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Milwaukee Harbor, WI | Fish Thumb

Milwaukee Harbor, WI

December 6, 2018
December 6, 2018 Chris Iseley

Milwaukee Harbor, WI

“Chris…what do you even do?”

 

I get that question a lot. It goes hand-in-hand with this one: “How do you get to travel and fish all the time?” Work hard, play harder. It’s that simple.

 

I actually have a few different jobs, one in which I’m technically the employee, and a couple others that are my own endeavors. One of which involves running a logistics company. This is fortunate for me, since trying to plan and organize fishing trips while staying gainfully employed and being a good husband and father can sometimes feel like a bit of a logistical nightmare. Again, if you work hard, you can set yourself up to capitalize on any opportunity to play harder.

 

Being ready to capitalize also means keeping a kind-of running bucket list of things to do or places to go. If a window opens up, you can’t get hung up trying to figure out WHAT to do, you have to be ready to just do it.

 

So that’s what I do.

 

In some cases, those opportunities are self-made. I decided to leave my job to join another company in the same field, and I wanted to take some time off as part of the transition. (Note here that “time off” means having only several start-up gigs to manage while not being employed by someone else). I took a full month, and this opened up a window in early 2018 for travel and fishing.

 

On my long list of travel and fishing goals was Milwaukee. Sounds exotic, right? It’s not, but pulling huge brown trout up through the ice of the harbor in the middle of winter sounded thrilling enough to me. There’s something enthralling about these massive shadows lurking below the surface in the cold, dark depths. Something mystifying about sitting and standing out on a sheet of ice that, mere months from this moment, will be liquid again. It combines in an impossibly cool dream, and one I was determined to bring to life.

 

Not to mention I had some serious envy going on for the rockstar anglers who get to do this. A good buddy of mine, Brian Carpenter, had told me to follow this guy on Instagram, Eric Hattaja. He’s the real deal, sort of a legend around Milwaukee, and his page is just post after post of these massive brown trout coming out of the harbor. So when I had a window of opportunity, I reached out to see if I could get some time with him for a couple of days ice fishing.

 

And he agreed.

 

I managed to get some cheap flights into Milwaukee and booked a decent hotel right on the harbor, about five minutes from where we’d be fishing. The plan was to wake up super early each morning, before the sunrise, and head out onto the ice.

 

I was surprised the first morning to get out there and find we were far from the first ones to get started for the day. There were scattered huts dotting the frozen harbor, like dark shadows against the pale gray blur of winter and the dull, off-white ice. Lights flickered on our periphery from the skyscrapers and streetlights of downtown Milwaukee, and it created this weird surreal quality to the whole morning, like standing outside of a room you’re supposed to be in. Or maybe I was just freaking tired.

 

I didn’t have time to dwell on this interesting vibe, though. Within the first twenty minutes we heard a guy 20 yards away yell “HOOK UP.” By the time we ran over he’d already hauled a brown trout onto the ice, about 12-13 lbs and glistening as the water slid from his scales.

 

I had a feeling it would be a good day.

 

Back in my hut, I was sitting there just jigging, and it was so eerie. Imagine sitting there on ice, with thousands and thousands of tons of water and aquatic life just a few feet below you, dark and impossibly cold. The wintry grays of snow and fog lightened a bit, semi-glowing as the sun finally lifted above the horizon, washing out the distant glimmer of the city. Eeriest of all, the ice was cracking beneath us.

 

It would start at one end of the harbor. CRACK. It felt like a gunshot, and it rippled through the otherwise solid sheet of ice. It went right through the spot where we sat. Eric laughed at the look on my face. It was actually the sound of ice expanding, not breaking, but it was enough to make anyone tense up for a moment.

 

Eric was great, a top notch guide who, along with a guy named Casey,  worked incredibly hard for their sport and for the benefit of their guidees (in this case, that’s me). And as I’ve said probably too many times, hard work pays off. I’m proud to be a quick learner.

 

Over two days, I caught 23 brown trout, all between 6 and 17 lbs. The biggest one, the 17 lb, had this huge hook jaw like a tough boxer — a fighter — and was colored up like something out of a dream, the fish I’d set out to catch. Holding him up, he seemed just as big as I was, and the weak rays of sun flashed across his brown scales, lighting up the speckled black markings running from head to tail.

 

It was the kind of fish I’d normally want to show off to my buddies, and if I’d had more time to plan the trip I might have invited a few friends to sit out there on the ice with me. I could see us drinking beers, looking down through the hole in the ice to the single dark spot below, imagining the slow-cruising monsters of the deep way below us. But I’d never ice-fished before, and it was a unique process to learn. Beyond the techniques, you learn a lot about yourself when you travel — and even more when you travel alone. You’re forced to interact differently, make new friends, and experience things purely through your own senses.

 

For me, that first trip to Milwaukee Harbor is a memory that’s mine alone. The pictures are a kind of proof to others of what I caught and what it looked like, but they don’t tell the full story or expose the depth of feeling; they can’t convey the eerie surrealism of sitting out on frozen water, looking back at office buildings and skyscrapers, feeling absolute freedom and defiance.

 

Most of those folks in the city wouldn’t even think twice about this incredible adventure right under their noses, let alone travel across the country to experience it. And even if they did think about it, it takes a wild edge on a person to get out into the bitter bite of winter and shiver in an ice hut…all for a fish.

 

Fortunately, I do know some wild-edged people who would love it just as much as I do, and I am eager to go back with some friends, to Milwaukee Harbor and the Great Lakes in general. There’s an abundance of steelhead (I caught a huge 32” one), king salmon, coho salmon, and, of course, the brown trout.

 

It seemed like we had a hook up every 30 minutes, and in the interim we talked about people and business, religion and God, and the little moments that tie everything together. There’s lots of downtime when you’re out there trying to catch fish, and I genuinely appreciate being with the kinds of guys who are open-minded and willing to talk about the important things.

 

Those are the moments when you really hear something crack, something inside yourself. And with the right people, and the right purpose, you’ll find it’s not a breaking, but an expanding. And that, to me, is the best answer to the question: “Chris, what do you even do?”

 

I’m expanding.