Jun 30, 2016

LAKE X

By: Mike Yurk

I probably would have found this lake on my own, but I first heard of it while walking across the parking lot of Fleet Farm in Hudson, Wisconsin.

A year earlier I had retired from the Army while stationed at Fort Snelling in Minnesota’s Twin Cities. We were living in an apartment in Edina, Minnesota and finally found a home on the western edge of Wisconsin. My wife Becky and I both grew up in Oshkosh and we had to get back to Wisconsin. What can I say? We are Cheeseheads. Besides, it was tough to see the Packers on television if you lived in Minnesota. So, for the first time in our lives, we bought a home. After 22 years of traveling the world, I was back in Wisconsin.

Six months after we moved to Hudson, it was mid-September and I was walking into Fleet Farm. While crossing the parking lot, I ran into an older man. After exchanging hellos, he spontaneously started telling me about this lake loaded with panfish. “It has some of the best bluegill and crappie fishing in the state,” he told me. He had my attention.He took me into the sporting goods section to show me the jigs he uses and gave me directions to the lake. “Do they have bass in the lake too?” I asked. He thought for a moment and finally said “Well. I guess so. I see people fishing for them.”

I got home and after telling Becky about it, pulled out a map book and did what was called in the military, a map reconnaissance. Those years of military training are hard to forget. Sure enough; there was the lake. Becky and I talked about it and decided we needed to fish it that weekend. We initially decided to take along the panfish rods and start with those and perhaps later switch to bass. Once we got to the landing and started to get the boat ready to launch, I looked around. “There has to be lots of bass here,” I said to Becky. She agreed and we decided to go bass fishing first and if that didn’t work then try panfish.

The first bank we pulled up to had deep water close to a rocky shoreline. It is one of my favorite bass structures and we were using one of my favorite baits at the time; silver and black Shad Raps by Rapala. Within half a dozen casts, I had the first bass. It was a fat, feisty, foot long fish. Ten casts later, Becky had a bass.  We forgot entirely about panfish. At the end of the day, we caught and released over two-dozen bass with another half a dozen northern pike as a bonus. It had been a heck of a day of fishing and to think it was less than a half hour drive from our house!

A couple weeks later, a friend and I were fishing it one early October evening. We were steadily catching bass and had already caught three or four fish over three pounds. The sun began to sink into the trees on the western side of the lake as the wind began to drop off. Temperatures were falling and my hands were red and raw. Night was descending quicker than we expected and there was just enough light to get us back to the boat landing. We were floating off a rocky point and I told my buddy I was going to make one last cast.

My crankbait splashed on the surface close to the bank and dove as I started the retrieve. I got only two or three cranks on the reel when the bait jolted to a stop. I instantly pulled back to set the hook, at first nothing moved, and then it was like an explosion! The fish raced for the boat and I was afraid it was going to wrap the line around the trolling motor. So, while furiously cranking on my spinning reel, I reached over and yanked up on the trolling motor. As the trolling motor cleared the water, the fish went right under where it would have been. My spinning rod was bent in half as the fish charged for deeper water. I turned the fish and got it coming back, but it took off again. By this time, my buddy was standing next to me with the net.

The fish kept racing off and I was able to stop it, but only for a moment before it tore away again. My drag was haltingly giving out line and each time I got some line back, the fish raced off again. But soon I realized I was winning as it started to take out less line then I was getting back. A few moments later I had the fish alongside the boat but it was still staying deep and I was starting to worry. I really wanted this fish. Finally, I got it close to the boat and then we saw it. It was a huge bass. My spinning rod was still doubled over, and I wasn’t sure how much more strain my line was going to take. I never saw my buddy drop the net in the water, but I saw it as he raised it up and the fish sagged, still twisting and turning in the mesh. I quickly measured the fish and it went almost 23 inches. We took a quick photo and then lowered it in the water. It was dark by this time.

I guessed the fish weighed almost seven pounds and, up until that time, it was the biggest bass I had ever caught. It would take several years and a trip to Mexico to catch a bigger bass, but my bass on that October night is still the largest bass I ever caught in the United States. Becky and I continued to fish that lake until our lines were beginning to freeze in the rod guides. By the time the season came to an end, it became our favorite lake. For the next 20 years, it stayed our favorite lake. It isn’t very big; less than a hundred acres. There are some cabins and homes along the shore, but there are also enough wooded and marshy banks to make you believe you were on some lake way up north, or even Canada.

