It didn’t take Todd Stuth long to realize a fundamental truth about commercial fishing on Lake Michigan: adapt or die. Stuth,
who owns Baileys Harbor Fish Co., has visited many places and wouldn’t want to settle anyplace other than Door County. That said, making a living on the water presents its share of challenges. Fishermen are at the mercy of the conditions, Stuth says, particularly the wind and the changing seasons, which affect fish movement.
“To be completely honest, you’re dealing with Mother Nature and the wind. Every day it’s completely, 100 percent different,” he says. “If you’re not willing to adapt and willing to change with the wind, you’re pretty much out.”
The Sturgeon Bay native comes from a long line of commercial fishermen. He and his wife, Carin, took over the business from Carin’s father, Dennis Hickey, in 2014. Hickey started it with his brother in 1967, and their father and grandfather had fished commercially before them.
The tradition has come full circle. Stuth works with his brother, Tate, who serves as sales and marketing coordinator, and a staff of eight in Baileys Harbor.
Stuth and his crew catch and process their own fish year-round. In the early part of the year, they do most of their fishing on the bay side of the peninsula, and switch to the lake side by the end of September or early October when the fish go there to spawn.
The bay and lake are divided into zones, Stuth says, and there’s an annual quota of what fishermen can harvest in each zone. Over the years, he’s learned to calibrate his harvest and efforts based on the quota.
“It’s not as easy as just go out and turn the faucet on,” he says. “You kind of have to respond to supply and demand and go for the biggest bang for your buck when it’s there.”
Stuth, who holds a business degree from the University of Wisconsin-Green Bay, says he creates his own supply and demand curve and hedges it based on market price. If there’s an abundance of a certain kind of fish, he’ll pull back.
The company has only recently expanded its retail operations, though Stuth says wholesale still makes up the largest part of its business. A renovated retail space opened last spring, and he welcomes customers to walk around and see the operations.
People have come to look to the store as a place to get their fresh fish fix. Customers know when the boat comes in the afternoon and start arriving between noon and 2 p.m. to get that day’s fish.
“Pretty much every phone call is, ‘when are the guys getting in?’” Tate Stuth says.
The store caters to tourists with convenient products like whitefish taco strips and burger patties, fish boil chunks, five-packs of filets and smoked whitefish. It also stocks smoked Atlantic salmon and Gulf shrimp, two of its biggest sellers.
When it comes to whitefish, there’s nothing like fresh, Stuth says, and the company processes only enough fish for each day. “It’s kind of like getting a cheese curd from a cheese factory … it’s squeaky, it’s fresh,” he says. “You’ll notice a total difference in taste and texture.”
The company supplies fish to numerous restaurants throughout Door County, including Nightingale Supper Club. “It’s always fresh when I get it — it’s fresh out of the water,” says Martha Brauer, the restaurant’s chef. “It’s just a great product, and it’s local. People like that.”
The company also does a lot of exporting to Scandinavian countries. Its golden caviar is No. 2 in the world for its taste and texture, second only to those countries’ own, of course, Stuth says with a laugh.
To ensure consistency in product and meet Food and Drug Administration and European regulations, the company added a computerized smokehouse with all-natural woodchips. It also processes and smokes salmon for charter operations.
This is just one way Stuth diversifies the business. His company also works as a private contractor to facilitate research expeditions and restore native fish stock in Western states. He supplies the boat, gear and crew, and state and federal agencies put a biologist on the boat.
The work carries a perk in that it allows Stuth to recruit new college graduates. The company’s 30 employees move between doing work out West and in Door County. “You’ve got to balance the seasonality of everything with how many people you can float year-round and make sure you have the winter work to carry everybody through,” Stuth says.
In addition, the company makes nets, gear and boats for various federal agencies. Each year, it strings more than 1 million feet of net, resulting in product that winds up on the East and West coasts as well as the Midwest. It also builds one or two boats. Over the years, it has built several for Glacier National Park’s high mountain lakes.
Stuth wouldn’t trade his job or his community. “I think here in the county, especially, nobody wants to punch a clock. You want to be able to enjoy it.”