Escape and explore outdoors with family and friends this winter
By: Wendy Gehlhoff
Looking for outdoor winter adventures or a cozy spot to come in from the cold and enjoy great food and great times with friends and family? Look no further than Florence County, located in northeastern Wisconsin on the border of the Upper Peninsula of Michigan. Florence County has a population of only 4,500 and 195,193 acres of land under public ownership. That means over 60% of county land is available to the public giving you endless possibilities for your adventure into the outdoors. With 28 locally-owned restaurants and family-friendly taverns, there is a wide range of food and atmospheres to choose from when you want to relax and refuel after your excitement outdoors.
If you haven’t heard of Florence County, it may be because it’s so small; after all, there are no stop lights in the whole county. Perhaps it’s because it isn’t on the main north-south highway routes. No matter what the reason, now you know about Florence County and it’s time to explore this fantastic place with its friendly people and natural beauty.
Here is just a sampling of activities and events this winter:
Ice Fishing: With 265 lakes and four major rivers, there are many places to fish. Ice fishing up north is a social activity aimed at curing cabin fever as well as catching some fish to eat. The most social form of this activity happens at ice fishing derbies. For a small entry fee, participants have the chance to win prizes while having fun with family and friends and meeting many new acquaintances.
The Roadhouse 139 Ice Fishing Derby on Long Lake is February 4th this year. Long Lake is known for nice northern pike and panfish. Leff’s Sports Bar is hosting their 6th Annual Ice Fishing Derby on February 11. This derby allows fishermen to fish on Lake Emily or Keyes Lake. The Homestead and Aurora Conservation Club sponsor the Pete “Toad” Church Memorial Ice Fishing Derby generally in January, but depending on ice conditions, it has been postponed some years. Check out the ExploreFlorenceCounty.com events tab for the latest information. This event is held on the Pine River Flowage known as an excellent smallmouth bass fishery.
Tip-up fishing for northern pike is a relaxing family activity. Northern pike feed actively throughout the daylight hours, so you don’t have to brave the dark and cold. And once you get your tip-ups set, you can sit back and watch them, or throw a football, play a game of badminton or snow-golf on the ice. The best lakes in Florence County to catch northern pike through the ice are; Patten Lake, Twin Falls Flowage, Fay Lake, Seidel Lake and Sea Lion Lake. If you are looking for a trophy pike, give Lake Ellwood or the Brule River Flowage a try. There aren’t as many fish per acre in these two lakes, but the fish there are monsters.
If you are looking to jig for panfish, the better waters are the Spread Eagle Chain of Lakes, Sea Lion Lake, Twin Falls Flowage and Halsey Lake. Or if you prefer walleye, Patten Lake and the Brule River Flowage are the hot spots through the ice. So call ahead to make sure the ice is thick enough and then pack up your ice fishing gear, shanty or bucket and come join the fun.
Snowmobiles and ATV/UTVs: Winter is a great time to enjoy rolling hills, miles of rivers and streams, tall pine and hardwood forests as you travel Florence County’s 160 miles of ATV and 180 miles of groomed snowmobile trails. Many town roads are also open for snowmobile/ATV/UTV access to local businesses. While traveling the trails, stop for a breathtaking winter picture at a scenic overlook or beautiful frozen waterfall. ATV enthusiasts can also go off trail through sand dunes and mud at the 17-acre ATV park east of Florence just off Trail 2. Trail passes and any required registrations are sold at the visitor center on the corner of US 2 and Hwy 70. The visitor center is located on one of the main ATV/snowmobile trails and offers parking for those wishing to drop their trailers and go.
Florence County trails are known to be the best-groomed trails in the region thanks to the Blue Ox Trail Riders; the local ATV/UTV/Snowmobile club. The club maintains the trails in Florence County and works hand-in-hand with Florence County, State of Wisconsin, Federal government and private landowners to assure continued availability of the trail system. The members of the club are all unpaid volunteers and are responsible for grooming, brushing, signing and re-routes as well as all maintenance on the grooming equipment. The club owns and operates four groomers which maintain all of the snowmobile trails in Florence County. There are four trail coordinators that set up their own grooming schedules; so please ride safely and watch out for the groomers. About 50% of the trail system in Florence County crosses private landowner property. Please respect their property and stay on the trail. Visit BlueOxTrailRiders.org for more events, trail rides and other information. Or why not donate $20 to become a single or family club member and support the club’s efforts.
