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.

Nathan Woelfel Outdoors Podcast – Episode 2: Spring Trout and Thoughts on Sight Fishing

It’s Episode 2 of the Nathan Woelfel Outdoors Podcast!

In this show, I discuss my experiences during my first season fishing the steelhead run in the Sheboygan and Pigeon Rivers. Then, I offer up some thoughts on the benefits and drawbacks of sight fishing.

Listen here by using the player below or find the show wherever you get your podcasts. If you like what you hear, be sure to subscribe so you don’t miss a future episode.

A proper steelhead adventure

I have this working theory: if you have the chance to do something that you know you won’t be able to stop talking about afterward, you best do everything in your power to make it happen.

It was early winter when I found myself scrolling through Instagram. I stopped on a post that featured a beautiful array of large trout and salmon that caught my eye. While the gorgeous fish certainly gave reason for pause, it was the caption that really drew my attention.

“Book your 2021 trip now for a chance at a giant like these,” the text beneath the photos read.

After doing some digging, I discovered the guide responsible for the post was local. In fact, he lived in Sheboygan Falls, just as I do. His name was Bailey Adamavich and his outfit was called Crazy4Chrome Guide Service. I spent time scrolling through his Instagram feed as well as his website. By the time it was all said and done, I knew I had to book a trip.

I proclaimed to my wife that I really wanted to schedule an outing with this guide in hopes of pursuing trout in our local rivers. I was intrigued by the possibility of being able to have such a memorable experience so close to home.

That night, I sent Bailey a message on Instagram. I congratulated him on a stellar 2020 season and let him know that I planned to book a trip with him in the spring.

A few months later, as the days began to warm, I found myself with enough money saved up to make this dream adventure a reality. I gave Bailey a call and set something up. The agreed-upon date was a little more than two weeks away.

I couldn’t wait. I immediately requested my day off from work and I spent loads of time talking to my wife and family about the excitement surrounding the adventure that awaited.

However, as the day approached, the weather forecast took a sour turn. Rain followed by cold temperatures threatened our plans. After some discussion with Bailey, we decided to push out another week.

Finally, the day came — for real, this time.

I met Bailey at the end point of our float at 5:15 a.m., roughly an hour before legal fishing time. We shook hands and he explained the plan for the next hour as our headlights provided the only light that shined upon the paved backroad.

With waders on and all of our gear situated, we hopped in his vehicle and drove to a spot closer to the point in the river where his raft was tied up. After a brief, brisk walk, we arrived at the 13-foot gray raft, gently floating in the lazy current.

“What are we here for today?” Bailey asked as I climbed into the front of the vessel. “Do you just want to catch fish? Do you want to learn to read rivers? What are you hoping to get out of this?”

I told him I was after all of the above. Without a doubt, I wanted to land my first river steelhead. But I also wanted to learn as much as I could about the process.

We lifted anchor and began the float to our portage point.

Once there, we took care of getting our watercraft back into the river and we continued our journey to our first spot. We spent time talking about our fishing backgrounds and getting up to speed on the plan of attack for the day.

Daylight began to break, but there was still some time before we could begin fishing. We passed the minutes with more conversation as suckers began jumping all around us. It felt like there were hundreds of them. I probably asked a dozen questions, the subjects of which ranged from catch and release practices to basic steelhead biology. By the time we got to the bottom of everything, it was time to get after it.

It was a cold and clear morning, with temperatures hovering in the low 30s and a slight breeze that still held the taste of the dying winter.

We began by floating spawn sacks and a bead (meant to imitate a fish egg) underneath slip bobbers with several equally-spaced split shot sinkers helping to provide the proper presentation.

Ice buildup on the rod guides was our primary issue early on. The added resistance made accurate casting difficult. We overcame this by occasionally dunking the rod tip in the water or manually removing the ice ourselves. Eventually, we resorted to changing out rods every few casts. Bailey would get one rod back in working order while I continued to fish with another.

With no bites to speak of, we continued downriver to the next hole.

