Feb 27, 2017

Chasing Tip-Ups

     This was the winter it all came together. I was back in Oshkosh going to school after spending three years in the Army. I had been watching the walleye cycle for years to include the two years I was in Germany and the last year at Fort Leonard Wood in Missouri. I predicted this was the winter the walleye would be at the height of their cycle and this winter’s walleye fishing was going to be the best we had seen in years.

As I got out of the Army and returned to Oshkosh, my cousin, Gary, also moved to Oshkosh. The first winter we fished for perch at Little Lake Butte des Morts, but I kept telling him next winter would be the best walleye fishing in years and we were going to get in on that.

We started getting ready for the ice fishing season as the first ice skimmed across Lake Winnebago. We made our own tip-ups. Walleyes are finicky with an extremely light bite in the winter. Only a very sensitive tip-up will work on them. My wife’s family made tip-ups using umbrella stays. I had fished with them years earlier and they worked great on walleye.

 Gary came over to my apartment one night when I was watching our two daughters while my wife was working. It was probably good she was gone. She would have been less than pleased with us cutting wood, hammering nails and putting together the tip-ups on our kitchen table. I had everything we needed. We had 3-foot long chunks of 1x1 pinewood and three or four umbrellas I pulled out of trash cans over the last month.

We cut the three foot pieces of wood at about eighteen inches, cutting them at about a 45 degree angle. We stapled the umbrella stays to the side of the wood so one part of the stay was across the cut on the wood. On each end of the tip-up arm, we placed a paper clip. On one side of the paper clip was the guide to run line through and the other end for slipping on bell shaped sinkers, providing balance against the wind. We cut squares out of a red flannel shirt to use as flags and stapled them to the umbrella stays with a paper stapler. Finally, we pounded two nails on the side of the tip-up, three inches apart, so every complete wind of line was six inches. We used heavy black line, and with 50 rotations we had 25 feet of line (which was more than enough for anywhere in Lake Winnebago).

 We finished up our rigs by adding a foot and a half of monofilament leader with a treble hook on the end and split shot sinker about eight to ten inches above the hook. Then, I quickly cleaned up the sawdust and the rest of the debris before my wife came home. By this time my daughters were in bed, and Gary and I were so happy with our construction project we broke out glasses, ice and whiskey. All we had to do now was wait for colder weather to make more ice on the lake.

 The cold weather came soon enough and the ice hardened. We didn’t get much snow that year, but by New Year’s Day we were driving out on Lake Winnebago. It was sometime in January, and I was still on winter break from college when Gary and I decided we needed to mount a major expedition to catch those walleye.

 It was a Saturday and I was free from my part-time job as well as college, when we decided to go. Gary’s sister, Mary Jo, and her husband, Brian, along with Mary Jo and Gary’s mother, my Aunt Edna, were visiting. I drove over to Gary’s house early in the morning. It was early enough that I remember Aunt Edna was still in her robe, sipping a cup of coffee when I came through the back porch into the kitchen. There was a mound of equipment on the kitchen table and on the back porch. We loaded all of Gary’s gear and my gear into the back of his station wagon. In addition to Gary, Brian and myself, we were taking along Gary’s teenage daughters, Sarah and Lisa, and Brian and Mary Jo’s son, Steve. We had enough people to set out 18 tip-ups. This was indeed a major expedition.

We all crammed into Gary’s station wagon. It was a tight fit but we got all the fishing gear, a bucket of minnows, the rest of the equipment and food, plus six people in the car. We drove east on Ceape Street in Oshkosh to where it ended at the edge of Lake Winnebago- bumped off the pavement onto the ice and continued going east across the ice. We slowed down as we navigated across the ice and then eased over the bridge spanning a major crack in the ice. This crack is there every winter and the Otter Street Fishing Club has put a bridge across it for as long as I could remember so fishermen could get out on the lake. Although there was little snow so far that season, the club also plowed roads across the ice when needed. Ice fishing then, as well as probably today, would be a lot tougher on Lake Winnebago if not for the Otter Street Fishing Club.

