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The lure of ice fishing: Lake Michigan seminar a success

Scott Godapske, right, of Fond du Lac, holds a 27-inch brown trout caught by Diane Sonnheim, of East Troy, during an ice fishing seminar and outing at McKinley Marina in Milwaukee, Wisconsin.
Scott Godapske, right, of Fond du Lac, holds a 27-inch brown trout caught by Diane Sonnheim, of East Troy, during an ice fishing seminar and outing at McKinley Marina in Milwaukee, Wisconsin.

(MCT) — MILWAUKEE — The Milwaukee lakefront offers some of Wisconsin’s most desirable real estate.

But since the space is pretty much “built out,” new construction is limited.

Each winter, however, Mother Nature provides an assist and extends the hardscape — temporarily — eastward.

Some of our culture’s last true prospectors take advantage of the opportunity and converge on the near-shore waters for some of the state’s best ice fishing.

The last weekend in January featured what was likely a record surge in housing starts along the lakefront.

More than a dozen portable ice shelters dotted the frozen surface of McKinley Marina. Dozens of other anglers opted to sit on buckets or stand in groups under the bright winter sun.

The turnout was spurred by a local stimulus package that was equal parts education and participation.

“This shelter is good to go,” said Eric Haataja, a fishing guide from West Allis. “Try some jigging in the holes and keep an eye on those two rods outside.”

With that, Diane and Steve Sonnheim, wife and husband from East Troy, settled into a heated fishing tent and tried to burnish their luck with some newly acquired information.

The Sonnheims were among the 24 anglers who took part in a two-day class offered by Haataja and Gander Mountain.

The Great Lakes Brown Trout and Steelhead Ice Fishing School convened for a Friday evening session at the outdoor retailer’s store in Franklin. The students were shown the how, when and where of fishing for trout and other species in Lake Michigan harbors.

Saturday morning the school convened at daybreak on the ice of McKinley Marina.

Haataja and a staff of fellow guides, including Joe Schmidt and Scott Goldapske, helped the students practice what had been preached.

The faculty also featured Kerry Paulson of Green Bay, inventor of the Automatic Fisherman. The “dead stick” apparatus holds a rod under tension and sets the hook when a fish takes the bait.

A couple dozen of the devices were deployed by the group.

It didn’t take long for one to jump to life.

At 8 a.m. Austin Gates of Neenah sprinted out of a black fishing shelter and grabbed the dancing rod.

“It’s there,” said Gates, lifting the rod to living weight.

A half-dozen anglers gathered around Gates as he engaged in give-and-take with the fish.

Several minutes later, a 26-inch rainbow trout was hoisted on the ice.

Gates unhooked the fish, posed for a quick photograph with it and slid it back down the hole.

The sequence of events was pretty much textbook, Gates said.

The fish hit a spawn sac fished about a foot over the bottom. Three keys: Fresh spawn was used to make the bait and a small (size 6) hook was tied to the end of a relatively light (10-pound test) fluorocarbon leader (invisible under water).

“These trout have an amazing sense of smell,” Haataja said. “The type of eggs you use and how they are prepared is a huge factor in getting bites.”

In addition, since Lake Michigan waters have cleared substantially with the invasion of zebra and quagga mussels, it’s critical to use light line and small hooks. Haataja prefers fluorocarbon as leader material.

Similar to an outdoor wedding, planners of a group ice fishing outing pray for the right weather.

The day dawned with a smattering of clouds and about 20 degrees. A 15 mph west wind made the shelters all the more welcome.

Most important, the ice in McKinley Marina was solid and ranged from 7 to 11 inches thick.

Haataja has long been an emissary for Milwaukee and other Lake Michigan ports as a fishing destination.

“You can’t find anywhere else that has this kind of access to this kind of fishing,” Haataja said. “This is world class.”

It’s no idle claim.

The all-tackle (by weight) world record for brown trout is a 41.5-pound fish caught off Racine in July 2010 by Roger Hellen of Franksville.

And in December 2011 Haataja added his name to the world-record ledger by catching and releasing a 38-inch brown trout in the Milwaukee harbor.

The fish is an International Game Fish Association world record in the All Tackle Length division (catch-and-release).

Haataja said the class was designed to get people involved in the fishery.

“This fishing is available within an hour’s drive for over a million people,” Haataja said. “I hope more and more people will experience it.”

Through the first two hours, a fish hit about every 15 minutes.

About 8:30, Diane Sonnheim jogged over and grabbed a rod that had been set above a hole.

After she carefully played it for 5 minutes, the fish appeared under the hole. Goldapske reached down and pulled the handsome 28-inch brown trout on the ice.

After a few photos, Sonnheim released the fish.

It was the biggest fish she’d ever caught through the ice.

Haataja and the other assistants made the rounds, helping to check lines and drill holes.

The students included relative beginners as well as accomplished anglers.

Jim Keller of Oshkosh fishes tournaments with his son, Brian. But he was drawn to the class as a way to expand his knowledge.

“This is a whole new ball game,” Keller said.

As the day wore on, the catch included brown trout, rainbow trout, northern pike and whitefish.

Several trophy-sized fish were among the catch.

And in the almost-too-good-to-be-true category, Roland Weier of Elkhorn came within a hair of the world record.

Haataja helped land the 37.5-inch brown trout. After a quick tape measure and photo, Weier opted to release it.

“Fish of a lifetime,” Haataja said. “Just let the fish do the talking. It’s a world-class fishery.”

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