Lake Michi­gan of­fers stel­lar ice fish­ing

Milwaukee Journal Sentinel - - Outdoors - Out­doors Paul A. Smith Milwaukee Jour­nal Sen­tinel USA TO­DAY NET­WORK – WIS.

KENOSHA - Mother Na­ture had ar­ranged an im­pres­sive wel­come party Mon­day morn­ing in the Kenosha har­bor.

Pink light blos­somed in the eastern sky over Lake Michi­gan while a south­west­erly breeze ush­ered in 38-de­gree air.

Af­ter a string of bit­terly cold days, the weather felt T-shirt wor­thy to win­ter­hard­ened Wis­con­sinites.

But the cher­ries on the cake for our group of an­glers came from be­neath the har­bor's ice.

As I walked out to meet Ken Polud­ni­anyk of Milwaukee and Joe Boutell of Racine at 7:15 a.m., the first fish of the day was al­ready on the line.

"Want to catch it,?" asked Polud­ni­anyk as a lively force bowed the rod in his hands.

In any fish­er­man's book, we had the start of a very good day.

I waved off the kind of­fer and in­stead cap­tured the mo­ment with a cam­era.

Polud­ni­anyk, 43, worked the fish for an­other cou­ple min­utes and then reached into the hole and slid a bigshoul­dered mem­ber of the wel­com­ing party into the dawn light.

The fish was a brown trout, about 30 inches long, solidly built and dressed in a gor­geous yel­low coat with dark spots.

The hook was plucked out of the fish's lip and in sec­onds the trout was re­turned to the lake.

"Maybe we'll see you again when you're even big­ger," Polud­ni­anyk said.

Very few places on the planet world would an­glers even con­tem­plate catch­ing a trout longer than 30 inches.

But here on the shores of Lake Michi­gan, such catches oc­cur with a fre­quency that has earned the fish­ery a world-class rep­u­ta­tion.

And when the wa­ter turns hard in win­ter, the har­bors along the lake's western shore pro­vide a unique op­por­tu­nity to catch what for many an­glers are the big­gest trout of their lives.

Per­haps best of all, the fish­ing is done on pub­lic wa­ters in ur­ban ar­eas and doesn't re­quire a big boat or ex­pen­sive tackle.

The fish, brown trout and steel­head (rain­bow trout), fre­quent the har­bors and river mouths in win­ter in con­junc­tion with spawn­ing mi­gra­tions.

Polud­ni­anyk, owner of Jack's Char­ter Ser­vice, has a rare perspective on the Great Lakes fish­ery.

Un­like many char­ter cap­tains, he runs his busi­ness year-round and fo­cuses on the best bites of the sea­sons. In spring, that means trolling for trout and salmon on a 39-foot boat out of Racine.

In sum­mer, he moves the big boat to Milwaukee and con­tin­ues the trout and salmon fish­ing through Oc­to­ber. He then switches to a 19-foot boat and sets up in Lit­tle Bay de Noc, Mich., to fish for walleyes un­til ice cov­ers the lake.

Then in win­ter he and his crew fish through the hard wa­ter or in open wa­ter on trib­u­taries in south­east­ern Wis­con­sin for brown trout and steel­head.

Polud­ni­anyk has had cus­tomers from all over the world. He said it helps him ap­pre­ci­ate just how good the trout fish­ing is in Lake Michi­gan.

"You never take it for granted when you have clients from China and Ger­many who have fished all over the world telling you they just had the best day of fish­ing in their life," Polud­ni­anyk said.

The tales told by an­glers are backed by facts. The wa­ters of south­east­ern Wis­con­sin pro­duced the In­ter­na­tional Game Fish As­so­ci­a­tion all-tackle world record brown trout (41.8 pounds) in 2010 and the catch-and-re­lease world record brown trout (38 inches) in 2011.

As is widely known, the stars of the mod­ern Lake Michi­gan trout and salmon fish­ery are species in­tro­duced to help man­age the pop­u­la­tion of alewife, an in­va­sive fish that over­whelmed the lake be­gin­ning in the 1950s.

