Ice Fishing as Social Interaction
Learning New Tricks

Harbor Angler Report, February 25 Photo

I like to fish alone. Wait, let me rephrase that. I sure don’t want the people with whom I fish to imply that I do not enjoy their company. I do, mostly.  It’s just that I usually end up fishing alone and I’m OK with that. This is primarily a result of my own quirky habits. I often don’t know where or when I’m going to fish until I decide to do it. I often have to respond to the vagaries of the Door County weather and other factors, like responsibilities, Pamela Ann (the wife) and such. There are few anglers who will respond positively to a call like “Hey, I’m going fishing right this minute, want to come along?” It turns out people have lives, even the old retired guys in Baileys Harbor. So, I just go by myself. There are several advantages to fishing alone. I never get out fished. I am always the best fisherman in the boat or shack. I can fish where I want for what I want. I can bogart all the good spots for myself. If I want to experiment with a new location or technique, I am free to do so without worrying if the other angler wants to do the same. It is, in many ways, liberating. If I get skunked, I only have to make excuses to myself and I am really good at that. Of course, if I catch a nice fish, I have nobody to brag to. That’s why I take so many selfies of me holding fish.

All that said, I am not antisocial. I very much enjoy the company of other anglers. Having a partner with you on the ice or in the boat provides some marvelous advantages. First off, you don’t have to take selfies of your fish, you can strike a proper proudful pose. Having other anglers along allows you to vary your tactics until you discover what the fish want that day. Somebody can try tube jigs while somebody else uses crank baits. One person can try minnows while you work a waxie. Having extra anglers allows you to deploy more trolling lines or additional tip-ups. The conversation, banter and general smart-talk with other anglers can fill those moments, sometimes hours, when the action is not quite as hot as you would hope. Over the course of time, relationships develop and evolve. You learn a lot about a person when you have spent six or seven hours within the confines of an 18-foot boat or the plywood walls of an ice fishing shanty. I often don’t feel I really know someone until I have fished with them. You learn how they handle success and failure, or the success or failure of others. This past week I had two opportunities for social interaction through ice fishing. Both were rewarding, yet quite different.

Jeff, a Baileys Harbor resident and accomplished angler and I spent a morning on the ice off Egg Harbor targeting whitefish. I had been catching some fish lately in the Bay and Jeff wanted to “learn the ropes” on fishing whities. Although Jeff is an avid angler, his opportunities are somewhat limited by what is known as a “job”. Sucks. Also, since he and his wife had only moved to Door County permanently several years ago, this was going to be his first time fishing for whitefish. Although I had known Jeff for a while, I had never fished with him before. Fishing with someone for the first time can be fraught with uncertainty. It turned out we fished well together. Maybe being each in our own single person portable shacks helped, but I enjoyed our conversation on the drive over and back. We shared information and experiences. It was a very pleasant morning on the ice. Well, except for actually catching fish. The whities were not in a positive mood this morning. After moving several times, trying various baits, depths and techniques, I managed to put just one whitefish on the ice and Jeff had nothing. This brings up the worst part of taking a guy fishing; You want that person to do well. Maybe not as good as you, but you want them to catch fish. I really wanted Jeff to experience that first battle with a struggling whitefish as he coaxed it to the surface. Catching whitefish is fun and I wanted Jeff to enjoy that. I felt bad. However, that’s fishing and Jeff, as an experienced angler, understood that. I hope I have another opportunity to fish with Jeff and put him on some whitefish.  

My second social collaboration of the week was a lot different. We caught more fish, sure, but what made it special is the opportunity to reconnect with long time fishing buddies. I had spent time in a boat with all three of these guys. Jim and Dean were regulars on past forays to McIntosh Lodge in Ontario. We had boated our share of muskies and walleyes together. Terry was a former colleague and good friend with whom I had logged many hours on the water. A smallmouth bass on my wall was netted by Terry. We once “broke ice” on Pelican Lake during a late season muskie outing. We had also spent many hours idly chatting while waiting for the fish to bite. This would be a renewal of old friendships with a lot of stories to be retold.