“It’ll get going once the sun starts hitting the water,” Bailey reassured me.

The next location was one of his favorite spots on the river. The presence of shore anglers had prevented him from being able to fish it up until our trip.

“We’re going to spend some good time here,” Bailey said. “I guarantee you there are a bunch of fish sitting in this hole.”

We continued to float spawn and beads, switching up colors every once in a while. He even had me try a spinner. Still, no luck.

“Just so you know, if the fishing sucks, we can call it an early day and push to another time,” said Bailey.

While I thought the offer was incredibly generous, it didn’t exactly spark confidence in what the next few hours held. I started getting the sense he was becoming nervous about the lack of action.

The sun rose higher and began to shine on the water. Its warmth was a welcomed addition to the cold morning. We spent about an hour at this particular hole, but were still in search of our first bite. Bailey said it was time to move on.

This next stretch of river was more on the shallow side. Bailey explained that the fish spawn on the gravel beds and then spend time hanging out in the slightly deeper pockets in the area.

We went back to the floating approach.

“See that “V” on your left? Float right through there until you hit the gravel bar,” he instructed from his seat in the back of the raft.

On the second float, my bobber disappeared under the water’s surface. I gave the line a good tug and was hooked up.

As I battled the fish, Bailey maneuvered the raft to a position that allowed for an easier exit. As the fish drew nearer, Bailey hopped into the river with the landing net. After some minor adjustments and a bit of coaching, our first fish was secured. It was a beautiful male with a pink hue that complemented its silver complexion. Though it was on the smaller side, I couldn’t have been happier. It was my first river steelhead.

I disembarked from the raft and met Bailey in the river for a couple quick pictures. He coached me through how to handle the fish properly: wet your hands, put one hand around the tail and tuck the other near its head, and gently lift the fish above the water line. We captured some photos on Bailey’s phone and sent the fish back on its way.

Frankly, I would have been satisfied with my investment even if we didn’t catch another fish. I accomplished what I came to do. In a matter of a couple hours, I gained some incredible insight into pursuing river trout and had managed to score my first steelhead on waters other than Lake Michigan.

After a handshake and a fist bump, it was time to climb back into the raft and try to find another hungry fish. It didn’t take long. In short order, we pulled two more fish out of the same pocket. Another male that was similar in stature to the first, followed by a much larger female. We were in a groove now, with a trio of steelhead to our credit in the last six casts.

Satisfied that we had located all of the active fish in this pocket, we moved slightly downriver to another similar setting. After a few casts, I had another fish on the line. This one was sizable, much closer to the type of trout I have encountered on the open waters of the big lake.

The fish surfaced, revealing its large tail. And, just like that, it was gone.

Since the fight was short, we decided to keep working our current pocket fairly confident that the lack of disturbance didn’t alert other fish to our presence.

A short while later, I had another fish on. This one made its way to the landing net. It was another solid female.

One more spot near a gravel flat yielded another small male. We went from no bites to five fish in, what seemed like, a few minutes.

A persistent downriver breeze forced us to move on. So we floated downriver to a deep hole near one of the downstream bends.

“We pulled a big fish out of here yesterday. We are going to put our time in,” Bailey said.

After roughly a dozen drifts, we decided to change bead colors. As it turned out, that was the ticket. Just as Bailey was about to tell me to pull up my line and start a fresh float, my bobber disappeared. It was probably 30 yards or more from the front of the raft.

I set the hook and felt the type of tension I had become familiar with. It quickly became apparent I was dealing with a strong specimen.

The fish and I went back and forth. For a while, I gained a bit of ground as I began to reel down on the fish. But most of my progress was quickly erased as my opponent went on a series of runs that made the drag sing. I was locked in, what turned out to be, the longest battle of the day.

After nearly 10 minutes, Bailey jumped out of the boat and moved downriver with the net. A short while later, he was making his way back to me with the fish in tow. It was the third female of the day. Though it wasn’t the largest, it was definitely the most energetic of the fish we encountered.

