FISHING FAMILY

Thill & Sons keeping whitefish on local menus

Members of the 8-18 Media News Bureau are shown with members of the Thill family near Thill and Sons Fish House in downtown Marquette. In the back row from left are Ann, Ron and Kathie Thill. In front from left are 8-18 reporters Ana Alexander, Harlow Leisure, Ivy Pomeroy and Anthony Thill. (8-18 Media photo)

By 8-18 Media
When you think of Maine, you think of lobster. When you think of Marquette, do you think about whitefish? Fresh lobster brings people to Maine, and Thill and Sons fresh-from-the-lake whitefish brings people to Marquette.
Thill’s has become a Marquette institution; they have been operating a commercial fishing business in their current location since 1958. It has always been a true family business, and at one time all seven Thill brothers worked there. Eventually three of the brothers, Ron, Ted and Jerry made it the popular retail business it is today. Ron owned part of the business for 36 years and has been retired since 2010, but still knows the business inside and out. Ron’s brother Ted owns the business today, ensuring that it stays in the family for many more years.
If you know the Upper Peninsula, you know that our seasons can be quite tricky, and have an effect on their fishing season. Ron Thill said that of course the summer months are the busiest.
“The busiest season is tourist season. Fishing usually starts about April and ends about the first of November. Closed season is November, but the weather is too hostile to fish in the winter months,” Thill explained.
Currently Thill and Sons has two boats that they take out onto Lake Superior. One is a 45-foot steel boat, and the second is 21-footer. The fishermen use trap nets to catch the whitefish, which are live traps. The fishing business has changed over the years and they used to have even larger fishing boats. They were also able to use one boat for gill nets and the other for trap nets. Gill net fishing allowed them to fish more months out of the year, until the winter months caused ice to form over the bay, but they are only able to use trap nets currently.
Fishing isn’t your typical 9 to 5 job. Thill said that a fisherman’s day starts early and can end later in the evening.
“They usually leave about 7:00 a.m. and they fish all the way from Shot Point to the Huron Islands, up above Big Bay. They are in Big Bay today,” Thill said. “That takes about two hours to run down. It takes at least four hours of run time.”
With all the hungry tourists and Yoopers wanting to eat fresh whitefish, curious minds might wonder how many fish they catch on a regular day. Thill said on an average day three men take the boats out and the catch can vary greatly day to day.
“The catch can be as little as 200 pounds and as much as 3,000 pounds,” Thill said. “Today they have about 2,400 pounds on board.”
Fishing can be a very dangerous occupation; the Thills make it a priority to take safety precautions when going out onto Lake Superior.
“You need life preservers and survival suits and an EPIRB (Emergency Position Indicating Radio Beacon) that tells where you are in case you go into the water. Those are required by the Coast Guard now,” Thill said. Has Thill found himself in the water unexpectedly? “Oh, a few times,” he said.
Kathie Thill, Ted Thill’s wife, chimed in that by law the Coast Guard inspects the boats before they start out. “It’s a rule around here,” she said.
Their safety equipment has definitely been put to use; because of the ever-changing nature of Lake Superior they have found themselves caught out in a few storms. Thill said you have to think fast and change your direction or speed to stay safe.
“Slow down. You can’t run fast, especially if you are running up into the waves. You have to slow down. Sometimes you have to take a different approach to the break wall. You quarter the waves on the back corner of the boat,” Thill explained.
With the type of open deck boat they currently take out, they cannot handle more than two- to three-foot seas. Thill said the deck gets very slippery when wet.
Being the wife of a fisherman comes with its own challenges and Ann Thill, Ron Thill’s wife, said she remembers a time when Thill and crew got caught out in a bad October storm.
“I remember one time when they were out on the enclosed boat and Grandpa Thill called and asked if the boat was in yet. I went to the top of the fish house, the upstairs section and I said, ‘no, they aren’t here yet.’ It was getting darker and darker and later and later and he called again and said are they there yet and I said no, ‘they still aren’t here,’ ” Ann said. “Finally, when they came in their boat was loaded with ice that had splashed up. I could see why Grandpa Thill was very concerned. He probably realized what was happening to the boat. So, when you see something like that, you go, ‘Whew.’ When fishing season is over in November you breathe a big sigh of relief, because the fellows are now on land and now they are safe.”
Kathie also remembered a time when the Thill’s crew experienced dangerous icy conditions.
“When they had both boats, fishing season was all year round. The gill net boat, they went all year with it unless ice formed. The one year I was first married to Ted, Jerry (Thill) stopped by my house and asked if I had a hammer and I said, ‘sure.’ I said, ‘Where are they?’ They came into the Upper Harbor out at Presque Isle, that cement block there. I said, ‘What’s the hammer for?’ He said, ‘You will see when you get there.’ We had to hammer the ice off the boat. They couldn’t get any further. We had to hammer them out of the boat. This is what I married into,” Kathie said of the ordeal.
Big waves can cause nausea, but so can that stinky fish smell. How do the wives handle it?
“In the beginning you smell it, but after a while you get used to it,” Ann said.
Kathie agreed. “That’s true. I don’t smell it on Ted anymore. I do have two hampers. One for regular clothes and one for fish clothes.”
Kathie shared that the simple secret to getting the fish smell out of laundry is lemon.
Marrying into a fishing family such as the Thills doesn’t automatically mean that you love eating fish. Both Kathie and Ann didn’t like fish growing up, but both have learned to love it. They said the best way to prepare fresh whitefish fillets is to grill them on tinfoil skin side down. They season the fillets with Lawry’s season salt, lemon pepper and some butter. They recommend that you don’t flip them because the skin sticks right to the tinfoil and the meat will flake right off at the thickest part when done.
Thill and Sons retail fish house sells whitefish fillets to many surrounding restaurants and the general public. They also smoke whitefish, which they made into a very popular smoked whitefish spread. They also sell trout, smoked trout, smoked herring, Canadian salmon, frozen lobster, frozen crab legs and clams. They have quite a variety. Stop into Thill and Sons to get the freshest daily catch.
(Written by Anna Martinson, 15, and Ana Alexander, 10, with contributions by Hunter Vedder, 11, Anthony Thill, 11, Lydia Gorsalitz, 10, Ivy Pomeroy, 10, Harlow Leisure, 9, Solomon Gorsalitz, 8, Eli Alexander, 8, and Solomon Gorsalitz, 8.)

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