   I don’t remember how far out we drove and I am not sure we really had a destination in mind. I just remembered we finally stopped and everybody gratefully extracted themselves from Gary’s stuffed station wagon. I don’t remember there being a lot of other fishermen around us and I don’t recall any specific reason we stopped where we did. I guess we just figured if the walleye weren’t there yet they would get there sometime during the day. I remembered the day to be overcast with a light wind shifting what little snow we had across the ice. It was cold, but not as cold as it could get in January, so by ice fishing standards, the day temperatures were mild.

 In the mid-1970s, ice fishing was still a fairly rugged sport. Many of the innovations taken for granted today were just being developed. Portable icehouses weren’t around then. On Lake Winnebago some people had icehouses they made from wood or tin. If you didn’t have that, your car became your icehouse. More ice fishermen had cars than icehouses in those days. We were seeing power augers but they were expensive and a lot of fishermen, Gary and I included, could not afford them. Power augers were running about $300. Interesting enough, the cost of a power auger hasn’t seemed to change much in the last 40 years. But, $300 was a lot tougher to come by in the mid-1970s than it is today. In those days, my monthly GI Bill wasn’t much more than the price of an auger.

 Cutting holes in the ice was up to Gary, Brian and me. Gary had a manual auger, which we thought was state of the art. Brian and I had ice picks to chop through the ice. We went to work. Gary could get through the ice quicker with a lot less work than Brian and I could. We envied him.
I learned long ago when chopping holes through the ice to take off my heavy jacket. The rule of thumb was to be cold when you started. It wouldn’t take long before you worked up a sweat even without your jacket. We chopped holes in a rough T-shaped formation from Gary’s car. Next to the car we placed one ice hole for jigging.

We grabbed a minnow bucket, an ice scoop and a handful of tip-ups. We scooped out the slush and ice chips from the holes and piled it in a small mound next to the hole. We stuck the butt of the tip-up into the slush and within a couple of minutes it froze. With a lead depth finder we lowered the line until it hit the bottom. In one pocket, I carried a handful of small plastic bobbers and a pack of small bell shaped 1/16 oz. sinkers. Once I found the bottom I attached the bobber so it was sitting on top of the water. Pulling in the line, I took the depth finder off, slipped a minnow on the hook and lowered the line back down. With the bobber indicating the bait was right on the bottom, I raised the bobber a couple inches, wrapped the excess line around the nails on the side of the tip-up and took off the bobber. Walleye normally feed on the bottom, so we set the depth just a few inches to a foot from the bottom. We set it at various depths just in case the fish were finicky that day. Taking out the bell shaped sinkers we attached them to the paper clip next to the flag to counter balance the wind. How strong the wind was dictated how many sinkers we needed. We usually got away with just one or two.

 For the jigging rod, I put on a Swedish Pimple. Jigging for walleye in the winter was also fairly simple in those days. There might have been other ice jigs for walleye fishing available, but the only one I knew of was the Swedish Pimple. It has been around since the early part of the century and fishermen trust it. There might have been other colors available then too, but the only ones I used were either silver or gold. All I needed was a couple sizes of each color and I was all set. I had three or four Swedish Pimples in a small plastic box. Today, I have a tackle box full of jigs, sinkers, hooks and other assorted gear for the two ice fishing trips I make every winter. Then, I went almost every weekend throughout the winter, I had a small plastic box and a couple empty 35 mm film canisters with all my ice fishing gear distributed in the pockets of my jacket. The ice scoop and tip-ups and a couple of jigging rods all fit into a plastic pickle bucket I got from the McDonald’s in town. They gave them away then and were happy to get rid of them.

We were finally setup and, as I remember, it didn’t take long for the first tip-up to go over. Walleye are a finicky fish, hitting lightly during the winter. So, even with the light, sensitive tip-ups Gary and I made with umbrella stays, many times all you saw was the arm of the tip-up come up a few inches. One of us shouted a tip-up was going over and a group ran over to it. One person shook off their mittens or pulled off their gloves, and knelt down next to the hole. Taking the line in their hand, they waited to feel the pull of a fish and then yanked up to set the hook. We all cheered as the fish was coming in, giving encouragement to the fisherman and soon we saw a gold colored shape come through the hole. As the fish reached the surface of the water at the top of the ice hole, the fisherman reached down and grabbed the fish, throwing it on the ice. Someone ran over with the minnow bucket and after the fish was unhooked the hook was baited and the line was dropped down the hole again. You wanted to do this fairly quickly so the line sitting on the ice didn’t have time to stiffen up in the cold. It also helped when you were bringing in the fish to lay out the line so it wasn’t tangled. Having a knot in your line with the line freezing made for a difficult combination.