Keyes Peak Hill Climb and Hill Cross: Snowmobile enthusiasts should mark their calendars for February 11thand 12th when the MASTERS Circuit (Mid-America Snow and Terrain Expert Racers) will host the Wisconsin State Championship Snowmobile event at Keyes Peak on Hwy 101. Saturday, February 11th features the Keyes Peak Snowmobile Hill Climb event. Multiple divisions covering a variety of snowmobile sizes and styles will be running throughout the day. The course travels through turns up the triple-X chute on the ski hill. Until you watch them, you’d bet big money that nothing could climb this hill. The Hill Cross event follows on Sunday February 12th. Viewers will be thrilled watching racers compete against each other on a course of man-made jumps. A weekend pass costs $10 and kids under 12 get in free. Gates open at 9 am with competition starting at 10am on both days. Concessions are available in the Keyes Peak Ski Lodge. Proceeds go to the Keyes Peak Ski Hill Committee to improve the hill. For more info call 906-884-9101 or visit www.MastersRacing.net.
Keyes Peak Winter Recreation Area: Keyes Peak Ski Hill is open Friday through Sunday and other non-school days. It offers six downhill ski runs for beginners to experts plus rails and jumps for snowboarders. New to the hill this year is an extreme skiing triple-X cut-out-run. Keyes Peak also boasts one of the longest vertical drop tubing runs in the state. For younger kids or those less adventurous, a beginner’s snow tubing run is located next to the bunny hill. Keyes Peak is owned and operated by the county so the prices are a great value. A single season pass is $100 and a family season pass is only $150. Daily lift tickets range from $8-$12. Rental equipment is available for a small fee too.
If downhill skiing or tubing isn’t what you are looking for, try snowshoeing the Chickadee Snowshoe trails that start and end near the ski lodge. The packed trails are suitable for all snowshoe types. This 2-mile signed trail system winds through tall pines and mixed hardwoods on a gently rolling terrain. Or make your own route on the many acres of public land adjacent to the ski hill.
The gorgeous Keyes Peak Ski Lodge is constructed from large pine logs harvested from the property. It offers games and concessions for visitors to warm up and fuel up before their next run. The lodge is also available to rent for parties and weddings from April-November. It features a full kitchen, hardwood dance floor, air conditioning and a new outdoor playground set to keep kids entertained. For more information, contact Florence County Forestry and Parks at 715-528-3207 or during season the lodge number is 715-528-3228.
Family Winter Events at Keyes Peak:
Mike Roberts Memorial Ski Race and Lessons: On Saturday, January 28 coaches from the Granite Peak Ski Team out of Wausau, WI are offering a ski instruction and ski racing day at Keyes Peak for kids ages 6-17 for only $10 per child. This fee includes lessons, lift ticket and ski rentals and maxes out at $20 per family. Thanks to the generous donation of time by these professional ski coaches, this event is the most affordable opportunity to expose your family to the joys of downhill skiing. From9am until 11:30am coaches guide students in small groups through proper skiing techniques on the slopes. Then from 12:30 until 3pm these students have the option of taking several timed runs through a NASTAR type ski racing course where they will receive times that could qualify them for other racing events. All participants receive a medal and awards are given to the top three male and female finishers in many age categories. All proceeds go to the Keyes Peak Ski Hill Committee to continue funding this great facility.
Keyes Peak Winterfest: On Saturday, March 4th enjoy the last days of winter at Keyes Peak. For only $15/person you and your family and friends can enjoy a whole day of skiing, snowboarding, tubing, snowshoeing and games. The price includes a lift ticket, rental equipment and the chance to take part in many fun activities. The event starts at 11:00 am and the lift ticket is good until the hill closing at 9:00 pm. This is a great family value and is often a warm, sunny day. Activities include snow carving, snowshoe potato races, human bowling and guided snowshoe hikes on the Chickadee Snowshoe trails. Make sure to try the fastest tube run in the region. Helmets are provided.
Keyes Peak Recreational area is not only known for winter recreation. There is a beach and boat landing on Keyes Lake with a pavilion for family picnics. It is also home to a 12-hole disc golf course cut into the forest adjacent to the ski runs. The #7 hole has a spectacular view teeing off from the top of Keyes Peak. Or you can drive, hike, bike, ATV or snowmobile to the top of Keyes Peak for gorgeous sunsets any time of the year. The most impressive view is in the fall when the blazing reds, oranges and yellows of Florence County hardwood forests cover the horizon. Keyes Peak Recreation Area is located on State Highway 101 approximately four miles south of Florence.
Cross Country Ski Trails: Another silent sport to try is cross country skiing. Florence County offers three groomed cross country ski trails traveling through scenic forests and terrain. The medium difficulty 2.5-mile Lake Emily trail is located just south of Keyes Peak Ski Hill on County Highway D. The more difficult 9-mile Lauterman Lake trail is on Hwy 70 just eight miles west of Florence. And the relatively flat 7-mile Hall’s Creek Trail is on LaSalle Falls Road north of County Highway C. The Friends of the Wild Rivers and the US Forest Service host an annual Chili Ski-In event on Saturday, February 4th. Attendees to this event from 10am-2pm can ski, snowshoe or hike the short distance into the pavilion to enjoy free chili, hot dogs, hot chocolate, coffee and cookies.