Even as our trip drew to a close, Bailey continued to coach me up on reading the river and the different types of habitat to look for. We also spoke about the handful of brown trout that remained in the river as well as the ins and outs of his king salmon trips in the fall.

I told him I would definitely be booking a trip with him this fall for a shot at my first brown trout in the river.

Before I knew it, I spotted my truck on the far shoreline. Our river adventure was over. But what a trip it was.

I am fortunate enough to have been on many guided hunting and fishing trips. When things are slow, the joke often is: “you should have been here yesterday.” It sometimes seems like I never get to have one of the days that the guide will brag about on Facebook or in their marketing materials afterward. But today, I felt like I was that guy.

We ended the day with six fish on, what we later estimated to be, 10-12 bites.

I still haven’t shut up about it.

The only picture I got

For many people, spending time in the outdoors can be a way to unplug and get away from it all. I often fall into that camp. Fishing, hunting, and birding are all activities I use to relax and re-charge.

Though it pains me to admit it, sometimes I am not as disconnected from the outside world as I could be when I’m in nature.

The excuse I use for this is that I am a “sharer.” There is a special joy I get from sharing the unique experiences the outdoors provides with others. Since I am not always accompanied by friends or family when I’m out hunting, fishing, or birding, the photos and videos I am able to capture are my way of giving you a glimpse into my experiences.

When I catch a fish or see something special, it is my reflex to reach for my phone or camera. At this point, it’s a habit. But, as ingrained as that procedure is, sometimes I am so taken by what is in front of me that I completely forget to document it. That’s when I know a situation is truly unique.

Recently, I was on a late-morning fishing trip at a local river in pursuit of steelhead. I’ve never pursued spawning trout in the springtime, despite my easy access to several local Lake Michigan tributaries.

I had spent several hours working this particular area in the days prior, with no luck. In fact, it took me a few days to even find fish. Once I had located a few, none of them seemed particularly hungry.

But this didn’t deter me. There is something addicting about getting up close and personal with these beautiful, powerful fish. Armed with a good idea of where to locate a few of these chrome-plated specimens, I set out for another round during an early lunch break.

It didn’t take long to find signs of life, unlike the day prior when a friend and I spent over four hours in the river before seeing our first steelhead.

There was frequent cloud cover occasionally interrupted by intermittent bursts of sunshine. Temperatures were climbing toward 60 degrees, some of the warmer weather we had seen so far this year.

About five minutes in, I had found a couple trout cruising in and out of the deeper pools. I floated a spawn sack past them a couple times to no avail. I switched to a stick bait with the same result. After I decided I had been sufficiently patient, I decided to move up-river in the hope of finding some feeding fish.

I only had to venture about 100 yards before I saw a fish-shaped shadow suspended near the far bank facing into the current. It undoubtedly had intentions of continuing its spawning journey, but it seemed to be taking a well-earned break. This fish had already ventured several miles into the river, navigating its way through shallow water, blockages, and anglers.

After some brief contemplation, I decided to enter into the shallow river bed. I slowly edged toward the fish. The river was narrow here, less than 20 yards from shore-to-shore. I only made it about a quarter of the way across before I felt like I was pushing my luck. So I began casting.

My bait of choice was a pink spawn sack on a single hook. The lack of weight allowed the setup to float just under the water’s surface, right in the fish’s line of vision.

Initially, the fish wasn’t phased by the presence of a potential meal. It had other things on its mind.

Occasionally, the fish would gather its energy and make a charge into the small rapids ahead of it only to be turned away by the power of the water. Each time the fish dug in for another run, it’s silver hue flashed. As best I could tell, it looked to be a female packed full of eggs and determined to find a suitable spot to lay them.

Once I observed her behavior, I came up with a different plan. Rather than attempting to coerce a charging fish into eating, I would let her do her thing in peace. When she retreated back to the slack water, I would offer up the spawn once again, hoping she would eventually be ready for snack after exerting such considerable energy.