Becky took immediate possession of the lake. It became her lake and she jealously guarded it. When I took anyone to the lake she would say, “Be nice to my lake.” She demanded all fishing, except for panfish, had to be catch and release only. Between when I retired from the Army and going into full-time free lance writing, I worked for a sporting goods store selling fishing equipment. It was my work and fishing buddy, Scott Clark, who fished the lake with me, helping to protect its identity by calling it Lake X. From then on it became known only by its new name. Once someone in the store asked one of the guys in the fishing department where was this Lake X he heard so much about and, without hesitation, was told, “I can’t tell you. If I do, Mike’s wife will beat my butt.”

Lake X had more than just bass, it also had northern pike and panfish in it. In the first ten years, there were walleye in the lake as well. Some time earlier, the Department of Natural Resources attempted to establish a self-sustaining walleye population. However, they were not successful since there were no natural spawning areas for walleye and eventually the program was suspended. In those first years we fished, the walleye had matured. I remember one summer afternoon when we were fishing crankbaits again along a rocky bank and I had a hard strike. The fish fought hard and I yelled for Becky to grab the net. At first I thought it was a big bass. The fish turned out to be a 25-inch walleye. Over the next few years we caught up to ten walleyes a year, all ranging in length from 20 to 25 inches.

One summer evening, my neighbor, Tom Parker and I were fishing the lake and he caught a 22-inch walleye. He remarked it was the biggest walleye he had ever caught and would it be alright if he kept the fish. He knew of Becky protecting the lake and the fish in it. I told him I didn’t care but if Becky found out, she would rip his lips off. “Oh,” he said, and quickly dropped the fish back in the water.

The wooded area around the lake held a wide variety of wildlife. For a couple of years, we saw a set of twin fawns playing on the banks. They bounded through the tall grass and walked along the sandy shoreline. We would fish right by them and they just looked as us without moving, as if we were a nuisance when we passed by. Once, on the north end of the lake, I saw some brush moving. A moment later a badger popped out. It is the only time I ever saw a badger in the wild. In the last few years, a black bear has been sighted. One person living along the lake reported the bear swam across the lake. The bear also developed a reputation for attacking bird feeders.

One winter Becky and I were in Ixtapa, Mexico escaping the cold, snow and ice of our Wisconsin winter. On our first morning, Becky and I wandered down to the pool after breakfast. We plopped into lounge chairs and took out books. After a few minutes, Becky decided she needed to get in the pool. The first person she met in the pool struck up a conversation with her. Her name was Barbara and she and her husband, Cal, were from Colorado. They also were escaping the cold, snow and ice.

Barbara asked Becky where we were from and she told her a little town she probably never heard of on the western edge of Wisconsin called Hudson. Barbara told her she grew up in New Richmond, which is less than 20 miles from Hudson. Barbara told Becky she and her husband go back to Wisconsin every summer to visit family so they bought a small cabin on a lake nearby to stay at rather than renting motel rooms. Becky asked the name of the lake and Barbara said it is just a small lake few people had ever heard of. Becky told her we fish a lot and might know the lake. When Barbara told her the name Becky said, “That is our favorite lake!” What are the chances of meeting someone in Mexico from Colorado who have a cabin on your favorite little lake in western Wisconsin?

We eventually discovered the panfish. It had a great population of both crappies and bluegills. I had to agree with the man who first told me about the lake, it did seem to have some of the best crappie and bluegill fishing in the state. If someone visiting us wanted a fish fry, I took them to Lake X. I told them we were only going to keep crappie and to throw back any bluegills we caught, regardless of how big they are. We used the same jigs the man who first told me about the lake suggested. Without fail we always caught our fish fry.

Occasionally, Becky and I took a break from bass fishing to just fish for panfish. Sometimes we used ultralight spinning rods with jigs, and other times we used fly rods with light floating sponge bugs.  They both were fun and we usually released all the fish we caught. One blistering hot Fourth of July, I took a father and his son to Lake X to catch panfish. We had no desire to keep any fish and put them all back. By the end of the afternoon, we caught and released a mixed bag of over a hundred crappies and bluegills.

