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.

My 2020 outdoor adventures by the numbers

Though math isn’t my strong suit, I am very much a numbers person.

But, for whatever reason, I have struggled to keep a complete hunting and fishing journal over the course of a calendar year. In 2020, I finally accomplished that feat.

If you are passionate about the outdoors, I strongly recommend you make time for keeping a journal or log. I’ll even help you get started.

Before turning the page to 2021, I wanted to share some of the more interesting numbers that came out of my record keeping.

166 – Outdoors trips

In total, I spent 346 hours partaking in outdoor activities this year. Fishing was, more often than not, my activity of choice, encompassing 133 of my 166 trips. I ventured out on 26 hunting trips and seven dip netting outings.

502 – Fish caught

Averaging just under four fish per trip, I was able to catch more than half a thousand water-dwelling critters this year. I pulled in 17 different species from 12 different bodies of water across four counties here in Wisconsin.

Fish No. 500 came on Nov. 10. If you so wish, you can read the story behind that trip here.

Smallmouth bass made up the lion’s share of my total, 357 of my fish this year were smallies. Rock bass were the second-most popular fish to end up on my hook. I hauled in 37 during the open water season.

A complete breakdown of my 2020 catches, by species, is below.

SpeciesNo. Caught
Smallmouth Bass357
Rock Bass37
Bluegill31
Bullhead19
Northern Pike16
Carp11
Sucker6
Largemouth Bass5
Perch4
Rainbow Trout4
Creek Chub2
King Salmon2
Shiner2
Walleye2
Whitefish2
Lake Trout1
Sunfish1

24 – Ducks our group shot on my best hunt of the year

A four-person limit in just over two hours is, by far, the most productive waterfowl hunt I have ever been on. As I have mentioned many times and in many places, being able to share this adventure with two first-time duck hunters made it even more special.

10(th) – Highest finish in a bass fishing tournament

I tried my hand at tournament bass fishing for the first time in 2020. I fished my first online event through Lucky Go Fishing in mid-September.

During the one-day event, I landed 35 fish, including 26 smallmouth bass. I placed 10th out of 30 anglers in my region with the combined length of my top-5 bass measuring out at 51.25 inches.

15 – Suckers caught dip netting

With all of the craziness going on in the world, I was late to the dip netting game this season. The sucker run was nearly over when I went out for the first time in mid-to-late April, but I still managed to find a few fish well into May.

Fifteen is certainly not an impressive number. On your steady nights, you can manage that in a few pulls. But I’m just thrilled I was even able to go this year and I wanted something in this recap to reflect that.

67.5 – Best combined length, in inches, of my top-5 bass in a tournament

A couple of weeks after my first online bass tournament, I fished a weekend-long event with Lucky Go Fishing.

Over the course of the three days, I caught 216 fish (all from shore). My top-five bass scored out at 67.5 inches, 16.25 inches longer than my top-five from the first tournament. I finished 73rd out of 180 anglers in my region.

4 – Deer harvested in 24 hours of our group’s annual deer drive

The last weekend of each gun deer season is reserved for a series of deer drives with my friends that has since been named “The Big Push.”

We generally enjoy success during these outings but this year brought one of the best harvests I can recall. In roughly 24 hours, we put for does on the ground and everyone went home with some venison.

98.6 – Percent of fish I caught that were released

I’m certainly not here to shame anyone who wants to bring home their legal allotment of fish. But I am very proud of the fact that nearly 99 of every 100 fish I catch go right back into the waters they came from.

I kept seven fish for the table this year, three rainbow trout, king salmon, a lake trout, and two walleye.

19 – Length, in inches, of the biggest smallmouth bass I caught this year

This fish (pictured above) was one of the highlights of my year. In fact, there’s a complete chapter about it in my upcoming book (shameless self-promotion).

It was early September and I was fishing one of my most consistent spots on the Sheboygan River. I hooked into, what I thought was, a carp. It ended up being the longest smallmouth bass of my life.

I have caught hundreds of smallies in this spot throughout the years, but nothing that ever would have led me to believe something of this stature was swimming around.

The art of the fishing conversation

Any angler who is being completely honest with themselves will acknowledge that conversing with others about fishing is a balancing act.

One the one hand, most people who fish have at least some desire to share their knowledge and experiences. On the flip side, we are generally protective of our spots and various secret sauces that lead to our success. When interacting with other anglers, these competing sides present a constant struggle.

When I want to, I can be a social person. And I love talking about fishing. I’m generally not one who is interested in random small talk with strangers, but more often than not I take no issue with strolling up to someone on a river bank or lakeside and blurting out “catching anything?” I’ve yet to encounter someone who completely ignores that question when asked.

This leads to an important point: don’t be afraid to pose the question. You will never know the answer if you don’t ask. There is so much to be gained by observing and conversing with fellow anglers. Failing to capitalize on these opportunities is a missed chance to gain valuable learnings and share in the joy of the outdoors.

