Thursday, April 2, 2015

The Annual Spring Walleye Run on the Mighty Wolf River - circa 1959

One of the spring rituals for a boy growing up in the small Outagamie County Wisconsin village of Hortonville in the 50’s and 60’s was to go Walleye fishing on the mighty Wolf River, which flowed a couple miles north of the village. The Wolf River originates in deep-spring lakes in northern Wisconsin’s Forest County and meanders 255 miles south, eventually emptying into Lake Winnebago.


The annual Walleye run began around this time of year – late March, early April – when the ice finally yields to the moderating temperatures – and the then-plentiful Walleye began their annual trek downstream to create the next generation of Walleyes. Don’t ask me the difference between the Walleye Pike, the Northern Pike, and Pickerel – there are differences, but that’s for the fish biologists to explain. All I know for sure is the Walleye is so-named because of the milky color of its eyes, which have a special layer or wall in their eye that reflects light.


In Hortonville lingo, which may or may not reflect biological science, the female of the species was called a “spawner” and the male a “milker”. They both swam downstream in the spring to the warmer part of the river; the female laid her eggs (spawn) in rocky areas along the riverbank, and the male followed up, spreading “milk” (sperm) over the eggs to fertilize them.


Apologies to John Amburgy, my Hortonville High biology teacher, if I’ve screwed up these basic facts.


Bear with me here. You need to know a few other things before we get to the meat of the matter. In order to catch some of the then-quite-plentiful Walleye, one needed a fishing license from the DNR; at least one long (10 to 12 feet) bamboo pole (available in hardware and sporting goods stores all over the Fox Valley back then), adequate fishing line (a good 15 feet per pole), a least one “bobber” per pole, and, the famous “Wolf River rig” – a combination of a minnow-like lure, a spinning reflector, and several treble hooks, designed to lure the wily Walleye and then, when he or she chomped down on the fake minnow, it would be duly hooked, and ready to be hauled in with a landing net – also required equipment. Or, as was also common, you would purchase live minnows, and use them on your Wolf River rig instead of the fakey wooden ones that came with the rig. We fished with real minnows.



Oh, and the DNR said the holder of the requisite fishing license could have a maximum of two lines in the water at any time. I am reporting the rule, not necessarily the reality of Walleye fishing in the late 50’s and early 60’s.


Thus equipped, all that remained was to attach the fishing line to the pole, set the bobber on the Wolf River rig so the minnow would be about two or three feet below the surface of the river, and then sit back and watch for the bobber to take a dive, indicating that Mr. or Mrs. Walleye was on the line. Or, as was often the case, that your Wolf River rig had snagged a piece of debris floating down the river.

There were lots of public access places and bridges where one could fish for Walleye during the spring run, but, for the serious sportsman, a “fishing shack” was requisite equipment. This also was a cottage industry for the farmers who owned the land through which the mighty Wolf flowed. They would rent 25 or 30 feet of their land along the riverbank to the intrepid fisher, then rent their services (a tractor and a strong back) to the fisher, to drag in four or five telephone poles (purchased from the utility at a premium) and enough lumber to build a small shack with a big window to view the dock.


It would look something like this, except imagine the little shack sitting on top of four or five telephone poles on the shore, with a dock that stretched out a few feet over the river. You’d bait your rig with a live minnow, attach your (legal limit of) two poles to the dock, cast your lines into the water, sit back, and watch.


It was this “watching” portion that developed character, I’m told. Patience. A virtue with which I was not blessed.


From around 1955 until around 1960 – I can’t be certain of the year – my dad had a tiny two-man fishing shack on the Wolf, which he and the farmer who owned the land, Wally Lenzner, had built. It was about a three-mile drive north of Hortonville off County Trunk S. You parked at Wally’s farm and hiked about a quarter-mile down to the river.  I made that hike with my dad hundreds of times, and we spent hundreds of hours in that tiny shack in the spring, and caught and ate a lot of Walleye.


But along about 1961, we moved into the big leagues of spring Walleye fishing. I was in 6th grade or so. Dad went into partnership with some of his card-playing buddies to lease a piece of land on the banks of the mighty Wolf just a few hundred feet east of the County Trunk M bridge over the Wolf. The land was owned by an extremely colorful character named Mac McKeever. I have no idea what his actual first name was, but he was known as Mac. He owned and operated a tavern next to the Highway M bridge over the Wolf called “Mac’s Landing”.


Mac’s Landing disappeared many years ago, and on its site now is a great bar and restaurant called “Damn Yankees Watering Hole” (pictured above), which is owned and operated by a guy I went to Hortonville High School with. I’ve been there many times since it was built a few years ago and have never had anything but great service and darn good food.


You could buy minnows at Mac’s Landing, and you could buy beer or soda to go. If you chose to sit at the bar and have a beer, Mac would fish an Adler Brau or Chief Oshkosh 12-ounce longnecker out of his vast cooler, crack it open with a church key (bottle opener) that he kept on a leather necklace, then spit on his palm and rub it over the top of the open bottle, and set it on the bar in front of you. Mac followed this procedure invariably, because he “don’t want no lawsuit from some damn Appleton lawyer on account of some city-slicker claims he cut his lip on busted glass at the top of the bottle”.


