Jul 5, 2017
Fishing in the 1940’s
By: Jerry Kies
It’s 5 a.m. on October 1st of 1944 and my mother is trying to wake me up. No problem for an 11-year-old boy because we are going up north for a week’s worth of fishing on Big Arbor Vitae Lake near Woodruff, Wisconsin. The car is packed and we leave at 6 a.m. from the south side of Milwaukee. The first stop is in Fredonia, WI to hook up with my uncle, Aloys Solms, and his family. On the way, we stop at a wayside for lunch, which were packed by the mothers (there was no McDonald’s in those days). Then we are on the way, except for a few flat tires, which get changed by the fathers in their white shirts and ties. From about Monico, WI onward north, most roads are all gravel. Finally, when we think the drive will never end, we see the lights of Gravely Point Resort, arriving at 8 p.m.
We stayed in a large three bedroom cottage, as there were four adults and five children. The first night my dad slept in the car next to the cottage because he snored so loud. The next night, he was told to move the car farther away from the cottage.
Every evening my dad, my uncle, and I would row out to Lucius Bay to walleye fish off the edge of a cane weedbed. We’d anchor close to the weedbed and we’d have the company of about three or four other boats anchored in the area. We each used an 18 foot cane pole with black line, a cat gut leader and a mud minnow (there were no locators or spinning rods in those days). We brought our mud minnows (I think they are now called fatheads) along in a creamer, which was about one third the size of the old milk cans, and the mud minnows kept very well in well water in the creamer. We didn’t use bobbers very often, but we had the line set so that when the tip of the cane pole slowly started to bend down toward the water, we knew we had a bite. We knew when to expect a bite when the boats behind us, in deeper water, were starting to catch walleye as the walleye moved in toward the weedbeds (now called cane beds). It was critical to make sure the line on the cane pole was a little shorter than the pole so when you brought a fish in and lifted the cane pole, the fish would bounce off your chest. We only used a net for large walleye. Just imagine trying to net a walleye off a cane pole!
One of our fishing friends we met out by the weedbed was a retired butcher from Racine, WI named George Geiger who came out in his boat the “Cholly Boy.” One evening someone was anchored in Cholly Boy’s spot, so he anchored more in the weedbed and he caught a 31-inch walleye later that night. Many of the walleye we caught had leeches in their mouths; we thought the leeches were attacking the walleyes. How dumb were we?! We also caught big crappies and perch while fishing for walleye. Arbor Vitae was also a very good musky lake.
One year, two guys from Illinois fished the same week we did but only fished for muskies. They fished six days and caught one musky every day (back then the musky limit was 30 inches). In those days, many musky fishermen used a live harnessed mouse and put it on an old shingle. Then, they would float the shingle out in the water. As the shingle floated away, when the fishermen felt the time was right, he’d pull the mouse off the shingle and into the water. While the mouse was struggling in the water, it would get hit by a musky. This tactic was VERY effective. Also, in those days, almost all musky guides and musky fishermen carried a small pistol in their tackle box to use in landing their muskies. Results were oftentimes not too terribly good….many muskies were shot off the line and the fishermen watched as it would sink to the bottom. Or, the result was a pistol hole in the boat (wooden boats) or worse, a lost toe!
During the war years, my dad was a supervisor for National Ice and Coal on Third and Oklahoma in Milwaukee. And, therefore, he had a C sticker for gas so we could have enough gas to drive up north.
We caught a lot of walleye without the aid of fish locators, cell phones, spinning rods or crankbaits. We went to Arbor Vitae the first week of October every year from about 1944 to 1950. This was the only time my dad could get vacation because in those days everyone needed ice in the summer, as modern refrigeration was uncommon. And those were the “Good Ol’ Days!”
In the “good ol’ days,” we also fished for northern pike, which were plentiful and easy to catch. My uncle, Charlie Lecher, had a small cottage on Pine Lake (near Argonne, WI), which was a good northern pike lake. Our favorite way to fish was to use throw lines (casting rods were expensive in those days). Throw lines were compact as we used a one foot board to wrap the line around. We used 40-pound yellow coated trout line and 50-foot lengths, which were wound around the board. Terminal tackle was a large hook (usually a number 1 size) and a six inch wire leader, a heavy sinker and two large cork bobbers set about four to five inches apart. We used live chubs, about four to five inches long, and set the bobbers usually about five feet above the bait. We’d anchor the boat and throw out one line on each side of the boat. It took some skill to throw out this contraption properly so it wouldn’t get tangled. Sometimes the chub would pull down the first cork. When the northern pike hit, both bobbers went down and you would feed out line laying on the seat next to you. After a short period of time, both bobbers would surface while the northern pike was killing the chub and turning it in his mouth. Then, when the corks went down again, you took up the slack line and set the hook. Sometimes it was hard to do this if the fish was swimming toward your boat. Netting a large northern pike using this rig was quite a feat.
Another little known fishing strategy comes from my dad’s years growing up. My dad grew up on Random Lake in Wisconsin in the 1920’s. He and his brothers would fish northern pike on Random Lake using 20 foot cane poles. Terminal tackle used was the same as I described for throw lines. But the difference was, if they hooked a northern too large to handle, they dropped the cane pole in the water and they would follow it in the boat rowing behind it until the northern tired out. Then they would pick the cane pole out of the water and land their prize. What an undertaking!
Jerry Kies has fished walleye all over Wisconsin his entire life. His favorite activity is fishing for walleye on Lake Winnebago in the summer. He spends his winter in Sun City West, Arizona. LIFE IS GOOD!