Shortly after my wife and I began dating, we took an evening stroll on South Pier in Sheboygan, probably my favorite place to fish Lake Michigan from shore. We encountered a handful of fishermen and I felt inclined to have chats with several of them. They were generally brief, but always friendly.

When we got back to the truck, my wife commented on how strange these interactions were through the eyes of a non-angler. “I guess I didn’t realize you could just do that,” I recall her saying afterward. Since that day, many years ago, I have thought a lot about the bonds that anglers share. I stopped taking these short conversations for granted. The more brain power I put into reflecting, the more I have discovered how quirky, complex, and crucial these talks can be. It’s quite fascinating.

While no one seems to talk about it, there is a general song and dance that every conversation with a fellow angler follows. Maybe it’s because we often don’t realize it. “Properly” following this two-way street is something of an art.

Recently, on a mild December afternoon, I decided to venture to a local park in pursuit of northern pike. Temperatures were expected to reach the low-50s. The sun was shining and the wind was light. I hadn’t been out fishing in a few weeks, and I knew I needed to take advantage of the beautiful day. As it turned out, I wasn’t the only fisherman who felt that way.

I showed up with a pair of spinning rods: one equipped with a black/silver floating Rapala, another with a chartreuse Little Cleo adorned with five red dots. My plan was to work a drop-off near the shoreline, down and back, with one lure. If that didn’t yield results, I’d retrace my steps with the other bait.

When fishing alone, I often listen to music or podcasts. On this day, I was listening to a recent episode of one of my favorite shows, “The Dollop.” I began casting, keeping a watchful eye out for any fish following my lure each time it approached the shore. The first 15 minutes were fruitless.

That’s when I noticed a man wearing a red coat and blue jeans who had stopped on the bridge to my right. He was waving at me. I removed my ear buds and greeted him. He asked if I was Dennis. I said no, but we briefly chatted and I wished him good luck as he headed on his way.

It turned out that his sweet spot was just across the river from me near the base of the bridge he had stopped on. With his gray hair and slow, methodical but slightly-labored, walk, I put the man somewhere in his mid-60s or early 70s. Like, me, he had a pair of spinning rods in his possession. One was tipped with a bobber, I couldn’t make out what was on the other. As he opted for the latter setup, he realized our close proximity and resumed our conversation.

“I had just stripped and cleaned all my rods and reels and had them put away for winter,” he informed me. “But this, you can’t turn down a day like this,” he said gesturing toward the sky.

I agreed.

As the minutes passed, we continued to make outdoors-related small talk. He asked if I would fish with Midwest fishing personality John Gillespie, if I could join him for free (I would). He inquired about by deer season and we traded stories. We discussed my duck season and explored other topics.

Up until this point, I had assumed the man was only out and about on account of the weather. But as our chat continued, I learned he had another reason to be here. He mentioned that two weeks prior, while I was out deer hunting, he was at this very spot and the smallmouth bass were quite active. He himself had landed five during his afternoon outing. The group of three men across from him had caught 15, many were in the 16-to-19-inch range.

This piqued my interest. I knew there were bass in this spot, even a few big ones. Back in October, I had landed a 16.5-inch smallie near here. It was the third-biggest bass of my life, at the time. But I never would have imagined that people were pulling even larger fish out of these waters well into November.

Now this is where you must stop and assess the credibility of the information you were provided. We all tell fish stories, but some of us exaggerate more than others. Taking a fisherman at face-value can often be a fool’s endeavor. The early stages of any conversation are when trust, or lack of, is established.

I briefly gave this new intel some thought and decided it to be reliable. I couldn’t think of any motivation this man would have for lying to me. After all, he was basically fishing the same spot I was. If he didn’t want me in his territory, there would be no reason for him to tell me there were active fish in the vicinity.

By offering this information, we began to transition from the “small talk” to the “give and take” portion of our conversation. This can be a tricky phase to navigate. The reality is: sometimes you need to be the one to provide some insight not knowing if the favor will be returned. I try my best to follow the Golden Rule. In this case, if my new friend was kind enough to offer up useful information, I knew that I should return the favor when given the opportunity.

Eventually, that chance presented itself. I explained to the man that I had success here during the fall using primarily live bait. Nightcrawlers were the ticket during the warmer months, but minnows seemed to be the flavor of the day when things got colder.

Shortly after this exchange, our talk moved to the next stage: “the here and now.” Feeling comfortable enough after briefly establishing rapport, I asked the man what he was currently using. He told me he was simply placing a nightcrawler on the bottom with a single hook and some sinkers. It’s a tactic I often use in this spot, but I was appreciative of his honesty. I thanked him by divulging my game plan. This led to more information on what the guys across from him were using a few weeks back.

