3 lakes, 3 counties, 30 hours

As hard as I try to avoid it, I often take for granted the bounty of fishing opportunities that come with living in the eastern part of Wisconsin.

If I hop in my truck, I can be fishing Lake Michigan in roughly 10 minutes. Sheboygan County features plenty of rivers that are teeming with life. The area is dotted with small inland lakes that provide ample chances to encounter numerous species, often with a minimal time investment required.

Every once in awhile, I do my best to take a step back and reflect upon how fortunate I am to live in such a place. I contemplate if I can look in the mirror and confidently say I am taking full advantage of what I’ve been given from an outdoors standpoint.

Recently, I had such a moment. It was a Thursday afternoon and it occurred to me that my fishing plans for the upcoming weekend were going to present me with a special set of circumstances.

Over the course of Friday and Saturday, I would be spending time fishing three bodies of water in a trio of counties. Each brought its own unique opportunities, challenges, and experiences.

Before the sun rose on Friday morning, the headlights of my dad’s black Ford Explorer were shining into my living room windows. I began shuttling my supplies for the day from the back door and into the vehicle. Once that task was completed, I hopped n the shotgun seat as we pointed the Explorer north and headed for Sturgeon Bay.

A light snow fell as we navigated I-43. Daylight slowly began creeping in. We were headed for Sandy Bay Resort to meet up with Scott, my dad’s former voice coach at UW-Green Bay. Scott had coordinated a guided trip on Green Bay for whitefish.

Somewhere along the way, it dawned on us that we didn’t have a cooler to put the fish in. So we made a detour to a gas station a few miles from our meeting spot and scooped up the biggest styrofoam cooler we could find.

When we arrived in Door County, the sun was shining. Temperatures were in the single digits with a modest wind blowing. We were eager to get started. This was only the second whitefish trip for my dad and I. We fished the bay a year ago, catching a half-dozen fish, but my dad wasn’t able to contribute to our meager total. Our collective hope was that today would go differently.

After a five-minute UTV ride, we found ourselves in the comforts of a heated shack positioned in nearly 40 feet of water. A bench seat lined the far wall. I grabbed a position on one end with my dad in the middle and Scott on the other side. Each of us had a pair of holes at our feet.

The guide distributed the rods and reels. The braided line was tipped with a fluorocarbon leader. At the end of that leader was a gold and black Jigging Rap meant to imitate a goby. Whitefish have adapted their diets to include feasting on this invasive species.

We were instructed to keep the bait near the bottom, occasionally making contact with it as we jigged. This disturbance would capture the attention of these sight-feeding fish.

The action started almost immediately, which is a good thing because feeling out a whitefish bite takes some practice. Though whitefish are aggressive and high-strung, their bite can be difficult to detect. It often comes in the way of a small thump or just a little added weight during an upward jig.

Early on, there were plenty of swings and misses as we tried to get our bearings and feel out the bite. The guide reminded us: hook sets are free. Better to set the hook and be wrong than not set it and wish you did.

Scott was the first one to successfully ice a fish. We were only a few minutes into our trip when the solid silvery specimen made its way into our shack.

A short time later, my dad was hooked up. The rod tip pounded as he brought the fish to the surface. As the head emerged through the hole, it quickly became clear this was a sizable whitefish. My dad went to grab the fish as the entirety of its body came onto the ice. But the fish squirted away and slipped into the neighboring hole, off to swim another day.

For those of you who haven’t handled one of these fish, they are incredibly slippery. Easily the slickest fish I have ever put hands on. Think of trying to grasp a wet bar of soap that has muscles and an incredible desire to continue living.

After a few choice words and some commiseration, we got back to fishing. Eventually, my dad connected with another fish. This one wasn’t getting away. We celebrated as the fish made its way into the bag. I took a moment to savor the experience. My dad has been with me for so many of my outdoors “firsts.” It was a special experience to be there for one of his.

Following a few more misses, it was my turn. Unlike most of the fish we had encountered thus far, this one made its presence known. It hammered the bait and the sensation of significant added weight was instant. I set the hook and began the fight. But as I pulled up, the crank on the reel collapsed.

I managed to awkwardly continued reeling and get the fish to the surface. We were all on the board now.

The bite remained steady, but not crazy. We dinked and dunked our way to eight fish before noon. Unfortunately, a few more of them found their way back down the hole before they could be secured. Eventually, we formulated a strategy to keep the fish from escaping. We used a tag team method. Whoever was sitting next to the person battling the fish would get down to ice level and serve as a makeshift goalie, preventing additional mishaps. We didn’t lose a single fish after implementing this new policy.

In the afternoon, the fish came in waves. The current would kick up and we’d start marking fish or getting bites. One person would feel a bump and, moments later, someone else would have a fish on. It was almost as if the schools of fish were making their way right down the line of lures.

All told, we ended the day with 19 fish. It was a great time. After saying our goodbyes it was time to load up the fish and head out. We secured the fish in our styrofoam cooler and placed it in the back of the SUV. I wanted to snap a couple pictures before we departed. So I grabbed the cooler and moved toward the edge of the parking lot.

