Angling on the Grand

Tom Werkman shares his love of fishing with other anglers.
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Max Werkman, left, and Tom Werkman operate Werkman Outfitters, which takes fishers out on the Grand River. Photos by Jacob Lewkow

Tom Werkman, the older half of Werkman Outfitters, keeps an office down a few stairs in the corner of his house with a desk, a few chairs and a gun cabinet. Moose antlers are poking out of the wall, and a Lab keeps walking by asking for attention. His wife, an avid mountain biker, has an indoor training contraption lying on the floor. Werkman has a day job at the bank, sure, but his heart is right here — waiting to get outdoors again.

For the past several years, he has operated the outfitting group with his son, Max, 22, taking boatload after boatload of anglers out on the Grand River. To hear Werkman tell it, the river is a barely explored continent, waiting for West Michigan to realize what it has just outside its door — waiting to whisk anglers out of city life and into what feels like quiet, contemplative nowhere.

It also sounds like a hell of a lot of fun. One time, one of his guests almost had a heart attack on the boat.

“He goes, ‘Wait a minute,’” Werkman recalls, remembering the man freezing in place. “I said, ‘You okay?’ And he goes — looks at his watch, pushes a button — ‘Yeah, I’m okay, I just activated my defibrillator.’

“I’m like, ‘Do you think you could have told me that before?’” Werkman recalled, laughing. “He says, ‘Well, I figure I die out here it’s your problem, not mine. Let’s
keep fishing!’”

Max and Tom Werkman fish on the Grand River.

The elder Werkman grew up in Holland and graduated from Hope College with a social work degree in 1992 — a far cry from the banking career he ultimately pursued, and even further from the share he has owned in a fishing lodge for some years now. Max said it’s that experience, the fishing lodge, that brought the two of them up close with guiding and even introduced Max to fishing in Alaska, where he splits his time during the summers — making guiding a year-round career.

“I’m extremely lucky that I get to fish for a living,” Max said. “It’s most people’s dreams, and if it wasn’t for my old man, I wouldn’t be doing it.”

Since the two launched Werkman Outfitters, Tom and Max have taken scores of trips onto the Grand River and beyond, bringing Michigan anglers up close with steelhead, smallmouth bass, pike and even muskie. Business is good and growing, Werkman said; their first full year was 26 guided trips — the next, 56. When he spoke to Grand Rapids Magazine in late December, Werkman Outfitters had guided 80 trips that year. One big reason for their success, Werkman said, is that Michiganders are starting to realize what the Grand Rapids outdoors scene has to offer.

“(There’s) mountain biking, there’s skiing, snowshoeing, cross-country skiing, hiking. You don’t have to travel very far to get out of the city. … We won’t see anyone out on that river fishing. It’s actually, it’s kind of one of the best-kept secrets, is what it is,” Werkman said.

Fishing tackle

The Grand River itself also is set for big changes. The city of Grand Rapids already invested hundreds of millions of dollars in wastewater systems that drastically reduce sewage discharge into the river. What’s more, the Grand is readying for a multimillion-dollar makeover in the coming years that will restore the natural flow of the river through the downtown area, removing five human-made dams. Werkman said he’s happy with the quality of fish that comes out of the river (Michigan environmental officials still advise moderation when eating wild-caught fish from around the state).

The opportunity to fish the Grand makes for a strange juxtaposition. Werkman takes anglers all around the area, but they fish right near downtown, as well, by the city’s bustle and all the commuters who might not even realize what they’re missing.

“I think people just don’t think about (the opportunity),” Werkman said of the river. “… You know, you can go there now, you can fish during the day, go to Founders at night, catch the Civic Theatre afterward. There’s so much to do that’s there. You’re right there. You can come in for your business meeting or your seminars or whatever, and have it in the morning, go out and fish in the afternoon, come back at night and eat and head out the next day.”

But perhaps the best experience Werkman provides is the solitude — the chance to escape and, for a few hours, be in another world. He speaks reverently of the camaraderie that slowly builds over the course of an outing, from a perhaps-awkward meeting at the river’s edge to a real companionship on the boat.

“There are things that will get said on a guide trip that would never get said in confessional,” Werkman said. “And so, you build these relationships with people over time, and that, I think, to me, is the most rewarding aspect of being a fishing guide.”

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