A while later, it was nearly time for me to return home. The man had made his way downriver a bit. Our conversation subsided as he drifted out of earshot. We parted ways without formally tying things off. This felt a bit wrong, but I wasn’t able to get near his spot from my side of the river and I frankly didn’t have time to cross the bridge to chase him down.

This got me thinking. These conversations establish mini relationships. Not every relationship ends with a solid “goodbye.” For a variety of reasons, we don’t always get the clean ending we may want. You just take what you learned, savor it, and move on. This was just a small example of that.

Though neither of us caught any fish, I was grateful for the chat. I was inspired by what I had learned and decided to return to the same spot the following day. This time, with more a bass-centric mindset.

Based on the man’s advice, I started-in on a patch of brush I had neglected the day prior. A few casts in, I noticed a gold figure pursuing my floating Rapala from a short distance. As I moved the bait along, the pike clamped down on my bait. As I went to set the hook, the fish flashed sideways and, as though it had seen me, decided to simply let the lure go.

The fish, probably around 20 inches in length, settled into a spot near the brush anticipating an opportunity for an ambush. On two more occasions, it followed the imitation minnow all the way to shore before sliding back into its hiding place once again.

While this trip didn’t end up as a success story, it certainly provided some excitement.

After an hour, I grabbed my things and made my way back to the truck. I was intercepted at the bridge by a familiar face.

It was the man from yesterday, in the same red jacket, off to one of his favorite spots he was gracious enough to share with me.

Life lessons from a great blue heron

Nathan’s note: I wrote this story in early August of 2018. Originally, I didn’t have a place to host it. Looking back, it made sense to me to share it with all of you here.

Tonight, I found myself in need of some serious decompression. So I decided to unwind with a trip to one of favorite stretches of river in my hometown.

I had it all planned out. There was no messing around. I packed my best flies, my $30 Fleet Farm fly rod and was going straight to my best spots. It’s been a tough week, but nothing that a couple hours of catching fish wouldn’t cure.

An unexpected line of showers and thunderstorms almost upended my plans. But after a brief drizzle, the rain let up. We dodged the worst of it and I decided to get in my truck and go. I needed this.

As I entered the murky water, I noticed a beautiful great blue heron quietly stalking a small island near the opposite shoreline. She was holed up in a shallow area between the island’s tall grass and the smooth, rocky shoreline that was worn away from years of punishment from the Sheboygan River. I figured if she wasn’t going to let a little rain ruin her fishing, I shouldn’t either.

My presence drew her attention, she calmly yet confidently held her ground as I slowly walked up river toward a few of my proven hot spots. To be honest, once I started fishing, I forgot about the bird. The spot she staked out never really produced fish for me in the past and wasn’t impeding on my plans for the evening. No sense causing trouble where there isn’t any.

But as my honey holes failed to yield results, my mind began to wander and I glanced to my left. There she was, in the same spot,  gobbling down a fish. She gave one big head shake to force her catch down her lengthy gullet.

I eyed her up for the next few minutes as she advanced from pocket to pocket of slack water, taking lengthy strides as she navigated the rocky bottom more gracefully than my chubby frame could ever dream of. Her motions went undetected by the smallmouth bass and chubs she pulled from the pools, seemingly at will.

Then the thought occurred to me. I fish for fun. She fishes to live. Perhaps I should be paying attention.

She eventually had her fill and vacated the island buffet. I slowly made my way over to the spot to see if the old girl was kind enough to leave any fish for me.

My first cast yielded an aggressive bite, but the fish didn’t stick. My next float saw the water explode around my fly, a black nymph, one of my favorites. I set the hook and was locked in battle with an acrobatic smallie. Without saying a word, the heron had put me on fish in a matter of minutes.

Herein lies the first lesson: Every person (or for that matter, living thing) you’ll ever encounter possesses a skill that keeps them alive, whether it be physically, mentally or spiritually. It’s to our advantage to identify that skill as quickly as possible so we can learn from it.

As my wrestling match with the fish continued to play out over the five yards of line I had remaining, I looked up and noticed I had company. It was the heron, who heard the commotion and quickly made her way back up river. She stood a comfortable distance away and observed the bout as it came to a conclusion.

Shortly after I released the fish, I realized the bird had taken up a perch on a nearby rock, no more than 30 feet away. She continued observing my every move. Over the next half hour, she watched me pull out a few more fish, carefully scrutinizing every detail.

I almost chuckled at her attentiveness. Not even an hour ago, this bird nearly cleaned out the spot I was currently standing in. Clearly, there was nothing I was going to teach her about the art of fishing. Yet there she sat, ever curious as she humbled herself to the role of student. Which leads me to the second lesson: Don’t let past success keep you from trying to learn. You never know when you’ll pick up something new, so don’t deny yourself the opportunity.

As dusk set in, the wise old gal got back to business. Each of us continued to catch fish until we went our separate ways.

Blog at WordPress.com.

Up ↑