Going Soft on Hardwater
A Good Day for Whitefish
Yea, I know how to do miserable. Particularly when it comes to ice fishing. Been there, done that. I know what it is like to man-haul an ice sled loaded with a hundred pounds of equipment across a naked sheet of ice into the teeth of a bitter wind. I've spent hours with freezing hands dipping into a minnow bucket to reset a line of tip-ups. My behind has been frozen to a plastic bucket for hours on end staring down an eight-inch hole waiting for a spring bobber to move a fraction of a millimeter. I've risked frostbite and bodily injury (see last week's blog) climbing over towering ice ridges for a chance at a mess of fish. I thought it a small price to pay. In fact, truth be told, I take a perverse pride in my misery. I relish bragging to those thin-skinned soft-water anglers from Florida to Texas about how "real men" fish. Sort of like the Packer fan who, claiming to have been at the "Ice Bowl", regales everyone about how he froze his ass at the game. (As a point of information, I was at the Ice Bowl game and I did indeed freeze my ass. I think the Packers won, though.) Wisconsinites in general and ice anglers in particular delight in telling everyone else (aka wimps) about how tough our winters are and how we still survive, even enjoy, them. Be honest, we think a bit less of those "snow birds" that flee the rigors of a Midwest winter for the placid warmth of south Florida. We're tough. We can take it and thrive.
So I know you can be miserable when ice fishing and catch fish. But it does not have to be that way. Turns out, you can be comfortable and catch fish. Who knew?
Let me tell you about my whitefish trip this week. Fishing pal Paul and I made our way Tuesday morning amid beautiful white mounds from our recent monumental snowfall. We were on our way to Cabot Point south of Sturgeon Bay to meet up with J.J. Malvitz of J.J.'s Guide Service for a booked whitefish foray. When we arrived at the parking area near Sawyer Harbor a number of other groups had arrived and were waiting for their ride out on the ice. Paul and I grabbed our stuff and followed a path past the edge of the shoreline onto the ice. There was J.J. waiting for us with a four-door enclosed (and heated) ATV. I didn’t even have time to pull on my gloves before we clamored aboard and were making our way out to "shanty town". As we rumbled along the two-track trail through the foggy morning mist, J.J., Paul and I talked fishing and the previous outings we had had together. Five minutes later the shacks of the town started to appear through the fog. The vision of nearly a hundred little buildings sprawling over the expanse of ice three miles from the nearest landfall is a sight to behold. A truly unique northern phenomenon. J.J. pulled up next to one of his ten dark red shacks. Paul and I shuffled through the door and were greeted by the warmth of the propane-heated interior. Four holes were drilled in the floor of the shack and ice fishing spinning rods were waiting with Rapala jigs dangling off the end of their fluorescent tips. Within seconds, Paul and I had rods in hand and were dropping the minnow tipped jigs down through the eighty feet of water to the waiting school of whitefish below. I barely had enough time to take off my jacket when I my rod tip bounced and I set the hook on the first whittie of the day. Urging the reluctant whitefish to make its way from the security of the bottom of the lake through a hole in ice took a little time, but eventually we had our first fish flopping on the ice. Over the next 5 hours, Paul and I sat in shirtsleeves fishing, talking, drinking coffee and putting another 40 or so whitties on the ice. We lost almost that many before we could get them to the hole. We did have to turn the heat down a little bit. It was a wonderful day. Regularly J.J. or one of his assistants, Alex and Keegan would stop by, fish with us for a while and provide some useful advice on technique. Once my line got caught on what I suppose was the sharp edge of a mussel shell and was cut losing the jig on the bottom. No problem. I just reached over and grabbed another rod and continued fishing. Never skipped a beat.
At noon Paul and I stepped out of the shack onto the now sun-splashed ice where J.J. was waiting at the grill loaded with Johnsonville brats. I dropped one of those sausages into a pretzel bun and enjoyed a pleasant lunch under bright blue skies and wonderful panorama of the Stone Quarry, Sturgeon Bay and Sherwood Point. Only a lucky few get to see this perspective of the Door Peninsula. After the light lunch and some conversation, it was back to "work" to fill our legal bag limit of ten whitefish each. Once that task was accomplished (With some confusion because I forgot how to count to veinte. I tried to count in Spanish.) we continued to catch and release a dozen more fortunate whitties and watched them shimmy down the hole to freedom.
Too soon we were heading off the ice past the stately Sherwood Point lighthouse with a cooler full of whitties. Whitefish are delicious on the plate, but as anyone who has cleaned a mess of whitefish knows, that task is a tedious, time-consuming job. They are slimy and hard to handle. Cleaning them just coming off the ice will make your fingers numb. And then there are the notorious "pin bones". This is a series of small bones in the fish extending sideways from the backbone. Unless you are pickling or smoking the fish, they need to be removed before consumption. Some guys will meticulously pick the bones out with a pliers, but most anglers remove them using a knife cut along each side of the line of pin bones and remove the offending bones along with some flesh. There are some excellent You-Tube videos showing this technique. I've cleaned plenty of whitties and I have gotten fairly skilled at it. However, it still takes me well over an hour to clean ten whitefish and leaves me with frozen hands and a real messy garage. It's a miserable job. Who wants to be miserable after such a wonderful day fishing? Turns out you don't have to be. Just a little ways from Cabot point on County Highway "M" there is Lindal Fisheries. You can't miss it. Just look for the sign and the old Great Lakes fishing boat up on blocks next to the house.
Pulling into the driveway, Paul and I hauled our catch into the large, well-lit building and were greeted by Andy, all ready to make quick work of our whitefish. Andy is a longtime successful charter captain out of Baileys Harbor and very experienced at cleaning whitefish. It was immediately obvious that this was not his first rodeo. Before us was a production line whose purpose was to convert the slimy, boney whitefish into pan ready filets. First the fish were poured into a stainless steel rotating drum to remove the scales, then onto a table where Andy removed the heads and innards. (He allowed me to recover the delicious whitefish livers.) Then into a fileting machine that removes the spine and produces individual filets. Then the magic happens. Like a skilled surgeon, Andy deftly removed the onerous line of pin bones with two slashing strokes of the knife and the job was done. Within fifteen minutes there were 40 boneless whitefish filets laying on the rack waiting to be vacuum packed. At two and a half bucks a fish, it was a small price to pay to put a happy ending to a great day of fishing. You might not want to go this route. You might want to clean those fish yourself. In fact I might as well. But unless you like pre-shaken soda or wet grocery bags, I'd leave it in the hands of a professional.
On the way back to Baileys Harbor, Paul and I agreed that this was the best way to experience whitefish fishing. Well, OK, maybe we are getting "soft" as we get older, but I'm OK with that. I'll have plenty of opportunities to be miserable. I'll make my own way on the ice yet this winter and clean my own fish, frozen hands and all. The Spring brown trout and walleye fishing will give us plenty of opportunities to brag about how miserable we were fishing. But today, it did not have to be that way.
Oh, and one more thing. My snow thrower has heated handles. There I said it. Going "soft" and proud of it.
Tight Lines, Bruce
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