It was shortly after that when another shadow emerged from downriver. It was a second steelhead, about two feet in length, similar in stature to the fish I had been targeting.

Incredibly, the fish began working in tandem like a pair of race cars looking for a draft. One fish would take the lead and the other would follow, right on its tail, enjoying the short reprieve from the persistent current. These two wild creatures partnered with one goal in mind: continuing the bloodline for another generation, no matter the cost.

Even after joining forces, the fish weren’t making any headway.

Banking on the fact the fish were distracted by their mission, I inched closer to the pool they were using for recuperation. I was about 20 feet from them at this point.

I continued to wait for their seeming-inevitable retreats to the slack water. Then I would once again float the spawn in their direction. Still no luck.

Upon closer inspection, the second fish was a male. This fact was given away by the fully-formed kype on its lower jaw. He had spectacular colors. A deep, almost greenish gray on top with a brilliant pink stripe down the middle, a far cry from the metallic shades of silver these fish display when they are in the lake come summer.

A third, much smaller fish, joined the would-be parade, hanging back while the larger fish took the brunt of the current.

Still waiting for the right times, I continued pacing out my casts while attempting to balance the quantity of opportunities with quality of them.

At one juncture, the spawn sack gently floated right into the female’s nose. She wasn’t having it. The soft container of fish eggs bounced right off her sniffer and continued floating downstream. This was starting to look like a lost cause.

“Five more casts,” I told myself. Then it was time to move on.

On the third cast of that final set, the spawn sack was on course for a collision with the male. As it approached, he violently shook his head. There was instant tension on my line.

The fish quickly realized its predicament and made a run for it. The water exploded as the fish’s powerful tail breached the surface, the sound echoing off the surrounding trees.

He took a bit of drag as he headed downriver. I walked with him, as far as my calf-high boots would allow me.

Eventually, I brought him back to where the fight began. I slowly, yet firmly guided the fish toward the shallows. He was becoming beached. The problem was: my landing net was back on shore.

Though he was running out of water to work with, I was hesitant to approach the fish. I didn’t want to spook him into another run. But it was either that, or finding a way to back-pedal to shore so I could retrieve my net.

As it turns out, the fish made my choice for me. He was hit with a sudden burst of energy and darted for deeper water. He swiftly maneuvered himself around a nearby boulder. That’s when the snap rang out.

The resourceful fish did what it needed to do to earn his escape. He frayed the line around the rock and broke it clean off. He was now out of sight, as were the other fish who fled during the ruckus. My day was over.

My adrenaline pumping and I was disappointed. I headed back for the truck, tail between my legs.

It was not lost on me, however, that I was lucky enough to have an incredibly enjoyable experience. For nearly 20 minutes, I was in a crystal clear river, mere yards away from awe-inspiring fish. It was truly heart-pounding action.

In fact, a review of the heart-rate monitor on my Fitbit later revealed my heart-rate was in a “workout zone” for the duration of the encounter. I even burned some extra calories.

Heck, my heart rate is elevated as I write this.

As the “sharer” I am, my mind immediately went to work figuring out how I could find a way to include all of you in this excitement. It was then I realized, I hadn’t taken a single picture of my outing. Not one of the fish or the river. Nothing.

All I had was the blurry photo at the top of this story that my phone accidentally took when I was loading up my equipment.

And you know what? I am completely fine with that.

There is no substitute for being completely immersed in the experience.

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.

My first time fishing a private pond

There’s just something about the prospect of fishing a private pond that gets my mind racing.

Little to no fishing pressure with fish that are raised in a relatively-controlled environment immediately sparks images of once-in-a-lifetime catches.

Every time I see a sign that reads “Private, No fishing,” I think two things: there are definitely fish in there and they are probably big.

The idea of actually fishing one of these spots excited me.

I’ve never considered this type of angling “genuine fishing.” In a way, it seemed unfair. But I’ve always wanted to do it and have never been given the chance.