Winter Waterfalls: If you love to take photos or need a destination for an adventure, why not snowshoe or ski into one of Florence County’s seven waterfalls on the Pine and Popple Wild Rivers. These two rivers were designated as official Wild Rivers by the state back in 1965 and thus have remained undeveloped. The geologically diverse rocky bluffs, evergreens and mixed hardwoods surrounding the rivers make for gorgeous waterfall pictures year round. Winter can be especially breathtaking due to the frozen ice on the edges of the falls and the wind-whipped snow ridges and hollows. The Wisconsin Wild Rivers logo signs will guide you to the waterfalls located off Hwy 70, Hwy 101, County Road C and County Road N. The largest continuous falls is 22-foot LaSalle Falls on County Road C. The 1-mile hike in is a great workout on snowshoes or cross country skis.
28 Restaurants and Family Friendly Taverns:
Florence County is known for its family friendly bar and grills, casual Northwoods supper clubs and even fine dining that’s affordable and intimate in an elegantly restored early 1900s home. After a day outdoors, whether ice fishing, snowshoeing to a waterfall or riding the freshly groomed trails on your snowmobile, you can warm up, quench your thirst and enjoy warm hearty food with your travel companions. If you strike up a conversation, you’ll likely meet some new northern Wisconsin friends during your stay too. More detailed information about these businesses can be found in the Dining Guide at ExploreFlorenceCounty.com.
Florence County is located on US 2 east of Eagle River and west of Iron Mountain, Michigan. The county’s largest township, Florence, is the county seat and home to the visitor center at the corner of US 2 and Hwy 70. Visit ExploreFlorenceCounty.com to view a recreation guide, lodging guide and dining guide as well as maps and brochures. Materials are also available via mail delivery by clicking on the “Contact Us” page to submit a request.
Florence County might be small, but it is loaded with opportunity to escape the crowds and explore the great outdoors, while renewing your spirit and making new friends. So why not escape, explore and renew in Florence County this winter? Plan your trip at ExploreFlorenceCounty.com or call the visitor center at 888-889-0049.
If You’re Looking For Electronics, It’s All About Visibility
By Gary Parsons and Keith Kavajecz
Winter has arrived, but spring will be here quicker than you think! If you are like us, when you’re not on the ice chasing walleyes, you are using this time to spool new line on your reels, reorganize tackle, and sort out all of the odds and ends that somehow made their way into the glove box of the boat over the summer!
The off-season also means it might be time to check out electronics options for anyone buying a new boat or anyone who is looking to upgrade their current sonar and or GPS unit.
When we first started fishing for walleye, our sonar was the “Green Box” and our “GPS” was using our eyes to triangulate a tree, a silo and a house to put our boat in the general area that we wanted to be. We marked “waypoints” by throwing out a marker buoy once we found a school of fish or a piece of structure.
We’ve come a long way since then, as advances in electronics have created efficiencies in locating fish and finding a spot on a spot. However, there are some very basic considerations to factor in when you are selecting a new unit
Key sonar features
The first is having a color screen. Most electronics now come with color screens that show the bottom in yellow with a thin blue line. You can change these colors by selecting a different “pallete,” but for this article we will talk about the colors that show up on the default pallete for a Lowrance unit.
A strong sonar echo (hard bottom) shows up as a wide bright yellow area, while a softer echo (mud) will show up with red or blue intermixed in the yellow. The colors make it easier for you to distinguish fish from structure and the bottom. Often a walleye tight on the bottom will show up as a yellow bump, but just below the bump will be a thin red line showing separation – that’s a fish! On non-color units, it is hard to tell the difference between various shades of gray that represent the fish, structure and bottom.
Next, your unit should run with minimal adjustments straight out of the box. The bottom of the screen should be bright yellow and the blue line representing the bottom should be crisp. Bigger fish should show up as arcs surrounded by red with a yellow middle. If this is not the case, turn up the sensitivity to show a little bit of clutter in the water column. This should make the yellow appear sharper.
Finally, it is important to have a good chart scroll speed and ping speed. The faster the chart scrolls, the more pixels are turned on as the fish passes through the cone, giving you more detail about what’s happening below the water. This speed will also let you search faster but still show you the clues to tell you fish are present.
Key GPS features
Most units have the GPS built right in. In addition to saving waypoints, the GPS can help you follow contours to find fish that are relating to breaks and humps. While some units come with preloaded maps, you can also purchase a chip containing maps to insert into your electronics. For many lakes, these maps will help find great areas before you even get on the water. Look for sharp breaks close to deep water, feeding shelves and even expansive mud flats in the 20 to 30 foot range.
