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  • Writer's picturePatrick Durkin

Icefishing in 1959 Had Many Charms and Challenges

An old, retired Northwoods bunny cop seldom disagrees when reading my columns about hunting, fishing and other conservation matters.

But when I share my thoughts on wolves and wolf numbers, I brace for blowback. I can almost set a stopwatch and count the seconds before my iPhone warns me that Duane Harpster just launched a laser-guided text message into my stern.

Harpster, 75, a Rhinelander homeboy who settled long ago in Boulder Junction, spent his 30-year career as a conservation warden patrolling the region’s waters and forests. He retired over 20 years ago to devote more time to hunting, fishing and correcting folks’ opinions. He’s good at all three.

Harpster’s even better at making his point and pivoting to other topics before things grow testy. And so it was last week that he texted me his thoughts regarding Wisconsin’s wolf population, and soon after sent two fishing photos from three-score and four years ago. One pic showed him at age 11 with a big crappie, and the other showed him holding a hefty stringer of walleyes with help from his cousin Barb Schaub,.

Time stamps on the black-and-white photos showed they were printed in April and May 1959. Harpster said both photos were snapped months earlier after Harpster and cousin Barb returned home from icefishing on Madeline Lake. Film back then sat in the camera until the roll was full, or on a kitchen shelf until someone dropped it off in town for developing.

“That was back in the days when you could use only two lines, and you couldn’t icefish from 9 p.m. till dawn,” Harpster said. “The two-line limit was no big deal. We had to chisel the holes back then. Two holes were plenty of work, so we usually just used one line each. No one did much hole-hopping because no one had ice augers.

“Eventually, some guys showed up with those hand-cranked Swedish spoon-bill augers, but they only worked till they got dull,” Harpster continued. “No one in Rhinelander knew how to sharpen those things, so we never threw our ice chisels away. Then again, one time I didn’t put my hand through the chisel’s leather wrist strap, and that chisel went straight to the bottom when I punched through. When I told my dad, he said, ‘You didn’t use the wrist strap, did you?!’ Well, Dad worked at the mill, and he asked the guys in the machine shop to make him another one. I still have my dad’s chisel.”

Why couldn’t you icefish for walleyes at night back then?

“No good reason,” Harpster said. “I don’t know when the state imposed that rule, but it went away sometime between 1971 and 1975 when everyone realized it wasn’t much good. It was probably meant to stop people from leaving unattended lines overnight, but it didn’t work. I wrote a lot of citations for unattended lines when I worked in Forest County. Starting in deer season, we watched for guys icefishing and circled back around dusk to see if they were still out there. If they were, we’d swing back later to check for unattended lines. It was always late at night and they were always back on shore, nowhere near their lines.”

Nighttime walleye icefishing is common today, of course. We can’t imagine it was once forbidden. Heck, people with Ice Castle trailers or insulated hub-style shelters stay on frozen lakes for days, and trust alarms to awaken them when walleyes, or random burbot or catfish bite.

The only places in Wisconsin where night fishing is now forbidden are the tributaries on Green Bay and Lake Michigan from Sept. 15 till the first Saturday in May. That prohibition has nothing to do with walleyes, though. It protects salmon and trout from snaggers and other poachers trying to steal spawning fish.

In fact, the only place to forbid nighttime walleye fishing in recent years is Minnesota’s Lake Mille Lacs, which is trying to rebuild that fishery.

Harpster, meanwhile, lost his interest in icefishing years ago when caravans started arriving from “the south” — Milwaukee, Madison, Chicago and other cities — packed with people toting every icefishing toy imaginable. As these icefishing invaders flowed forth, they pounded the frozen lakes like woodpeckers probing trees for woodworms.

“There’s not much solitude out there anymore,” Harpster said. “Years ago, no one drove up here to fish in winter. We had the lakes to ourselves. Few of us had 4-wheel-drive vehicles, no one had snowmobiles, and ATVs hadn’t been invented. Every time my dad put chains on our car, my mom warned him to not get stuck on the lake. So, we usually walked out.

“At least it’s gotten a little quieter again,” Harpster continued. “The snowmobilers still race around, but for decades all you heard all day were gas-powered ice drills. Guys were punching 50 holes everywhere they went. They still punch more holes than they can fish, but everyone’s using battery-powered augers.”

Harpster thinks winter fishing might be even more popular today than summer fishing. “I see people icefishing everywhere I drive during winter,” he said. “It’s way more intense. I hardly see anyone fishing those same lakes when I drive around on summer mornings.”

Harpster’s not complaining, though. He likes seeing people enjoying the outdoors. His observations are more about noting historical differences, and laughing about the gear his friends and family used in the 1950s and ’60s.

“We didn’t have things like underwater cameras or side-scan sonar,” he said. “We didn’t have any electronics. If we wanted to see what was down there, we chiseled a hole, laid on the ice, covered our heads with a dark coat, and looked down the hole. Once our eyes adjusted, we really entertained ourselves.”

Is there any icefishing gear today he’d never trade for yesterday’s relics and antiques?

“Insulated boots are so much better now,” Harpster said. “All we had back then were black rubber boots with buckles. You pulled them over your shoes or felt liners. Every time you tried running, those buckles caught on each other and you fell like you were shot.”

Duane Harpster of Bounder Junction, seen here in 1959 at age 11, holds a big crappie and a stringer of walleyes he caught while icefishing with his cousin Barb Schaub.

— Duane Harpster photos

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