Ice Fishing 101
How I wish I could have said the big one got away
By Kathy Chin Leong
There's lake fishing, deep sea fishing, fly fishing, pier fishing, and then there's the coolest one of them all- ice fishing.
Follow me to a mini tundra, a frozen body of water known as Green Bay in Door County, Wisconsin where former pro champion fisherman Dale Stroschein, owner of Wacky Walleye Guide Service has been taking clients out on the chilly landscape for the past 28 years.
When you are inWisconsin in the dead of winter, this icebox adventure is a treat, a lifelong memory, a must-do that yields fun and excitement while requiring patience and a stiff bladder. Even the non- fisherman and fisherwoman can come out and revel in this unique activity. While not unique in the mid west, ice fishing is quite the thrill for Californians like myself.
First of all, in California, driving a vehicle onto a frozen lake is absolutely, positively dangerous and unthinkable, something that even that David Copperfield guy would not attempt to score as a magic trick. Drive my van onto Lake Tahoe? I don't think so.
Our little group meets outside the ice fishing building to meet with Dale, a tall and trim, blondish, blue-eyed fellow who looks more like a race car driver than a fisherman in his snow jacket with sponsored logos all over it. Suited up in knit caps, gloves, parkas and waterproof pants, and snow boots, we are wearing the same kind of clothing
as we would don for skiing, at least I am. Once we are ready to head out, we hop into a four-seat snow vehicle that looks like a small jeep, a little larger than a golf cart with snazzy snow tires.
We are told not to strap on seat belts, but to hold on to the horizontal metal grab bar in front for the ride. And a thrilling ride it is. We are zipping almost 30 miles per hour on a 20-inch thick sheet of ice. It's a little bumpy, but not much.
A second vehicle with the other guide, Jeff, trails behind us as if we are a tailgate party going out to a football game.
Meanwhile, in the first car, I must put my entire trust in Dale who has not lost one customer yet. It's a powdery snow day, and we are cutting tracks on fresh snow. As we drive six miles straight out,
the treeline slips further and further away. I recall being in a dune buggy years ago on the sand dunes of the Pacific Northwest where no trails existed and after a while, I felt lost and overwhelmed because
there were no known markers. And here we are on the vast plains of flat white sugar on a day that is remarkably clear and sunny. Like my experience at the sand dunes, I cannot get my geographical bearings,
How does Dale know where to go? He points to his dashboard where a specialized GPS has saved trails from yesterday. Using that screen as his guide, he follows the same tracks on today's uncharted snow,
and I am relieved. Along this exhilarating 10-minute ride, we pass folks sitting on stools fishing for northern perch. He is confident of this because they typically swim closer to the shore. I ask him, half joking, if the
GPS will tell us exactly where the fish are. "No," he says matter-of-factly. "This GPS does not come wiith underwater sonar." Furthermore, Dale tells me that on lakes and oceans, you can use sonar systems that
take all the guesswork out of the sport.
Earlier this morning at 5 a.m., he has already taken a group out to catch walleye, a popular fish in these parts. But now it is 11 a.m., and white fish is on the menu at this hour.
(White fish, by the way, grows in abundance here, and this is the same fish used for the iconic "fish boils" Door County is known for. Fish boils take place outdoors, and families will take
boil a cauldron full of white fish over an open fire. It is ALWAYS served with white potatoes, bread, and cole slaw.)
I am with four other women- a pair of sisters from Wisconsin, a university secretary from Brooklyn, and a lifestyle editor from Georgia. For all of us, this is our first time. Once we get there, Dale and Jeff tell us what to do. Jeff is Mr. Enthusiastic and tells us his 9 year old daughter caught eight fish yesterday, and "she was so excited, she was shaking," he explains.
We stop and disembark in front a boxy, wooden shanty made of plywood that is about 15 feet long by 10 feet wide. It looks like this pre-fabricated number came as a kit, and at least ten or more scattered about the ice plain. I also spy a few motorhome trailers and family tents in the distance. Dale opens the wooden door to reveal a narrow room equipped with a propane-fueled heater and a long, built- in bench set against the wall. We look down at the floor that features a gap that also runs the length of the room, bisecting the center.
It is here where Dale has pre-drilled eight holes about 15 inches in diameter, each adjacent to the next in a line. Each circle is approximately a foot apart. As the sun shines brilliantly, the holes glow with an arctic, icy blue color that reminds me of that precise bluish hue revealed within the cleft of glaciers in Alaska. Jeff takes out a long handled plastic scooper to remove the chunks of ice that has begin to fill the holes.
We hurriedly pile into the tiny shanty to sit down in a single file like parachuters getting ready for action. Each of us is in front of her own personal fishing hole for the afternoon. While Dale goes off to check on othe customers on the premises, Jeff kindly distributes the poles and baits the rods with pale white artificial wax worms that look like wrinkled larvae.
When I get my rod, I'm surprised that they are only about three feet long or less, reminding me of a child's toy rod. But this is no toy. It is made specifically for ice fishing and features a skinny
rod, small reel, and very bendy, sensitive tip. The fishing line is so thin I could probably thread it through a needle and hem my pants.
LEARNING TO FISH
So here's what we do. Dale whips out a digital meter that looks like a handheld flashlight and touches the top of the water. It reads 75 feet. We next release our lines until they hit the bottom, and now we are to simply bob the line up and down. Every so often we can hold the line still to fake out the fish, but for the most part, we are bobbin' and a bobbin'away.
