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Surprise Walleye Caps a Good, Calm Trout-Chasing Day

One reason Hobby Jackson takes me fishing whenever I ask is because I’m incapable of revealing his favorite spots.


Jackson, 22, probably thinks I’m an absent-minded old goat, but I’ve always been that way when riding in a pickup’s passenger seat. I’m usually too busy asking questions and analyzing answers to notice which direction we’re heading, let alone which roads or two-tracks we turn down.


And so it was last week as we left his parents’ resort, Jackson’s Lakeside Cottages, on …


“Which lake is this again?”


The same lake it was last year. Little St. Germain Lake.


“Right.”


We got a late start that day, 10:30 a.m., but Jackson wasn’t worried. We intended to fish for brown trout in a deep lake somewhere in Vilas County, and he said they often bite best around midday and after.


At one point I looked back at the snowmobile and ice-fishing sled he was towing with a flatbed trailer, and noticed his sled fishtailing subtly as we bounced down the back roads.


Jackson must have noticed me studying the swaying sled. Its front tow bar was secured tightly, but its rear end kept twitching like the docked tail on a birdy Brittany.


“It’s not going anywhere, but it keeps people from tailgating me,” Jackson said.


Once on the ice, he hitched his ice shanty behind the snowmobile and his sled behind the shanty, and we set off for a distant mid-lake reef. Jackson’s dog, Farfel, a handsome mongrel he’s had since its puppyhood, loped along beside us like a pioneer’s dog pacing a wagon train.


Seconds later it shot ahead when spotting two ice-fishermen in our path. Jackson didn’t pause as Farfel sniffed dismissively around the seated men, ignoring their kind words and outstretched hands as if he were a celebrity crossing a hotel lobby.


Three other anglers were already fishing the reef’s drop-offs when we arrived, but Jackson felt confident we could give them ample space and do all right on the reef’s shallower structure. We had barely begun assembling our gear when two of the anglers trotted toward a sprung tip-up and landed a decent fish.


“Nice one!” Jackson called out as he instructed me where to drill our holes with his old gas-powered ice auger. I was tempted to play “outdoor writer” by walking over to the strangers to take photos and ask questions, but worried I might appear nosy to Jackson. One thing I like about my work is that it often forces me to ask questions I would normally feel too self-conscious to say.


After rigging five tip-ups and setting our baits—golden shiners hooked behind the dorsal fin—about 5 to 10 feet off bottom, I sat atop a 5-gallon bucket while Jackson stepped inside his portable shanty 6 feet away. He zipped its door until all I could see was his face. Given COVID-19’s enduring presence, we agreed not to share the shanty’s small interior for the six-plus hours we might be fishing.


Besides, the wind was calm and I was dressed to thwart the 20- to 25-degree temperatures. Jackson surveyed our tip-ups from inside the shanty and asked if I could see the one about 40 yards behind him. I assured him I could watch it, and that I wouldn’t fall asleep, so I encouraged him to use his jigging pole and monitor his sonar flasher.


And then we fished.


And watched.


And fish and watched some more.


Our neighbors, meanwhile, caught at least three fish in our presence, making us feel like spectators as they trotted to their tip-ups, knelt to check the line, and then hand-played fish to the hole and onto the ice. The fish looked like fat browns from a distance, and I continued ignoring my journalistic impulses to pester them.


Farfel wasn’t as polite. Two or three times he ambled off, barking at the anglers when they trotted from their shanties to check a flag or land a fish. Farfel didn’t seem to recall they passed his inspection only a half-hour earlier. And the 45 minutes before that. Or maybe he felt disrespected because they ignored his barks and sniff-tests.


The three anglers began gathering their gear after we assumed they had their six-fish combined limit of trout. Jackson and I agreed we’d wait until they were out of sight before claiming one or two of their holes. And so we watched as they hitched their collapsible shanties to a snowmobile and headed for shore, leaving one to walk till the driver returned for him.


Jackson landed a 15-inch brown soon after we moved closer to their abandoned setups. He watched it appear on his sonar screen, and set the hook when feeling its strike.


And then we resumed sitting and watching our inactive tip-ups, whose red flags hung horizontally atop their spring-loaded steel bars. We agreed to not pull our lines until daylight grew dim enough to complicate things.


“Last light is so often the best time to fish,” we agreed.


Just as our hopes shrunk like a spider on a Mr. Heater, a tip-up flag popped up from the nearest hole 15 yards away.


“It’s taking line,” I called to Jackson as I neared the spinning T atop the Beaver Dam’s shaft. I lifted the tip-up and set it aside while gauging the braided line in my left paw. I set the hook with a hard jerk when certain I felt the fish’s weight far below.


The fish came in stubbornly as I pulled the dark line hand over hand, trying not to let it tangle as I dropped each loop onto the ice. I slowed my retrieve as the monofilament leader came to hand, and lifted the fish through the hole and onto the ice just as it spit the tiny treble hook.


“A walleye!” I said in surprise as I flipped the 21-inch fish away from the hole. “When’s the last time you caught a walleye out here?”


Jackson glanced at me, looked back at the walleye and replied: “Never. That’s a first.”


Hmm. If he missed a turn and took us to the wrong lake, I’ll never know.

Patrick Durkin photos:

-- Patrick Durkin hoists a late-day walleye while ice-fishing for trout in Vilas County.

-- Hobby Jackson of St. Germain rigs a tip-up while ice-fishing with his dog, Farfel.

-- Stocked brown trout grow thick in some of Wisconsin’s Northwoods lakes.

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