STURGEON BAY, Wis.–Jeff Norris calls whitefish “sweet-ass horseshoes.”
On many levels, that’s right.
He meant it for the way they fight and waggle into horseshoe shapes when being reeled from the depths.
We saw a lot of that last week on a three-day trip to Green Bay to ice fish for them.
The horseshoe also applies to some lucky choices on Thursday. When Norris forgot his boots, he turned back to pick them up. As we left again, he decided we should try north of Sturgeon Bay instead of our original plan to fish south.
Ice fishing on big water is surreal.
As we drove off a parking lot and out on the stunning whiteness of snow, drifts, ice and ice heaves Wednesday, Norris said, “Whole “nother world out here. Everybody is in big suits and walking funny. It is a lunar landscape.”
That’s lunar, not loony, though some might argue.
On Thursday, we launched at George K. Pinney (formerly Olde Stone Quarry) County Park by going down the boat launch and out on the ice. But, in an anomaly of the north,a nicely plowed road on the ice wound to the cluster of fishing shacks on the reef.
With the high sun, we fished on the deep side in 85 feet near a cluster of shacks and tents. The general rule is to fish shallower on cloudy days, deeper on sunny days.
Action started furiously Thursday. I had two whitefish on ice before Norris had everything arranged inside his tent. My third one was the biggest one at 21 3/4 inches.
Fishing that deep requires special equipment to feel the bottom and the fish.
“It is a contact sport: contact with the bottom; contact with the fish; contact with yourself; and keeping contact all the way up with the fish,” Norris said.
Yes, “contact with yourself,” there”s a touch of Zen in jigging deep-water whitefish.
On the practical side, braided ice line is essential for feel. Norris uses 6-pound braid with a 2-foot, 8-pound fluorocarbon leader.
A slider hook (No. 6 Aberdeen baited with a wax worm) is put above the swivel connecting the leader. The vast majority of our whitefish on the trip came on No. 3 black and silver Jigging Shad Raps. But we also caught fish with an 1/8th-ounce gold Johnson Splinter jigging spoon, a gold and black Darter and a gold Buck-Shot Glider Spoon.
He uses medium action rods (stiff tip is essential) and Frabill spinning reels.
The first day I went 1-for-7 at first, before I realized I was losing fish because I was holding the line with my forefinger to feel the bite. When I hooked a fish I let go of the line. That monetary lack of pressure allowed fish to escape.
“Just pull,” Norris said. “Don”t set the hook, you will just make the hole bigger [in their soft mouths].”
Once I got the hang of it, it was a blast.
By mid-afternoon, Thursday we had our two 10-fish limits.
We were not alone. Ice fishing for whitefish has exploded so much there are plenty of guides. And it spills to Chicago. Staff at Hagen’s Fish Market on the Northwest Side said they had a “bunch of whitefish coming in” for smoking.
Whitefish are one of the best eating fish. Smoking is the most common, but the fillets are also excellent poached, broiled or fried.