Jan 10, 2019

I’ll Always Have Lake Winnebago

Memories of the water that provided childhood experiences hunting, fishing and swimming

By Mike Yurk

From the first time I saw Lake Winnebago I fell in love with it. I was nine years old and my parents were building a house north of Oshkosh less than half a mile from the lake. The shore was a bit wilder then and far less developed.

The road my parents would live on for the next half century ended at the lake. I looked out on the blue waters while standing at the end of that road. On the south side of the road there was an open field which eventually melted into a woods. On the north side was more woods.

Way off in the distance on the other side of the lake I could barely see a hazy thread of the eastern shore. To the north and south the lake disappeared into the sky. It was one huge lake. It looked like a paradise to a young, imaginative and impressionable boy. How could you not love it. 

Summer delights

I first swam in the lake. We couldn’t wait to go swimming once school was over. We lived in the country and we got out of school a week or so earlier than the city kids, but our parents insisted the water was too cold and we had to wait until at least the first of June. Those first few days of summer vacation were torture until our parents told us we could go swimming. I remember riding my bike down the lake to the end of the road where we went swimming. There was nothing else down there. We had it all to ourselves. It is amazing in today’s world to think our parents let us go swimming without any adult supervision, and not even a life guard. But they did.

They were grand summer days with only an occasional rainy day to interfere. Dropping our bikes in the grass, we ran for the water. The beaches and bottom were sandy, making for ideal swimming conditions. I never remember the water being too cold for swimming, but getting in the water was more important than water temperatures. There was always a group of us, perhaps as many as a dozen. I remember once when we all – both boys and girls – went swimming naked in a fit of pre-puberty exhibition.

The area was too good and eventually people began building homes at our old swimming spot. They discouraged us from swimming there and generally made our life miserable every time we tried. It left us kids with a major resentment for taking away our swimming hole.

By this time my passion for fishing was far greater than my enthusiasm for swimming, so I didn’t miss it too badly even though it left a bad taste in my adolescent mouth. 

Fishing training grounds

One of my first Lake Winnebago fishing experiences was another summer day when a group of us rode our bikes to what’s called the Carp Pond. The Carp Pond is a small island with two short bridges connecting it to the shore. Wire mesh fencing was on the pilings of the bridges where carp were dumped into. We heard the carp were being netted by the state Department of Natural Resources and held there until they could get rid of them – hence the name Carp Pond.

I only had three or four baits, basically a couple spoons and a couple spinners. Most of our fishing was with live bait so I had hooks, sinkers and a couple bobbers. Fishing tackle was fairly simple in those days. Everyone else was fishing with worms and I was fishing with a gold spoon called Al’s Goldfish. In the first half hour I caught two big crappies before I lost ghe lure. I was stunned to lose that bait. But I recovered with a hammered gold spoon and caught a nice size smallmouth bass. By the end of the afternoon I had three fish and everyone else was skunked.

Later I would fish the lake with my grandfather. My grandparents lived in Sheboygan and once a month or so during the summer they would drive over to visit. Grandpa had a small Kiekhaefer Mercury outboard motor but no boat, so we rented an aluminum boat. Later Grandpa bought a wood boat covered in fiberglass. I looked forward to his visits because I knew we were going out on a great adventure on Lake Winnebago.

We got up in the early morning and I remember making fried eggs and toast for us. It would be cool in the morning regardless of how hot it became later in the day. Sunlight danced off the tops of the waves as we pushed away from shore. Grandpa let me drive the boat and I thought that was big stuff. Grandpa would point out in the lake and I turned the boat in that direction. Suddenly he would yell at me to stop and I turned off the motor. We dropped anchor, baited hooks with minnows and dropped them overboard. Shortly thereafter we started catching fish.

As I look back on those days it truly did seem to be that easy and I never did figure out how Grandpa knew exactly where to stop. I had a light fiberglass spincasting rod with a Johnson Century reel. We watched the rod tips and once they bounced, we set the hook. On that light rod those fish put up a great fight and my spincasting rod was bent double. We caught mainly walleye, sauger, yellow perch and white bass. By mid-afternoon it was time for Grandpa’s “beauty rest,” as he called it, and we headed in. He took his nap and I cleaned fish. It was a fair price to pay for having the opportunity to fish on that great lake. Everyday on Winnebago with Grandpa was an adventure.

