A floating history lesson

Green Lake has always intrigued me.

Though it is just over 60 miles from home, admittedly, I didn’t know much about this body of water.

It’s deep. It’s cold. It has lake trout and lots of people fish it. For a long time, that was the extent of my knowledge.

After some research, I discovered that Green Lake is the deepest natural inland lake in Wisconsin, reaching a depth of 236 feet. This means the water can be quite cold, hence it is a perfect habitat for inland lake trout.

Wisconsin has over 15,000 lakes and fewer than two-tenths of a percent of them hold inland lake trout. Green Lake is one of the select few that does. This alone piqued my interest.

So when our friend Scott offered my dad and me the chance to join him on a guided trip, we both jumped at the chance.

Scott booked the four-person trip for late August.

The night before, we met up with Scott and his friend Peter at a local bar to catch up, swap fishing stories, and discuss the day ahead.

My dad and I had little idea what, exactly, we were getting into. But the more we learned from Scott and Peter, the more this trip seemed to be much like what we were accustomed to doing when chasing trout and salmon on Lake Michigan.

We were told trolling was the preferred method of targeting these inland lakers and the setups sounded exactly like those we used out on the big lake.

One of the benefits of inland lake trout, according to Peter and Scott, was the quality of the meat. Lake trout on Lake Michigan have a reputation for being quite greasy. These inland fish, however, were leaner and their meat wasn’t quite as orange.

The next morning, we met in the hotel lobby for breakfast before heading to the dock to connect with Captain Mike Norton.

Mike, as Scott accurately put it, is a fishing legend with a superb pedigree. He has been guiding on Green Lake for over four decades and his dad is a member of the freshwater fishing Hall of Fame.

“You guys are going to get along great,” Scott told me. “You’re going to sit right next to him and ask all of the questions you want. He’ll answer every one of them. He has lots of stories too.”

We arrived at the water’s edge at 8 a.m. and were greeted by the site of Mike’s 45-foot pontoon boat, all decked out for trolling. This custom-built, medium-sized barge had both front and back decks, along with padded seats, a bathroom, and an area that could be enclosed with glass doors during inclement weather.

Mike and his first mate Steve were finishing up their final preparations as we approached the vessel.

“Hey, Scott! How are you doing?” Mike called out.

The two exchanged pleasantries before Scott introduced the rest of our crew as we boarded.

With introductions out of the way, lines were thrown and we departed the dock. It was a chamber of commerce kind of day. Temperatures were in the mid-70s with a gentle breeze kissing the water’s surface.

As we made our way to the first spot, Mike and Steve gave us the rundown.

The plan was to troll a mix of cut bait, Apex spoons, and Sutton spoons (more on those later).

Some of the baits had “cowbells” in front of them, a series of large, brightly-colored spinner blades that give the lure motion and refract light the way a school of scattering baitfish might.

Getting this curated collection to the frosty depths that lake trout call home requires some force. To tackle this, some lines were fitted with Dipsy divers to help force the baits down and away from the boat, while other lines had 16-ounce weights attached.

Each rod had a bronze bell attached to it. When the rod began to bounce or jerk the bell would start clamoring, alerting everyone onboard to the possibility of a bite.

When that happened, we were to quickly approach the rod and begin reeling at a steady pace. This is something of a balancing act. If you reel too fast, you could pull the bait right out of the fish’s mouth. Reel too slow and the fish could exploit the slack in the line and gain the upper hand.

Once the fish was in the net, we were told to firmly plant the butt of the rod on the deck of the boat and gain control of any free-swinging tackle.

“These are one-pound weights we’re dealing with,” Steve said. “If you’re not careful, they will take out teeth.”

In order to be legally kept, a laker must be at least 15 inches long and the daily limit is two fish per person, per day. This is to help protect the integrity of the fishery since lake trout are notoriously slow-growing.

While lines were being set, Scott and Peter were at the back of the boat with Mike. My dad and I joined Steve near the bow.

Steve explained that lake trout were first planted here in Green Lake in the 1880s, but few people started catching them with any consistent success until the 1950s.

As the story goes, the first person to dial-in the lake trout bite was a retired army major with last name Turnbull. He would head out in his little boat, stack up a few lakers, and hang them on a fence post on his property and use them to barter with locals.

Word quickly spread of Turnbull’s success. But when anyone asked about the methods he was using, he gave them the runaround.

Local fishermen and charter captains began following him around the lake, hoping to gain a glimpse at his tactics. When they saw him with a fish on the line, they would close-in on his boat. When Turnbull noticed them approaching, he would simply cut the line and move to a new spot.

So the local anglers formulated a plan. They chose to work together to trap Turnbull in shallow water where he couldn’t escape. One day soon after, everything went according to plan.

Turnbull hooked up with a fish and was quickly encircled by a host of boats that forced him into the shallows.

But, just as before, he cut the line before anyone could make heads or tails of what was happening.

However, as legend has it, the locals were able to recover his lure this time around with the help of the clear, shallow water. When the inquisitive anglers finally had their hands on the small silver spoon, they found that Turnbull, anticipating his demise, had filed the brand name off the back.

Refusing to give up, the locals took the spoon to a jeweler who soaked it in acid. With the top layer of the metal removed, the etching was revealed.

“The Sutton Company, Naples, New York.”

The area anglers contacted the company and started buying the spoons in bulk. They are used on Green Lake to this day.

Now we’ll never know for certain how much of this tale is true. But there’s no escaping the fact it’s one hell of a story.

With the lines in the water, we began taking in the scenery. My dad drew Steve’s attention to a large brick tower on the near shoreline.

Without missing a beat, Steve began his next history lecture.

