For the last two decades, my family has made an annual trek to Vilas County for a summer fishing trip.
When you add in the numerous spring walleye trips my dad and I have taken throughout the years, I have become quite familiar with the area, especially North and South Twin Lakes.
I have spent many hours relaxing on the roughly 3,500 acres of water in the Twin Lakes chain, nestled between the tiny towns of Conover and Phelps, and the land that surrounds it.
Seemingly everyone in Wisconsin has their own definition of “up north” but, for me, this is it.
Up north isn’t so much a place as it is a state of mind. The pace of life slows. Priorities shift. Blood pressure decreases and worries slip away.
For the last 15 years or so, my family has rented a cabin on North Twin from some family friends. It has become a fixture of my summers.
I find it easy to relax among the beautiful green pine trees, the vast expanses of winding backroads, soaring bald eagles, and calling loons.
Over the years, I have developed a list of my favorite bars, restaurants, and non-fishing activities. It feels like, with each passing trip, that list only grows.
Recently, my friends Shane and Spencer invited me on their family’s trip to Phelps for an ice fishing tournament hosted by a local bar.
After some hemming and hawing, I decided to get out of my comfort zone and stop being a homebody and committed to joining them. After all, I have never been in Vilas County during winter, which is strange because winter in this region of the state can run from late-October to mid-May.
This was going to be a short trip, hardly 48 hours in length. But I was excited for a new adventure. No matter the level of success, every fishing outing produces a story. In this case, I was about to experience a few.
Late Friday morning, I loaded up my truck and headed north to a park-and-ride in Manitowoc County where I would meet Spencer after he finished up his half-day of work. As I transferred my cargo to his vehicle, Spencer informed me that we needed to stop to pick up some khaki pants. He was headed out of town on a work trip on Sunday afternoon and just found out about the dress code.
So we pointed his black Duramax northward in search of the nearest Walmart. Upon arrival, we quickly found the pants and intended to be on our way. But before we could check out, the fire alarm went off.
Most of the shoppers, ourselves included, simply ignored the screeching noise that rang out in two-second intervals. As we were about to make our way to the front of the store and complete the purchase, a manager approached us and said, “folks, we have a real fire. We are going to need you to evacuate the building.”
“What should I do with my stuff,” Spencer asked.
“Find a place to leave it and come back for it later,” the manager replied.
We spent a couple of minutes outside in the parking lot, a few yards from the entrance, before we received the all clear.
Spencer retrieved his items and made his way through the self-checkout. After the minor blip on the radar we were back on our way. The responding fire truck, passed us on our way out of the parking lot.
Back in the truck, Spencer and I hatched our plan for the evening. We were going to stop at a local bait shop and stock up for the next day’s tournament. Then, we would hit the ice and sneak in a quick session of evening fishing before meeting up with the rest of his family members who were making the trip.
Throughout the course of the ride, Spencer prepped me for the experience ahead. He told me about last year’s ice fishing trip when the pipes in the pump house froze and the cabin was without running water for the weekend.
He also told me about the music selection and the trusty old CD player in the cabin.
“There’s no country music where we’re going,” he laughed. “Just rock. Old rock.”
As we advanced toward our final destination, we encountered an increasing number of snowmobiles zipping in and out of the trees through the seemingly endless miles of trails. Snowmobiling is a way of life in these parts. We passed several gas stations that had more sleds parked at the pumps than cars.
With less than an hour remaining in our four-hour trek, some familiar sites began to come into view, including many of the ice cream shops my parents frequent during the summertime.
My mom tries to eat at as many different ice cream parlors as possible during her week in the Northwoods. In these frigid months, however, the shops were closed up tight. It was weird to think about how it will be many weeks before these little places spring back to life.
The tips of the trees lining the road were frosted with snow. It was a different visual than what I have become accustomed to, but beautiful nonetheless.
Before long, we were at the bait shop filling our buckets with fatheads and shiners.
When we inquired about wax worms, the clerk directed us to the a rack filled with old chewing tobacco containers. Each of these repurposed vessels held roughly three dozen waxies.
We paid our tab and headed out. The cabin was just a few minutes down the road on the shore of South Twin just south of the main drag of Phelps.
Once we arrived, we unloaded the truck, got dressed, and headed to the ice.
As I climbed on the back of the blue and black Ski-Doo, I realized that, at the age of 30, I was about to take my first snowmobile ride.
We jetted out to the first of two shacks Spencer’s uncle had out on the ice. To our surprise, the nearest shack was occupied.