Recently, I was afforded that opportunity when an old friend of mine reached out and said he wanted to take me to a place just south of my hometown in Sheboygan Falls. He had previously done some landscaping work for the owner and over time was granted permission to fish the roughly two-acre pond. Bass, crappie, perch, bluegill, and even walleye were part of this natural aquarium, he said. Some of the bluegill grew to over 10 inches and a few of the crappie were pushing 16.

This got my blood pumping. One of the simple rules I operate by is: if someone is kind enough to offer up an invitation to fish or hunt on private land, I should do everything in my power to take advantage. You never know when you’ll be presented with a chance like that again.

Eventually, we were able to make our schedules align and we planned a quick evening ice fishing trip just after a considerable snowfall.

I was confident, but I spent much of the morning trying to temper my expectations. Even though this was a controlled situation, we were still pursuing live animals. They all had to eat at some point, but they didn’t necessarily have to be active when we were there. Still, I had high hopes.

As it turned out, it didn’t take long for my concerns to subside.

We met in the driveway, loaded up the sled and began our trek to the backyard of the 10-acre property. The snow had subsided, but the cloud cover remained. If not for the wood dock, the recent snowfall would have all but concealed the pond’s existence.

The owner occasionally fished the pond with his grandchildren during the warmer months but rarely, if ever, fished it through the ice.

“He told me that a few years ago, a couple muskrats cleaned this pond out,” my friend explained as we trudged in the calf-deep snow toward the pond. “They’re both hanging over his fireplace now.”

After the first hole was drilled, I excitedly dropped the transducer of my flasher into the water and it became apparent there were plenty of fish underneath us. I hurriedly tipped my red tungsten jig with a wax worm and went to work.

It kind of felt like a Christmas morning when you have a good idea what you’re getting, but you still can’t wait to open the presents anyway.

Seconds later, I had a fish on. I brought the five-inch bluegill to the surface, unhooked it, and set it back in the water. Not the size I was hoping for, but at least the fish were hungry.

Knowing we were on top of a good school, my friend drilled a few more holes and set up his shack. That’s when the fun began in earnest.

My friend explained that, once he locates the fish, he doesn’t even use his flasher. I kept mine on because I enjoyed the rush brought on by knowing the sheer number of fish that were congregated in the 10 feet of water below.

I was told the larger fish preferred minnows, rosy reds to be specific. I tipped my jig with, what basically looked like a skinny goldfish, and sent it toward the bottom.

My friend was right. The next fish was a nearly nine-inch bluegill. The thick and healthy-looking specimen was close to the largest I had ever caught.

“Basically, I ask myself how many fish I want to catch and that’s how many minnows I buy,” my friend said with a laugh. He explained to me that, on one of his last trips here, he and his friend ran out of bait before their agreed-upon fishing time was over.

We each fished with two rods, holding one while watching the tip of the other for signs of action.

“There are times when you’ll have a fish on both,” my friend said. “Just pick the bigger one and deal with the other one later. Your arms are going to get tired. It’s chaos.”

He was right about that too. Keeping all four lines in the water proved to be all but impossible.

One-by-one we pulled fish up. Mostly bluegills in the eight-inch range with some bordering on 10. Each fish was well-built and muscular.

Before I knew it, the alarm on my friend’s phone was going off. “Time to pack up,” he said. “But first, three more fish.”

We hauled-in four more panfish before disassembling the shack and heading back to our vehicles.

Though we were there for less than an hour, we caught roughly two-dozen.

Was it like shooting fish in a barrel? Kind of. But it was still quite exciting. In fact, it was a great way to experiment with new techniques and presentations.

It was everything I hoped it would be.

How to keep your minnows alive longer

Utilizing minnows is one of my favorite ways to catch fish year-round. But I use this approach extensively in the winter months. When it comes to quality bait, it’s hard to beat the real thing.

I used to think of my minnow stash as easily-disposable. But throughout the years, I’ve found a number of benefits to keeping my bait alive and kicking as long as possible.

