Ruleaus stay afloat in the fishing business by adapting.
The trawler at the dock dwarfs the trap net boat in front of it, as well as the smaller trawler that’s no longer in service. Each is a symbol of how Bob Ruleau’s family has survived in an industry that has seen many ups and downs.
The old trawler was well suited to its purpose in the days when the family was using her to catch smelt, alewife and whitefish from 1964-2002. The trap net boat is the current standard vessel for catching Great Lakes whitefish, the mainstay of Michigan’s commercial fishery.
The trawler—the only one licensed in Michigan—is something else again. Built in 1985 and named for Bob’s father Robert and Uncle Louis, the "Robert-Louis" is the largest commercial fishing vessel on the U.S. side of the Great Lakes. It was very efficient at catching the millions of alewives which once proliferated in Lake Michigan for some time. It once caught 60,000 pounds of alewives in two minutes…back in the day. At the height of that period, the family shipped 100 truck loads of the species a month to cat food processors.
A lot has changed over the years, and Ruleau has adapted to survive. He’s seen poor times, when his family lived in a mobile home, and rich times, when he had a six-figure income. As things stand now, he’s coping with a fishery that seems very strange, with whitefish behaving differently for uncertain reasons—invasive species, clearer water, cladaphora-coated nets. He says, “Before the zebra mussel came, there were always lots and lots of fish. There was life. And now it is very hard to find life out there.”
Ruleau’s adaptive perspective is important to his success, “Something will probably either get better or worse, but it’s not going to stay the same.” So he developed a mid-water net mechanism that allows him to catch whitefish with the Robert Louis, even though perfecting it was a ‘nightmare.’ According to him, “It works on a very stealthy principle that the fish feel through their lateral line and herd to the center. The gear is always on board and we don’t get any of that kind of slime” that affects the trap nets which are anchored in place and may even collapse.
Bob’s cousin Steve and two of his nephews run the trap net operation, trying to make the necessary adaptations to sustain their fishery. His ex-brother-in-law runs the freezer plant. So most of the business is in the family.
Ruleau sums it up by saying, “I like being different, and you can’t find anything any more different than being a fisherman these days. It is very rewarding.”