One reason to consider a higher end unit is that the computer processor inside the unit will update these complex maps on your screen much quicker. Plus if you want to scroll to different areas of the lake, the faster units will more quickly draw all the mapping contours.
One feature that is becoming more prevalent is the ability to control an electric trolling motor from the fish finder. The GPS functions on the Lowrance HDS integrate with the Motorguide Xi5 bow mount trolling motor. What does that mean to an angler? One example is for you to locate a piece of structure from the unit on your console that looks fishy – maybe a windblown point. With the Motorguide Gateway, you can move the GPS cursor just upwind of the spot then press a few buttons and tell the Xi5 to “Anchor at Cursor.” If the approximate positioning was not just right, you can also use arrows on the HDS unit to jog the trolling motor to just the right position.
Does size matter?
So how do you decide what size unit is right for you? That depends on your needs and your budget. The price of the unit within each series is dependent on the size of the screen and the processor needed to drive that screen. The transducer, sonar technology, and GPS technology are all similar from model to model.
If your unit is being used strictly for ice fishing, a Lowrance Elite 5 is a good choice because you only need to view one screen at a time. While you are jigging you can watch the sonar screen and when you decide to travel to another spot you can switch over to the GPS screen.
If you are putting a unit on the console of your boat to use while you are searching for fish, you will want to choose an Elite 7 or 9 or a Lowrance HDS 7 or HDS 9. This will allow you to run a split screen showing both the sonar and GPS at the same time.
You will need to go to a bigger unit if you want to be able to see multiple views of what is under the water by watching several windows on the screen at the same time. Some of these views might include GPS, conventional sonar, SideScan, DownScan, 3D StructureScan and one window might even have controls for the Xi5 Motorguide bow mount trolling motor. This requires a minimum of an HDS 9 or HDS 12. The option we use is to mount two units on the console – just so we can see all the data at a glance.
You also have to take into consideration how far away you will be from the electronics in your boat and how much you need to see from a distance. Are you usually at the console while trolling? Can you see the detail you are looking for when you are by the transom?
The second area on a boat that needs a unit is the bow. We recommend a minimum of an Elite 7 or HDS 7 (if you just want to split the screen with conventional sonar and GPS), all the way up to an HDS 12 (if you want to have more windows showing more data). Remember, it is all about visibility!
Once you have found the electronics that are right fit for your needs, take some time to view videos on the internet, read articles and talk to various pros at sport shows to learn more about how they use different features on their GPS and sonar in different situations. Before you know it, the ice will be breaking up, the ramps will be open and you will be prepared to find your Next Bite!
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An Underwater Camera You Say?
By: Kyle Sorensen
With the temperatures dropping and the white stuff starting to fall, my blood gets pumping as I know the ice is sure to follow. We as anglers, go into anticipation mode. Getting the gear ready, checking the local bays and ponds for the first glimpse of ice, getting the gear ready, maybe making a new purchase (because it was on sale of course), getting the gear ready… getting my hint?
The icefishing industry has been overloaded with a smorgasbord of various tools, gadgets and toys. Is this bad? Absolutely not, as long as you don’t overdo yourself and you know when, and how, to use your equipment. We could look into various pieces of equipment but with early ice season upon us, I want to cover some basic pros and cons of the ever talked about: underwater camera.
Do I Need One?
I am not going to tell you that you do but I am not going to tell you that you don’t. The choice is yours. After all, you are the one spending your hard earned money. The fact of the matter is, however, that any piece of equipment that helps you catch more fish than before is valuable, period. When I look into the positives of utilizing a camera, three main areas come to mind.
You might be already using a flasher/sonar unit. If you are, great! We have been there when you mark a fish but just can’t get a bite. You wonder what it is but you cannot say for sure. Yes, if experienced, you can make a very educated guess but I still come to find myself surprised once in a while. One incident of my error can be seen in the picture on the LEFT. I had a large mark show up on my flasher that appeared and disappeared, sometimes, very quickly. You might guess a curious ‘eye taking a pull or two at my lure; I did. To my surprise my walleye had turned into a northern pike.
This is a prime example of what a camera can be used for. What are those marks? Drop the camera down and find out for sure. Curious if the weed bed you are fishing holds gills? Look at the color intensity of the weeds and identify them. You can tell if they are emitting the oxygen which in turn can hold active fish. The options are endless.
