An ode to dip netting

Here’s a little peek behind the curtain of how I pull together content to share with all of you.

On my computer, I have a note on my “Notes” app that I use as a repository for ideas for future articles, podcasts, or videos. When I’m ready to create something fresh, I reference that note as a starting point.

One of the first items that ever found its way to that list was an article on dip netting. I have known for a long time that this is a subject worth covering. I take so much enjoyment out of this simple activity and being able to share that experience with all of you was high on my priority list.

In a way, it’s difficult to make this topic sexy. After all, this is a very straightforward activity. You lower a net that is attached to a rope into a river. Every once in a while, you pull and see if anything has become stuck. It seems mundane but, from my first exposure to it, dip netting has meant a lot to me.

Some of my earliest memories of the outdoors have their roots in dip netting. I vividly recall many nights spent with my dad on a bridge overlooking the Pigeon River. I remember the smell of the propane from the lantern that dimly lit our surroundings. I recall the music and countless baseball games that played over the car stereo that helped provide entertainment between pulls of the net as we eagerly awaited the splashing and thrashing of the white suckers that, hopefully, got caught in our trap. And I will never forget getting my very own dip net for my ninth birthday. I still use that net to this day.

Though they are not as numerous, I also have fond memories of using our nets to pursue smelt in the Sheboygan Marina. My dad came of age in the latter part of smelt nettings heyday in the Sheboygan area. By the time I was old enough to tag along, there weren’t many of these fish to be had in our. But my dad still made the time to pass along the tradition. I still remember our best night, when we were overjoyed to come home with a whopping 12 smelt in our bucket, a far cry from the pails-full of them my dad and his dad were able to find back in the day. Still, we enjoyed snacking on our meager haul at breakfast the next morning.

I wanted to write something that would capture all of these things. However, I just couldn’t find the right angle to put together something worthwhile.

A how-to story didn’t really make sense. There isn’t much difficulty in the art of netting fish. A post that strictly shared how exciting dip netting can be was off the table because I had already produced one. I felt stuck. I knew there was more to say about this subject, but I had no idea where to start.

But, recently, I had an “a-ha” moment. Many of the aspects of my evolving relationship with netting stem from the fact I am getting older. This includes the need to savor every moment while learning to deal with change.

Not long ago, I turned 30 and reaching that milestone hit me kind of hard. It’s tough realizing you have already lived a significant portion of your life.

My birthday falls toward the tail end of the sucker netting season. This is often a small moment of reflection in my year as the seasons begin to transition and I look back on another trip around the sun.

With an increasingly-busy schedule, finding time to get out dip netting has been difficult. That is certainly part of getting older. The number of responsibilities and obligations grow. It’s just part of life.

Still, all of my trips this season have delivered some degree of success and I am grateful for that. And even though I don’t get to spend as much time chasing fish with the net as I used to, being able to pick out few nights to enjoy the outdoors as the world shifts from the bitter cold of winter to the optimism and rebirth of spring continues to be important to me.

As I have mentioned before, I rarely keep any of the suckers I catch. In fact, most years, I don’t keep any at all. So even on the best of nights, I almost always come home empty-handed and that’s more than OK with me. I just like seeing and interacting with the fish. Fresh air is nice, too. Over the years, I have learned to appreciate those things more and more.

My netting adventures also allow me the chance to catch up with friends and family, though not as often as they used to. My dad still joins me on many of my trips. Some of my friends who used to be regulars on nearly every outing are still by my side sometimes too, but their appearances don’t come as often as they used to. Work, growing families, and other commitments take precedence, which is completely understandable. So I make sure to take extra time to savor any of my netting adventures that feature company.

As for the smelt run, for a variety of reasons, in our area it is all but non-existent. But I will probably still venture out onto the jetties or mess around in the marina a couple times before I put the net in the garage for the remainder of the year. It’s not even about the fish, it’s about doing my best to remain connected to important memories and enjoying time outside. That becomes increasingly-important as I climb the ladder in years.

