ASHLAND — We have to face the facts that not everyone can dribble a basketball, skate like the wind, preform a two leg take down or do a backflip on a balance beam. Now with so many kids focusing on only one sport year-round the athletic ability bar keeps being raised higher and higher. Many of us are born average and some of us are not athletically inclined at all. That is just a fact of life.
The sport of ice fishing is a great equalizer. The state of Wisconsin allows three lines per person and with a little knowledge and lots of luck anyone can win an Ice Fishing tournament. A young man with learning and developmental disability was recently telling his father “Dad this is the only chance I’ll ever get to go to state in anything” Truer words have never been spoken. For many High School Ice Fishing teams this is the only opportunity for many to compete in any sport. And compete they do.
Battle of the Bay
They waited on the frozen shores in the bitter cold preparing to advance onto the ice pack. Squadrons of snow machines cough to life as the supplies were loaded onto sleds to be transported approximately three miles offshore. Lights start flickering around the bay as the assault began. A scene from an old WWII movie? No it’s January 18 and the National Guard is hosting a Wisconsin High School Ice Fishing tournament “Battle of the Bay.”
This would be a first for many students and mentors alike, fishing on the Great Lake for species that are not commonly found locally. Ice auger motors roar and fumes of smoke and steam rise up as they punch holes in early morning light. Soon after the tip-ups were set, the portable warming shacks were erected.
Now the groups commence to jigging the 50 foot depths for the exotic species that most of the young anglers have never been seen before. Coho salmon, smelt, lake herring, eelpout, sturgeon and steelhead along with the more common lake and brown trout, perch, walleye and Northern. Our group, however, struggled throughout most of the day. Having a few flags without anything to show for them. There was some success for us as we found that a lake shiner head seemed to be the preferred snack of a small minnow type fish that actually wasn’t even on the targeted list. Smelt, that tasty snack that is the feature of many fund raising fish fry’s across Northern Wisconsin and Minnesota. The warm sunshine now had started some activity out on the ice. Like prairie dogs poking their heads out of ground, so did many of the shelter occupants. Now suddenly a tip-up flag popped up and the race was on. Who would get it first? The old man who was once a great sprinter had a head start on the son who was gaining quickly and soon was about to overtake him. But this was full contact ice fishing and the old man reached out and horse collared the young man taking both out of the race. An even younger lad arrived at the tip-up and setting the hook was followed by other teammates. Not cooperating in the least, making hard runs and taking out the line, a feisty 21 inch brown trout was on the line. Now the entire team was gathered around the hole cheering on their friend, offering advice like, “Don’t horse him,” and “Let him run to tire him out,” and “Watch the line.” After several trips around the hole, a teammate helped flop the fish on the ice. The team exchanged high fives and chest bumps. All the spectators were awed by the trout’s beautiful colors. Photos are taken and soon everyone has a renewed vigor to the action of their jig sticks. The tip-ups are much more carefully scrutinized now than the previous six hours. As the afternoon winds down the motors are started on the snowmobiles and the gear is packed up and shuttled back to the landing. This was the second tournament that the Grantsburg High School ice fishing team has competed in and the sport has caught on with 18 initial members. Grantsburg Athletic director, Mike Amundson feels is a great asset to the school, “We are fortunate to have had several adult mentors volunteer their time and energy to our students involved in the program. They have provided transportation, guidance and support to the members of the team and we are indebted to them for their involvement. In addition, we have received donations and support from others outside the program. This includes the Dave and Paulie Kratchmer Family along with Roger Wood of BackWoods Bait in Falun. We greatly appreciate their support. This has been a wonderful opportunity for students to become engaged in a healthy activity which we hope will open up avenues for them in other school related ventures. “ Battle of the Bay organizer Scott Lafler felt the event was a success “The Wisconsin high school Battle of the Bay was a great success again this year and a big thank you goes out to all the sponsors and supporters especially Wisconsin Army National Guard. Without them this is not possible. We had a total of 19 high schools registered this year with 23 teams and 170 students and coaches in attendance.” Head coach Bill Schrooten commented on the progress of the Webster ice fishing program, ”The Webster High School ice fishing team is in their second year. There were 18 students involved last year and the numbers have grown to 31 this year. Across the state there are approximately 48 schools involved and it's still growing. We attend tournaments on Saturdays all the way from Ashland to the state tournament on Lake Winnebago. By hosting a tournament you bring people to the community which benefits local businesses." "I hold meetings every Wednesday from November to February where the kids learn about fishing regulations, pro fishing, equipment, lake safety, reading lake maps and other topics pertaining to ice fishing. The students must follow the co-curricular code like any other sport. This provides incentive for the students to work hard on academics and behavior so that they can participate in the weekend tournaments. Going to the state tournament on Lake Winnebago is an excellent opportunity for the students to fish a larger lake." Schrooten added. "The Webster School District has approved the team. We haven't needed any financial support from the school district yet. We have held raffles and had donations made from local businesses to support the cost of gas, equipment, bait and hotel rooms. This team wouldn't be possible without the generous support of these donors and the support of the school district." said Schrooten. "This is an awesome opportunity for the kids to be involved with their school and keep up their grades, while learning to respect and enjoy the outdoors.” Now back at the awards ceremony the Grantsburg team walks in proudly carrying their trophy fish and as the door prizes are passed out (everyone would receive one) the teammates are smiling and talking about the day’s events. You would think that after so many hours on the cold ice they would be disappointed only catching one fish to enter in the competition. But like the Who’s in Dr. Seuss’s “The Grinch who stole Christmas” they didn’t need to win the tournament to be content. Just the fun of fishing and the camaraderie with their teammates will keep them smiling and coming back with more friends including some that don’t fit the traditional athlete profile.