If you have a flasher/sonar unit and are still learning it or you want to learn more about it, I would highly recommend you spend the extra time and utilize a camera and a flasher/sonar at the same time. You will begin to gather valuable knowledge of how different species act and react to your lure and what it looks like from the flasher/sonar standpoint. This is how I learned my flasher. Since doing so, I built the confidence up to “go it alone” and to keep the camera dry.
A huge benefit of a camera system lies within this category. I use a term called presentation refining. The best mental picture I can give you would surround pan fishing. We have all seen how quickly a bay can fill with anglers on early ice. The obvious assumption can be this. When the fishing pressure hits, one can conclude that the vast majority of anglers are using a similar type of lure and bait. Does a teardrop with a waxie or spike sound familiar? This means that besides your location, the presentation you offer must be the one that works!
When I first made the leap and purchased my first underwater camera, I took it out as soon as the conditions allowed. I quickly learned what worked and what didn’t. I started by trying out various jigging presentations from hard erratic motions to barely “buzzing” the bait. I found some techniques to be unattractive and some techniques that offered almost a sure-fire hookup (notice on how I said almost). These principles can be transferred over to your lure selection. It is all trial and error but just make sure to learn by the successes and fails. You will indeed pick up pointers no matter which species you are targeting.
Let’s face it. We live in a society in which a lot of us have a low attention span. With this being said, I am one to be thrown into the vast majority. However, I have caught myself endlessly staring into the little screen of my camera unit. There is something about being able to actually see the fish on the screen and ultimately being able to pull it through that little hole in the ice. If a camera can keep my attention, just imagine how engaged a child would be? This will usually help with the “Daddy, I’m bored” moments and you would be surprised how many less “Daddy, I’m cold” statements you will hear.
This sounds great but?
I will tell you one thing; it’s hard to steer away from a camera once you have used one. Do I have one (a few) still? Of course I do and I use them when I need to. Two major areas of setbacks I have encountered are summed up in the following categories.
Mobility and the Hassle
Give me a good layer of ice and I’m out searching for walleyes on the vast waters of Lake Winnebago. I pack light (the bare essentials) and become very mobile. My shelter is pulled by my snowmobile and I move on a routine basis usually putting many miles on a day or until I find action. Moving as much as I do, frankly, means work. I like to minimize my travel time which involves less setup and takedown. Let’s face it, setting up a camera can take a little bit of time (especially when the camera head does not want to face that right spot it needs to). In retrospect, packing up the camera can sometimes burn too much time as well.
The Camera Appeal
Anyone who has a camera knows what I speak of when I say, “You can depend on the camera too much.” Whether you are waiting for the fish to get the hook perfectly in its mouth before setting the hook, or you tend to see yourself not presenting the correct presentation of your lure because it will be off the screen, you will know you are relying on the camera too much. Some have said that using a camera can scare fish away. This is probably one of the most talked about subjects when it comes to underwater camera usage. Does it? Maybe, but I know I have caught a variety of species while the camera is a foot from their bodies. I will say for sure, based upon my personal experiences on the Lake Winnebago System, my walleye catches seem to diminish while only using a camera. Maybe it could be that walleyes somehow feel uneasy with the 15ft cord and camera head hanging next to their meal? If I had to take a guess, I would say the following. Walleyes on this system, frequently, comethrough at a wide range of depths, so if your camera is close to the bottom, you are losing out on the rest of the water column. As I previously stated, I am very mobile. I think the more time I am burning by setting up, adjusting and taking down the camera means I am losing valuable time icing fish. Whether this holds true or whether the fish are just plain scared of the camera, I do not know for sure. I go by my statistics and they tell me no dependent camera usage while I am in search of walleyes.
Let me put this all together.
In all simplicity I will say this. I now mainly only utilize a flasher. However, due to a new advancement in underwater viewing systems I now carry a complete camera unit in my pocket. The mobility is unmatched for those questionable moments when you are unsure of weeds, structure, or species. If I am fishing gills in shallow water, I love utilizing a camera. If I am on the hunt for ‘ol marble eyes, I am flasher fixed. The question of whether or not you need a camera or to utilize your camera all depends on factors surrounding your style of fishing. The great thing about this industry is that we have a lot of choices in products from a variety of manufactures. Do your research, test a store model and see for yourself if an underwater camera is right for you.
Tight lines, Stay Dry.
REMEMBERING LITTLE LAKE
BUTTE DES MORTS
Most people who live in the Fox River Valley in eastern-central Wisconsin do not realize there is a lake on the Fox River between Green Bay and Lake Winnebago. It actually isn’t much of lake and no more than a widening out of the Fox River so perhaps that is why it is overlooked by many people.
The lake is called Little Lake Butte des Morts. It is surrounded by the cities of the Fox River Valley. To the north is the city of Appleton and to the south is Neenah. Much of the lake is bordered on the east by the city of Menasha and to the west by Highway 41. It is easy to miss.