The action remained fairly steady and it seemed we never waited long between bites. A tip-up went up, someone shouted, and another person went running for the tip-up. Behind them someone followed after them with the bucket of minnows. Fish began to pile upon the ice. There was a mix bag. Most of the fish we caught were walleye, but there was also an occasional sauger, white bass and yellow perch. For Brian’s son, Steve, and Gary’s two daughters, Lisa and Sarah, it was the first time they caught a walleye through the ice.

 By midday, Gary got out his single burner tri-pot propane stove and dropped the tailgate on his station wagon to use as his kitchen. He was always cooking something up for lunch. Normally, he fried Polish sausage, but on this day due to the large group, he warmed up chili. He made the chili the night before, bringing it out in a big pot he put on top of the burner. It took a bit to warm all the way through but it didn’t matter. The fish were hitting and we had a couple six packs of beer for us older guys. One nice part of taking beer along when ice fishing is you do not have to worry about it getting warm. If the temperature was cold enough, and you let the beer sit on the ice, you might have to worry about it becoming slushy but never warm. Gary started to ladle out the chili into bowls and we ate it, standing up, leaning against Gary’s car. It was warm and good and his pot of chili didn’t last long.

 Because of the type of tip-ups we made, we needed to regularly clean out the top of the ice holes or ice would form across the hole freezing the line in the ice. If this happened, the line would not go down when a fish hit it. It seemed every 15 minutes one of us would have to run the line of tip-ups to clean out the top of the ice holes. Once, when I got to a hole, ice had formed across the top and as I broke the ice with the scooper, the tip-up began to go over. I shook off my gloves, took the line in my hand and felt pressure. I pulled back to set the hook and a fish took off. I slowly pulled the line in hand over hand and felt the fish fight back until it was splashing on the top of the ice hole as I pulled it out onto the ice. It was a keeper size walleye.

 About every other time someone made the rounds to clean out ice holes, they took the minnow bucket with them and pulled up lines, making sure the hooks still had minnows. Occasionally, one of the tip-up arms would suddenly flip all the way over. If it was a walleye, the arm would gradually go up, but if it flipped over all at once, it was normally a white bass. They hit a lot harder and faster.

 When I wasn’t making the rounds cleaning out ice holes, I was jigging. I did have a couple of quick strikes but didn’t get any fish jigging that day. I did switch colors, but it didn’t seem to work any better. It just didn’t seem to be a jig day. Gary was skeptical of my jigging. He said it was a poor substitute for casting a lure. I assured him it does work, although it wasn’t working then.

   By late afternoon, the wind picked up and it seemed to cut right through the several layers of clothes we all were wearing. We had a big pile of fish on the ice. I caught five walleyes that day and it was the first time I could say I caught my limit of walleyes. We began packing everything up in reverse order of how we took it out of Gary’s station wagon. Then it was time to pull in the lines. The first one was the jig rod and then Gary, Brian and I started at different ends of the line of tip-ups. We broke the bases out of the frozen pile of slush, wrapped the line around the nails, piling them back in pickle buckets.

 The day was getting darker, indicating night was drawing near. Taking the pile of frozen fish, we dumped them in buckets, hearing them hit with a thud on the bottom, frozen fish tails sticking out of the top. We drove off the lake, rumbling over the ice crack bridge, headlights stabbed into the gathering darkness. The car heater started kicking out hot air by the time we bumped off the ice onto shore. Gary was planning on having a fish fry. It had been a good day of fishing. Those tip-ups we made in my kitchen worked. I still have mine sitting in a pack basket in the basement and Brian recently mentioned, some 40 years later, how good those tip-ups worked. I don’t remember how many fish we caught that day, but I know we caught a bunch. However, I do remember how much fun we all had chasing tip-ups. What a great day it was… family fishing together on the ice and that is what it is all about anyway!