In 2015 (the last year for which fi­nal stock­ing data are avail­able), the Wis­con­sin De­part­ment of Nat­u­ral Re­sources stocked 2.6 mil­lion trout and salmon in the Wis­con­sin wa­ters of Lake Michi­gan. In ad­di­tion, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Ser­vice stocked 809,103 lake trout.

It's many of these fish, now about 3 years old, that are cir­cling be­neath the ice around Sim­mons Is­land on Kenosha's lake­front.

Min­utes af­ter Polud­ni­anyk re­leased the 30-incher, Boutell heard the "clack" of an Au­to­matic Fish­er­man and went off run­ning to a hole 30 yards to the north.

Af­ter five min­utes of to-and-fro, Boutell iced a 29-inch brown trout. The male was deeply-col­ored and had a slight­ly­hooked jaw. Af­ter a quick photo, it too was re­leased.

Over the next 90 min­utes, we had flur­ries of ac­tion and caught an­other five fish, all browns. One fe­male oozed eggs as it was re­leased and one male de­posited milt on the ice.

Although the fish at­tempt to spawn, stud­ies have shown vir­tu­ally no nat­u­ral trout or salmon re­pro­duc­tion in south­east­ern Wis­con­sin trib­u­taries. The wa­ter is too warm, too low in oxy­gen or too silty for the eggs or fry to sur­vive.

The stocked fish have both con­trolled the alewives and sus­tained a sport fish­ery for five decades.

"A big part of suc­cess­ful fish­ing is adapt­ing to cir­cum­stances and mak­ing the most of what is avail­able," Polud­ni­anyk said. "It's re­ally a mem­o­rable ex­pe­ri­ence to fight a big trout on a short rod in close quar­ters through the ice."

Polud­ni­anyk, and his as­sis­tant cap­tains Boutell and Kyle Deavers of Racine, set out eight baits un­der Au­to­matic Fish­er­man rigs and left an­other four holes avail­able to us for jig­ging.

The Au­to­matic Fish­er­man is a "dead stick" de­vice that holds a rod un­der ten­sion and sets the hook when a fish takes the bait.

The lines were baited with spawn sacs, shiner min­nows or large fat­heads. Boutell said he some­times also uses cooked shrimp or wax­worms.

Pro­duc­tive lures in­clude spoons, jigs and glide baits. To ease the task of land­ing big fish, Polud­ni­anyk and crew drilled 10 inch di­am­e­ter holes. They also use flouro­car­bon lead­ers, helpful to draw more strikes in the clear Lake Michi­gan wa­ter.

Although we fished the Kenosha har­bor, Boutell said Racine, Milwaukee and Port Wash­ing­ton are also ex­cel­lent spots.

Since many har­bors and mari­nas run aer­a­tors in win­ter or cur­rent runs un­der the ice, it's im­por­tant to fish with or con­sult ex­pe­ri­enced an­glers to stay safe.

Our group set up camp on 10 inches of solid ice. But 50 yards to the north, mer­gansers and gold­eneyes dove for fish in an open circle of wa­ter.

The ac­tion slowed some­what as the sun climbed into the cloud­less sky.

But at 11 a.m., an­other trout grabbed a spawn sac and Deavers grabbed the rod. Eight min­utes later a 28-inch brown trout came top­side and was briefly ad­mired be­fore re­lease.

We caught and re­leased 10 trout, all browns, in four hours of fish­ing.

The heav­i­est fish we caught Mon­day was about 10 pounds. The day be­fore the group landed a 20-pound brown among a catch of 15 fish.

"The next strike could be a per­sonal best or even a world record," Polud­ni­anyk said. "That's the re­al­ity of this great fish­ery on our doorstep."

PAUL A. SMITH / MILWAUKEE JOUR­NAL SEN­TINEL

Joe Boutell of Racine pre­pares to re­lease a brown trout caught while ice fish­ing in the Kenosha har­bor.

PAUL A. SMITH / MILWAUKEE JOUR­NAL SEN­TINEL

Ken Polud­ni­anyk of Milwaukee re­leases a brown trout caught while ice fish­ing in the Kenosha har­bor.

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