What’s a single guy from Los Angeles supposed to do when he’s invited to go ice fishing in northern Wisconsin in the dead of winter? Say yes of course!
Being the consummate low-key adventurer, I couldn’t pass up an opportunity to do something I’d never done before — go to the Midwest in the middle of the winter so I could discover Door County, a peninsula of land jutting out into Lake Michigan where temperatures hover in the mid 20s. Since my idea of cold is going to the freezer to retrieve ice for a dirty martini, my adventure began with a shopping expedition for winter weather gear. My timing couldn’t have been better. Here in southern California, the stores were clearing out their winter inventory so I hit the sales to prepare for the icy chill.
When I stepped off the plane in Green Bay, the sun was shining, the snow was patchy, and it was shockingly cold! Do people really live in this climate? I headed for Door County to find out. The sun was setting as I pulled into historic Sturgeon Bay where I had a fantastic dinner at the Inn at Cedar Crossing, a bed and breakfast with a great restaurant. The meal started with flashed calamari and Maryland crab cake appetizers, followed by a bowl of tomato basil soup that was rich, flavorful and garden fresh with subtle chunks of onion.
My entrée choice was filet mignon wrapped in bacon and covered in blue cheese, served on a bed of Dauphinoise potatoes. An artery clogger for sure — but irresistible. I’m sorry to say there wasn’t much room for the fresh baked deserts, but I did manage to devour an entire piece of fresh cherry pie a la mode. Cherries are an integral part of culinary life in Door County – grown locally and used in almost everything – so who am I to decline such a local treasure simply because I was already stuffed?
The next morning, I had a 3:15 a.m. wake up call for my first attempt at ice fishing. I began by making my way to Captain Dale Stroschein’s Wacky Walleye Guide Service in Sturgeon Bay. The Captain is the local Walleye catching guru and my mentor on the ice. He runs fishing tours on the shore of Sand Bay and has been fishing since he was no bigger than a thimble full of fish milt. The Captain’s exploits are on YouTube.com and you can catch him on weekend TV shows that feature legendary fish getting hooked by legendary fishermen.
I got an initial briefing on how to ice fish but no instructions on what to do if my all terrain vehicle fell through the ice and plunged into the freezing water. As the Captain and I rolled across the frozen lake in our Polaris ATV packed full of gear, the chain covered tires kicked up a fine cloud of snow dust in the pitch black of the pre-dawn light. We passed dozens of fishing shacks, some with smoke pouring from chimneys, a sign their occupants had arrived even earlier. The Captain told me that some of these shacks have TVs, stoves, even underwater cameras so the fish can be seen on monitors inside the shack. “Here Nemo…here boy…”
Although there are many fish in these waters: Small Mouth Bass, Perch, Whitefish and Muskie to name a few — we were after Walleyes — Capt. Dale’s specialty and something I could hang on the wall back in Los Angeles complete with bragging rights.
A nocturnal fish, Walleyes are most active and hungry when it’s dark, so we had a very narrow window to catch one before they retired to the lower depths to watch Ugly Betty and Sea Hunt reruns. After about 25 minutes of crossing the ice, we reached Capt. Dale’s secret fishing spot. He used a gas-powered auger to drill 8-inch diameter holes through the solid ice. Then he gave me a specialized fishing rod, his own design, and handed me a five-gallon plastic bucket to sit on along with a little square of foam insulation for my cold feet. No luxury heated shacks for us he-men!
The technique for ice fishing is simple: take a baitfish, hang it on the hook, and lower it into the hole in the ice. Let it descend to a depth of about 28 inches. Then, using the wrist, give the rod a slight upward jerk. Pause ten to fifteen seconds, and repeat. Every couple of minutes, clear the hole of fresh ice so it doesn’t freeze over. Remember, its 15 degrees outside and that hole will freeze up in a matter of minutes. Do that for a couple of hours and the fish sticks in your freezer start to look like a great option.