As usual, I digress.


At that time, my dad was transitioning from being the Guidance Counselor at Hortonville High (he was one of the few teachers who had a master’s degree back then) to his part-time insurance business. Around ’65 or so dad quit his half-time job at the high school and devoted all his efforts to building his very successful insurance business. His partners in this new spring fishing enterprise were, as I mentioned, his card-playing buddies. One was Jim O’Hern, the high school chemistry and physics teacher; another was Joe Keller, who owned and operated his own construction business, and a junior partner (as I understood it back then) was John Quinn, a high school history teacher.


When construction was finished, John Quinn made a painted wooden sign to hang over the door of the joint, dubbing it the “O-KELL-Y Inn”. O for Jim O’Hern, KELL for Joe Keller, Y for Morrissey, and Inn for Quinn. Quinn had no shortage of Irish wit.


My recollection of the actual construction of the “fishing shack” is dim, except that the operation was managed by Joe Keller, whose construction expertise was invaluable in this enterprise. This was no “shack” by any stretch of the imagination, but rather a small home built on top of a wide dock stretching out about 15 feet over the river. It had a pair of bunk beds so four people could rack out and catch some z’s, a kerosene-powered stove with two burners, a large all-purpose table in front of the huge window that allowed a full view of the dock and fishing poles; and – luxury of luxuries – a separate one-holer outhouse.


The only “fishing shack” that could rival my dad and his partners’ was owned by Milford Steffen, and it was close enough to Highway M that he had the power company run a line to his “shack” – I believe the only one so-equipped on the river. Everybody else used kerosene lanterns for light, kerosene stoves for heat, and an ice-chest for refrigeration.  Milford’s “shack” was a few hundred feet west of my dad’s.


For a month or so in the spring, when the ice was going out, one put on a pair of hip boots to slog through the mud and water – which was always high in the spring, as the mighty Wolf would overflow its banks by several feet – carrying your live minnows, ice, kerosene, and something to drink, which most often meant a couple bottles of Pepsi for me, and a six-pack of Chief Oshkosh for dad.


It was a few hundred feet from the public parking area across from Mac’s Landing to the O-Kell-Y Inn, and when the water got deep, my dad would hoist me onto his back and carry me across the deeper spots. He did this until along about 1961, when I was in 8th grade, stood six-foot-two and weighed in at a solid 185 (yes, I was ALWAYS a big kid). In one of the first trips in that spring, with me on his shoulders (dad was 6-foot-three, around 235, solid muscle, a former golden gloves boxer) he took a false step and we both went sprawling into the icy cold water.


We dried out at the Steffen “shack” and the next day, dad took me to the hardware store and bought me my very own pair of hip boots. This was a MAJOR step toward manhood - my own hip boots! It ranks right up there with getting your first rifle or shotgun, or your first car.




For you city-slickers, the photo above shows a man in hip boots.


Back then, the Walleye were so plentiful that you were virtually guaranteed of catching at least one or two at any given time, whether early or late in the season. Often, you’d catch the Walleye – which ran from 24 to 36 inches in length – gut it, fillet it, roll it in flour, put a glob of Crisco into a frying pan, and fry it up and eat it right on the spot.  I ate literally thousands of Walleye that way back in those days.


The law said you could have two poles per fisherman, and the law said you could have as many as five fish per license in your possession at any given time.  So, if you had three licensed fishermen at the shack, you could have no more than 15 Walleye in your possession – five per license. Those fish that were caught and not eaten were hooked onto stringers that were chained to the dock so they would stay alive in the river until it was time to pull the stringer out and take the fish home.


The rules were enforced by DNR wardens, who usually rode two-to-a-boat, and they would patrol the river, checking fishing licenses and number of fish in possession. There was a size limit – I don’t recall what it was – but the men I fished with were all conservation-minded, and they’d throw the little ones they caught back in with an admonition to “grow up and I’ll catch you again next year”.


The wardens quite frequently stopped at the O-Kell-Y Inn to check licenses and possession. And not surprisingly, often during the dinner hour, which always garnered them an invite for some fresh Walleye fillets.


Catching a good-size Walleye was a thrill. You’d watch those bamboo poles – often as many as eight or ten of them sprouting off the end of the dock, depending on how many licensed fishermen were at the shack – and watch and watch. When a good-size Walleye would take a minnow and the treble hooks would set just inside its mouth, it would give that bamboo pole one hell of a pull. There was a well-choreographed ballet when you had a lot of poles out and one of them got a strike.


The person whose pole it was would race to the edge of the dock and take the pole in their hands immediately. A hard hit from a big Walleye could easily pull that pole right out of the holder, and many a fisherman can tell a tale about the whopper that grabbed his line, pulled straight out, and took the pole and all down the river with him.  The DNR wardens frequently encountered bamboo poles floating down the river with a huge Walleye on the other end. They’d retrieve the Walleye, remove the hooks, and set it free again.


