Shanty culture is nothing new. It’s a winter pastime shrouded in secrets and superstition, and it visually qualifies as American folk art. Ice fishing and shanty culture are part of many northern Wisconsinites’ heritage. For many years—well, most of my life—I just didn’t get it. Why would anyone sit for hours on end in freezing temperatures just to catch fish?
I’m no stranger to fishing. My father’s taxidermy prize catches hung in my childhood home. His ice shanty has been parked at our cabin for as long as I can remember, just waiting for the ice to thicken so that it can be moved out onto Lake Noquebay. Not until a few years ago did this winter activity start to lure me in. This is one of many things in my life that have always been right in front of me but for some reason or another has taken me a lifetime to appreciate.
There is an art to ice fishing; this, my father has taught me. The lake with its varying depths and underwater topography is teaming with different species of fish: perch, bluegill, largemouth bass, smallmouth bass, northern pike, trout, walleye, and muskellunge. The trick is to know where they are. To know where they are, you must know the lake and the habitat the fish prefer. It’s not only the key to know what time of the day they are biting, but also what they are biting on.
This information has been gathered for years and recorded in a simple notebook hanging on a nail in my father’s fishing shanty: The first day out, conditions, thickness of ice, and what was caught and the amount and length of each fish. Each day of the season follows with the same information until the ice starts to recede and it’s time for the shanty to reclaim its spot on dry ground.
My father is what I would consider an old-school ice fisherman. There’s nothing fancy about his approach. Many of his fellow fishermen fish multiple lakes, racing from one to the next throughout the day using the latest technology to outsmart their catch. Some invest in electronic depth finders, sonar and handheld GPS, underwater fish cameras, specialty rods, reels, tip ups, tackle and accessories, and ATVs equipped with overhead lights for night fishing. My father is still using his original handmade 40+-year-old Beaver Dam Arctic Fisherman wooden tip ups. He stops for fresh minnows every morning. He then heads to his shanty to drill fresh holes, set the depth of his line using his florescent-orange $1.49 depth-finder weights, set his tip ups, and then shoot the breeze with fellow fisherman while always keeping an eye out for a flag to go up.
There is a bit of romance attached to this culture. There is the solitude of patiently waiting for your tip ups to trip that signals you have a bite. There is an undercurrent of constant socializing. The mornings, afternoons, and evenings are peppered with fellow fishermen checking in to see how one another are doing. Staying for a time to visit and to enjoy what I’ve come to think of as the official beverage on the lake, Bud Light. There are conversations of weather, the Packers, and all things fishing. People are grilling burgers to share with those fishing around them. Grandchildren shoveling snow off the ice to make a circle around their grandfather’s shanty so that they can spend the day ice skating. Only later to hear their grandfather halfheartedly complain that he didn’t have a bite all day due to the racket his grandchildren were making.
What I have observed during my re-introduction to this pastime is that it is not just about catching fish—it is more about the camaraderie of those who enjoy being part of this winter community on ice. It’s a legacy that is quietly being passed down from generation to generation. Ice fishing lures you to the outdoors even in the coldest of times. Friends and family all gathered in these tiny colorful ice shanties sharing stories and news of the day while always keeping an eye on their tip ups. I have fallen for shanty culture, so maybe it’s time I build my own and join this iconic fishing village on the ice.
When Tami Lax is not spending time at her two Madison restaurants, Harvest and The Old Fashioned, she can be found documenting her life through photography. Her passion for photography rivals her passion for cooking and her favorite subjects are family, food, and travel.