Ice Fishing in the Northwoods

Feb 19, 2020

Ice fishing is hardly controversial today, but in decades past there was a real question about whether it should even be allowed in the Northwoods. Here’s Gary Entz with this week’s Northwoods Moment in History.

Ice fishing is a common winter pastime in the Northwoods, and the city of Rhinelander bills itself as the Ice Fishing Capital of the World. Not only is ice fishing a popular recreational activity, it also provides an economic boost to the region. Ice fishing is hardly controversial today, but in decades past there was a real question about whether it should even be allowed.

Regulations on fishing and limits on how many fish can be taken by any individual fisherman have long been in place, but during the Depression years of the 1930s it was difficult to enforce due to limited funds. Many fishermen simply ignored the rules with the consequence that lakes in the Northwoods became dangerously depleted. By 1938 the state decided to take drastic action. Closing of individual lakes to ice fishing was nothing new and had been done numerous times in the past, but in December 1938 the State Conservation Commission decided to prohibit ice fishing on all lakes across the entire Northwoods region. The sole exception was Iron County.

Fishermen and business owners in Oneida County were particularly dismayed as the area around Rhinelander had already become something of a mecca for winter fishing enthusiasts over the previous few years. As one might imagine, objections began immediately. A petition protesting the closures was circulated. It was signed by 1,200 residents and sent to Governor-elect Julius Heil for action. Heil forwarded the petition to the Conservation Commission, and their response was critical of how Northwoods residents cared for their own natural resources.

The Conservation Commission said that Oneida County fishermen had only themselves to blame. Had they acquainted themselves with the regulations on fishing and followed them, then the drastic action of shutting down all ice fishing would not be necessary. But they hadn’t followed the regulations, and the lakes were exhausted. Therefore, shutting down ice fishing for the season, said conservation officials, was “merely an instance of good, practical game management.”

News of Oneida County protests quickly spread around the state, and in their complaints the Northwoods fishermen found themselves alone. New petitions began to circulate in support of the Conservation Commission and its decision to shut down ice fishing for the season. One Pelican Lake resident wrote that “good sportsmen everywhere should protest the willful slaughter of fish caught through ice.” The prevailing view was that the Oneida County protests came from special interest groups who ignored the fact that summer visitors also enjoyed fishing in the Northwoods and did not want to see the stock completely depleted.

A public meeting was held in Rhinelander in January 1939 to debate the issue, and although the people in favor of keeping the lakes closed to ice fishing were badly outnumbered, their arguments won the day. The lakes stayed closed.

A heated debate continued through 1939, but the issue eased up and by December 1939 it was announced that ice fishing for perch and crappies would be allowed in the region.