Maintaining my current crop of minnows from the local bait shop not only saves time and money, it also minimizes my use of these living resources while allowing me to catch more fish per purchase.

With more anglers hit the ice during the pandemic and a limited number of bait shops in my area, minnows are a little harder to come by.

The tips below have kept me adequately stocked for a fishing outing on a moment’s notice.

Think through your purchase

This is the trickiest part. The last thing you want is to run out of bait in the middle of one of your better days. But you also don’t want to turn into a minnow farmer for the week following your trip.

I do my best to aim for somewhere in the middle of the minimum number of minnows I need to keep my lines stocked stocked and the number I would need if we really hammer the fish.

This will vary based upon your targeted species and the method you are using.

If I’m with a group using 12 tip-ups for pike, I usually buy around four-dozen minnows. That’s enough to rig every line at the start and replenish three times after.

When jigging for crappies, I take into account my average success rate and the approximate amount of time I plan to be fishing.

With pike, one minnow usually equals one fish (or flag). But with crappies, you’re more likely to miss a few. That means you should account for more than one minnow per fish you expect to catch.

Keep a good ratio

There’s just something about a crowded minnow bucket that gets me excited. Each minnow brings its own possibility of a memorable catch. This sight always accelerates my anticipation.

But the more minnows you have crammed into your carrier, the shorter the lifespan of the fish inside can be. Being mindful of your critter-to-liquid ratio can help prolong the viability of your purchase.

Depending upon the size and species, I try to never have more than three-dozen minnows in my two-gallon bucket.

On larger ice fishing excursions, dividing up the minnows between a couple buckets also means that fresh bait is never far away from any of the rigs. This reduces effort and gets your lines back in the water faster.

Aeration is your friend

The water in your minnow bucket contains a finite amount of oxygen. Without new oxygen being introduced, your bait will begin to suffocate.

A simple aerator (available at most bait shops and sporting goods stores) will do wonders for keeping minnows alive. The model I use runs on a D battery that lasts a couple of days, even with constant use.

If you can’t get your hands on an aerator, a steady drip of faucet water paired with more frequent water changes can suffice for a short period of time.

Change the water

I view this step as though I was taking care of a pet fish. Every 24 hours or so, I change out the water in my holding container. This gives the minnows a bit of a fresh start.

Though I haven’t personally encountered many issues, it has been said the chemicals in tap water can be harmful to your minnows. You can get around this by using distilled water.

Remove dead minnows promptly

Dead minnows are a lot like ripe fruit. Once one goes, they all seem to go.

Decomposing minnows present all sorts of water quality issues. Removing dead fish from your container as quickly as possible will help you avoid that.

Generally, I can keep shiners for a little more than a week. With a good batch, I’ve been able to keep fatheads alive for two weeks. Even so, you should check your bucket for casualties frequently.

Avoid drastic temperature changes

Fish are cold-blooded, so they generally lack the ability to moderate their body temperatures. Keeping them alive requires maintaining a relatively steady water temperature in your minnow bucket.

When you’re not out fishing, keep your storage container out of direct sunlight. In winter, do your best to avoid bringing minnows directly indoors after a day on the ice. Instead, ease this transition by keeping the minnows in your garage or other location with an intermediate temperature range for a few hours before bringing them inside.

Don’t shy away from food

This may seem ridiculous but, if you are in it for the long haul, you need to feed your minnows.

Your bait will likely keep for a few days without additional nourishment, but it gets sketchy after that. I’ve used everything from fish food to bread crumbs or even crumbled up crackers. Many outdoors outlets sell food specifically designed for maintaining your bait.

A friendly reminder

Remember, do not dump live, store-bought minnows into the body of water you are fishing. While giving the minnows a chance to live may seem like the ethical thing to do, introducing new species into an ecosystem, even in small amounts, has more potential to do harm than good. Instead, try to use the tips above to keep your stash of bait alive until your next trip, give your minnows to a friend, or find a way to properly dispose of them in a less environmentally-impactful way.

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