Fishing fleet navigates rough water

Port charter boats start season with a fraction of their normal reservations because of Covid-19; city’s tourism industry expected to feel impact

THE CORONAVIRUS PANDEMIC has impacted businesses of all kinds, and the charter fishing industry in Port Washington is no exception. Nicky Boy Charter Fishing Service owner Sharon Waranka, who stood by her boats before the first charters of the season on Saturday, said business is down 50% right now. Photo by Sam Arendt
Ozaukee Press staff

Although the fishing may be good, Port Washington’s charter fishing fleet is navigating rough waters right now, thanks to the coronavirus pandemic.

They couldn’t operate under the state’s Safer at Home order, and bookings for the rest of the summer are down, way down, as people stay home and try to avoid exposure to the Covid-19 virus, boat captains said.

“It’s been pretty bad,” Biersach of C&D Charters, president of the Port Washington Charter Captains Association, said. “It hit pretty much at the prime time of booking season. We had no bookings for five, six weeks — not even a phone call.”

Right now, he said, he has about half the bookings that he normally does.

Sharon Waranka, owner of Nicky Boy Charter Fishing Service, concurred, saying, “We’ve had calls trickling in now. I think people are just a little cautious.”

May, she said, is when things “start ramping up, but we lost a huge part of May.”

Her four boats have “a handful” of trips scheduled for the month, Waranka said. “We just didn’t know what was happening. This is all new territory for everybody.”

“It definitely won’t be a banner year for any of the guys,” Dan Fox of Fox Bros. Charter Service said. “It (the coronavirus) is definitely hurting us. I have not been receiving the number of phone calls I usually get. There have been very few charters going out so far. ”

But, Fox said, “I’m feeling a change. In the last week, with the opening up of the state and the weather getting nicer, it’s starting to happen. 

“It has been slow, and it’s going to affect the front side of the season. The lockdown’s been against us, and the weather’s been against us.”

And bad news for the charter boats is bad news for downtown Port Washington.

Charter fishing is the driver for much of Port’s tourism traffic during the summer. Not only do charters bring in fishermen, typically six per trip, but these fishermen often stay in area hotels for a day or two. They eat in Port’s restaurants and drink in its taverns.

“Charter fishing is huge for the city,” Port Washington Tourism Executive Director Kathy Tank said. “There is almost always overflow spending at local businesses, whether it’s at shops, hotels, restaurants or bars.  It’s not just an experience with fishing, it’s everything. The marina and lakefront are so integrated with downtown.”
Last year, she said, tourism brought in more than $110 million to Ozaukee County. And until the coronavirus hit, businesses were expecting those numbers to increase this year given that the Democratic national convention was scheduled to be held in Milwaukee and the Ryder Cup in Haven.

“There’s definitely going to be fewer people traveling this year,” Tank said.

And the charter fishing industry is feeling that impact, she said.

“I’m not surprised calls are way down,” Tank said. “There’s been so much uncertainty as to what was going to open up, when it was going to open and how it was going to open. I think a lot of people are sitting back and waiting.”

And that may cause some charter captains, especially those that aren’t full-time captains, to say, “I’m going to sit this one out,” Tank said.

But for captains like Biersach and Fox, that’s not an option. This is their livelihood.

“It’s been hard,” Biersach said, noting he’s had 15 cancellations so far. Some of those people have moved their charters to later this summer, he said, but others, particularly people at high risk for the coronavirus, have rolled their trips over to next year.

“I wasn’t even sure I was going to put my second boat in until last week,” he said.  “If I can run what I’ve got on the books, I can maybe break even.”

Biersach noted that much of his business is repeat customers, while Waranka said her four boats also book customers at sports shows, many of which were canceled this year.

She said that many of her customers come from Minnesota, which is just starting to reopen, and that, too, has inhibited bookings.

“I think we just have to take it a day at a time,” Waranka said. “The reality is it might be a slower year. I hope it’s not. Maybe more locals will take a charter instead of going on a longer vacation.”

July is starting to fill in, as is August, Waranka said, adding, “We’re still not where we would be. It could go either way.” 

Fox said he is also hoping that business will rebound as the summer goes on, especially since people who would normally attend sporting and large entertainment events won’t be able to this year.

“It might turn out all right,” he said. “These are things that might give us an advantage fighting for that entertainment dollar.

“This is definitely going to hurt us, but the jury’s still out on how bad. Maybe the second half of the season will pick up.”
Many of the people calling about chartering a boat are also asking about what measures are being taken to prevent the spread of the coronavirus, the business owners said.

All the charters are implementing safety measures, stocking hand sanitizer and cleaning more often. Fox and Biersach said they are encouraging customers to consider fishing in groups of four rather than six so they can spread out in the boat, but said that’s up to their clients to decide.

Clients are also free to wear masks, the charter business owners said.

“You do what you can to make people feel comfortable,” Biersach said.

“We want to operate safely and responsible,” Fox added. “I don’t want to get sick, and we don’t want anyone else to get sick either.”


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Wisconsin’s largest paid circulation community weekly newspaper. Serving Port Washington, Saukville, Grafton, Fredonia, Belgium, as well as Ozaukee County government. Locally owned and printed in Port Washington, Wisconsin.

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