For now, I will continue to cherish the little that is left of this netting season and I’ll continue to be grateful for the perspective this activity has granted me as I continue to age as gracefully as I can.

If you enjoyed this article, you may also like Episode 5 of the Nathan Woelfel Outdoors Podcast: “The Skinny on Suckers.” Listen to it below or wherever you get your podcasts.

When the cable doesn’t work

It was a pleasant spring Saturday evening in early April when I sprawled out on the couch and turned on the TV.

My plan was to turn on the Milwaukee Brewers and enjoy a quiet night at home enjoying one of the first baseball games of the season while mulling over the joyful thoughts that accompany the promise of warmer weather and longer.

It had been an enjoyable but long day. I arose a couple hours before dawn to go fishing and catch up with a friend I hadn’t seen in a while. I was lucky enough to score my second brown trout of the year and was grateful for the relatively steady action we encountered. I was satisfied with my time in the outdoors for the day and was looking forward to calling it an early night and catching up on sleep after the game.

That plan was quickly foiled, however. I couldn’t get a picture to come through on my TV screen. The cable box was on, but nothing was showing up. I spent a few minutes tinkering with inputs and triple-checking connections. Growing frustrated, I quickly threw in the towel.

I went out the back door and grabbed the dip net out of the garage, determined to make the most of my night. I tossed the net in the back of my truck and headed for one of the bridges that stretches over the Pigeon River here in Sheboygan County. With the baseball game dialed-in on the radio, I was off in search of a few spawning suckers.

It was still at least an hour before sunset, long before the best action begins. The plan, as it always is with dip netting, was simple: lower the net down to where I believed the fish would congregate and then give it a pull every few minutes.

My net is a five-by-five-foot mesh setup that is supported by four umbrella-type metal rods with an old boat anchor rope attached to the top of it.

It’s hard to place a finger on exactly why, but dip netting is one of my favorite activities. Maybe it’s the simplicity. Perhaps I enjoy it because it’s one of the first outdoor activities I partake in during the fresh season. Maybe I just find joy in having an excuse to be outside before properly-nice weather arrives. In all likelihood, it’s a combination of the three and then some.

The intent of this activity, as I understand it, is to remove “rough” fish from the local waters. There are few laws governing dip netting. You don’t even need a fishing license.

Though the limit, the last time I checked, is 600 suckers per person, I rarely keep the fish. It seems silly, I know. But I just like seeing and interacting with them. Most of the time, I get my kicks by slightly inconveniencing the fish and sending them on their merry way. I usually don’t have a need to keep suckers and, even though many people find them to be a less than desirable species, I’m not into taking lives for the sake of it.

My dad and friends often accompany me on these adventures. Tonight, I was flying solo with the sweet sounds of America’s pastime singing through my headphones.

As predicted, there was no movement in the early going. Dip netting is best when it’s dark. This is for a couple reasons. First, the more visibility is available, the higher the chances are that the fish can see the net. Second, these spawning fish do most of their traveling in the rivers under the cover of night. This is a built-in defense mechanism that helps them avoid predators. These fish can be incredibly vulnerable during spawning periods when they are concentrated into narrow rivers and often easily seen in the shallows.

Just after sunset, I walked over to my rope and gave it a tug. I was greeted by the familiar splashing that comes from a trapped fish. It was, indeed, the first sucker of the night. I pulled it up to the guardrail, admired it and then slowly lowered it back to the water. It felt good to have the first one out of the way.

True darkness began the set-in. The songbirds entered their roosts and the steady stream of birds zipping in and out of the treetops that I enjoyed between innings of the game in the hour before had ceased. Headlights of passing cars occasionally lit the surroundings.

It wasn’t long before I had another fish in the net. As was the ritual, I brought it up to the railing. That’s when I remembered a recent conversation with my dad. He had reminded me that the neighbor across the street from him pickles suckers and was willing to make a batch for us. He needed a minimum of 22 fish to make it happen.

