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Fishing: Past and present

Grandpa, Mike and Dad preparing for a fishing trip 1955. (Submitted photo)

Over the last month or so I have taken the time to get out on the water and participate in an activity I love so well — fishing! Fishing is a great pastime that allows one to relax and enjoy life, not to mention fresh fish fillets for the evening meal to round out the perfect day. Fishing with friends, grandkids and even the spouse can be a very rewarding experience.

Casual fishing allows one the time for family and friends to discuss subjects that are mundane on the surface but extremely important. Family and friends that fish together stay together. Fishing by oneself also allows one the time in between “bites” to think about a multitude of issues that don’t get the needed “thought” time they deserve. Time fishing is always quality time, even when the fish don’t cooperate.

Most everything I know about fishing I was taught by my dad and grandfather. Most of my early fishing activity centered on the Chippewa River near Chippewa Falls along a two-mile section between the Wissota powerhouse and Chippewa Falls dam. Fish were plentiful and great memories have remained for a lifetime. Several quality summers were spent on the river swimming, exploring and, of course, fishing.

In the early years before there were such things as spinning rods and spin casters, the tools of the trade were the fly rod and level-wind casting rod. The fly rod was tipped with a short length of monofilament line and the bait of choice was a gold spinner and a red and white Canadian minnow fly that was row-trolled behind my grandfather’s hand-made wooden rowboat. All species of fish fell prey to this combination. Toward evening, we would change from flies to cork “poppers” and fish until it was too dark to see our lure. When a splash was heard, everyone in the boat would set the hook not knowing which person had the hit. It was a lot of fun and very productive. My grandfather frequently commented about our fishing exploits saying that we’ll “fly” up one side of the river and “pop” down the other.

Certain fishing ventures would target game fish such as bass, northern and muskie. This was the time when the level-wind reels came into play. A leader and snap secured the lure to the braided nylon line and shoreline casting was the mode of operation. The baits of choice were the French spinner and injured minnow to mix an underwater with surface delivery. Weather conditions dictated which bait was used.

Today the sport of fishing has changed remarkably. Modern rods and reels have replaced the old standbys and electronics have given a leg up to the fisher person. Gone are the “pinky jigs,” “crappie killers,” “jointed pike” and Dowagiac minnows. Carved wooden lures have been replaced by plastic worms and molded minnow replicas. Wooden rowboats have been upstaged by expensive bass boats with huge outboard motors to get the fishers to their prime fishing spot with little or no downtime. Underwater cameras allow the fisher to view into the depths and get a good idea of where the fish are hiding. Depth finders and fish locators give an instant readout to underwater structure and ideal fish habitat in which to make the next cast. Instrumentation like the “Vexlar” even allows the fisherman to view the fish as it approaches the lure. With all the so called fishing advances and enhanced fishing techniques, fishing on the whole is as good, or even better, than it ever was.

Over the last several years I have gravitated back to some of my old fishing tactics. I enjoy fly fishing with a good fly rod and will do so when the timing is right. A 12-foot aluminum rowboat has been substituted for the old wooden one and light panfish spinning rods are replacements for the old level wind reels and short stocky casting rods. I much prefer a slow row troll as I follow the weed lines along the shore and I’ve learned that the best time to fish is early morning or late evening when the fish are still in the shallower water or are moving into it. Over the years I have found that bright sunshine is not the fisherman’s friend in most cases. Fish seem to prefer deeper water during the middle part of the day. In deep water they are harder to locate and target.

As a general rule of thumb, the lighter the line, the better the catch. I use 4-pound test with no leader or snap when fishing panfish and bass. Occasionally a northern will cut my line with its sharp teeth but I much rather enjoy more action and take that chance. I’ve found that with less “junk” like leaders, snaps, attractors and spinners one has on the end of their line, more fish will end up on the stringer or in the fish basket. Also the old adage of “it takes a large bait to catch a large fish” is not always true. When fishing for any species of fish, presentation makes all the difference in the world.

Over the years, live bait like minnows, leeches and worms, would catch more fish than the imitations. In the modern world, with the development of synthetic materials, incorporated with scent attractants, this is no longer the case. Years ago, I got hooked on (excuse the pun) a bait manufactured by “Falls Bait Company” called the “Jig n’ Minnow.” Sal’s uncle, Carvel Woll, actually was the developer of that bait. It was a simple rubber-like minnow that behaved like a real minnow when tipped on an appropriate sized jig head. This could actually out-fish live bait in most situations. It lacked the down side of live bait, however. Several fish could be caught on the same bait without replacement and the lack of bait mortality between fishing trips was a real game changer. Move forward several years and look at the advancements recently made. Several manufacturers have come out with a line of baits and lures that are made from a tough, synthetic material that is soaked in a chemical attractant and has been shown to out-fish the old standbys.

On a recent trip to Canada, our boat used this type of lure exclusively and out-fished the others in our group by a large margin. Not having to drive 50 miles into town and purchase live minnows at $10 a dozen also saved us a lot of downtime in the process.

As one gets older and hopefully wiser, perceptions and attitudes change. I no longer have to catch my limit every time out and now realize that quantity doesn’t always equal quality. At a conference in Stevens Point this spring I attended a talk by a DNR fisheries biologist concerning panfish size structure. Recently, I received the Wisconsin Outdoor News which had an article in it by Pat Durkin reiterating the same stuff. According to both, panfish are the most targeted fish type and the most influential factor that affects panfish size is fishing pressure. To produce one-half-pound of fillets it takes two 9-inch bluegills, eight 7-inch bluegills or twenty-five 5-inch bluegills.

I’d much rather catch, clean and eat two 9-inch gills. Fresh caught fish are also much tastier than frozen fare.

I’m really looking forward to the quality fishing I’m going to have with my grandkids whenever we get together. I now know and can really feel how my dad and grandfather felt when I would pull in a fish way back when and they would see the excitement on my face. This is what real fishing is all about.

Taking a kid fishing is really the ultimate fishing experience.