We pulled up to the mouth of the Onion River and surveyed the situation. Bright sun fell on the ice of Chequamegon Bay, reflecting back in a nearly blinding, white glare.
A steady southwest wind was gaining strength by the hour and helping to move the massive sheets of ice until they ground together and shifted, making noises like a mixture of shotgun fire and sonic booms.
A frigid December had been followed by a moderate, even warm January, and ice conditions were variable at best. The mouth of the river spilled water 30 to 40 feet into the bay, making it difficult to judge where safe ice -if any- began or more importantly, ended. We walked gingerly around the opening, testing the ice before us with an iron bar. At a point some 30 yards away from open water, we drilled a hole and happily found eight inches of ice.
Chequamegon Bay is a shallow and relatively warm pocket of Lake Superior. Situated off northwestern Wisconsin, Chequamegon (pronounced Sha-wa-ma-gun) is best known for its superb smallmouth fishery during the warmer months. In winter, the Bay crusts over with ice and opens up a new world for ice anglers. Houses and shelters appear and holes are drilled like wildcaters searching for oil. Chequamegon Bay is like an all you can eat buffet. You never know what will be served and though you may not like everything set before you, there is always something to pique your interest. On a menu that rotates constantly, you'll find chinook, coho salmon, brown and rainbow trout, whitefish, lake trout and splake. Splake?
Splake are a man-made fish. A hybrid, crossing female lake trout with male brook trout. Like most hybrids, they are sterile and form what is essentially a put and take fishery. Splake have the advantage of quick growth, hardiness, and are willing to take artificial baits. In this part of the frozen north, they are the bread and butter of ice anglers hoping to take home some fish for a meal. Being part brookie, splake make excellent table fare.
Gear is relatively simple. A selection of jigs and jigging spoons fits the bill nicely. Yellow, black, and white are favorite colors and consistent producers. My fishing partner, Keith Behn, is an avid fly-fisherman and all around outdoorsman. In the summer, he is a part-time guide and knows the north woods as well as anyone. He is also highly self-sufficient and isn't content to let others pick his lures. While some drop Swedish Pimples or jigging Rapalas through the ice, Keith just as often uses a lure of his own making. He opened a small tackle kit and showed me a selection of jigs he had dressed with marabou. "Try black and I'll go with white" he said.
We huddled in the shelter and listened as the wind whipped across the Bay's surface. Jigs were dropped into five feet of water. As they fell, the marabou fluttered in the water and reacted to the slightest rod movement. The sandy bottom became cloudy as current from the river pushed by. It would then slowly clear and become transparent, like looking through air. Moments passed until a dark figure appeared below us. A whitefish swam past my jig, curled and passed again. It showed no interest in eating and slowly moved out of sight. A sign, at least, that fish were in the area.
We stared through the holes, working the jigs. Keith favored a slow, almost motionless presentation. I was jigging with more gusto, hopping and swimming the lure in hopes ofcatching the eye of a splake. My method drew the first fish. While lifting the jig a dark shape appeared, lunged, and missed the jig. Not to be deterred, the fish turned and attacked again. Hookup. My little ice rod bent, and I stuck the tip into the water, giving line. The light drag hummed as the fish pulled away. I dug in and began recovering line until I saw the fish. "It's a brown" I said. "It's a splake" Keith said. Turns out he was wrong, which doesn't happen often. I pulled the fish onto the ice and admired twelve inches of Salmo trutta. I quickly returned the golden brown fish to the water, noting it was a good start. I looked at Keith and said "your turn."
It didn't take long for those words to ring true, as a rainbow fell to Keith's white marabou jig. The fish was slender but put up a strong tussle, pulling hard against the little ice rod rigged with 4-pound test. Slowly, the trout was brought through the ice and held long enough for a photo before being released. Two fish, two trout, but nothing for the dinner table - yet.
My black jig brought in the next fish and added another species to the count. Again, while jigging rather furiously a silver shape dashed at the lure, nicking it. The fish turned and slammed it again. This time it connected, and the race was on. My rod bent as the fish ran under the ice. I loosened the drag a bit more and waited. I worked the fish back to the hole to find a coho salmon staring up through the icy water. Eighteen inches of silver scales and flopping fins protested while I lifted it from the water. I withdrew the jig and slipped the salmon back into the water. A brown, a rainbow, and a coho. A hat trick of sorts, but still no splake and no fish dinner. As the waters churned below the ice, our culinary fortunes took a turn toward the dinner table.
The white marabou jig would prove irresistible to splake number one, which snapped the jig and bore away. This fish had a little more flesh on its bones. Turning, I watched as Keith let line out, recover it and then let it out again. A two-pounder came up through the ice and I took a closer look. In the water, I would have called it a brook trout but now I could see the subtle differences. The fins were covered with light spots but the red spots were telling. Brook trout have many red spots that extend all the way to the caudal fins. Splake only have two or three located behind the gills. Nice fish, but Keith insisted it was only average. He'd caught splake close to 10 pounds and was hoping for something bigger.
Between us, we managed four more splake and another rainbow. While I was the champion of species diversity that day, Keith's black jig and subtle approach brought in the biggest fish, including a fat five-pound splake that bulged at the belly. It would have been a handful on regular tackle but with the miniscule ice rod and 4-pound test almost proved too much. Yards of line stripped off the reel and several agonizing minutes passed before the fish could be turned. Little by little, gains were made and after several near catches Keith grabbed the head of the fish and pulled it from the water. I knew that dinner, a big one at that, was in the bag and on ice.
I'm a catch and release man at heart, but today these splake were bound for culinary glory. As we packed the gear and drove away, we argued over how to prepare the fish. "A fish that good has to be grilled" Keith said. "Well, what about frying? Or even smoking?" I countered. "Smoking? That's a waste" he fired back. "Smoked salmon isn't a waste, why would this be?" Keith shook his head. "You might as well just shake and bake with that attitude." I thought for a moment and replied "don't you mean splake and bake?"
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