The venue for the reunion was the ice-covered surface of Green Bay about three miles north of Sherwood Point. We had booked a day of fishing with J.J. Malvitz of J.J.’s Guide Service and were gathered at the landing at George K. Pinney County Park (aka The Quarry) waiting for Josh (JJs right hand man) to pick us up for the trip out onto the ice. We all piled into the heated ATV and made our way on the plowed ice road to our assigned shack. This was my second outing with JJ this season and the sixth year I have targeted whitefish with JJ. I have always enjoyed the experience. Obviously, when you pay money to a fishing guide, you want to catch fish. Who doesn’t?  However, you are missing the point if you only judge a fishing guide by how many fish you catch. JJ and his staff are always professional and attentive. He has top rate equipment (better than I can afford) and provides as much advice and assistance as each individual angler may need or want. Mostly what I want out of a guide is information. I don’t ultimately rank a guide by how many fish I catch when I’m fishing with them, but by how many fish I catch after I fish with them based on the knowledge I gleaned. By this measure, my outings with JJ have been an outstanding success. Most of what I know about catching whitefish in Green Bay I have learned during my outings with JJ.  And JJ had a new lesson to teach me this day.

We made our way to our ‘home’ for the day, a rustic red 8x10 foot plywood shanty. As we opened the door of the shack, a waft of warm air greeted us. The propane heater was cranking, and four holes were cut on a pristine sheet of ice over about 75FOW. All we had to do was grab the waiting rods and start fishing. Typically, the line on the rods would have been tied to a jigging minnow lure and tipped with a piece of live shiner minnow. JJ had a different trick up his sleeve. An experiment, he said. Each rod was affixed to a jig head with various dark colored plastic tails. We would be using bass jigs to target whities. Josh explained that this rig had been out fishing many of the other more common lures including Moonshine Shiver minnows, Jigging Raps or Swedish Pimples. I was a bit skeptical, but I had paid him for the advice, and I would be stupid to ignore it. I dropped my jig to the bottom and after some instruction from Josh, worked the lure near the mussel encrusted lake bottom trying to make it look like a wriggling goby. It worked. In short order, the first fish of the day was flopping on the ice. It was a smallish fish, about fifteen inches, so we sent it back down the hole to grow up. Soon Dean’s rod had a nice bend in it and he gingerly coaxed a fat twenty-inch whitie to the surface. Between Dean and I we put about six fish on the ice in fairly short order. Terry and Jim were still waiting for their first. It gets a bit awkward when two guys are catching fish and two others are not and they are sitting within four feet of each other. In defense of Jim and Terry, both excellent fishermen, the whitefish were biting really weird. More often than not, you never felt a “hit”. You just saw, or actually felt, your line get “light”. You would crank a few turns on the reel and the fish was there. I was usually surprised that I had a fish on. Eventually, Terry nailed a few fish, but after a morning of fishing and lunch of grilled brats and chips, Jim was still waiting for his first whitefish.  I was getting worried and felt bad for Jim, but this was not Jim’s first rodeo. He knew that this was just fishing. Sometimes you get them, sometimes you don’t. Jim took his lack of success with good humor, at least outwardly.  It was a beautiful sunny day, so JJ drilled a few additional holes outside the shacks, and we did some “run and gun” fishing trying to find active fish. This worked well enough to add a few more fish to our bag. Jim joined us out in the fresh air and sunshine, still waiting for a stroke of luck. Finally, about an hour before we were going to call it a day, it was “fish on” for Jim. We collectively held our breath, knowing that bringing a frantic whitefish to the surface is no mean feat given the vertical distance to be covered and the fragility of the fish’s mouth. Jim deftly battled his prey and adroitly slipped a fat whitefish out of the hole onto the ice. Success!! Finally!!

We ended up putting twenty-five whities on the ice and lost several others. We kept twenty one of the biggest ones which we delivered to Lindal’s Fisheries for cleaning while we enjoyed drinks, food and smart talk at C.J.s Bar and Grill.  It was not the most productive day I have had for whitefish. We had some “dead spells” during the day to be sure. However, I can say without question, that it was a great day fishing. It was made great by, yes, catching fish, but also the pristine beauty of the setting, the professionalism of our host and the wonderful relationships with my fellow anglers.

Sure, I fish alone plenty. But I do look forward to fishing again with new friends, long time buddies and trusty “Brothers of the Angle”.  


So Long, and Thanks for All the Fish, Bruce


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