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  • Patrick Durkin

Mid-July Trip to Northwoods Delivers Fish, Enduring Bonds

Scrapbook photos from August 2011 show sturdy piers, tightly stacked firewood, a proud grandfather, and an 11-year-old grandson shooting a crossbow from a treestand behind Tom Heberlein’s shack in the Chequamegon-Nicolet National Forest.


In the 11 years since, the boy graduated college, the ponds spit out their piers, and the treestand grew too weak to serve. In contrast, the sway-backed shack in central Ashland County still stands stubbornly, the firewood gets split and stacked annually, and the grandfather oversees all chores through tiring but grateful eyes.


Heberlein and his grandson Peter Hilton — now 6-foot-3 and a college-certified lithium miner — drove from Madison to Cayuga in mid-July to fish and hang out at the Old Tamarack Lodge. That’s the official name of Heberlein’s aging cabin, but few call it that. It’s better known as “Old T,” a tarpaper shack with neither electricity nor running water, but ample character, 40 wooded acres with two frog ponds, 3 feet of snow and subfreezing air each winter, and biting flies and 20 species of mosquitos each summer.


Hilton, a native Californian, feels at home in Wisconsin’s Northwoods, and wins praise from locals for ignoring insects and tackling chores. He’s also comfortable in boats, confident with spinning rods, and eager to master fillet knives and frying pans.


He’s good company, too, no easy task when hanging out for five days with folks of your grandfather’s choosing. His friendliness should serve him well in his career, which begins when he returns to San Francisco about the time you’re reading this.


Hilton spent much of his first day at Old T casting for largemouth bass with Nick Vander Puy, a longtime fishing guide and Heberlein co-conspirator in all things boreal. Hilton caught and released plenty of hard-fighting bass, but best remembers the high winds and heavy rains that blew in at treetop level just as they quit fishing for the day. The storm caught them unaware yet untroubled on the little lake, and Vander Puy rowed them ashore in "Mildred," his old wooden boat, despite a white curtain of rain that blotted the landing from view.


Round 2 of the storm welcomed me a couple of hours later as I bounced and splashed down the Conley Road to Old T in time for meatloaf and green-bean casserole. By the time we ate, drank our beer and washed the dishes, Hilton and I decided to fish the same lake at dawn.


We told Heberlein we’d return by 10 a.m. to dismantle the uprooted pier that beached itself on Old T’s backyard. Before turning in, Heberlein reminded us of Old T’s etiquette: “You can be late if the fish are biting.”


We weren’t too tardy, returning by 10:30 the next morning to fillet and skin three large pumpkinseed sunfish and one 3-pound bass for lunch. Hilton and I then armed ourselves with battery-powered drills and screwdriver bits, and reduced Heberlein’s pier to boards while he supervised. We lamented the pier’s death, with Heberlein recalling a Labrador sitting alert and handsome atop its deck one day, earnestly watching a late-afternoon October sky for ducks.


By the time we finished scrapping the pier and stacking its lumber, it was late afternoon and time for me to go home. As I tightened the trailer’s tie-down strap on my wooden boat, Heberlein walked over and leaned on the transom.


He and Peter had planned to fish a Sawyer County river the next day with our friends John and Brenda Maier of True North Guiding and Outfitters. Heberlein had eagerly awaited the trip, but now he was bumming. He lacked the energy for a day afloat under a relentless sun. Getting old ain’t for pansies, and his afternoon spent supervising looked easier than it felt.


When Heberlein awoke the next day, he sent the Maiers his grandson and his regrets. They adapted by putting Hilton in their boat’s bow, and assigning the oars to John and the camera to Brenda. The morning had slipped into its final hour by the time they launched their boat.


Five minutes later Hilton saw a muskie follow his bait nearly to the boat, but he couldn’t trigger a strike while executing figure-8s with the Maiers’ coaching. Soon after they spotted a big muskie chasing baitfish through a shallow’s river grass 100 yards away. Hilton cast his Whopper Plopper bait into the fish’s strike zone.


“Just when I started thinking it wouldn’t hit, that muskie came in from 10 feet and T-boned it,” John Maier said. “Peter worked it toward the net, but the treble hooks popped out alongside the boat, and the muskie just glided away.”


As they kept drifting, rowing and studying the river, Hilton occasionally switched to tube baits to work the deeper pools for smallmouths. His best bass was a 19-incher that repeatedly went airborne before tiring and allowing itself to be netted and released.


Continuing downstream, the Maiers pointed out a spot they call “the arrowhead.” They had raised a muskie there two days earlier, and Hilton’s cast landed his bait on target. A muskie slammed it on the surface, and another fight ensued. After the fish made a crazy, line-burning run, it threw the trebles just feet from the boat.


Undeterred, Hilton switched to a floating frog bait as they neared quiet water and lily pads. He cast the frog deep into the pads and started yet another retrieve. A muskie pounded the bait but missed the hooks.


The five-hour trip soon passed into midafternoon, and the float was nearing its end. Hilton assured the Maiers he was having fun, despite the lost muskies, and would fish hard till the end. They liked his attitude. “We’ve caught muskies in that final 100 yards before, and he cast that Whopper Plopper way into the far end of a stretch of ripples,” Brenda Maier said.


A muskie hammered the bait, and this time the hooks held firm for the quick fight that ensued. Hilton strong-armed the fish away from the undercut, root-strewn bank, and into the waiting net, causing Brenda Maier to whoop with relief and excitement.


“After losing those other muskies, we were half-expecting it to pop off,” she said. The muskie measured 33 inches, and quickly swam off after posing for photos.


The Maiers didn’t send Hilton back to Old T empty-handed, however. Knowing how much Heberlein enjoys a Northwoods shore lunch, they gave his grandson fresh pike and bass fillets from their refrigerator.


Heberlein feasted that night with pride, satisfaction and enduring gratitude.

Peter Hilton fights a largemouth bass while fishing a small lake in Ashland County.

— Patrick Durkin photo

Peter Hilton caught and released this 33-inch muskie while fishing in Sawyer County.

— Brenda Maier photo

Peter Hilton, left, helped his grandfather, Tom Heberlein, stack firewood at the family’s Ashland County shack in August 2011. — Patrick Durkin photo

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