Used to be Furness and his brother and father could fish just about year-round, hauling in thousands of pounds of Lake Michigan yellow perch, a tender, tasty delicacy favored by those who live along the lake's southern rim.
But conservation officials, citing a dramatic decline in perch population in Lake Michigan, have put strict restrictions on commercial fishermen like the Furnesses. Those restrictions are enough to just about put the fishermen out of business forever.
``It's an honest living. It's hard work. I feel I'm doing some good,'' said Furness, 31, whose soft Midwestern speech is filtered by a thick, brown walrus mustache. ``There are people who love perch and I bring it to them. It's something I believe in.''
The people here do love their perch. Lake Michigan perch are smaller and tastier than their cousins in the other Great Lakes, the local epicureans will tell you.
``I like them smaller. You can tell the difference. It's the flavor,'' said Henrietta Wagner, who was eating fried perch on a recent Friday night at the St. Joseph Young Men's Society here.
Along with the local Elks, Moose, many churches and dozens of local taverns, St. Joe's has been serving up perch fish fries every Friday night for as long as anyone can remember. It is, throughout the Lake Michigan region, a Friday night ritual. Generations have gone out for a fish fry - perch in a light batter with fries, rye bread and a side of cole slaw - and a schooner of beer. And customers like their perch from the water they can see out there just past the lighthouse.
``A lot of old-timers are dead set on Lake Michigan perch, and if it's not Lake Michigan perch they don't want it,'' said the manager of the St. Joe's club, Dick Kamont.
Local perch are as much a part of the local culture as lobsters are in Maine. Snow birds pay to have the fish vacuum-packed and shipped to them in Florida during the winter. Families bring frozen perch when visiting relatives who have moved away.
But the scarcity is driving up prices. Once inexpensive, a pound of perch filets now costs more than shrimp at Furness's. With Midwestern frugality, people balk at the higher prices. Church fund-raisers have turned to less expensive whitefish.
A fish fry at St. Joe's costs only $5.50, but when Kamont tried to raise it to $7.50 to cover his costs, his customers complained. At Phil Smidt's restaurant, a perch mecca right off the water in nearby Hammond, the fish is served in more elegant surroundings and only the choice filet is served - in drawn butter. A perch dinner now runs $18.50. The restaurant's famous all-you-can-eat perch dinner is at its highest price ever - $34.50.
With the decline in local perch, proprieter Mike Probst and other restaurant owners have switched to perch from Canada. Last year, half the perch he served came from up north; this year it will be 80 percent.
It wasn't always this way. There were record catches in the mid- and late 1980s. Despite its small piece of Lake Michigan shoreline, Indiana has the shallow waters that attract perch, and as late as 1994 fishermen there hauled in a million pounds.
But in the early 1990s, conservation officials in Indiana, Illinois, Wisconsin and Michigan had begun noticing a decline in the perch population, and have found several reasons, ranging from predators to zebra mussels that compete for the food perch favor.
Last year, the four states got together to figure out how to save the perch. Although overfishing was not the problem, Indiana cut the amount commercial fishermen could catch to 360,000 pounds, hoping to give the perch a chance for a resurgence. All the states' officials reduced the limit for sportfishing. And for the first time, they banned all perch fishing in June, when perch are most plentiful.
Nevertheless, perch still declined 67 percent between 1994 and 1995, said Bill James, chief of fisheries at the Indiana Department of Natural Resources.
This year Indiana cut the commercial quota to 160,000 pounds and is keeping the other sportfishing limits and the June ban.
``Is there any guarantee that we can ensure with those restrictions that the perch will resurge? The answer is no,'' James said. ``But without the effort, we're certain to increase the decline.''
It's also about certain that fishermen like Furness will be put out of business.
The Furnesses already laid off their crew. Furness has put his market up for sale, although he doesn't think anyone will buy it.
One of his fishing boats sits idle, a $25,000 tug that is virtually useless because it is made for fishing with long gill nets that were outlawed a few years back. His new boat, the Special K, is made for trap fishing, the only commercial technique now allowed. But with the reduced quota he figures he can fish only two months this year.
Furness said he isn't so sure the perch are vanishing. He thinks predators may have forced them out to deeper water, but with the tightened quota, he doesn't see much sense in venturing out to look for them.
So it looks as if the end is in sight, not just for Furness but for all the people who want only Lake Michigan perch when they sit down to eat. That is something Furness laments.
``To have something from your area that's fresh, that was caught yesterday and is being served today,'' he said. ``There's no way you can beat that.''