With our choice made for us, we chased out about 100 more yards to the smaller four-person shack. We fought a viciously cold wind as we unloaded the sled and got situated in the shanty.
It didn’t take long to realize that something was off. Our flashers indicated that we were in less than five feet of water. We dropped a camera down one of the holes to see what we were dealing with. Our underwater spy cam revealed some decaying eurasian milfoil and little else. We later learned this shack was dedicated to night fishing for walleyes and wasn’t meant for pursuing the panfish we were after.
After a fruitless half our, we decided to leave the warmth of our shack and venture out into the fading daylight in hopes of finding deeper water and a few fish. But we had no such luck.
Before I knew it, we were back in the truck and headed back south to Eagle River. We were meeting at Lumpy’s, one Spencer’s family’s favorite establishments. Once there, we met up with Spencer’s twin brother Shane and his girlfriend Macy as well as their dad Curt, uncle Craig, and the youngest of the Long brothers, Jacob.
We enjoyed a classic Wisconsin fish fry: deep-fried lake perch, french fries, coleslaw, and a dinner roll. Once we had our fill, we headed to the bar to enter into the following morning’s tournament. Entry was $20 per person and included a pair of free drink tickets. Prizes would be awarded for the three longest bluegills and walleyes in addition to awards for the longest bass and crappie. The tournament had over 80 entrants.
When sign-up was completed, we made our way to the cabin to settle in for the remainder of the evening. We relaxed, talked, played cribbage, and enjoyed a few drinks.
I found myself just sitting back an observing. I’ve known Spencer and Shane for many years, but I don’t often have the chance to see them interact with their family this extensively. It was fun to note how they communicated, what they liked to talk about, and how they perceive and experience this area.
I was informed I needed to take an honorary shot of Vermox. The dusty old bottle shoved in my face was at least 40 years old and was half-full of a brownish mixture of whiskey and vermouth. A sprig of, what I later learned was, worm wood floated in the middle of the murky concoction. As best we can tell, they don’t even make the stuff anymore.
Wanting the full experience, I took a pull from the bottle. It wasn’t as bad as the others made it out to be. But it wasn’t good, either.
We carried on into the night and I spent some time checking out the cabin. The small but functional kitchen had everything we would need for a comfortable weekend.
A pair of couches formed an “L” in the living room near the television. The wall between the T.V. and the fireplace had a trio of fish mounts, a walleye and a pair of smallmouth bass. The largest was 19 inches. It was a gorgeous specimen.
My eye was drawn to a cork board hanging in the hallway between the living room and the bathroom. It was dotted with pictures from the family’s time on the lake. I worked my way up and down the board, observing all of the old images of fish and sleepless nights that probably aren’t remembered but are also not forgotten.
We then indulged in the “shake of the day,” a classic tavern game. The rules are simple: you pay a dollar to shake five dice. You get two chances to get five-of-a-kind. Whoever does, wins the pot. The total stood at just over $20 when we arrived on Friday night. The money was kept alongside the dice cup in a red Folgers coffee container that also held a ledger of the totals and the previous winners.
Just before midnight, I headed off to bed. I had a single bedroom with a twin bed all to myself just down the hallway. I had just drifted off to sleep when awoke to voices in the hallway and the sound of my door opening.
“Nate, get up. We have a water leak,” Spencer said.
He opened the closet door and our ear drums were instantly hit with the sound of rushing water. Craig quickly went into the next room and shut off the water. Though we weren’t entirely sure what we were dealing with, there was little doubt this situation would need to be addressed in the morning.
A few hours later, I was up and at ’em. I was the first one to rise and I tried to quietly navigate my way through the house to get my gear ready. Before long, the whole crew was awake. We gathered around the kitchen table as Craig whipped up a round of his famous egg sandwiches that Spencer has lovely named “Craiggers,” a nod to the famous “Egger” sandwich at Road America.
These simple, yet tasty morsels consist of a toasted generic hamburger bun topped with an easy-over egg, and a slice of ham topped with a Kraft American Single.
“Ah shit,” Craig exclaimed as he leaned over the propane stovetop. “Well, some of you are going to be trying something new because I thought I grabbed the pepper shaker, but it’s actually cinnamon.”
We all had a good laugh and ate our sandwiches without complaint. I got one of the cinnamon versions and, honestly, it wasn’t half bad.
With our bellies full, we turned our attention to the plumbing situation.
Spencer and I shoveled the snow from out in front of the crawlspace and cracked the small trap door open so we could get a good look at the guts of the cabin. Once we were in place, Craig turned on the water and, almost immediately, liquid began spraying out of one of the nearby PVC pipes. Sure enough, one of the pipes had cracked.