When you look at a map of the Fox River Valley you clearly see Lake Butte Des Morts just to the west of Oshkosh, up the Fox River from Lake Winnebago. But Little Lake Butte des Morts is a bit more difficult to find even on a map.
I am not sure how I heard of Little Lake Butte des Morts, but I found it when I came home on leave one winter when I was stationed at Fort Leonard Wood in Missouri. It was the last year of my enlistment, and I had returned to the states after my first tour in Germany. I took a short one week leave in February to return to Oshkosh. Leonard Wood was only a one day drive and we ended up driving through a blizzard in Illinois to get to Oshkosh. Looking back at it now I realize what a dumb thing it was to drive through a blizzard with my wife and two young daughters. But we had a relatively new car, a three year old Gremlin, and my wife and I were young so we didn’t recognize the risks then.
I was back in Oshkosh for a couple of days when someone told me about this little lake in Menasha. I do not know who told me about it but they assured me it had lots of perch in it. One of the things I truly missed during my two years in Germany was fresh fish. I caught trout while I was there but they didn’t have anything like perch. Actually, Europe does have a fish similar to our perch but they have a humped back and they were relatively rare to catch. On another tour to Germany I would catch a perch or two but that was it. What I really missed was catching perch or panfish and having a fish fry.
In my parent’s basement I had left a bucket of ice fishing rods, an ice scoop and my ice chisel, or pick or spud as they were called. Ice fishing was simple and a bit rustic in those days. I got out the ice fishing gear, picked up a couple dozen wax worms, and filled a thermos jig with hot coffee. I didn’t have a lot of cold weather clothing but I had my grandfather’s red insulated deer hunting pants and jacket. Red was the deer hunting color then before the orange laws went into effect. I also had a pair of cheap rubber boots with a thick felt lining. They were the warmest pair of boots I had then and they actually worked well. On top I had a pull-on wool stocking hat and a lined pair of leather mittens. For years that was my ice fishing clothes. I still have the mittens but the rest is long gone, out-grown and discarded
I was all set and one afternoon drove over to Little Lake Butte des Morts. I found a street taking me down to the edge of the lake. There was a place to park my car and a path through the snow other fishermen took to get out on the lake. There were about ten guys fishing so it seemed I found the right place. I gathered my gear and walked out on the ice. I realized it had been over two years since the last time I walked on a frozen lake.
I talked with a couple of the other fishermen and they told me to chop a couple of holes through the ice anywhere in this small bay and I should catch perch. Everyone also had a small pile of perch sitting on the ice. I chopped two holes, turned over my bucket, put wax worms on a couple of jigs and dropped them down through the ice holes. I then poured myself a cup of coffee and watched the two small bobbers floating on the water. It was incredibly simple.
The bay was shallow and there was only about six feet of water under the ice. As I looked through the ice holes I could see green weeds on the bottom. Every now and then I would lift the rods, jig it a couple times and then set it back down again. It didn’t take long, perhaps only a few minutes when one of the bobbers began to dip under the water and shaking off my mittens I grabbed the ice rod and set the hook. The light jig rod doubled over as a fish ran off. Since the water was so shallow, I only had to lift the rod up and the fish was splashing in the ice hole. The fish was a small perch like the others I saw on laying on the ice. Although I was using a very light jig stick, I was amazed at what a good fight this little perch had in him.
I baited the jig stick and dropped it down again. Slipping back on my mittens, I reached for my coffee. A moment or two later my bobber began to move again. For the next fifteen or twenty minutes a small school of perch must have come through under the ice where I was because one or both of my bobbers seemed to constantly be sinking in the ice hole. I was so busy catching fish and baiting hooks I did not have time to put my mittens back on. By the time this school moved off I had about a dozen fish lying on the ice and my hands were red and stiff from the cold.
The fishing stayed fairly consistent for the next couple of hours and I amassed a good size pile of perch on the ice. By this time I also ran out of coffee and it looked like I had enough perch for a fish fry. They might have been small but I caught enough of them to make up in numbers for what I might not have in size. I turned my bucket back over again, dumped in the perch and walked back to my car and drove home. That night we ate those perch and it might have been one of the best fish fries I ever had. The fish were breaded and cooked in lard. We used lard in those days; everyone did. There were few kitchens in those days that did not have a tub of lard in the refrigerator. It was cheap and tasted good and we were not aware of today’s health risks associated with lard or animal fats. Besides then we were young and invincible.
ONCE A LONG TIME AGO
When you look around Little Lake Butte des Morts today it is hard to believe what it must once have looked like before the cities, streets, houses and businesses were there. A forest surrounded the lake four hundred years ago. Wild rice grew in the shallow waters bringing in rafts of ducks. The land around it was abundant with game. It was the land of the Fox Indians and then later the French explorers, trappers and traders.
