If you like fish, you’re gonna love Bay Port Fish Company.Fresh, flopping fish – lake whitefish, yellow perch, walleye, catfish, trout, cod, and more – arrive daily by boat or truck to this popular, family-operated commercial fishery in Michigan’s Thumb.
Today, Tod Williams and his daughter, Lakon, run the wholesale and retail operations in Bay Port.We’re talking lots of fish.
“On average, we haul in about 200,000 pounds of whitefish out of Lake Huron each season,” says Lakon Williams, whose family has owned the company since 1978. “It’s definitely hard work, but we love it.”
The Bay Port Fish store is open daily April through October and attracts visitors from across Michigan. Established in 1895, Bay Port Fish was one of thousands of commercial fishing operations that flourished in the Great Lakes and employed tens of thousands of people. Today, however, there are only 13 state-licensed commercial fisheries in Michigan – including Bay Port Fish.
Whitefish, yellow perch, walleye, catfish, trout, cod, and more arrive daily by boat or truck to Bay Port Fish Co. in Michigan’s Thumb.The town of Bay Port (population 464) is probably best known for its annual Fish Sandwich Festival held the first full weekend of August. The fish sandwich frenzy began in 1949 when Henry Engelhard began selling fish sandwiches in front of his house to pay his daughter’s college tuition. His sales grew so much over the years that in 1978 it became the Bay Port Fish Sandwich Festival.
That year, Tod Williams and his brother, Forrest, bought the business from Engelhard with their best friend, Dennis Root, even though none of them knew the first thing about commercial fishing. They soon learned.
Renovations over the winter were carefully designed to continue to allow visitors to watch the crew clean and filet fish.Today, Tod Williams and his daughter, Lakon, carry on the family business in tiny Bay Port through a combination of wholesale and retail operations – and their thriving on-site store.
“My dad catches the fish and I sell them. It’s a pretty neat way of life,” Lakon Williams says.
In the beginning, the Williams brothers and Root knew little about commercial fishing. They quickly learned, though, and the business thrived.Fish come first in Bay Port
Each spring, Tod Williams and his crew climb aboard The Osprey and set their nets for the season in Lake Huron, about eight miles off Port Austin. Then, every morning at daylight for the next seven months, The Osprey motors out of Bay Port and returns in the afternoon loaded with whitefish.
The company sends boats into Lake Huron to catch fish to sell, but also buys fish from trusted sources.In addition to the whitefish they catch themselves, the Williams family sells an array of fish and seafood purchased directly from other anglers they know and trust.
Smoked fish are at the center of a popular soup recipe that the fish company shares with customers.Once the fish arrive in Bay Port, a crew of eight to 18 workers begins the time-consuming process of fileting and de-boning the catch by hand. The fish are then frozen immediately or sold fresh to groceries, restaurants, or walk-in customers.
Returning customers will notice the family renovated the storefront over the winter.“We freeze all our fish within 48 hours of catch to ensure the best quality when thawing. So, if we get a big catch in the door, sometimes we’re here until 1 or 2 am processing fish. But that’s the way we server our customers,” Williams said.
Whether you like your fish fresh, frozen, or smoked, Bay Port Fish Co. offers choices.In addition to fresh and frozen, the family also offers hickory-smoked fish. Click here for a chowder recipe featuring smoked whitefish.
The Bay Port Fish store is open daily April through October and attracts visitors from across Michigan. While many clients are long-time customers who live in the Thumb and nearby Great Lakes Bay Region, many others discovered the wonders of their fish in recent years at farmers’ markets in Detroit, Grand Rapids, Ann Arbor, and Port Austin.
In addition to the whitefish they catch themselves, the family sells an array of fish and seafood. “Those markets were gold for us because no one hardly knew we existed,” Williams says. “We picked up a lot of great customers, as well as six grocery stores in southeast Michigan that specialize in organic foods.”
During the peak of the season, workers sometimes still until the early morning hours to get fish ready for customers.Although no longer able to staff the farmers markets, they were a great way to spread the word about their fish, she says.
– The Bay Port Fish store is open daily April through October.Whitefish a favorite entree on the menu
Several years ago at the Eastern Market in Detroit, the University of Michigan recruited Bay Port Fish as part of its campus-wide Sustainable Food Systems Initiative. Today, the fishery sells 8,900 pounds of filets annually to the Wolverines.
Hickory smoke flavors fish smoked onsite.“It’s a really wonderful partnership with Michigan – and it’s made a big difference in our profit margin,” Williams says.
Closer to home, The Farm Restaurant near Port Austin is one of Bay Port Fish’s oldest customers, serving about 225 whitefish filets weekly in the busy summer months.
Each spring, The Osprey launches into Lake Huron to set nets about eight miles off Port Austin. For the next seven months, crews set out every morning at daylight to retrieve whitefish.“Their whitefish is always one of the top-selling items on the menu and the quality is over-the-top amazing,” says Chris Roth, who co-owns the restaurant with his wife and chef Pamela Gabriel.
Between the tasty fish and the natural scenery, Bay Port attracts visitors from around the state every summer.Last summer, The Farm offered a pretzel-crusted whitefish entrée with a Dijon mustard sauce that was very popular with diners. Their smoked whitefish dip is also a favorite appetizer.
“People visit the area and quite often like to eat local fish. We’re so lucky to be able to offer them fresh fish caught within about 10 miles of their table,” Roth says.
The Bay Port Fish Sandwich Festival debuted in 1978, growing from Henry Engelhard’s home-based fish sandwich business.The Williams family is looking forward to a good season. Over the winter, they renovated their storefront with new flooring, a refrigerated display and a glass wall that separates the processing and retail areas. Don’t worry, though: Visitors can still watch the crew clean and filet the fish.
“We have a really good time and are so happy to carry on the family business,” she says.