A short while later, Craig joined us outside along with Curt and Shane. With my relative lack of handyman skills, I gladly played the role of gopher, running errands back and forth to the toolbox as the four of them concocted a plan.
Within an hour, the leak was fixed. Well, fixed enough to get us through the weekend anyway. It was finally time to fish.
As we loaded our gear and fired up the snowmobiles, Craig, Curt, and I discussed how much nicer conditions were compared to the overnight hours. Temperatures were in the low teens, but it seemed as though the wind had quit.
However, once we hopped on the sleds and turned toward the ice, it didn’t take long to find out how wrong we were in our meteorological assessments.
The bitter wind blasted our faces as we caught our first glimpse of the lake. Or, at least what we thought was the lake.
It was a near white-out as the wind pushed forced the powdery snowfall from the previous night airborne and kept it there.
Curt and I were the first ones off the snowmobiles, so it was our job to begin popping and clearing holes while Spencer and Craig shuttled everyone else to the ice.
I quickly realized I had left my gloves in one of the shacks that hadn’t made its way to the ice yet. By the time I drilled our second hole, I already couldn’t feel my hands. With a wind chill hovering near 20 below, these were easily the nastiest conditions I have ever attempted to fish in.
While waiting for my gloves to arrive, I took breaks between drilling each hole and put my hands in the fleece-lined pockets of my ice suit while Curt skimmed the slush from the hole. Jacob eventually joined us with his flasher and gave us a depth check in each hole as we continued drilling new ones.
Once we found suitable water depths, Craig brought over the small shack for himself, Curt, and Jacob. Shane and Spencer got to work erecting their pullover shacks and firing up the heaters. I was to join Spencer, while Shane and Macy fished together nearby.
It was past 9 a.m. by the time I got a line in the water. We were about an hour behind where we wanted to be in our timeline. But, I was in a warm shanty with a beer in my hand. I wasn’t about to complain.
Within minutes, I had a fish on the ice. It was solid sunfish. Probably not big enough to win us any money, but plenty large enough to eat. Given previous events, I was just happy we managed to catch a fish at all.
The bites kept coming. Well, for me, at least. It felt like every five minutes I was handing Spencer my beer so that I could reel in a fish after setting the hook. Before long, our bucket held a handful of keeper fish, a mix of bluegills, perch, sunfish, and crappies that Macy and Craig also contributed to.
Spencer hopped on the snowmobile to register our fish at the bar.
While he was gone, I found myself in a skirmish with a largemouth bass that measured just over 15 inches. I haven’t tangled with many fish that have managed to pull drag out from my jigging setup, but this one did.
I called Shane over to help provide an extra set of hands as I dealt with the aftermath of the exchange.
Eventually, the sun came out. But the wind was relentless. Our lunch plan was to fire up the camp stove and cook some pork steaks to enjoy on the ice. But Mother Nature nixed that idea.
As the day wore on, I managed to keep pulling up fish on a fairly consistent basis. I felt bad for Spencer who, despite fishing in a hole six inches from me, had only caught a single fish.
Our group ended the day with 40 fish, about a dozen of which were earmarked for the dinner table.
It was 1:30 p.m. when we packed up and headed back to the cabin to warm ourselves and grab some snacks before heading to the bar to find out how we fared in the tournament.
When the time came, we made the short drive to the pub. Spencer and I quickly found Craig’s name in second place in the bluegill category. His 8-and-a-quarter-inch catch earned him a $90 payday.
We hung out at the bar for a while, taking advantage of our free drinks and entering a few of the raffles the organizers had set up. Spencer ended up winning a Frabill hub.
With all of our good luck spent, we went back to cabin and had dinner. Curt grilled the pork steaks we were originally going to have for lunch and Craig made a batch of chicken cacciatore. We ate like royalty.
Afterward, we watched the Packers lay an egg in their playoff game and then retired to bed. Fortunately, no one had to bust into my room in the middle of the night to deal with a water leak.
In the morning, we packed up and enjoyed another round of Craiggers. This time, sans the cinnamon.
Once the trucks were packed, we converged around the kitchen table one final time for a last shake of the day. As with the previous two rounds, there were no winners. But a nice fat pot awaits the next winner, thanks to our group
On the ride home I reflected on the eventful weekend and how fortunate I was to get to experience one of my favorite places from a different point of view and to get a firsthand glimpse of how another family enjoys one of my favorite locations.
My eyes have been opened to a different version of the Northwoods. I will never look at this place the same way again.