Butte des Morts means “Hill of the Dead” and that name came after two battles between the French and the Fox Indians. In the early 1700s, a large camp of Fox Indians, estimated over eight thousand men, women and children lived in a walled town on the banks of the lake across from what today is Neenah. The Fox Indians were like pirates. They controlled the waterway, intercepting both other Indians and whites as they came through their area taking hostages and extorting furs and other items from those traveling through. This significantly harassed and interfered with the very lucrative fur trade, which in those days was not only a major financial but also political enterprise.
The French could not allow such disruption within their empire so they sent an armed group under the supervision of one of their military commanders to eliminate this band of Indian pirates. It was, as with many of these Indian battles were in those days, a no holds barred, no quarter asked or given, with death to the last enemy person. The French won both battles and the bodies of Fox Indian’s, men, women and children, were piled high and covered with dirt. These mounds became the “Hill of the Dead” and mentioned prominently in writing by exploreres and travelers through the area in the early 1800s.
THE NEXT WINTER
Six months after I first fished Little Lake Butte des Morts my enlistment ended and I returned to Oshkosh. The plan was to go back to school at the University of Oshkosh, get a commission through their ROTC program and go back in the Army. I had the GI Bill, my wife and I both had part time jobs and between a Wisconsin Vietnam era tuition grant and the money I was making selling magazine stories, I was able to put together what I needed to pay for college tuition. We would be barely comfortable enough to get through the next two years until I could graduate and get my commission. There were some risks involved, but again it was good to be young and be willing to take the chance.
It was exciting to be going back in college again. My grades were much better than they were the first time I was in college before I joined the Army; being a bit older with a sense of purpose made me a much better student. I breezed through the fall and then the first of winter settled in. I got through the first semester and now had almost a month off for winter break. Ice covered the lakes and snow was on the ground. I wanted to go ice fishing and I remembered how good it was on Little Lake Butte des Morts. I got my ice fishing stuff again out of my parent’s basement and got one of my ROTC buddies to go perch fishing with me on Little Lake Butte des Morts.
I remember the day was gray, promising more snow but not for that afternoon. It was chilly but not real cold yet and there was a light wind. We filled thermos jigs with coffee and stopped at a bait shop for three dozen wax worms. This particular bait shop put their wax worms in empty chewing tobacco cans. A couple of weeks later my wife found the container in the refrigerator where I put it, containing the left over wax worms from the last fishing trip. She was upset, thinking I had taken up chewing tobacco. I have had enough bad habits in my life but chewing tobacco wasn’t one of them. I explained those cans were used by the bait shop to pack wax worms in and I hadn’t taken up chewing tobacco. She really didn’t like the idea of having grubs in her refrigerator any more then the thought of my chewing tobacco, but she tolerated them as long as I pushed them way to the back where she wouldn’t see them. We survived the rest of the winter with the grubs in the tobacco cans as long as they were out of sight.
With coffee and bait we were all set up and I drove back to the street in Menasha that took us down to the lake. It was early in the ice fishing season yet and ice wasn’t very thick so it didn’t take long to punch a couple of holes through ice with the water gushing up in the ice holes. Throughout the winter the ice never got anymore then about a foot thick thanks to the current from the Fox River running through the lake. We scooped out the slush, dumped our gear on the ice, turned over the buckets, baited our hooks and we were fishing.
We fished in the shallow bay again like I had a few months before. As it turned out I never fished anywhere else on Little Lake Butte des Morts. For the rest of the winter I fished that bay and caught all the fish I wanted. We poured ourselves a cup of coffee and before we finished it our little bobbers were beginning to dip, bounce and sink in our ice holes. Sitting side by side, there were times we both had fish on at the same time and there were times one of us would have a fish on both jig poles. By the time it was getting dark and night was crawling across the lake, we were out of coffee and had a big pile of perch sitting on the ice. That night my buddy and his wife had a fish fry at his house and my wife and two daughters and I were eating fresh perch fillets at our house. The ice fishing season had good a start.
For the rest of my winter break I worked, wrote a couple articles, watched my two daughters when my wife worked, went rabbit hunting a couple of times and went fishing as often as I could on Little Lake Butte des Morts. Sometime after the middle of January my second semester began. Now the only day I had available to fish was Saturdays. Every Saturday I would leave about mid-morning and fished until I had enough fish for a fish fry. Once I got back home I put the frozen pile of perch in the basement until early evening when they were thawed out enough for me to clean. I would scale and fillet the fish and on Monday evening we had a fish fry.
