Sep 10, 2018

Return to Lake X

Prized fishing destination nearly resuscitated following previous winter fish kill

By Mike Yurk

We missed the road to the landing. It had been four years since we last were here and things looked a bit different.

“There was a body shop on the corner,” my wife, Becky, said. I drove past the road, but could see the body shop through the brush and trees. “It’s still there,” I said. “The vegetation has grown up, making it tougher to see the buildings.”

We drove down the road to where I could turn around and went back.

“It looks so different,” Becky said.

“It has been a long time since we last were here,” I replied.

Then we turned off the road into the landing. “There it is,” I said. There was a tunnel of trees on both sides of the road with a canopy linked together overhead. At the end we saw the lake, water dark blue with sun shining and a sky of lighter blue with white, fluffy clouds above.

It felt like we had just came back to a friend we hadn’t seen in a long time. “I think we are home,” I said. When we finally stopped, we were looking out across Lake X.

 

Keeping the secret

Twenty-three years ago, when we first moved to Hudson, Wisc., an old fisherman told me about Lake X. “It has some of the best fishing for panfish anywhere in Wisconsin,” he told me. “Are there any bass in there?” I asked.

“I guess so,” he told me. “I see people fishing for them.”

Later in afternoon I told Becky about it. The next Saturday we launched our boat on Lake X for the first time. I looked around and said, “there has to be bass in here.” With that we got the bass gear out and within a few minutes we were catching bass – lots of bass. We ended the day with about three dozen fish, mostly bass with a few northern pike. We never bothered to try for panfish and it would take a while before we did try fishing for panfish. When we did, we found great fishing for both bluegill and crappie.

This body of water does have an actual given name, but the fishing was so good we were reluctant to tell anyone about it or even identify the lake. The lake is small – only a little more than 80 acres – and bit off the beaten track, so it didn’t attract a lot of notice. Lake X was our favorite lake and Becky became possessive of the lake, threatening the few trusted fishing buddies we did tell about the lake that she would rip the lips off anyone who breathed a word about it to anyone else. So we started calling it Lake X.

Once one of those who knew of the lake was talking to one of the other people we worked with and the guy said, “I keep hearing about this Lake X, where is it?” My friend responded, “if I tell you, Mike’s wife will beat my ass.” He never asked about Lake X again.

Lake X was less than a half-hour drive from our house and we fished it often. The lake had its up and downs. It went through a couple of tough seasons when the fishing was down but it always came back.

Lake X and most of northwest Wisconsin went through several years of drought, and the lake shrunk and the weeds on the edge kept creeping closer. At one time, the boat landing nearly closed. But a couple winters with lots of snow and rainy springs brought the water level back up. A county work crew cut back the weeds which improved the landing.

 

Success and devastation

The first few years we found walleye in the lake. They were a holdover from an abandoned stocking program in the late 1980s. We never caught a lot of walleye, perhaps only a half dozen a year, but they were all big fish. My biggest was 25 inches.

The lake also had northern pike, and on one cold, gray fall day I caught a 38-inch and a 41-inch northern pike. I fished a lot of years in Canada and the biggest I caught there was 39 inches, so I finally broke 40 inches in a lake only 30 minutes from my home.

It was the bass fishing which was truly awesome. During that first autumn I fished the lake I caught a 7-pound bass on my last cast on a cold October evening as darkness settled on the lake. I would go to Mexico some years later before I would catch a bigger bass. Becky caught her first big bass – a 6-pound fish – at Lake X. One blistering hot summer day, Becky and I started fishing late morning and by the time we quit six hours later we caught 90 bass. We found out when we got home and listened to the news on television it had been the hottest day of the summer.

Five years ago we had a particularly brutal winter. The Sunday before opening day of Wisconsin’s fishing season, Becky and took a drive to check out Lake X. There was still ice across the lake. We never saw that before.

Three days before opening day we had a blizzard. On opening day we still had snow on the ground. A fishing buddy and I fished opening day at Lake X and the first dock I pulled up to still had two inches of snow. Fishing was slow that day. It took us until noon, as the temperatures got a bit warmer and the snow began to melt, before we caught our first fish. By the end of the afternoon we caught only eight fish, but our smallest was 15 inches and the largest was 17 inches.

The next winter was just as bad, and again a few days before opening day Becky and I drove over to check out Lake X. It was still covered in ice. Becky seemed concerned, but I told her we had the same situation the previous year. On opening day, Becky and I launched the boat on Lake X. We started on the north end of the lake, fishing all the usual places and nothing. We switched baits often, thinking perhaps we just needed something a bit different to attract the fish. But we didn’t even have a strike.

I suggested we move to the south end of the lake where the water is shallower. As we approached the south end of the lake, we saw something we had never seen before. The surface of the water was covered in dead fish. They were white, bloated, floating on top of the water. No matter where you looked you saw nothing but dead bass.

Sadly, most of the dead fish were all nice sized. We seldom saw a fish under 14 inches. It was early in the season so they had not begun to stink, yet. We could only imagine how bad it would get within the next month. We turned the boat around and headed for the landing.

The last winter had been too much for the fish. The bass population in Lake X was decimated. Shortly thereafter I contacted the Department of Natural Resources for our corner of Wisconsin and they confirmed the lake had gone through a winter kill. They would restock the lake, but it would take at least four or five years to see anything resembling what it had once been.