I made it two steps before the entire cooler buckled under the weight of our bounty and all of the fish slipped into the snow. Our cooler was now in three pieces. My dad went to the front desk of the lodge and acquired a pair of garbage bags. With the day’s catch now stowed away, we headed south toward my second destination.

The sun was beginning to set as we pulled into the parking lot of Silver Lake in Manitowoc County. I had never fished here before, nor had I ever tried ice fishing at night. I wasn’t quite sure what to expect, but I was excited for the new experiences that awaited.

My dad and I parted ways as I joined my group of six friends. We loaded up our gear into a handful of sleds and made the trek to our spot. To say we came prepared is an understatement. We hit the ice with four shanties, heaters, four flashers, a couple dozen tip-ups (far more than we needed), jigging rods, bait, food, drinks, and a full-sized grill to cook dinner.

We selected the spot based on a tip from one of my friend’s co-workers who had some knowledge of the lake. With darkness quickly descending upon us, we divided the setup responsibilities among us. Someone got the charcoal going while another team was on tip-up duty. I joined two members of the group to begin popping holes and using a flasher to try and locate some schools of fish. My research told me this 73-acre body of water held walleye, pike, bass, and panfish.

After finding signs of life, we marked the holes that were most likely to be fruitful and helped get our tip-ups set before it was pitch black. We fixed small glow sticks to each of the flags so we would be able to see when we had a fish on. Once the set lines were squared away, shanty assembly began in earnest.

Once everyone had their shelters erected, I began hole-hopping as the bratwursts hit the grill. I marked a handful of fish, but they all seemed to be in a window shopping mindset.

When the brats were ready, I took a break from the jigging and enjoyed a warm meal. Food just tastes better when it’s enjoyed outside and the perfectly-grilled sausages and the light-hearted banter hit the spot.

With everyone fed, it was time to resume the jigging efforts. Those with shacks retreated back to the warmth. I continued my nomadic pursuit of active fish. With temperatures in the low single digits, there was no denying the cold. But it was bearable.

Fishing was slow, but spirits were high. If nothing else, the camaraderie and togetherness coupled with the unique backdrop provided a much-needed break from the isolation most of us have been going through during the pandemic. A few of my friends on this trip hadn’t seen each other in over a year.

I was fixated on my flasher trying to entice the fish beneath me when one of my friends called out from his shanty. “Macy got the first fish!”

One-by-one, we converged on the shack to check out the first example of aquatic life any of us had seen that night. The small bluegill was far from a trophy, but we didn’t get skunked. The hope brought about by that first catch gave us renewed energy.

The wind began to pick up and the true extent of the cold conditions began to set in. The conversations continued to flow as we maintained our search for hungry fish. This pursuit proved to be to no avail. We called it a night shortly before 10 with just the one bluegill to our collective credit.

I hitched a ride home with a member of the group who was spending the weekend in town. Back at my place, I got the minnows squared away in the basement and put my flasher on the charger before taking a hot shower and hitting the hay.

The following morning, another band of snow moved through. It was light, but steady and persisted throughout much of the day. The bitter cold remained. In an effort to circumvent that, we decided to wait until noon to meet at Woodlake. This way we could fish while temperatures were at their warmest, though “warm” was a relative term. The forecast called for single digits and enough of a breeze to make wind chill a factor.

Our group consisted myself and three of my friends who were out on Silver Lake the night before. We chose a spot that was good to us a few weeks prior.

The lake holds a bounty of panfish, along with bass and northern pike across its 21 acres. We drilled a few holes and got to work.

It wasn’t long before we found a few takers. With a high number of panfish, finding food gets competitive. So locating active fish is rarely a chore on this body of water.

Presentation is pretty straightforward. There are a host of small vertical jigs that, when tipped with a wax worm, will produce bites. The worm is the key, though. Without meat on the hook, the fish are a lot more reluctant to play ball.

Before I knew it, I had caught five fish: four small bluegills and a respectable perch. It wasn’t long before the other members of the group found some success of their own.

Our flashers showed fish frequently. Most were a foot or two above the bottom. Others were suspended halfway up the water column. However, the bite began to slow after the initial flurry.

One of my friends had recently purchased MarCum Recon 5 Plus. In my book, one of the best underwater viewing systems on the market today. With the fish getting shy, we put my friend and his new toy to work. It wasn’t long before we were all glued to the screen as he gently navigated the clear water below with the camera, hovering just over the top of the weeds that reached from the sandy bottom. Every now and then a bluegill or perch would come into view, sometimes staring directly into the camera.

I could have watched that screen for hours. That’s the danger of units like that. You risk spending more time fish watching than actually fishing.

We eventually got back to fishing and the bite picked up again. I moved over a few yards to a hole that was recently abandoned by one of my buddies. I didn’t even need my flasher. I simply found bottom, moved my bait up a foot or so and waited for a bump. I pulled 10 fish out of that spot in a matter of minutes.

As the afternoon went on, the cold became a bit too much to handle and we decided to wrap up while we could still (mostly) feel our hands.

We ended up with 33 panfish between the four of us.

When I got home and made some lunch, I looked back on the whirlwind that was the last 30 hours. The chance to be with friends, explore new places, and target several different species of fish was something I didn’t take for granted.

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