Silvery flashes deep beneath Green Bay’s ice signaled that I might soon get my first look at a resurrected fish species that walked the plank to regional extinction more than 100 years ago.
I figured I had about 25 feet of line between me and the hooked whitefish, and knew better than to relax or force the issue. Whitefish have a soft mouth, so if you give them slack, they quickly shake the hook. And if you pull too hard or reel too fast, you rip out the hook. The best retrieve requires slow reeling and steady pressure.
I should know. I had lost my first hook-up 15 minutes earlier by reeling and lifting when I should have simply let the fish wear itself out by diving, darting and running. Once whitefish tire, it’s much easier to guide them toward the 8-inch wide hole through 16 inches of ice.
That’s the plan, anyway. The challenge is to maintain that focus while playing the fish for 100 feet from Green Bay’s depths to the ice beneath your feet. I must have done better the second try, because about a minute after first seeing silver, a glimmering 18-inch whitefish slid onto the ice between my steel-cleated pac boots.
Congratulations poured in from all corners of the shanty from longtime friend Tom Tilkens of Green Bay, and our two resident whitefishing experts, Alex Schemmel, Green Bay, and his boss, J.J. Malvitz of JJ’s Guide Service in Sturgeon Bay.
Malvitz and Schemmel began the morning by tutoring me on their best jigging tactics for whitefish. Schemmel even fished across from me for a few minutes to reinforce the lessons. Meanwhile, I tried to mimic what they demonstrated, but caught nothing in the time Schemmel landed three whitefish.
They explained again the need to bounce the jigging spoon – a Swedish Pimple in this case – on the bottom and then lift the rod tip just enough to suspend the rig’s second hook barely off the bottom. We baited both the lure and auxiliary hook with a waxworm or small grub.
“If you do it right, the Swedish Pimple will rest on the bottom while you jig the hook above it,” Malvitz said.
Typically, whitefish hit the bait on the higher hook as it’s lifted or danced in place. You see a slight tug on the rod tip, or you feel a subtle pull on the rod as you lift. Either way, it’s a whitefish that grabbed your bait.
“Don’t wait when you feel the weight on your line,” Schemmel said. “Just set the hook.”
Once Malvitz and Schemmel were satisfied I remembered their instructions, they drove off on their four-seat utility vehicle to work with other clients scattered around the makeshift village 3.5 miles off Wisconsin’s Door County peninsula.
Tilkens and I then passed the morning by catching up on our lives, loves, families, religion, politics, business and other fair-game topics of true friends. We caught some fish, too; plenty of them, actually. The action wasn’t fast, but we steadily added whitefish to the cheap plastic-foam cooler Tilkens placed between us.
The whitefish fought hard, too, and ranged in size from 14 to 21 inches. We guessed the largest ones weighed 3 to 4 pounds, but didn’t have a scale to verify things. I learned later that although these were beautiful specimens, they’re nowhere close to the species’ potential. Whitefish never disappeared east of the Door County peninsula in Lake Michigan, where they can reach 15 pounds. But whitefish weights in Green Bay average far less.
Scott Hansen, the Department of Natural Resources’ fisheries chief in Sturgeon Bay, said he occasionally sees 8- to 10-pound whitefish from Green Bay, but they’re uncommon.
“As their population increased the past few years in Green Bay, their growth rates slowed down,” Hansen said. “Back in the mid-1990s when whitefish started showing up again in the Menominee River, they reached maturity in three to four years. Now they’re 6, 7 years and older before reaching maturity. When people catch some of the bigger ones in Green Bay, they think their size is improving. But if you talk to biologists and commercial fishermen who’ve seen lots of them, you find out their condition and growth have actually declined in the bay.”
Why? Biologists speculate that as whitefish populations boomed the past decade in Green Bay, their preferred food source – an invertebrate called diporeia, a.k.a. “freshwater shrimp” – has declined. Whitefish increasingly have preyed on the young of round gobies, alewives, yellow perch and white perch, even though whitefish typically don’t eat other fish.
In fact, recent research by Gabrielle Lehrer-Brey and Matthew Kornis at the University of Wisconsin-Madison found that young round gobies made up nearly half of the whitefish’s winter diet in Green Bay. But although whitefish aren’t starving on this diet, neither are they getting big and fat.
Then again, perhaps we’re nitpicking about their looks, given their impressive comeback in Green Bay. The species disappeared from the bay and its tributaries in the late 1800s as suffocating sawdust and other pollutants from industrial logging and paper production overwhelmed the species’ spawning habitats in Green Bay’s many tributaries.
Not until stronger environmental laws took effect in the 1970s, and cleanup efforts took place in area rivers did water and habitat quality improve enough to sustain whitefish. By the mid-1990s, whitefish – presumably “explorers” from Lake Michigan — were showing up regularly in DNR surveys in the Menominee River. And then, starting in 2006, their numbers started booming in Green Bay. In 2009 and 2015, DNR net surveys documented unprecedented numbers of young whitefish in the bay.
Hansen speculates that whitefish are spawning in Green Bay’s tributaries, but the DNR hasn’t verified spawning success. However, agency biologists have found “spawning condition” whitefish in the Fox, Peshtigo, Oconto and Menominee rivers; as well as larval-stage whitefish in the tributaries and within feet of the DNR’s Sturgeon Bay office.
Meanwhile, angling for whitefish is booming, perhaps in part because they’re always hungry, given their altered diet. Whitefish harvest rates in 2007, for example, were one-one-hundredth the rate documented in 2013. And even if whitefish aren’t reaching their full growth potential on an increasingly fish-based diet, no one expects them to again disappear.
That’s good news, of course. After all, the whitefish didn’t require hatcheries and millions of dollars in stocking programs. All they needed was clean water and healthier habitats.
Now let’s hope lawmakers don’t take those clean waters and better habitat for granted. Whitefish are another reason fishermen are fighting efforts to relax Wisconsin’s water-quality protections.