It is ephemeral. If you attempt to find it at the wrong time, it won’t be there. It will have vanished even from a location it had existed in the past. When it does exist, it can be impossible to get there. Once you arrive, it may be impossible to leave, until you can. It can suddenly appear as a mirage on the horizon and just as absurdly evaporate as the seasons change. It can be in existence for months, although its lifetime is often measured in mere weeks. Yet, when it does exist it is one of the busiest and most vibrant communities in Door County. It is a city of close to 200 buildings and over 1000 residents stretching for miles all within sight of the Green Bay shoreline. It is WhitefishTown.
Many have seen WhitefishTown off in the distance, some of you have been temporary residents or even taken part in its establishment each year. It is the sprawling conglomeration of ice shanties, shelters and tents that rises above the Green Bay ice each winter. Ice shacks can be found all over the Bay from the southern reaches to Escanaba, Michigan. However, one of the most concentrated collections of fishing structures occurs in the area from The Quarry north of Sturgeon Bay to Henderson Point south of Little Sturgeon Bay. Anglers here are targeting the various species of fish found in Green Bay: walleye, yellow perch, burbot, brown trout, even smelt. The anglers that inhabit the shacks a few miles off the mouth of Sturgeon Bay, however, are there for one specific fish. Lake Whitefish. These are the residents of WhitefishTown.
The targeting of lake whitefish through the ice by recreational anglers is a relatively recent phenomenon. Of course, whitefish have historically existed in Lake Michigan and Green Bay. They were a food staple of native tribes and early settlers. The netting, processing, and shipping of fish was a principal commercial enterprise that brought entrepreneurs to Door County. Fishing was in large part responsible for the establishment of present-day communities, including Baileys Harbor. These early fishers were not interested in fishing for recreation, it was their livelihood. Today, the county fish companies such as Baileys Harbor Fish Company (aka Hickey Brothers) continue that legacy. Whitefish were primary harvested using nets. “Whities” typically inhabit very deep water and feed on small, almost microscopic, zooplankton and phytoplankton. This made catching whitefish on hook and line problematical at best. And why bother with all the other abundant game species readily available in the lake? Then the lakes changed. Starting in the mid-20th century, various invasive species entered the Great Lakes system. This was primarily the result of construction of the Erie and Wellend Canals along with the St Lawrence Seaway connecting the Great Lakes to the ocean shipping traffic. The introduction of sea lamprey, rainbow smelt, round gobys, as well as zebra and quagga mussels dramatically changed the ecology of the lakes. The once abundant plankton populations began to diminish. This should have led to the demise, even extinction, of the whitefish in Lake Michigan and Green Bay. No food, you die. It’s natures way. Remarkably, whitefish found their own way. In a matter of decades, they adapted to feed on a now plentiful food supply, the round goby. Gobys reside on the lake bottom putting them right in the face of hungry whitefish. All a whitefish has to do is pounce on them and suck in a nutritious meal. As the whitefish sought out more gobys they moved into shallower waters. This change in their feeding behavior made whitefish a much easier target for recreational anglers. That combined with the decline of yellow perch encouraged sport anglers to start targeting whitefish, particularly in the winter. Hordes of anglers set up temporary tent shelters or more substantial wooden shacks on the ice to protect them from the cold and wind. Entrepreneurial fishing guides in the county saw an opportunity. They provided shacks for visiting anglers to use. For a price, of course. Dozens of guide services set up hundreds of shacks for anglers. WhitefishTown was born.
I have taken up temporary residence in WhitefishTown many times. I have been a vagrant, scurrying about the ice from hole to hole with bucket and pole. I have been a transient, man-hauling my shelter and equipment over the frozen surface. More recently I have engaged lodging and transportation with one of the many proprietors offering accommodations on the ice. One J.J. Malvitz is an excellent example of such a WhitefishTown businessman.
I recently took two excursions to WhitefishTown with JJ’s Guide Service. The first was with a couple of longtime friends from Appleton, Ed and Terry. The ice had only become stable enough in late January for the guides to start setting up their shacks in the area that would become WhitefishTown. We were one of the first groups to venture out. Before the town can begin to form, there needs to be a way to get there. The early ice surface is often rough and stern with towering ice shoves. A road must be constructed. This is a community effort with several of the stakeholders (aka ice fishing guides) pitching in. The ice must be probed to ensure safe ice conditions. A right of way is established, then the roadbed cleared and leveled. This is accomplished with plow-festooned vehicles, along with shovels and ice axes. Recently a new piece of equipment has been employed, MOAB, The Mother Of All (Ice) Breakers. It is a massive implement constructed from steel I-beams hauled behind a powerful ATV. Once a usable roadway is established, the creation of Greater WhitefishTown can commence. The town grows rapidly as the is time is short.
Ed, Terry, JJ, and I were trundling over this veritable superhighway on our way to our accommodations for the day, a heated building with drilled holes and fishing rods waiting. Our shack was positioned over 80FOW about two and a half miles northwest of the Sherwood Point Lighthouse. Upon entering the building, we removed our heavy clothing, took a comfortable seat and dropped lures into the water. We waited in anticipation for our first call of “fish on”. And waited. And waited. A fishing guide can lead you to fish, but they can’t make you catch them. J.J. along with his mates Justin (a hell of a guy BTW), Cole and Sam did their best to put us on fish. The bite started slow (we did not catch our first whitie until after 10AM), but by mid-morning we were putting fish on the ice. We used jigs heads with dark plastic tails emulating a small goby. The whitefish angler’s version of “matching the hatch”. The bite was subtle. Often there was no indication that a fish was there until you lifted the lure off the bottom. It was easy to fail to detect a bite and even easier to miss the hook set. Whitefish fishing can be frustrating at times. After a welcome lunch break, brats on the ice, we moved to deeper water and found some more aggressive fish. We ended up with enough fish to take home and the time on the ice with good friends and in the company of fellow angers made the day a joy.
That trip was followed a few days later by an outing with Baileys Harbor resident and fishing buddy Paul. Paul and I have been making trips to WhitefishTown together since 2014. As we climb into a heated ATV for the ride out to our shack, I had guarded optimism. J.J. had moved the shacks, as he does each day, and they were now over about 95FOW. It very quickly became apparent that the bite this time was going to quite different. Within minutes the first whitefish was flopping on the ice. The bite was still very subtle, but the fish we indeed in the mood to eat. By 9:30AM we were already getting close to our limit of ten fish per angler, so we started to release smaller fish. We ended the day with twenty fat whities in the cooler, all over 17-inches, including a 24-inch slobosaurus. This is the largest whitefish I have caught through the ice. All told we pulled close to sixty fish up through the ice.
After being chauffeured across the ice and back to our truck, we took our catch to Lindal’s Fisheries on County Highway M to have them cleaned and packaged. If you have ever cleaned a batch of cold, slimy whitefish, you will appreciate why it is well worth the cost to have them professionally processed. Dan and Andy at Lindal’s did a great job quickly cleaning our catch and I even got to collect some whitefish livers for lunch. One of my favorite delights. Another great day fishing had come to a successful end.
I plan on taking some shorter, inshore trips for whitefish over the next coming weeks. I can’t always find the time (or money) to spend a day far out on the Bay. But I will also look to take another road trip to WhitefishTown soon. You never know when warmer temperatures, brisk winds and ship traffic will conspire to cause WhitefishTown to dematerialize and vanish for another year. We will be left wondering, “What it really there?”
Stay safe and sane.