About the time I entered middle school I became friends with Gary Plotz who lived on the lake with his parents. They had a boat and Gary and I spent lazy summer days fishing on Lake Winnebago. I rode my bike to his house and we took off in a short aluminum boat with a small outboard. During the summer we would pick up a few walleye, but the fish we caught most were big, fat jumbo yellow perch. They put up as good a fight on spinning gear as any walleye.

Sometimes in the evening, Gary’s father would take us out to the reef which seemed to be way out in the middle of the lake. Gary’s dad had a Dumphy wood boat with a 35-horsepower Evinrude. That seemed like one powerful boat. We anchored on the reef and cast spinners and spoons. It was comfortable on the water no matter how hot it was during the day and we always caught some walleye.

Although the open field where we used to swim was now built up, the nearby woods were still undeveloped. When I explored it further, I found a small rocky point. From all my reading in outdoor magazines it looked like an ideal spot for early evening fishing. A couple days later I went back there, hid my bike in the ditch, walked through the woods carrying my waders, spinning rod, a couple Johnson Silver Spoons and a flash light. I put my waders on, waded out and started casting. I fished until dark that night and caught two smallmouth bass and a white bass. This would become my secret spot.

The only person I would take back there was my buddy, Gary, and over the next couple years we caught walleye, northern pike, white bass and more smallies. We never caught a lot of fish, but for a couple of teenage boys that was good enough.

One summer in a burst of entrepreneurial spirit Gary and I decided to open a bait shop. We caught nightcrawlers in the dark after watering my parent’s lawn. My father never had to worry about his lawn not getting watered that summer. In the mornings Gary and I took his parent’s little aluminum boat into a sandy bay and we seined for minnows. We eventually filled a couple buckets with minnows. Despite the dreams we had of making a fortune, we barely broke even by the time we decided to get out of business. When I look back now, compared to what I see today, Gary and I did alright. 

Duck hunt island

Across from Gary’s parent’s house was Garlic Island. For us it was an island of mystery. A group of British soldiers wintered there during the War of 1812, and it was also rumored to have been the final resting place of an Indian princess. It also had some of the best duck hunting anywhere on the lake. Gary’s mother knew the owner of the island and got us permission to hunt there.

Lake Winnebago was different in the fall. The waters seemed more turbulent. They seemed to be gray now and often rolling with late season winds which kept the ducks moving. We had great mornings, watching the sun come up on the eastern side of the lake. The ducks would zip just above the water, turn into the wind, and with legs dropping down, they would slide into the decoys.

They guy who owned the island and all his adult friends accepted Gary and I as part of their duck hunting fraternity. November seemed to the best duck hunting. It was getting cold, but that was the best duck hunting with late season ducks coming down from Canada. Winds were chilly and occasionally laced with snow flurries, but Lake Winnebago never disappointed. We had great duck hunting on bluebills, golden eyes and bufflehead ducks.

After high school Gary left for school and I went to college in Oshkosh and got married. I still continued to fish and hunt Winnebago.

In March with ice too soft to drive on but still strong enough to walk on, I would crawl out on the bay or two just south of the mouth of the Fox River. We would fish shallow water using tip-ups and jig sticks with Swedish Pimples for walleye that were staging early in the bays before they would make their run up the Fox River to spawn. One cold, gray afternoon I caught a 5-pound walleye, which was the biggest I ever caught until many years later.  

One summer I worked nights, loading bread trucks and getting off at daybreak. I would go down to the lake casting spoons in the morning, which was a good way to unwind after a hot, muggy night loading trucks. Halfway through that summer I joined the army, and after three years in Germany and Missouri I returned to Oshkosh and back to college. I couldn’t wait to see Lake Winnebago again, glittering bright blue through the trees with the sun bouncing off the tops of the waves.

Gary and I went duck hunting again, back at Garlic Island. It was late in November, and shortly after pulling away from shore I heard a crunching noise. I quickly turned off the motor and switched on a flashlight. A thin layer of ice covered the water from the shore to the island. We broke ice to get to the island and just got the decoys out on the water when I heard whistling and looked out from the blind to see a flock of ducks dropping into the decoys. Within a couple hours we shot our limit of ducks, picked up our decoys, and returned to land following the trail of broken ice from earlier in the morning. 