It turns out that structure was originally built by the Lawson family near the turn of the 20th century. Mr. Lawson was a big whig at a daily newspaper in Chicago and he and his wife invested in this chunk of land in hopes of farming it.

This water tower was one of seven built on the land and, just like the others, it had an observation deck at the top where Mrs. Lawson could enjoy her tea and keep an eye on their farm workers.

“Now look at this building with the green roof,” Steve said pointing to the right of the tower. “That’s Italian tile. The Lawson’s brought in European craftsmen to build it. It was a charging station for the batteries on Mrs. Lawson’s electric boat.”

Steve went on to explain that local folklore states, at the time, only three people had an electric boat of this style: The Czar of Russia, Thomas Edison, and Mrs. Lawson.

Talk about a societal statement.

With the latest history lesson concluded, our attention was drawn to the back of the boat where Peter ran toward one of the rods and began reeling. A short while later, the fish came over the rail, a small laker that didn’t meet the minimum length threshold. It was quickly released to swim another day.

Before long, Scott was hooked up in the back of the boat. Another short, but at least the action was starting to pick up.

My dad and I were invited to the rear of the vessel to get in on the action, since the two lines nearest to us weren’t producing yet.

It didn’t take long before another rod was bouncing away. My dad grabbed it and began bringing the fish toward us. But, as it got to the side of the boat, it simply let the bait go.

The bites were much more subtle than what we are accustomed to on Lake Michigan. The rods seldom “pounded.” It was more of a series of gentle bounces. It blew my mind that fish of this size could choose to simply nibble at something rather than inhale it.

Mike said it wasn’t uncommon for a fish to follow a bait for over 100 yards, occasionally taking small swipes at the lure before falling victim to the hook.

I eagerly awaited my turn to battle a fish. But, the rods suddenly went quiet.

In the meantime, I pulled up a chair next to Mike. We talked about our shared passion for duck hunting, his thoughts on the fishery, and his history as a charter captain.

It was around 9:30 when we started to hear a persistent rumbling in the distance. Given that it was a bluebird day, there was no chance it was thunder. But the sound wouldn’t go away.

“It’s probably a fighter jet,” I said jokingly.

“Actually, I think they train around here,” my dad replied.

Intrigued, I began scanning the sky. Sure enough, a pair of fighter jets were high in the sky dipping, diving, and pulling out all sorts of aerial acrobatics.

Even though there wasn’t a cloud in the sky, it was tough to keep an eye on the jets due to their speed and agility. It felt like their actual location was dozens of miles from the origin of the noise they were producing.

Soon, the pair was joined by a third jet as they made their way closer to us. The jet at the rear of the faux skirmish fired off a couple of red flares, seemingly to simulate missile fire (take that observation with a grain of salt, though. My only knowledge of military aviation comes from what I’ve seen in the Top Gun series).

The exchange was something to behold and it took our minds off the relatively slow fishing for a while.

Every once in a while, someone called out to Mike on the marine radio asking for him by his call sign “Mr. Lucky.”

From the sounds of it, the other boats were struggling too.

One of captains mentioned they were taking out a group from England in the coming days.

“Sounds like there might be a language barrier there,” Mike said with a light chuckle. “Remember, ‘bloody’ means the F-word.”

“I wish the bloody fish would bite,” the other captain quipped.

As the morning wore on, we worked a drop-off near the bay closest to our starting location.

The radio in the cabin softly relayed the sounds of the local oldies station. “Under the Boardwalk,” by The Drifters and Elvis’ “Blue Suede Shoes,” provided the soundtrack as we putted along.

Even after several hours on the water, I was still taken with the scenery. With so much water and so many luscious green trees surrounding it, I found it easy to forget where I was.

Then I would see an old red barn next to a blue silo or hear a commercial on the radio for a business in Oshkosh and I would quickly be reminded “oh yeah, we’re not that far from home.”

We began marking more fish, but still had issues finding a taker.

“We’ll find them,” said Mike. “I’m not worried.”

Steve chimed in, “It’s not over until the fat lady sings. And she hasn’t even started warming up yet.”

If those two weren’t concerned, I wasn’t going to be either.

Soon, our faith was rewarded. One of the rods at the front of the boat went off. Peter grabbed it and hauled in our first keeper of the day.

The bite began to pick up once again. Rods started dancing in succession and everyone got a little piece of the action.

We added two more keepers to the cooler as our original end time of noon approached.

“I’ll keep fishing,” Mike said. “I’ve got nothing else going on and Steve doesn’t start drinking until 4.”

As we enjoyed the hot bite, Mike offered up some fishing stories of his travels to Canada and Michigan while bantering back and forth with Steve, who often had his own version of those tales that added color and sometimes conflicting details.

In the early afternoon, we had plenty of additional bites, landed a handful of additional fish, and put one more laker in the cooler. We fished until nearly 2:30.

All told, we ended the day with nine fish. Everyone caught at least two, with one of them being a keeper.

On the way back to the dock, Mike pulled out a table and a knife and began cleaning fish as Steve guided to boat toward shore.

Noticing I was watching, Mike showed me the stomach contents of some of the fish including some medium-sized ciscos as well as clumps of freshwater shrimp. These shrimp are known as opossum shrimp and are members of the mysid family. Just like the lake trout, these little crustaceans thrive in very cold water with high amounts of dissolved oxygen.

Opossum shrimp from the stomach of a lake trout.

Mike added these shrimp seemed to be a popular food source for the lake trout of late.

Once we arrived back at the dock, we were each handed a bag with our pair of filets, ready for the table.

We said our goodbyes and went our separate ways.

I left the experience with a new respect for this gorgeous body of water and the stories it has to tell.

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