The Michigan Land Use Institute (MLUI) invites Northern Michigan to meet Ed and Cindi John, owners of Treaty Fish Company in Peshawbestown, MI, as part of their Taste the Local Difference "Know Your Farmer" project.
When Ed and Cindi John talk about their business, they wear quiet smiles. The two have been fishing since the late 1970s, and it’s clear that they love what they do.
“It’s a beautiful life to be able to fish every day,” explains Ed.
He remembers growing up in Elk Rapids and days spent fishing behind the dam for bass, perch, and trout. “I’ve always enjoyed it, seeing what you’d catch,” he says.
Ed and Cindi John met when he was in high school, attending a baseball game between tribal teams from Elk Rapids and Peshawbestown and Cindi was rooting for the other team. The two, already bound together by their common Native American heritage, became fast friends and, after high school, they married and moved to Traverse City.
Giving how much he loved to fish, it seemed natural for Ed to find a job doing just that. Art Duhamel hired him in 1982, and he worked on Art’s fishing boat for a few years. Later, he took a trap net training program and joined a different crew for a while. Then Ed took a break for a few years, did some iron working in Chicago and Louisiana, and then decided that fishing really was what he wanted to do. So, in the late ‘80s, Cindi gave up her job with the Grand Traverse Band’s youth program, and, together, the couple started their own fishing business, naming it the Treaty Fish Company.
They had their daughter, Ruby, in 1990. Cindi left her youth program job, focused on mothering Ruby, and eventually began working on the boat again, too. Somehow, she finds time to pursue her hobby, making intricate quill boxes and creating beautiful paintings and photographs in the Native American tradition.
Cindi and Ed raised Ruby on their family land in Northport. And when Cindi’s sister, Linda, passed away, the couple took in her two sons and raised them, too.
When they bought their first boat, the two boys asked them to name it after their mother. So today the Linda Sue sails Grand Traverse Bay and keeps them safe on their sea journeys.
Ed, Cindi, and Ruby fish all year long, on both East and West Bay, unless the bays freeze. They catch about 20,000 lbs. of fish per year.
Quality and Safety
Each day, they sell everything they catch.
“We’re a family operation, and we catch small quantities and sell it the same day. That way we can be sure our product is fresh,” says Cindi.
You can buy fish directly from Ed and Cindi's boat. Photo by John Russell.
Quality is very important to them. Cindi keeps the boat stocked with ice. Ed laughs: “Sometimes she’s got the fish packed in so much ice, I can’t find the fish!”
“I wouldn’t sell anybody anything we wouldn’t eat ourselves,” says Cindi.
They are proud to exercise the Grand Traverse Band’s Treaty Rights. “Back in 1836 and 1855 our forefathers worked it out so we could do this. That’s really important to us,” says Cindi.
Ed and Cindi both have learned to greatly respect Mother Nature. They share stories about storms out on the lake—and times when they didn’t know if they would survive.
“You’re always glad when you’ve got another day, when you get to come home with five boxes of fish and your life! The power of the lake is phenomenal. There’s never a dull moment!” says Cindi.
“There are a lot of ways you can get hurt out on the boat. Getting through the day and not getting hurt is an accomplishment. The boat can break down right in the middle of the lake! But Ed’s a really good boat handler, so we feel safe,” she adds. “Watching Ed with his bravery and boat handling—it’s really neat to be able to be in awe of the person you’re with.”
They both laugh.
“You have to be a little crazy to do this, when the catches are low or the gear gets ruined by the algae or the zebra mussels,” Cindi admits. “But it’s the experience, the lifestyle that makes it worth it. Every day is different. You experience biology (nature) and geometry (gear and equipment) in real life everyday. Most people don’t get to see this.”
“I get to see different kinds of fish, chubs, sculpins, really large fish. Days are never the same,” says Ed. “And you don’t know what you’re going to bring up in your net—an old log, a boat frame—who knows!”
“When we first started, we weren’t sure what we were getting into. It wasn’t like when I was a kid, where I caught one perch, one bass at a time and carried it home on my bike.” he says.
The Best Part
“What’s special about what we do, in the Grand Traverse region, is that you can buy our fish directly from us, from our boat to your table. You can’t match the freshness. It’s very difficult to get fish the same day it is caught, unless you buy it direct from the fisherman. We feel special and happy we can offer fish this fresh.” Cindi explains.
Meanwhile, their daughter, Ruby, has grown up to be an accomplished fiddler and travels around the state to perform. Cindi and Ed love the fact that they are able to manage their fishing schedules so that mother and daughter can travel together.
Even with her budding musical career these days, when she’s not fiddling, Ruby still helps her parents in their business.
This summer the three hope to begin attending local farmers markets to sell their fish.
“People can always meet us directly at the Arthur Duhamel Marina in Peshawbestown, but we’d also like to bring our fish to the market where more people can find us,” Cindi says.
When asked about the most challenging part of their business, they look at each other, laugh and say, “Working with your spouse!”
Somehow, though, you can tell that’s also the best part of their business!
Fishermen: Ed, Cindi John, and daughter, Ruby.
Products: Lake trout and whitefish, and occasionally salmon. Smoked fish.
Fishing area: West and East Grand Traverse Bays
Boats: One 46-ft. boat, the Linda Sue, and one 21-ft. boat, the Ruby Ida Mae
Production: Est. 20,000 lbs. of fish per year.
Season: They usually fish through the winter, as long as the bays don't freeze.
Favorite birds: Seagulls and eagles. We feed them when we're out at sea.
Favorite tool: The lifter that pulls up the net with hydraulics.
Favorite recipe: Smoked fish dip (smoked fish, sour cream and green onions) served on crackers.
What do you love about fishing? It's our business, we are fully responsible for getting everything done.We love the beauty of the lake and the people you get to meet. We're in the fresh air every day, watching nature take its course. Even rough weather days are pretty days. It gets us outside and we get to take a boat ride every day that it's not too windy. It makes us happy to be able to provide a fresh product at a price people can afford.
What are some challenges? Working with your spouse! The elements: It's sometimes too hot or too cold. Not catching enough fish. We're at a sustenance commercial level. It's not only about how much money you make, but it's the experience, the lifestyle that makes it worth it. You only get what you put into it. It owns all your time when you're a family operation. You have to maintain, build, and work your gear, and get your product out there.
What's unique? We catch small quantities and we sell everything that we catch every day. It's that fresh!
Available at: Carlson's and Cross Fisheries. Also the Springfield Township farmers market or directly from Ed and Cindi at the Grand Traverse Band's Art Duhamel Marina, in Peshabestown.