After the initial hubbub, we are quiet. You make no sounds when you are bobbing your line. Jeff, a long time fisherman who is here from Chicago to remodel his mother's house, breaks the proverbial ice,"I really, really want you all to catch a fish.It's so much fun. There's nothing like it."
I tell him, "I hope so, too." I imagine how scared and excited I will be when I reel in my catch and watch that slimy thing flop around on the floor like a Mexican jumping bean. About half an hour passes, and Jeff steps outside the shanty to check on his daughter who is out there fishing with another friend. It is getting hot inside with the heater turned up, and
together with all our own body heat, we begin to sweat. Soon enough, we strip off our jackets, hats, and gloves. I know its not a sauna in there, but I am getting over a stuffy nose, and I am feeling a little claustrophobic with my newfound friends.
Jeff returns, and reports we have to go elsewhere because he sees other fishermen catching loads of fish. We think we will simply trudge over to use the next available shanty, but no. We need to use this same one.
ICE FISHING PART TWO
Dale and Jeff hitch the little hothouse to the snow vehicle and tow it to another location. One of the concerned sisters asks, "What about those holes you drilled? Aren't you afraid someone will fall into one?"
Says Dale, "Well, they're pretty visible. People will see them." Later, Jeff confides, "I fell into a hole before." Great. While we walk to the new site, I think about the time I was walking in a field in Oregon
and fell into a hole that was covered with straw. I am hoping not to repeat this calamity in Wisconsin, so I make sure not to step on any bluish surfaces. But everything is fine. I must admit, I inherited my mother's
Once we get to the shanty, Dale shows us his macho, giant drill, about four feet high. He could practically excavate a cave for all of us to live in with that monster. He drills a demo hole so we can see him in action,
and it takes him about a minute to cut through.
What would happen if this were an extremely busy day and there were a hundred Dales running around drilling holes in the ice while we and a few dozen shanties and motorhomes were hanging out here trying to reel
in just one souvenir from the deep? I am wondering who does the scientific calculation to determine now many people can safely be out here. Coming from a state riddled with wildlife rules and regulations that seem
to cover every leaf and critter, I am curious concerning the whereabouts of the ice patrol or the Fish and Game folks.
When the new holes are drilled, we return to the heated cavern to resume fishing. We joke, we bob our lines, we wait. About 30 minutes pass. "Wait! I think I got one!" exlclaims Karen, the Georgia editor. She reels
in the line fiendishly, giddy with delight. We all stand up, crowding around the hole. We wait and see a ...black rocky thing which is not a fish but an unedible rainbow mussel. Of all the people on this trip, she has the most
fishing experience, and she has been looking forward to this all week. Says Karen, "Oh well."
Another 30 more minutes of bobbing, and no one is laughing much now. Finally, Jeff starts to pull up his line. " I think I got one! " There's a distinct yank, and we see his tip bending at a more severe arc.
Ta da! Up comes the long awaited prize- a silvery 5 pound white fish, large for his species, about 8 inches long. A triumphant Jeff tosses him into the ice cooler, where he knocks about and thrashes mercilessly
against its walls. Bang, bang, bang! Bang, bang, bang! Bang... bang... The seconds between slams lessen, but they are still loud. As we hear it dying, we all feel kind of bad.
Finally, one of the sisters cannot take it anymore and turns to Jeff, "Can you take it outside and throw it on the snow? It's suffering."
"Maybe its making Morse code and telling the other fish," quips our Georgian editor.
"I never thought of it that way," says a pensive Jeff. "I'll take it out."
He returns to intercept us, and we all admit that now we are starting to get hungry. It's been fun, but we are ready to leave. There is a lot of bonding that takes place
when you huddle together in the cold. You talk about the kids, about the job, about how you wish you could catch something... anything! It has been two hours, and some of us feel like
it is time to take a bathroom break.
Jeff is particularly bummed we did not catch anything. Typically, the adventure lasts five hours, but we are doing a sampler excursion today. Feeling another jolt on the pole, Karen reels in a potential
catch, and she peers down the hole to see a fish that has been tangled the loops of the line. The fish escapes, and we all look dismayed. What can we say?
Dale offers two types of trips during ice fishing season. True zealots come at 5 a.m. and paid the $185 to stay until 6 p.m. sundown. The other excursion is a half-day one and that costs only $70 which
includes transportation, guide, poles and bait, and, of course, a heated shanty. According to Dale, families love to come out, and kids as young as five are thrilled to be introduced to fishing. The majority of
customers do catch a fish, he says.
Dale comes to retrieve us in the small all terrain vehicle, and we return in two groups. Passing by some rectangular black boxes (the size of a tackle box) that seem abandoned in the snow,
he drives close to show us one.
These are 'tip up' boxes, he explains with a smile. The box owners will drill a fishing hole, let out a baited line, and drive away, but not too far. When a fish bites and tugs the line, a yellow (or any color)
flag tips up. There is a remote alarm, and as Dale tells us, the fisherman will typically send his son to drive the family truck to pick up the fish for lunch or dinner. The owner is not too far away in a mobile
home making up a batch of margaritas.
Apparently, if we were out for the entire time, we probably would have caught something. I do not doubt it. On the way back in the zippy cart, the sun glistens off the snow, highlighting the granules like
diamonds. Okay, I accept that we did not snag any fish, but heck, it sure would have been nice to snag a mango margarita on the way back.
Wacky Walleye Guide Service, Door County Wisconsin
Half day on the bay: $70
Full day on the bay $185
Half day fishing with lodging: $95 at Sand Bay Beach Resort
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