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  • Writer's picturePatrick Durkin

Green Bay’s Whitefish Boost Fun and Business

If Dan Lindal didn’t know better he might think every ice-angler goes home grinning with a heaping bag of whitefish reeled up from Green Bay’s waters off Wisconsin's Door County.

After all, that’s what Lindal, 56, sees every time anglers arrive at Lindal Fisheries and Market south of Sturgeon Bay. Lindal greets the happy visitors, takes their names, and points where to pour their catch. His four-person crew takes it from there, using knives and machinery to quickly and efficiently scale, fillet and vacuum-seal the whitefish for the journey home.

Lindal understands he seldom sees ice-anglers who fare poorly. As a third-generation commercial fisherman, he also knows fishing can be fickle, varying by the hour, day and location whether you use nets or hook-and-line. Starting with his grandfather a century ago, the Lindal clan has piloted trawlers and set nets on Lake Michigan from Kenosha to Washington Island.

That’s why Lindal doesn’t take it personally if a grim-faced angler ignores his friendly wave while driving past on Highway M. That same angler might return tomorrow, yapping happily about catching a 10-whitefish limit before most folks eat brunch or lunch.

“Everyone I see loves talking about what they caught, but it’s different this year because of COVID-19,” Lindal said. “We ask everyone to wear a mask, and they can’t sit, relax and watch us work. But they’re still happy and chatty when they arrive.”

Lindal hopes to reopen his coffee and snack bar after the pandemic because he and his disassembly line have made fish-cleaning a spectator sport. His family has been in the fish trade 100 years, but this is only the sixth year they’ve cleaned and packaged fish for ice-anglers. He said J.J. Malvitz of JJ’s Guide Service suggested the idea seven years ago, but Lindal resisted.

“I thought it would be a waste of time,” Lindal said with a laugh. “I didn’t think that many people were catching whitefish. Shows what I know. We’ve gotten busier every year as word spreads. It really jumped this year after people saw us on the ‘Fur Hat Ice Tour’ in December (Episode 7, MeatEater YouTube channel). We set a record Feb. 13 by cleaning and packaging 1,450 whitefish. That was a long day. We didn’t finish until after midnight.”

Most anglers have never seen a commercial fish-cleaning operation, but almost all anglers have cleaned fish. Therefore, they marvel with respect and appreciation when watching Lindal’s crew and machinery turn a tub of slippery whitefish — a notoriously bony, slimy fish — into neatly packaged boneless fillets for $2.50 per fish.

A rotating drum starts the process by stripping off the fish’s scales. A knifeman then severs the head and anal fin before slipping the body into a machine that magically slices off the fillets. It spins the fillets out the far side while dropping the skeleton and tail into a tub. Another knifeman then grabs the fillets from a water-filled tub, slices out the pin bones, and lays the finished fillets on a rack. The last worker in line vacuum-seals paired fillets in plastic.

Lindal said another factor that swelled business in February was warm weather from December to late January. Ice anglers couldn’t venture out until January’s final week, so anglers who booked early outings rescheduled for February.

The fishery then dodged a tragedy Feb. 4 after high winds from an approaching storm cracked the bay’s 10-inch-thick ice, setting 66 anglers adrift on Green Bay.

Mike Neal, the Department of Natural Resources’ marine conservation warden on Lake Michigan the past 27 years, coordinated their rescue with the U.S. Coast Guard, and teams from local law-enforcement and fire departments. Neal said the crack stretched nearly 40 miles from Little Sturgeon Bay to Fish Creek, and its gap was already 10 feet wide when a fishing guide called him for help moments later.

Malvitz, who was one of those stranded on the ice, said a satellite image of Green Bay earlier that day showed a solid ice field. The ice was 10 to 12 inches thick wherever they went in previous days, and they didn’t cross any breaks or ice-shoves during their 2- to 3-mile journey out. But he knew instantly what happened when the ice split.

“If you took a thick stick and cracked it over your knee, and magnified that sound 1,000 times, you might duplicate the noise,” Malvitz said. “We were about 200 yards from the crack, and knew we weren’t crossing back.”

Neal said the crack widened to 20 yards within 10 minutes, and spanned about 250 yards by the time he arrived with the DNR’s 24-foot airboat after launching from Potawatomie State Park. He said the rescue operation took four hours, by which time the ice island had drifted northwesterly about 1.5 miles as waves shattered its edges.

Neal ferried 43 people to safe ice in six- to eight-person loads based on weight. The final trip bounced through 2- to 3-foot whitecaps. Meanwhile, the Coast Guard’s airboat rescued 18 others and Brown County’s airboat rescued five more. Just 30 minutes later, the storm unleashed white-out conditions.

The ice island drifted back over the next two days and eventually froze into place a half-mile southeast of where it began. Only then could the fishing guides reclaim their shanties and utility vehicles.

Ironically, the bay’s ice cover since Feb. 4 was some of the thickest seen on Green Bay in recent years, thanks to the region’s relentless sub-zero temperatures.

Malvitz and Lindal are in no hurry for the cold weather to leave.

“Each year we expect to guide the final week of January and all of February,” Malvitz said. “Everything before or after is gravy. Whitefish have made this a bucket-list destination across the Midwest, so the longer we have safe ice, the more people can enjoy it.”

Lindal Fisheries and Market near Sturgeon Bay processed a record 1,450 whitefish on Feb. 13 for ice-anglers. — Patrick Durkin photos

A whitefish slides into an ice-fishing hole before being pulled atop the ice.

The ice on Green Bay in northeastern Wisconsin can be treacherous. A massive crack Feb. 4 stranded 66 ice-fishermen until rescue crews ferried them to safety.

The Wisconsin DNR’s 24-foot airboat is powered by a 525-horsepower engine and carries up to 12 people.

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