As the owner of the pole that had a hit would grab it, the other fishermen would grab their poles and carefully move them away from the one that had the fish on the hook. Lines that get tangled together can mean hours of work trying to untangle them, too often resulting in a resigned sigh followed by simply cutting the fishing line and removing the Wolf River rig, and starting all over again with fresh line.


After the other poles were safely out of the way, one of the other fishermen would grab the landing net and, as the guy with the strike slowly pulled the Walleye in, they’d scoop the big fish into the landing net and move in concert with the guy with the pole to maneuver the fish onto the dock, where it could be removed from the hooks and then either put on the stringer or immediately filleted and consumed.


Another piece of mandatory equipment was the battery-powered transistor radio, which at the time was a fairly new invention. Every weekday evening at 6:30 on WHBY radio out of Appleton a colorful guy named George Kubisiak would come on with the “Let’s Go Fishin’” show. Uncle George, as he called himself, hailed from New London – just upriver from Hortonville – and between 6:30 and 6:45 his Let’s Go Fishin’ show was tuned in on every radio up and down the Wolf River by every Walleye fisherman.


Uncle George would talk about where the Walleye were biting, often do live interviews with fishermen from the downtown bridge in New London, seeking information about how deep successful fishermen were setting their Wolf River rigs (“had ‘er set right at three foot, George, and they were hittin’ so hard that I’d catch one and take it off, put it on the stringer, bait the rig again, trow it in, and another one’d come right up and snap up another minnow”). After his show, the fishermen at every shack and in every boat on the river would debate whether or not Uncle George’s information on the show was believable.  Here’s a link to a fishing story featuring Uncle George from an April 1957 edition of the Milwaukee Sentinel.


During those years, like every other pre-teen and teenager, my transistor radio was my constant companion, though I had no clue back then that I’d ever pursue a career in broadcasting.


One of the main questions every spring season on the Wolf was whether “the run” was on or not. You could catch Walleye any time there wasn’t ice on the river, but for a seven to ten day period after the ice went out, droves of Walleye would make the trip downriver at the same time, and this was the window the fisherman longed for – “the run”. When the run was on, you could catch your limit of five Walleye (of appropriate size) in less than an hour. 


At the preliminary stages of “the run”, the fishermen would debate whether the run was on or off. Guys fishing from boats would yell out from the middle of the river “catchin’ any?” and information was exchanged and a tentative determination was made as to whether the run was on or off. “Uncle George said they were hittin’ like crazy just below the New London bridge but he’s full of it – we was up there a hour ago and they ain’t catchin’ squat”.


During the run, with a possession limit of five, you can bet that an awful lot of Walleye went right from the hook to the frying pan. During the run, we’d stay at the shack all night. My dad and his friends would play cards and drink beer, and if everybody had caught their limit and the stringers and our bellies were full, they’d simply unbait the lines and pull the poles back and enjoy each other’s company.  Three of the four partners were teachers, so after catching a short night’s sleep, we’d trudge back to the car, go home and clean up, go to school, and then the minute the final bell rang we’d race home, change into our fishin’ clothes and head back to the shack.


Before and after the run, we’d be more likely to close up shop on the river around 9 o’clock and head home for a good night’s sleep. But when the run was on – every possible minute was spent with two lines in the water on the mighty Wolf River.


As I fondly look back on the spring Walleye seasons of my youth, now more than 50 years ago, I calculate as beyond value the time I spent with my dad. It was during those annual six-or-seven week spring Walleye seasons that I learned the most about what being a man meant. I picked up lifelong values from the conversations my dad and I had during those spring runs.


Often, I was a boy among men, particularly after the O-Kell-Y Inn was built. My dad and his three partners were in their mid-to-late 30’s, all of them had served in The Big War, were established in their careers, and I never felt like I was in their way or a bother to them. Three of the four were teachers, and darn good ones, so by definition they liked kids. I’m sure they moderated their language when I was around, but I was expected to pull my weight – whether it was tending to lines, keeping the kerosene lanterns and kerosene heater going, or helping clean up the kitchen area after meals.


Gender roles were very narrowly defined in small-town Wisconsin in the 50’s and 60’s. Fishin’ and huntin’ were a man’s job, but every spring Walleye season, on a Sunday when the weather was nice, the women-folk were invited to make the slog in to the shack, and see what all this fishing foolishness was about.  It was generally late in the season when the river had subsided so they could walk in wearing rain boots, and polite conversation was made between the women’s observations like “I just don’t see what the appeal is.”


As I got farther along into high school, the annual spring run lost much of its appeal; there were other things – band, sports, girls – that captured my fancy. But I had two younger brothers to uphold the tradition of goin’ fishin’ with dad.


But I wouldn’t trade for anything those formative years when the most important season to me was the spring Walleye run on the mighty Wolf River.


  1. This is a great read, Tim. Takes me back to fishing trips with Dad and Gramps. Worries about how I might someday raise my kids similarly, while otherwise living an urban lifestyle, are the kind of stuff that keep me up nights.

    Dusty W