You also have to keep checking on your baitfish, maybe give it a shot of Red Bull before putting it back down the hole again. And give yourself a shot of vodka — you won’t have to chill the glass.
I wasn’t having any luck, nor was my champion guide until we moved on to an even more remote location where he managed to pull up a five-pound Walleye. It was a great photo op before the Captain released the fish back into the water to fight another day. By this time, the sun was up so we loaded our gear and headed back across the ice, past the fishing shacks and past the mounds of ice that the wind and water shove up along the shoreline.
So how does one recover from the extreme cold of ice fishing? By eating of course and that meant a brunch stop at Door County Coffee & Tea Co. home of the “Baked Egg” where you’ll find every kind of egg dish — baked. The eggs are very tasty with most ingredients coming from local farms, part of a farm-to-table concept practiced here in Door County.
There are plenty of things to do between meals: biking, hiking, snowmobiling, cross-country skiing and, snowshoeing. County and state parks abound, with all kinds of trails and spectacular views in all seasons. During the summer months, there are 40 different varieties of wild orchids that bloom in Door County. There’s also a thermal undercurrent to la vida loca with lodges, inns and spas that cater to the “romance” market. The Country House Resort, for example, has hot tubs built for two right next to the beds. A mile down the road in Ephraim is The Spa at Sacred Grounds, a multi-disciplined facility where you can have your aches and pains soothed and calmed with massage techniques such as Lomilomi, hot stones, Craniosacral, Reiki, and Swedish.
But like it or not, you can’t travel to Door County without attending a fish boil, a local ritual where whitefish is cooked up and tourists are entertained at the same time. The White Gull Inn in Fish Creek puts on a good one. Most of the action takes place outside around a large fire-pit where a pot of water heats atop a log fire. Pieces of whitefish and red potatoes are added, along with lots of salt, then brought to a boil.
This is all presided over by the “boil master” who tends to the pot as he offers anecdotes from previous boils. The boil master will throw a quart of kerosene onto the fire to excite the crowd. The meal is ready when the boil master runs out of jokes. At that point, everyone is ushered back inside and served the freshly boiled dish with tartar sauce, liquid butter and all-you-can-eat coleslaw.
Winter in Door County is a great way to get away from the hustle and bustle of the city, whether you are single, on the prowl, a couple in love, or even a family with kids. There are lots of activities and something for everyone – especially good, hearty Midwestern chow. There are no fast food chains on the peninsula north of Sturgeon Bay, so try the bacon blue cheese burger at Mojo Rosa’s in Egg Harbor instead.
Copyright © David Peters/2014 Singular Communications, LLC.
Visit / Stay / Dine
Inn at Cedar Crossing
Bed & Breakfast and Restaurant
336 Louisiana St. Sturgeon Bay, WI. 54235
Country House Resort
715 N. Highland Road
Sister Bay, WI. 54234
920-854-4551 or 1-800-424-0041 (reservations)
Captain Dale Stroschein,
Wacky Walleye Guide Service
3798 Sand Bay Point Rd.
Sturgeon Bay, WI. 54235
Door County Coffee & Tea Co.
5773 Hwy 42 Ð P.O.Box 638
Sturgeon Bay WI. 54235
920-743-8930 or 800-856-6613
Orchard Country Winery & Market
9197 Hwy 42
Fish Creek, WI. 54212
The Spa at Sacred Grounds
Hwy 42 & Townline Rd.
P.O. Box 408 Ephraim, WI. 54211
Door County Maritime Museum
120 North Madison Avenue
Sturgeon Bay, WI. 54235
White Gull Inn Restaurant
4225 Main Street P.O. Box 160
Fish Creek, WI. 54212
920-868-3517 or 1-888-364-9542
The Ridges Sanctuary
8288 Hwy. Q, Box 152
Baileys Harbor, WI. 54202-0152
Door County Visitor Bureau
1015 Green Bay Road P.O. Box 406
Sturgeon Bay WI. 54235
7778 State Highway 42
Egg Harbor, WI 54209