Erie commercial fishermen sell catch right off their boat
ERIE — Whatever Jim Shaffer and Brian Sontag are doing, they'd rather be fishing.
“We've been friends since second grade,” Sontag said. “We have pictures of us fishing in creeks.”
They have “real” jobs. Shaffer, 46, sells furniture; Sontag, 45, does computer wiring for Viscom Systems.
Slowly but surely, though, they're making a go of commercial fishing with their boat, Real Glory, and Sontag's trap net license, both of which they landed six years ago.
“Originally, I had my captain's license,” Sontag said. “I was going to run charters and open a bait-and-tackle shop.”
But he had put in for a Lake Erie trap net license, which is drawn by lottery, and got one. They decided to try to make a go of that instead.
Now, if the weather is right, and you know what to do, you can meet them at the East Basin dock next to Blasco Library and purchase whole, fresh-caught Lake Erie fish — still flopping — and take it home for a splendiferous dinner.
“We haven't done much advertising,” Shaffer said. “We just have the sign here and the number on it. But we'd like to cater to the public. We'd love that.”
On a gorgeous sunny day this past week, they docked with a few crates of perch, a bucket of catfish and a crate of walleye. It hadn't been a great fishing day, but it was enough to sell to a few customers who'd managed to find them.
“I've been fishing along the bayfront all my life,” he said. “I was fishing down there one day about three years ago and saw (the Triple S) sign, gave them a call. He said ‘Meet me at the docks.'
“The channel cats (Shaffer) gets are huge,” Lehr said. “You can't beat his prices. You're getting fresh just as he comes in.”
On a recent Wednesday, Lehr got a bucket full of channel catfish and a walleye to share with his lifelong friend Victor Black, 59. They took the fish home, cleaned it and froze it until they can plan a fish fry. Lehr said Black will do the cooking because he has a large outdoor fish fryer.
“(Shaffer) gives me a good deal on these catfish,” Lehr said.
Shaffer said starting a fishing business with Sontag was a natural next step.
“Brian and I grew up on this lake,” he said. “We figured we're out here all the time anyway. May as well try to make a living at it.”
They and a few employees go out every two or three days on their commercial trap boat they bought from a fourth-generation commercial fishing family in Charlemagne, Mich.
“We drove it back,” on the water, Sontag said with a laugh. “It took us three days. We were blessed with nice weather. We had a grill on board and we ate pretty good.”
He said he knew it's bad karma to rename a boat, but this one shared the name of his ex-wife. That wasn't going to work, so they chose “Real Glory,” based on a story the original owners, the Cross family, told them.
Sontag said in the 1940s, a Canadian ship went down and the current Mr. Cross used his boat to save 17 people. They tried to give him a suitcase full of money, but Cross wouldn't take it.
“He said he didn't do it for money,” Sontag said. “He did it for the ‘real glory.' We wanted to honor the Cross family.”
“When we first started the business, we asked ‘Did we do the right thing?'” Sontag said.
By now they have a lot invested, and it's starting to feel right.
“We've learned a little bit, met more people, made more contacts and everything comes together,” Sontag said. “It took us a long time to get where we're at.'”
But they're there now: A few customers waiting for them that sunny day, and none of their catch went to waste.