For almost 20 years Lake X had been our favorite and prized lake. We could always catch fish there. Now it was gone. We were shocked and saddened. But life goes on and we found other lakes and still caught lots of fish. But every so often one of us would mention Lake X and it brought back lots of great memories. We missed Lake X and vowed to return some day.

 

A pilgrimage back

It is mid-summer and over four years since our last day on Lake X. Becky and I wondered if the lake had come back. “We won’t know unless we go back and fish it again,” I told her. She agreed. It was time to go back to Lake X.

It’s a hot mid-summer day with a bit of wind when we went back to Lake X. The first thing we noticed as we pulled away from the dock at the launch was the water was high. I told Becky I thought the water was as high as I ever remembered it. It looked much like the lake when we first started fishing it.

The weeds which had been choking the little channel from the landing were mostly gone. Lake X had suffered several years of a serious weed bloom, making the water almost a florescent green. We didn’t see any of that now.

It was good to be back on Lake X. We motored slowly to the north end of the lake. It was where we always started fishing, so we saw no need to change our old routine. We noticed a couple of new houses on the lake now and a couple of the cottages had been updated, but the lake looked much like we remembered it from four years ago.

We pulled up to the north end where a couple docks jutted out into the water. I put up Becky’s chair on the back casting deck and dropped the trolling motor, pulling out two spinning rods with sinking worms, rigged wacky style. Those worms and crankbaits were what we mostly fished on Lake X in the days before the winter kill. We worked the two docks and a built up mound which looked to have been man made.

We never got a strike. We skimmed over a small, shallow, weedy bait to a rocky point. We mentioned we caught a lot of fish off this point. We flipped our worms against the bank, bringing them back into deeper water. “There were days we had half a dozen bass by the time we finished this point,” Becky said. We moved into a back bay and again Becky reminisced we caught fish in this bay. But not today.

We fished through the rest of the bay around a point when I felt just my second strike of the day - this time as I pulled back and set the hook. As it got closer to the boat, I saw it was a 6-inch bullhead. On a plastic worm. How odd.

As we rounded another point I suggested we switch to crankbaits. We had been successful with crankbaits along this stretch of bank for years. We flipped our baits just short of the bank, but in the next couple hundred yards didn’t get a strike. After switching back to plastic worms, I felt another bump a few minutes later. It was another bullhead. Over the nearly 20 years we fished this lake, we caught a couple of bullheads – but to catch two in one day seemed highly unusual. We speculated perhaps with few natural predators the bullhead population might have significantly increased.

We were almost back to the landing and decided to try the shore on the other side of the lake. There is deeper water and a lot more shade on that side, so perhaps it might make a difference. We both mentioned we seldom fished this area without a fish. I switched to a crankbait, but Becky was sticking with the plastic worm.

We started along a lengthy stretch of rocky bank close to deep water. Five minutes later my bait jolted to a stop. I reeled in a 4-pound northern pike, and once I got it alongside the boat, I reached over with a pliers to twist the hook out of the fish and in a flash the fish was gone.

Becky decided to go back to crankbait, dropping the worm rod and picking up the other spinning reel. A few minutes later she yelled, “I think I have a fish.” When I looked over the fish had just raced off, the rod tip bouncing. It was obvious she had a fish. I saw a large silver swirl in the water and the fish raced around the back of the boat.

I was half expecting to see another northern pike, but when she got the fish closer I saw it was a bass – a big bass. I grabbed the net and got it ready. The fish made several short runs as Becky got it close to the boat while I extended the net, finally getting the net under it and pulling up, dragged it in the boat. It is a big bass. I gave Becky a hug before I pulled the fish out of the net and we measured it. It came to 18 inches. I took a quick photo of her with the fish and then she lowered it back in the water. “Well,” she said, “there are still a few big fish left in the lake.” That piece of shoreline seldom disappointed us.

A dozen casts later a fish slammed my bait right next to the bank. I hadn’t got more than a crank or two on the reel when it struck. It fought hard, staying deep until I got it close enough to the boat to see it. It, too, was a big bass. Once alongside the boat I reached over, inserted my thumb in its mouth and hoisted it in the boat. The fish measured 16½ inches and was released.

Another 20 minutes my crankbait was about half way back to the boat when it stopped. I felt a fish pulling back on it. The fish made a run or two, each time taking line off the drag on my spinning reel. I was hoping for another bass, but then it swirled on top of the water where I could see it was another northern pike.

A little bit of Lake X had returned.

Finally we put the spinning rods in the rod lockers and put everything else away in the boat. Becky turned on the motor and we slowly started back to the landing. We had found fish, and although Lake X has a way to go before it is like it once was, it showed promise. For what this lake had gone through, the promise is good enough.

“I love this lake,” Becky said. It is only fitting she got the biggest fish of the day on her lake. “I think we need to come back,” she added. “Maybe this fall.”

 

Mike Yurk has been writing about the outdoors for over 40 years and has been published in numerous local and regional outdoor publications since then. He has also published seven books dealing with the world of hunting and fishing. He lives in northwestern Wisconsin where he has found some of the best bass fishing in the country.