Enjoying Winnebago’s icy cover

That last winter before I went back into the army, I ice fished on Lake Winnebago for walleye. My cousin Gary Hansen and I – sometimes also with other family members and friends – would drive out on the ice about five miles out or so. We didn’t have powered augers, so we had to chop holes by hand and laid out a string of tip-ups, three each for everyone in our group.

I remember the wind driving sheets of snow across the ice, requiring us to make the rounds regularly, clearing out the snow and skimming ice off the holes. Then a flag on a tip-up went over and we raced off across the ice, pulling off our mittens as we dropped to our knees next to the ice hole, grabbing the line, hoping to feel weight on the line. We’d set the hook with a quick pull on the line and then bring the fish in, hand over hand. Once I got a white bass stuck in the hole. So I pulled off my jacket, rolled up my sleeves and reached bare arm down the ice hole, grabbed the fish, and pulled it out. One cold January day I caught my limit of walleyes. It was a moment of personal pride for me as it was the first time I ever caught a limit of walleyes through the ice.

That last spring before I graduated college I trolled for walleye in the big bay just south of the mouth of the Fox River. We used Original Floating Rapalas. There might have been other colors available in those days, but the only ones we used were silver or gold. If one color didn’t work, the other one did. We fished until dark and the wind began to decrease as the sun disappeared behind the trees on the west shore while we returned to the landing. We always had fish in the bucket – a mixture of walleye, sauger and white bass. 

A Lake Winnebago homecoming

When I graduated, I received a commission as a second lieutenant and returned to active duty, taking me to Alabama, back to Germany and then back to Alabama again. It was winter and I realized I hadn’t been back to Oshkosh for Christmas in a long time. I packed my family in the car and got back to Oshkosh a couple days before the holidays.

Time on leave was always limited, but I needed to go ice fishing on Lake Winnebago again. One afternoon I shuffled across the ice with a bucket of minnows in one hand and an ice pick and plastic bucket with a couple tip-ups, jig sticks and thermos of coffee. I was walking out from the Carp Pond where years earlier I caught fish that summer day with Al’s Goldfish.

I chopped holes in the ice, set up one tip-up and fished two jig sticks in the other holes. It was a great day of ice fishing. I caught crappie and yellow perch on the jigs. Then I saw the tip-up flip over. It had been a long time since I last saw a tip-up go over. I bolted off the overturned bucket I was sitting on and slid across the ice to the tip-up. Shaking off my mittens I grabbed the line and could feel a fish on the other end. I set the hook and slowly brought the line in until I saw a golden brown shape coming through the hole. It was my first walleye. It had been a long time since I last caught a fish with a tip-up. We returned to Alabama, then another assignment to North Carolina, then back to Germany before I would return permanently to the Midwest.

Now I live in northwest Wisconsin and several times a year I return to Oshkosh. I can’t wait to see Winnebago again. My wife, Becky, who grew up just a few blocks from Lake Winnebago on the south side of Oshkosh, said she never realized how pretty Lake Winnebago is.

“I just thought everyone grew up with a lake in their back yard,” she said at one point.

My father passed away 17 years ago and my mother, now 94, lives in senior center in Oshkosh. When we come to visit, we take her to lunch and then for a drive in the old neighborhood. We pass the house she and my father built in the late 1950s less than a half mile from the lake. We drive around our old stomping grounds reminiscing about the days when I was young. Once again I am thrilled to see the blue waters of Lake Winnebago shining through the trees and the sun dancing off the tops of the waves.

Last summer I fished Lake Winnebago once again. My old high school buddy Bill Job and I went out after perch. We heard they returned in great numbers to the lake. We had high winds that day and bounced around in Bill’s boat. We didn’t find the perch, but we did catch some white bass. We felt a tug on the line and saw our spinning rods bent in half again as fish raced off. The nice thing about white bass is they always fight hard, and I always had a soft spot for them. We caught our fish on Al’s Goldfish. That bait still works for me over half a century later from the first time I used it on Lake Winnebago.

No matter how far I may wander around the world, I find myself always coming back to Lake Winnebago. No matter how old I may get and no matter where else I might fish, it all started for me on Lake Winnebago. I will always have Lake Winnebago in my life.