Whitefish Rejuvenate Green Bay Ice-Fishing
Updated: Mar 3, 2020
STURGEON BAY, Wisconsin — Snow churning and whirling across Green Bay’s ice cap made me think of arctic explorers long lost in a white oblivion at the Earth’s poles.
Janis Putelis and I then strapped down our beaver-fur hats, climbed into our open-air utility vehicle, and followed our crew on a bitter 3-mile bounce to guide J.J. Malvitz’s heated ice-fishing shacks. Malvitz promised our shack would shield us from the day’s 20 mph winds and -3 air temperatures.
Malvitz has been guiding ice-fishermen on Green Bay the past 10 years, assigning them to one of his 12 ice-houses 80 feet above underwater reefs where whitefish come to prey. He tells wary clients they’ll get colder fetching their mail than they will ice-fishing with him. When they arrive on Green Bay’s eastern shoreline, Malvitz welcomes them into a heated UTV for the ice-trail drive, delivers them to the ice-shack’s door, and holds it open while they shuffle inside and doff their coats.
Putelis and I brought our own UTV, however, freeing our colleagues Miles Nolte, Mike Lindemuth and Tyler Emmett of MeatEater TV’s Fur Hat Ice Tour to pile into Malvitz’s heated UTV.
The MeatEater crew had spent much of the previous week on Lake Winnebago recording a sturgeon-spearing episode, and two days in the city of Green Bay ice-fishing for walleyes and northern pike from Smokey’s on the Bay bait-shop at the Fox River’s mouth. It’s all part of a MeatEater fishing series scheduled to air this fall.
Malvitz, a fifth-generation Door County resident, is proud of his ancestral bonds with whitefish, which his great-grandfather fished commercially 100 years ago on Green Bay.
“I think it’s cool that I’m going after the same fish he did, but from the sport-angling side,” Malvitz said. “We’re sharing the same great resource that’s a big part of Door County’s history and culture.”
Malvitz feels grateful, too. Whitefish virtually disappeared from Green Bay for much of the 1900s after paper-mill pollutants and dense sawdust from sawmills ruined spawning habitats in the bay’s many tributaries. The waterways rebounded after strong environmental laws took effect in the early 1970s, imposing discharge controls and ongoing cleanups.
By the mid-1990s whitefish began showing up regularly in surveys on the Menominee River. By 2006, whitefish were booming in Green Bay. In 2009 and 2015, net surveys by the Department of Natural Resources documented unprecedented numbers of young whitefish in the bay.
Even so, until the past couple of years, the DNR couldn’t prove whitefish were again reproducing in Green Bay’s tributaries. But now it can.
Scott Hansen, the DNR’s fisheries chief in Sturgeon Bay, said the agency has confirmed successful whitefish spawns in the Fox, Oconto, Peshtigo and Menominee rivers. Aided by University of Wisconsin-Green Bay researchers, the DNR has identified larval whitefish in those rivers in spring, and documented spawning activity below the first dams on the Fox, Peshtigo and Menominee.
Malvitz likes that restoration story and dubs whitefish “the comeback kid” of Green Bay. “Whitefish got kicked down and put up against the wall, but they got the final say,” he said. “They have the power and adaptability to thrive, not just survive.”
Even though the environmental cleanup spurred the whitefish’s comeback, Green Bay’s food base changed drastically the past 50 years. Whitefish once depended on a native invertebrate called diporeia, a.k.a. “freshwater shrimp,” but that species plummeted as zebra mussels, quagga mussels, spiny water fleas, round gobies, white perch and other invasive species arrived in ballast waters dumped by ocean-going ships.
The whitefish’s diet has since shifted to young alewives, round gobies, yellow perch and white perch. Although whitefish won’t starve on that invasives-rich diet, they now need 6 to 7 years to reach 17-inch lengths, about half as fast as they grew 25 years ago on the native diporeia diet.
Still, Putelis and I weren’t complaining about our whitefish catch. We combined to land 18 the first morning on Green Bay, and most exceeded 17 inches. The next morning we needed only three hours to catch our 10-fish limits, and those averaged 18 to 20 inches.
Malvitz also credits whitefish with rejuvenating Green Bay’s ice-fishing traditions the past decade. He said anglers target whitefish each winter as soon as the ice allows, and stay after them until the ice deteriorates. That generally means December-through-March action. DNR creel surveys from January through March the past three winters (2017-2019) estimated annual ice-fishing harvests of 167,812, 198,618 and 79,658, respectively; a 148,696-fish average, with ice conditions heavily influence the totals.
Malvitz said whitefish keep biting in February, which tends to be ice-fishing’s doldrums for perch and walleyes. After our 18-fish catch the first day, for example, Putelis and I asked about fishing walleyes the next day. “You’ll have about a 5% chance of catching one, but if you come back for whitefish, your odds are probably 100%,” Malvitz replied.
Even though Malvitz and over 20 other guides offer whitefish trips on Green Bay, most anglers are do-it-yourselfers. Guided anglers accounted for 95,585 (21.4%) of the 446,088 whitefish in DNR creel surveys the past three winters.
In fact, whitefish are so prevalent and the action so consistent that anglers across the Midwest and southern Canada fish Green Bay each winter. “I’ve guided people from about 25 states,” Malvitz said. “Whitefish have reinvigorated a lot of the area’s lodges and resorts. No place else can match Green Bay’s combination of whitefish size, numbers and sustainability.”
Visiting ice-anglers also take their catch to Lindal Fisheries, which cleans and vacuum-seals whitefish for $2.50 each at its facility south of Sturgeon Bay. The company spends most of the year catching Lake Michigan whitefish and packaging them for sale. But when the commercial season closes in fall, it shifts to helping Green Bay’s ice-anglers. It even lets you watch as its machinery and expert crew turn your whitefish into boneless fillets in less time than it takes to down a Coke.
Putelis and I agreed that’s a service worth including in every whitefish outing.