It’s just after 6 a.m. on a July morning, and the Hooker fleet of charter fishing boats clears the Duluth ship canal, making for the open water of Lake Superior. Watch them gleaming in the warm morning light — the Hooker Too, the Happy Hooker, the Treble Hook and the Happy Hooker IV.
Four 32-foot Marinettes ride white against the boundless blue of the big lake. At their helms are four members of the Dahl charter fishing family — brothers Peter Dahl, 69, and Jon Dahl, 62; Peter’s son, Dave Dahl, 47; and Peter and Jon’s nephew, Marty Running, 48. Among them, nearly 70 years of chartering experience for trout and salmon.
All possess a love of the lake — and an intuition for fishing — passed down through the genes of Peter and Jon’s dad, Don Dahl.
“He started North Shore Charter Fishing in 1976 on the original Happy Hooker,” Peter was saying a couple of nights earlier.
That makes this the 40th season that one or more members of the Dahl family have been chasing trout and salmon on the lake.
The four charter captains had gathered aboard Dave Dahl’s Treble Hook one July evening in the Minnesota Slip to talk about the family’s fishing lineage. Among Duluth and Superior’s charter fleet, no other fishing family is represented by as many captains as the Dahls.
Jon and Peter Dahl have been chartering for 29 years each, Dave for seven and Marty for three.
If you want to take it back even further, Peter and Jon’s grandfather, Charles Dahl, received his captain’s license in 1909, taking clients up the St. Louis River on tours.
Peter and Jon’s father, along with their uncle, Ray Dahl, took paying clients mostly for gas money and as a tax write-off.
“Our dad didn’t do a lot of business,” Peter said. “Everyone he met, he said, ‘Come on down. I’ll take you fishing.’ He took many more for free than he charged.”
The Dahls began fishing in the Cornucopia area in the 1960s during the infancy of Lake Superior’s trolling phenomenon. Lake trout were still rebounding in number after being decimated by sea lampreys and overfishing in the 1950s. Don Dahl, now deceased, was at the forefront of big-lake trolling. He crafted his own planer boards from cedar shingles in the mid-1950s, Peter and Jon said. He made a reel from a tricycle wheel to deploy some of the first downriggers before they were available commercially. He used clothespins to attach fishing lines to planer boards.
“Lake trout were hard to come by then,” Peter said.
The Minnesota Department of Natural Resources had begun to experiment with the stocking of coho salmon in 1969 and chinook salmon in the mid-1970s. Jon claims to have caught the first coho salmon in the Duluth area, fishing from the South Pier with a night crawler. That landed him on a local television outdoor show hosted by Rocky Teller.
Peter and Jon grew up fishing with their dad and his friends. Often, their father would slip into the cabin for a nap. The boys would stomp on the deck to wake him up when a fish was hooked.
After Don Dahl died, Peter and Jon got their captain’s licenses and began chartering in the summers.
“Our goal that first year was to gross $6,000,” Peter said. “We probably did double that.”
“We really got into it,” Jon said.
The technology revolution in fishing hadn’t begun yet.
“When we started, the only instrument we had was a compass,” said Jon, who banked vacation and compensatory time working for St. Louis County so he could fish much of the summer.
Soon, the brothers would graduate to the early Loran-C and modern depth-finders.
Through the years, the Duluth-area fishery in Lake Superior has changed a great deal.
“In the early ’70s, my dad and I trolled Park Point with Rapalas,” Peter Dahl said. “Our catch for the day was five smelt. Our flasher fish-finder lit up from the massive schools of smelt.
“Lamprey control was in place, and planting of lake trout and salmon by Minnesota and Wisconsin was underway. The salmon and trout had a feast on the abundant baitfish and grew quickly. King salmon reached 30 pounds or more by the late ’90s. Since then, it has been a balancing act — predator versus prey.”
The smelt population has plummeted.
“Fishing overall is about the same as it was in the ’90s,” Dahl said. “King salmon catches are down, and cohos are holding their own.”
The Dahls and Running now keep four boats busy making charter trips, primarily from May through September. Many days, a captain will make two trips in a day, morning and afternoon. Those are typically 12- or 14-hour days. Peter’s partner, Sue Wright (they found each other a couple of years ago on a dating website called “Plenty of Fish”), handles all the bookings and passes any extra demand along to other Duluth charter services.
Jon Dahl says he charters for one reason.
“Because I’ve always loved fishing and Lake Superior,” he said. “I caught my first lake trout when I was about 10 at Corny (Cornucopia). It kind of gets in your blood.”
Having four charter captains on the water at the same time helps the Dahl family find fish, which is especially helpful on half-day charters when a captain must pinpoint fish depth and lure color preference quickly.
“We all love fishing,” Peter says. “What’s really a bonus is the interaction between us. We group-text all the time. If somebody’s having a hard time, we try to help him.”
The Dahls and Running admit, though, they feel a sense of healthy competition with one another, too.
“I want to be the one with the most fish,” Running said with a grin.
“Or at least the two biggest ones,” Jon added.
A reasonably good day means catching about a fish per hour, Jon said.
“Two per hour is really good,” he said. “Three per hour is fantastic.”
Together, the captains have averaged about 8½ fish per day over the last few years, Peter said.
Variety of clients
Beyond catching fish, all of the captains say each day is a new adventure, with a new group of anglers.
“I just like the fishing — and getting to know random strangers,” said 15-year-old Ally Dahl, who often serves as first mate for her dad, Dave.
About 25 to 30 percent of the group’s business is made up of repeat customers. Between bites, anglers always want to know more about the Dahl fishing legacy.
“Every time we go fishing, we tell our family story, and people love it,” Running said. There are, of course, some forgettable outings, like the one in which Peter had clients in a fist-fight below deck during a card game. And the inevitable treble hooks impaled in body parts.
“I had an Italian woman with a hook in her eyelid,” Jon said. “I could see it poking through the lid. Her husband lifted the lid, and she pulled it out.”
The worst groups? Peter didn’t hesitate.
“A bachelor party with six guys wound up already,” he said. “With cigars and sunflower seeds. Six guys and nine conversations.”
“All loud,” Jon said.
Engine issues, though rare, are also problematic. But with other members of the Hooker fleet on the water, help is usually not far away. (And it’s safe to say any other charter captain would help a fellow captain in distress.)
Despite those challenges and long hours, all of the Hooker captains still think it’s a good gig, trolling for Lake Superior’s salmon and lake trout — which have rebounded strongly. They express a subdued Scandinavian pride in the business they’ve built.
“Our dad …” Peter said.
And brother Jon finished the sentence for him: “I wish he could see us now.”