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home : outdoors : fishing
June 23, 2018

6/8/2018 7:25:00 AM
traveling trails less traveled
Evolution of our Northwoods fishery
"Buckshot" Anderson

Once upon a time, many thousands of years ago, a huge, slow moving bulldozer ground it way south out of what is now Canada. This bulldozer was made of ice, in some places over a mile thick, and as it nudged ever southward, it pushed or carried with it millions of tons of sand, gravel, rock and gigantic boulders that were scrapped off what is now called the Canadian Shield.

This huge glacier eventually reached all the way to where the Missouri and Ohio Rivers presently flow into the Mississippi. Then, about 12 to 15 thousand years ago, as the Earth's climate once again began to warm, the ice began melting and the glacier slowly receded northward.

The tens of thousands of depressions that the glacier had gouged out of Mother Earth filled with water, creating the lakes and bog swamps we now find scattered all across that broad expanse that once was covered with ice. As these depressions filled with water, the overflow from what had become lakes, formed the spider-web pattern of rivers, streams and creeks we presently enjoy. These flowing waterways channeled some of the excess water north into what became known as the Great Lakes, which eventually ended up in the Atlantic Ocean, but most of the water flowed south into the Gulf of Mexico.

As centuries slowly passed, various species of fishes followed these flows of water upstream and eventually populated the newly formed lakes and streams in Northern Wisconsin. It is assumed, over centuries of time, the various species of fish that migrated north evidently originated in the oceans, but adapted to a freshwater environment and evolved into the different species found up-north presently. Ah yes, Mother Nature is a crafty old gal!

One aspect of this tale continues to remain somewhat of a mystery, at least to me. How did the fish that inhabited all our landlocked lakes get into them? The best guess might be that for a time the water throughout the area covered by the glacier was much higher and every lake had an outlet at one time. Other "x-purts" have suggested eggs from fish that somehow stuck to the legs of water birds, like ducks and herons, were transported from lake to lake. (Yes, I count that as science fictions also.)

In the early years of the 20th century, a young man named Ed Gabe first came to northern Wisconsin as a Pony Express mail delivery boy and eventually made Vilas County his home. It is said Ed refused to believe any fish could exist in our landlocked lakes and would not even attempt fishing in them.

What for me has always been a difficult question to answer, is how largemouth bass, perch, suckers, bullheads and an assortment of minnows, found their way into many of what are presently, tiny bog pothole lakes. Now at age 81, I'm still wondering!

Once that old glacier finally died, it took several thousand years or more until the barren landscape left behind by the retreating glacier evolved into what presently is known as the Northwoods. We do know the giant white pine trees, so favored by the 19th century and early 20th century lumberjacks, were only up to 400 years old.

It is assumed Native Americans began settling in this newly formed wilderness as long ago as three to four thousand years ago and enjoyed the bounty this new region was able to provide.

And so, what species of fish were commonly available for these first settlers? The arguments and the debates continue. Old drawings depicting Native Americans spearing fish with wooden and bone spears, using a flaming torch attached to the bow of a birch bark canoe, strongly indicates this was probably a springtime activity when fish were spawning in shallow water.

Most likely, the majority of their harvest included suckers and redhorse, as these were no doubt the most plentiful species and fairly easy to harpoon. Other common species of that long-gone era were northern pike and muskellunge.

Walleyes were less common years ago, as they, like pike and musky developed as stream fish, some of which eventually found their way into most of our area's larger lakes that were connected by outlets flowing south into the Mississippi River. There were no walleyes in any up-north landlocked lakes until the planting of that species began to be a popular thing to do after the logging era. Typically, walleye do not reproduce well in small, landlocked lakes.

The king of the fresh water lakes in northern Wisconsin has seemingly always been the largemouth bass, due to its ability to strive in most any type of lake. Largemouth seems to reproduce well in most any environment from deep, clear water lakes to weedy mud holes to small bog potholes. It's cousin, the smallmouth, has in my lifetime, gained a major foothold in more and more lakes where years ago there were none or very few and have become one of the most popular fish to catch.

One only has to check old fishing photographs from the late 19th century and early 20th century to determine which species ended up on a stringer back then. Close examination will disclose lots of largemouth bass, northern pike, brook trout and muskellunge. Walleyes on a stringer are few and far between.

Muskies, now considered the king of the northern waters, are currently propagated and protected by size limits unimagined a few decades ago, plus media hype for "catch and release." Many decades ago muskies were considered "trash fish' by many of the early settlers. The Forelich family settled in Vilas County in the late 1890s and grubbed out a family farm on the shores of Lost Lake in St. Germain, which presently is the site of Ed Gabe's Condominiums.

Two of the Froelich sons, Joe and Mike, often told tales of trolling for muskies on Lost Lake using a heavy hand line attached to a large spoon lure. One brother would row and the other brother would, hand over hand muskies into the boat. The fish were then dumped into the pig pen for their pigs dining enjoyment. My oh my, how times have changed.

Over the years largemouth bass have been sort of a political pawn, for whatever reason. Originally, the bass season opened June 20, back when smallmouth bass were not a major fish species in most lakes up-north. The size limit was 10 inches and the bag limit was five. For a short time, the size limit on largemouth was removed and the season was pushed back to early May. This caused a rapid decline in their numbers, especially in small, landlocked lakes where the females were plucked off their spawning beds before they could give birth.

Public pressure forced the DNR to move the season back to June, which quickly reversed their population slide. As walleye population began declining in the 1980s, largemouth populations zoomed up in lakes they once ruled. Recently, the DNR began blaming largemouth as part of the reason for the walleye decline and allowed anglers to keep largemouth on May 1. Does that mean the DNR suggests other species do not pray on walleye fry and fingerlings?

Despite making largemouth a whipping boy, I'll continue to bet old Big Mouth will continue to be a survivor.

Buckshot may be reached at: buckshotanderson@yahoo.com.

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