2006. Located near the two families' homes on the Red Cliff reservation, the company processes and distributes it own Lake Superior fish. Pictured above are: Keith Bresette with Keith Jr., Tanya Bresette and Lindsay; Bresettes' son Cody; Amanda Peterson, Mike Peterson and Joanne Peterson.

While the commercial fishing business has witnessed many changes, for better and worse, since the days Martin Sr. worked the great lake for it’s abundant fish, Mike Peterson along with his wife, Joanne, and close friends Keith, Red Cliff, and Tanya Bresette, remain committed to the commercial fishing industry as a source of income and a way of life.

Both Keith and Mike, who have fished together since they were kids, learned the trade from their fathers. In Keith’s case, it was from his stepfather, Larry (Bootin) Soulier. Keith began working with Mike when he was 18 years old and currently also owns a fishing tug, T & T out of Red Cliff.

Today, along with their wives and families, they are committed to meeting the challenges of a sagging wholesale fish market, caused largely by an influx of foreign fish. But like the families before them, they tenaciously hold to their way of life, seeking to solve the problems rather than give up.

In an effort to increase the market value of their catch, the two couples started the Apostle Island Fish Company in May 2006 and are actively marketing their own fish. At this point they are largely selling to local restaurants but will be seeking to expand their market, especially for Lake Superior whitefish and lake trout.

For one, they intend to emphasize the difference between fish from Lake Superior and other Great Lakes fish.

“Our market has been hurt by publicity surrounding Great Lakes fish, some of which is assumed to be highly contaminated, “ Peterson states,“but Lake Superior fish, especially whitefish, make very clean, healthy eating. We have an excellent product to market.”

The challenge for the fledgling company is educating the public, the buyers, and promoting their high quality product to a larger audience. In other words promoting more demand.

The Apostle Island Fish Company is located on the Red Cliff Reservation in close proximity to both the Bresette and Peterson’s homes, convenient for a family-owned and operated business. With assistance from the GLIFWC-administrated grant from the Administration for Native Americans, the company is equipped with pin-boners, processing freezers and a vacuum-packer, all necessary for marketing the fillets.

In addition, the two couples have completed the Hazard Analysis and Critical Control Point (HACCP) training required to meet safety standards involved in the marketing of fish products.

While Mike is a full-time fisherman, owning and operating one of his father’s former tugs, Energy, Keith currently works construction and fishes with Mike whenever he is able. Both Tanya and Joanne also have full-time employment in the fields of accounting, so the Apostle Island Fish Company crew is frequently busy processing and marketing fish during weekends and well into the evenings as the infant company starts off.

Fishing has historically demanded long hours, and of course, is weather dependent. But unlike unloading the fish at a wholesaler’s dock, the crew must now set and lift nets on the lake, return to shore and process. This is where the work becomes a family affair, with everybody including some of the older children participating in the preparation of the fillets.

“The work doesn’t end with setting and pulling nets,” says Joanne. “There’s picking fish out of nets, cleaning fish, processing, repairing nets, keeping the tug up to snuff, running ice, marketing and accounting.” The list goes on.

While the Apostle Island Fish Company is just getting started, some Peterson family fish shops run by other members of the Peterson family are well established. On the outskirts of the Red Cliff Reservation is Peterson's Fisheries, formerly run by Wildfred Peterson and now by Wilfred's grandson, Shawn Hanson, also a commercial fisherman. In Hancock, Michigan, Cecil's brother Gilmore and his wife Pat operate Peterson's Fish Market, an established fish processing operation and retail shop.

Mike’s father, Cecil is still out there fishing in the Spirit, a 55-foot tug with “all the bells and whistles,” according to son Mike. Cecil also operates a grocery store in Red Cliff, Peterson’s Food, where fresh and smoked fish are available, of course.

A way of life, sometimes really tough

Mike recalls fishing with his grandfather Wilfred at an early age and also with “Uncle Butts,” Cecil’s uncle Louis. He also remembers fishing in a 20-footer with his cousin Ricky, “We were too young to have a driver’s license. He’d pick us kids up and drop us off on the dock by noon. We fished all summer with him, lifting nets by hand to earn money for school clothes,” Mike recalls.

Moving ice during spring thaw can be one of the hazards encountered by commercial fishermen. Above, Cecil Peterson's boat, Energy (now captained by his son, Mike), was trapped off Devil's Island in 1984. Fishing with Peterson that day were Dave Curran and Larry "Bootin" Soulier, walking on the packed ice.

Fishing can be tough, really tough, especially when sudden squalls appear on the Lake Superior horizon. In 1988 Mike lost all his nets to a storm, so he worked two boats, his uncle’s and his dad’s, everyday to recover the loss and start up again.

He also recalls being caught in a gale while fishing with his dad in Michigan waters of Lake Superior. A nor’wester packing 70 mph winds blew the hatches right off the tug, and the two were forced to cut the nets.

Keith also has his stories fishing with Bootin Soulier. They encountered a sudden storm while fishing near Manitou Island in the early 80’s and ended up stuck on the island for three days, finding safe haven in a cabin on the island until the storm blew over.

When winter settles in and the tugs are ice bound, Mike and Keith set nets beneath the ice. There’s no kickin’ back for a well-deserved break. The fish and the income have to keep coming in for family needs.

Despite all the struggles that come part and parcel with fishing for a living, it’s obviously the chosen way of life for both Mike and Keith who enjoy tremendous support and a strong sense of teamwork from their wives and families.

“Fishing is in the blood. Most of it is enjoyable, especially when you pull in a net with a ‘mother load’ of fish, but there’s a lot of struggle,” Mike admits with a smile, undaunted by the challenges of a fishing way of life or of the great lake herself. For information contact numbers are: (715) 209-3916 or (715) 779-0193.(Article found in the 2006-2007 Winter Mazina'igan)