When my grandchildren visited, I took them fishing for panfish on Lake X because I could always find a bunch of crappies and bluegills for them. They just loved to feel the rod bend, a tug on the line and to see fish splashing on the surface. For the grandkids, it was enough just to catch fish and we released everything we caught, after photos, of course.

But our panfish paradise eventually changed. The word got out, and from all over people came to catch bluegills and crappies on Lake X. I remember three old men I saw several times one summer. They never left until they each caught their limit and, at that time, the limit was 25 panfish per day. Ice fishermen camped right on top of the crappies and pulled lots of fish out all winter long. Eventually, the panfish limit, in St. Croix County lakes, was changed to 10 fish per person per day. But the damage was done. The crappie population was decimated, and the bluegills did not fare much better. In the years after that, most of the bluegills we caught were small. The big bluegills were gone and we seldom caught any crappies. They were just over fished.

The northern pike population remained a pleasant surprise and a bonus to any day’s fishing. On a cold, damp, gray mid-October day a young friend of mine and I were fishing Lake X. We fished for bass with lipless crankbaits. We just started down a rocky, weedy shoreline when my bait came to a sudden stop. My first reaction was questioning what I could be hung up on, when I felt the pumping of a fish against my spinning rod. The fish bolted off. The fish put up a tough fight, staying deep with lots of pressure against my spinning rod. It took a couple of minutes before I got the fish close to the boat, and then another moment or two by the time we got the net under it. It was a 38-inch northern pike. It was a nice fish to start the day. We continued down the shore, catching bass. We caught and released about a dozen nice fish. They were dark green in color and fat. As the temperatures were dropping, they were feeding aggressively to put on weight for winter.

Late afternoon we were on the other side of the lake. It had a rocky bank with a wooded area behind it and deep water in front. I flipped my lipless crankbait against the bank and halfway back to the boat a fish slammed it! This time I knew it was a big fish and not a snag. My rod tip was bent in half, and the drag was whining as the fish stripped off line. The fish dove under the boat, charging off toward the middle of the lake. I pulled back and the fish changed direction and was now off the back of the boat. I was bouncing around the boat and my young fishing buddy got out of the way as I fought the fish. It took several minutes before we finally got the fish close to the boat and netted it. The fish was another large northern pike and it rolled in the net as I quickly tried getting it out. It still had lots of energy and muscle, flailing around while I measured the fish. It was 41 inches long and the biggest northern pike I ever caught. It seemed ironic after all the trips I made to Canada, to catch my biggest northern pike just a few minutes from home.

Throughout the 20 years we fished Lake X, the lake has changed from year to year. The fishing has had peaks and valleys. Some years the fish were bigger than others, and sometimes we caught more, but we always caught fish.

Weather patterns affected the lake. We had a long, protracted drought for several years and we watched as the lake shrunk. At the end of one year, the landing was so shallow we could barely get our boat out. But, the following winter we had lots of snow and a very wet spring and the water level was as high as we could remember over the past ten years. One year, we had a brutally cold winter and the ice on the lake came off the lake in the middle of the week before Opening Day. I was concerned the late ice would kill the fish, but on Opening Day my fishing buddy, Doug Hurd and I caught 15 bass ranging from 14 to 17 inches. All that year we caught lots of big fish.

The next year we had a long, cold winter again and the ice came off the lake only days before the fishing season began. My wife, Becky and I fished the lake on the first day. We fished the north end of the lake and never got a strike. We fished all the areas we always found fish and it seemed strange we had not caught a fish. We moved to the southern end of the lake and there we saw the devastation. Piles of big bass floated dead in the shallows. The fish survived the first bad winter but couldn’t survive the second. Becky and I were stunned and left the lake shortly thereafter in a state of mourning. Had we witnessed the death of our favorite lake?

I talked several months later to the Department of Natural Resources. They confirmed the worst. The bass and bluegill population were completely destroyed. Surprisingly, the northern pike and most of the crappies survived. There was hope. They were restocking the lake but it would be possibly be as long as five years before the lake returned to what it had once been.

This year, as the fishing season starts, it will be three years since the winter kill. Becky and I have not been back to the Lake X since then. There are only two more years left until the bass should be recovered. Lake X will return to the lake we have known and loved and I can’t wait to get back to it.