I did this every Saturday for the next two months and always caught enough fish for our Monday dinner. This became my routine for the winter. Not only was it my outlet and excuse to go fishing every week but it also was a fairly cheap meal every Monday. It only cost me a couple gallons of gas and grubs. There were a couple different types of grubs available at the bait shop. One was wax worms which I started fishing with and the other was mousies. I found mousies to be more durable and worked just as good as wax worms so I used them to extend the use of my bait and normally I could get two weeks out of a three dozen tobacco can. My guess was my weekly fishing trip was costing less than five dollars a week. It was both cheap entertainment as well as an inexpensive meal for a family of four.
Most of my buddies and a few family members joined me every Saturday and we never left without a meal of perch. Some days it was cold and other days warmer. Sometimes it snowed and other days the wind swirled the snow on the ice around us. I remember one morning I only had a sip or two out of my coffee cup when a school of perch came through. It seemed for the next thirty or forty minutes we were very busy. Finally when the fishing slowed down I looked at me coffee cup to see it was full of snow blown into it by the wind.
Another time I came off the ice and wasn’t feeling well. When I got home my face was flushed with fever and when I got home I laid down for a nap. The nap and a handful of aspirin didn’t do much for what was ailing me and I still had a pile of a perch to clean. My wife took pity on me and went down in the basement to help me clean fish. She scaled the fish while I filleted them. Another day I came home with a bad case of chills. I kicked off my boots and sat down in the living room still dressed in Grandpa’s old deer hunting suit and she tucked blankets around me, brought me hot tea and aspirins. It took me a couple of hours before I felt normal again.
Although the fish were small we made up for the size in numbers. I figured for my family of four we needed two dozen of the small perch to make a meal. There were days I caught what I needed in couple of hours and other times it took me four or five hours to catch a meal. I used light fiberglass jig sticks and was always amazed at what a good fight even the smaller perch put up. I had about a dozen jigs I carried in a plastic 35mm film container. There seemed only a handful of panfish jigs available in those days. I used either what was called a tear drop of rocker jig. I used only three colors; either yellow, red or orange. One of those two jigs in one of those colors always seemed to catch fish. In another film container I carried about a half dozen small ice bobbers that weren’t any bigger then a finger nail. Ice fishing in those days was delightfully simple but effective.
Finally the ice fishing season came to an end. It started to get warm as we were edging into spring. It was a warm, bright sunny day. I drove over to the small bay for my Saturday morning a fishing trip. There were a few guys already on the ice when I walked out, and I felt it moving underneath me. Taking my ice pick I jabbed it into the ice and with one blow it went through the ice and water was bubbling up. I slowly backed up until I found thicker ice. I did fish that day and caught a meal of perch but I knew as I walked off the ice a few hours later the season had come to an end.
TWO FISHING BUDDIES
Some forty years later Little Lake Butte des Morts would come back to me. A fishing buddy, Doug Hurd, and I were traveling to northern Wisconsin on a fishing trip and we were talking. Doug grew up in Beloit in southern Wisconsin and I grew up in Oshkosh. In 1972 he enlisted in the Army and went to Alaska. In 1972 I enlisted in the Army and first went to Germany and then Missouri. We did not know each other until some twenty years later we both ended up at Fort Snelling in Minnesota. I would buy my first bass boat from him when he sold it so he could buy a bigger boat. Two years later, we both retired from the Army a month apart from each other. Doug and I became friends and fishing buddies and since then have fished all over Wisconsin and Minnesota together as well as parts of North Dakota and Canada. We have become like brothers and we are part of each other’s family. He and his wife and I and my wife get together regularly to watch Packer games or to have dinner. We know each other’s children, brothers and sisters and parents. We have shared weddings and funerals within each other’s family and births of grandchildren and all the good times and occasional bad times our families have gone through over the years.
At another time our lives converged and we never knew it until we were talking on the drive north to another fishing adventure we shared. In 1975, we both completed our enlistments and both left the Army to go to school. I was living in Oshkosh and going to the college there and Doug lived in Appleton and was going to school there. He also was married but did not have any children then. On Saturdays during the winter he also went ice fishing on Little Lake Butte des Morts. It is very likely we may have fished next to each other or at least close and never knew it. We would both soon return to active duty with the Army and seventeen years later we finally met while work together in the same unit where we both retired.
Now we share a lot of fishing adventures together as well as the common bond of once being brothers in arms. Of the places Doug and I have been to and the friendship we now share, it actually was at Little Lake Butte des Morts where we might have first met and never knew it.
Whats up. Im Todd. I like my dog, boats, the open water, the American flag and guns. Some might describe me as a "basic bro", but I'm really just a down home country boy. And a country boy can survive! Im usually out on the water in my fishing boat or canoe with my dog drinking a beer. Stuff on here is stuff I like. Cheers.