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  • Writer's picturePatrick Durkin

Divers Unravel Lines, Mysteries Among Lost Fishing Gear

The more you fish from boats, the more likely you’ll consign rods, reels, wristwatches, smartphones, boat anchors or entire tackle boxes to the depths, never to be seen again.

Well, at least they won’t be seen by you. But if your treasures fall into waters fished often by others, some of it might resurface one day in another angler’s hands. How? As waters warm each summer, recreational divers reclaim boatloads of lost fishing gear while combing lake beds and river bottoms during underwater scavenger hunts.

In some cases, the divers purposely target popular fishing sites after anglers depart, knowing they can be target-rich environments. The more people fishing a hotspot—either through the ice or in open water—the greater the odds of someone clumsily or carelessly parting with their gear.

Rick Krueger of Madison learned to monitor the “perch fleets” each summer on the west end of Lake Mendota. Yellow perch often school to feed off bloodworms and insect larvae in the mud flats 20 to 30 feet below. In turn, fishing families motor out after dinner, drop anchor and try to catch a few fish before dark.

And next in turn, Krueger tracked the fleet’s location several days to increase the odds of accidental losses, gathered waypoints on his GPS units, and then dove on the sites at midday when no one was fishing.

“I didn’t do it every day, but it was something different to do for fun,” Krueger said. “We’d find fishing rods, baits, lures and anchors. If I could, I’d clean them up and get them working. We would sandblast or pressure-wash the anchors and sell them cheap. We made just enough to get air refills for our diving tanks.”

In other words, these are garage-sale treasures, not some pirates’ trove of gold doubloons and pieces of eight.

In other cases, divers like Tamara Thomsen, a maritime archaeologist at the Wisconsin Historical Society, have to clear shipwrecks of lost fishing gear before tackling the task that brought them to the sites. Thomsen recalls diving on the schooner-barge Transfer, a relatively obscure 200-foot ship that its owner intentionally sunk in Lake Michigan off Milwaukee in 1923.

Thomsen said the Transfer has since split down the middle, with both sides of its hull lying flat in 120 feet of water like two parallel football fields. As shipwrecks go to untrained eyes, the Transfer is about as dull a wreck as you’ll find.

Further, no one died with it, and it didn’t disappear into a hellish November storm with 40-foot waves. Its owner, the Milwaukee Electric Railway and Light Co., simply replaced it with another vessel. Workers then removed everything of value on the Transfer, towed it 6 miles out, cast it adrift, and rammed it three times until it sank.

When Thomsen and three other divers descended on the Transfer two years ago to study it, they found it coated in fishing tackle snagged from passing salmon trollers. “Luckily, divers hadn’t been down there for years because it was covered in monofilament line, fishing lures, downrigger wires, downrigger weights the size of softballs, and entire downriggers torn loose from the boats,” Thomsen said. “We also found some electronic thing fishermen use and got it running again.”

She said their four-person team worked 10 hours wrapping up line, picking up lures, and packing a crate to haul everything up to their boat. “We figured we found at least $500 to $600 worth of gear off that one shipwreck,” she said. “It took all of our power and strength to get all of it into the boat. Downrigger weights are really heavy.”

Still, they had no problem “repurposing” all the gear because Thomsen’s boyfriend works for the Department of Natural Resources, which accepted all functioning tackle for its “Learn to Fish” programs. Some of the gear also became inventory at state parks for the DNR’s annual free fishing days.

Not all fishing gear gets a second chance, however. One of Thomsen’s photos shows an ice-fishing shanty collecting silt on Lake Mendota’s bottom. The shanty’s base remains fastened to the one-axle trailer an unfortunate angler didn’t haul ashore before late-winter ice grew weak and too treacherous for ATV travel. According to the book, “Our Four Lakes: Their Legends, Sites and Secrets,” the shanty went down with all of its gear and accessories, including an AC generator, big-screen TV, Xbox and satellite TV dish, power auger, rods and reels, and Vexilar fish-finding unit.

Krueger said one search for a perch fleet’s fishing tackle led to a far more fascinating find on Mendota in 20 feet of water off Marshall Park: a 22-foot homemade motorboat that carried five young men to their deaths in 1929.

Krueger was searching the bottom with Dave Deyou, his brother-in-law, in September 1998 when Deyou found the unique double-bowed boat on the bottom. The boat had a propeller on one end, and a long shaft going to an engine and fuel tank on the other end.

They contacted Donald Sanford to investigate their find. Sanford was working on a book that became “On Fourth Lake: A Social History of Lake Mendota.” After spending days combing the Wisconsin State Journal’s archives, Sanford found an article from Aug. 19, 1929, describing the tragedy.

A man named Barney Davidson had built and kept the boat at his cottage on Spring Harbor on Mendota’s southwestern corner. Davidson invited four visitors to go for a boat ride on a rough, windy day. No one knows how the accident happened, but a wave apparently washed over the transom when the boat lost power or slowed suddenly. The boat swamped, and all five men drowned. Krueger said that discovery led divers to three or four other sunken craft nearby.

Krueger and Thomsen said the Madison lakes hold more mysteries than most Wisconsin lakes for a simple reason: More people have lived, worked and recreated on Madison’s waters than on most lakes in the state.

The more people out and about, the more trash, treasures and tragedies they leave behind.

This generator rests with an ice-fishing shanty, a big-screen TV, satellite dish and assorted fishing gear at the bottom of Madison’s Lake Mendota.

Tamara Thomsen photos

The “Spring Harbor Boat,” a homemade motorboat, carried five men to their deaths on Lake Mendota in August 1929.

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