White Lake Ice Fishing

Jan 24, 2020

A winter ritual in the northwoods is ice fishing. This time of year, anglers take to the lakes for pan fish, northern pike, and the prized walleye pike. Jim Skibo met up with some hardy anglers on White Lake to learn more about this cold weather sport.

Ice conditions on many lakes in the northwoods have been unsafe for fishing, especially if you fish with a shack. Farther south, in Langlade County there is a sufficient amount of ice and fishing is going on as usual.

On a recent visit to White Lake, the temperature was a relatively warm 20 degrees, but the air felt a bit cooler as there was a steady westerly wind. Ten or so shacks, of various sizes and colors, provided a welcome contrast to the completely white landscape.

I met up with a few fishermen on the lake including local resident, Max Budd, who was using his auger to drill a hole in the ice. He reported that there was about 14 inches of good ice.

Eighty-one year old Max Budd has been fishing on White Lake for over seventy years, and he is known locally as the guy who is first to pull his shack on the ice. How does Max know it is safe enough for his shack? Usually starting in December, he visits the lake’s edge every day or so and drills a hole. When it reaches 6 inches, he pulls his shack onto the ice with his 4-wheeler.

Although he has never had an incident using this method, others are a bit more cautious. Elmer Mulhollon, also of White Lake, waits for a foot of ice, or when there are several shacks in place. Elmer and his friend and shack co-owner, Jim Popelka, then pull their shack out on the ice. Both retired, they come out almost every day in the mid afternoon and fish until dark.

Ice fishing certainly does have its challenges, like breaking through the ice on your minnow bucket and reaching in with your bare hand to grab the minnow and bait the hook. But according to these anglers, the joys of ice fishing far outweigh putting up with a little discomfort.

A big part of the joy is being on the ice with family and friends. One of Elmer’s best time on the ice is when a group of friends put their shacks in close proximity and they all sit in a single shack to watch their tip-ups and visit.

A “tip-up,” for those not familiar with the ice-fishing tools, is the device that sits in the hole with bait on the line and the flag “tips up” when a fish takes the hook. 

Jim Popelka sets up his tip up
Credit Image by Jim Skibo

Both Max and his nephew Ron Budd both stated that family has always been an important part of ice fishing. Max had 11 brothers and sisters and many of them, along with their kids, would often spend an entire day on the lake.  One of their favorite spots was Pickeral Lake, where they would start a big fire on the lake, when that practice was legal, put out lots of tip-ups, cook food over the open fire, including venison steak, and the adults would drink a beer or two. The cousins were especially fond of these adventures, where they would be busy chasing down the tip-up flags and roasting marshmallows. It was an important part of their life.

Max first learned how to fish when he was about 10 years old as he tagged along with his three older brothers. He learned to fish from them, which included first collecting the bait, which were  grubs they gathered from a rotten balsam tree.

Since they had to dig the hole with an ice chisel, they would put in just one hole each and sit there all day fishing, mostly for pan fish. When they got cold, they built a fire.

Although Max, Ron, and Elmer like the comradery of fishing, what they like best is catching fish. When talking to each other, they have the habit of looking out at the tip-ups every 30 seconds or so. Although Max Budd has been fishing for 70 plus years and has caught countless fish, this phrase still puts a spring in his step. “I’ve got a flag.”

As Max pulled on a line of a tip-up that had been tripped, he started with some of the banter northwoods anglers are known for. “Probably should have brought a wagon with me to haul this big fish home,” he says with a chuckle.

Although the ice anglers did not have too much luck that afternoon, what keeps them coming out on these cold windy days is perhaps best summed up by Max, “I love to be out here,” and “I love fishing.”

If you love fishing too, you can join Max and the gang on White Lake during the 46th annual Fishing Derby, on Saturday, February 1st. You can visit this website for more information: https://www.langladecounty.org/calendars/events_calendar/2019-12/46th-annual-white-lake-volunteer-fire-department-fishing-derby-2020-02-01/

Elmer Mulhollon (left) and Jim Popelka (right) in their ice shack on White Lake
Credit Image by Jim Skibo