My dad and I had been out netting a few times in the days before with some success, but nothing steady. Knowing that the high volumes of fish we were after weren’t present, we released everything that wound up in our nets.

On this night, it occurred to me: if we are ever going to get our 22, we have to start somewhere.

Though I was without a cooler and, thereby, mostly unprepared to keep fish on this night, I escorted the fish to my truck and placed it in the bed. I decided I was going to start chipping away at our total. You have to start somewhere, right?

Well, that belief was quickly challenged. The next several pulls came up empty. This was the exact scenario I was dreading. Once you keep the first fish, you are committed to the cause. Was I really going to have to go home and clean a single fish?

Thankfully, I was able to find another fish after about 15 minutes, then another, then another. I was slowly dinking and dunking my way toward the desired total. Things were getting steadier, but the action was far from hot. When the variables of fish volume and activity properly intersect, it is nothing to get three or four fish in a pull. This early in the season, I was still dealing with singles.

Before long, I was in double-digits including my first double of the night. At this point, I was comfortable with my haul even as things began to quiet down again.

I chose to change things up. I pulled my net up to the road and scurried across to the other side of the bridge. I lowered my net into the deepest pocket of water I could find. A few minutes later, I had a pair of suckers in the net. I walked the duo to my truck bed. When I came back to my spot, I gave the rope a pull. There was another fish in there. I was back in business.

As I pulled up another sucker, I received a text message from my wife. She was done with her shift at the family restaurant and wanted to know if I was still out netting. Once she found out that I was, she decided to swing by for a few minutes.

The pace of fish coming over the rail slowed as we got up to speed on the nights we had. As she left, I told her I would likely be home shortly as it seemed that my luck was running dry. I had 15 fish in my truck.

Before departing, I decided to go back to the spot I started the night at on the other side of the road. And wouldn’t you know, there was a fish in the net on the very first pull.

It was at this juncture I knew I was going to see this thing through. I was going to stay until there were 22 fish in my truck, come hell or high water. I am very much a goals-driven person and I don’t like leaving work undone or coming up short.

I pulled a couple more fish from the original location but, after a string of empty pulls, I chose to move back to the second spot. The first pull yielded another double. I was just three fish away.

Just as before, I brought the fish to my truck and immediately gave the rope another pull upon returning. And again there was a fish in the net. Two to go, now.

A few minutes later, I caught another sucker. The excitement grew as I got closer to my goal. But my joy was dampened upon my latest trip to my vehicle. A quick count of the fish in the bed revealed that I had been operating with a faulty fish count. Somewhere along the line, I gave myself one more fish than I was actually in possession of.

So, with my total back to 20, I resumed my mission. Naturally, fish instantly became harder to come by. It was well after 10 p.m. and, nearly four hours in, I was still two fish short of a proper batch for pickling. More seasoned netters would have called it quits by now, given those numbers. But I refused to give up.

I bounced back to the other side of the road. A short while later, fish No. 21 came to the roadside. On the very next pull, I felt the weight I had slowly become accustomed to and a big smile came across my face. The last fish I needed was in my net. I had done it.

For whatever reason, I lowered the net back into the water to soak while I brought the final fish to the pile. When I came back, I gave the line one last pull. There was another large sucker in my net.

The part of my brain that is geared toward addiction told me to keep it. After all, 22 was simply the minimum required to get the job done. I could always add more.

“Maybe I should keep going,” I thought to myself.

But, after staring down the barrel of the prospect of cleaning 23 fish, I thought better of it and slowly lowered the fish back to the river, off to swim another day.

I sent my dad and wife a message before leaving the spot. I was headed home with a full batch of suckers. On my way to the gas station for a couple bags of ice, I reflected back happily on the fun night I enjoyed. It was full of success, fun, and relaxation. Even better, I accomplished a goal I had set for myself.

All because the cable didn’t work.

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