A room with the history of a woman who followed a passion into the gridiron is where my eyes opened on this cold day of early February, in Milwaukee Wisconsin. My Wisconsin Women Fish host was so kind, her home was very welcoming and comfortable. It even had the bonus of two sweet foster kitties. As we both hurriedly did morning routines and tried to time the dawning of our outdoor fishing uniforms I wondered if this reminded my host of her football days of padding, jerseys, and helmet before game time.
The day had yet to begin for many at such an early hour of 5 am, yet I immediately observed the stark difference of other early mornings I usually experience in Wisconsin. This was Milwaukee! No quiet trip of minimal cars of far and few between, but instead the energized rush of thousands whipping their white dust of salt covered chariots down the freeway to their intended destinations. I tried to be a trusty co-pilot as my host steered us from one triple-digit freeway number to another with maze-like construction. As we slowed down and took our final exit, I could sense the ease of our combined energies. Though quickly replaced with that of excitement to be fishing again with a group from Wisconsin Women Fish.
We pulled into the assigned lot of our group leader, Dodie Gibbs, to wait for all to arrive. As each car, or more often truck arrived, a hearty wave of gloved hands would be shared with each vehicle passed and passing. I did not even know or recognize most but joining the hand parade seemed like a great way to start our adventures off as a group. As each vehicle was directed to the lineup, Dodie would arrive at the driver’s window with a welcome, a gift of packaged hand warmers, and an assigned raffle number. My host stated she would never remember her number, it was six, I said I would remember for her. I could feel the excitement in me and among the other cars. Shouts of "hello" and "tight lines" rolled around the parking lot as they came from the parked trucks and cars, we were waiting for our direction on which area we would be fishing. The guides from Wolf Pack Adventures had been waiting until that morning to determine the best location for us. Little did I know then how our early arrival was a sleep-in compared to these guides. The green light was given, all were present and accounted for. My host and I took the one block drive to the next lot of the marina in turn. I can imagine how the residents of the high rises looking down over their early morning cup of coffee would have seen the caterpillar-like light trail of our vehicles.
As soon as we began to put our feet on the ground the final preparations to our fishing uniforms were completed with spikes, picks, and bibs. Yes, there does seem to be a three-part process to being ready for the ice. First layers at home, final layers near the ice, and gear loaded onto sleds for the trek to our designated hard water spot. This is also when more hello's and hugs are exchanged between anglers who have not seen each other since a past Wisconsin Women Fish event. It is quickly apparent that there are a few locals to this Milwaukee area, but there are equally as many women who have come from great distances just to share this time and opportunity to fish for Milwaukee Brown's with their WiWF friends. All were helping with the loading of sleds, some helped put ice cleats on, and others would ask aloud if all had their licenses, chairs, or buckets, and inevitably a request for an extra pair of something accidentally left behind would be called out.
The trek to the ice begins with the sound of small but truly strong metal teeth on concrete, clickety-clack, clickety-clack. Down a very long sidewalk with the sounds of plastic scraping along with heavy gear aboard being the only thing to drown out the sounds of the metal teeth beneath the feet of near two dozen women anglers. We step through the only open gate onto the docks of what is during the open water seasons private marina, but when frozen becomes public access to any eager ice angler. I immediately spot open water surprisingly; I know I will be working that later. This open water is due to what are called "bubblers" or "aerators," these units move water near the shoreline to reduce ice buckling that would otherwise damage the docks that are not removed during the winter. As we reach the end of the dock, we are to step down upon Lake Michigan ice. This is a first for me, having only ever been even close to Lake Michigan when in Chicago on the wharf for lunch at a Bubba Gump’s, almost two decades ago. For some, this is an easy transition to jump down from the pier to the ice, for others it requires a bit more assistance which was immediately provided by our guides for the day from Wolf Pack Adventures and fellow sister anglers.
The scene was a lot to take in at once. There were half a dozen Clam Outdoors shacks set up already spread over space easily the size of a football field. Some were within the actual marina boat docks, others were farther out into the bay itself, with the rest scattered to the sides and in-between. As our group collected on the ice our event leader Dodie introduced us to the Wolf Pack Adventures team, pointed out which shacks were for our use, and also shared the exciting news that the owner, and inventor of the Automatic Fisherman Kerry Paulson was joining our group's event for the day. Everyone quickly headed for the shack they found ideal with little a word. It was as if there had been a meeting I had missed, or some assigned number handed out designating which shack was for which group of women. I quickly found myself surrounded by no one. The metal teeth sounds faded as they got farther away. I took a moment to take a true look around.
To start, I noticed the sun reflecting off the tall skyscrapers along the shoreline before I notice the sun was even rising behind me. It had been almost ten years since I had been in Milwaukee, and I had never experienced this major metropolitan city in such a majestic manner. I was gazing at the most amazing juxtaposition of city reflecting the glory of the sun onto just a small portion of ice along the edge of one of our country’s largest lakes. As my gaze lowered back to the ice, I began to see the small bright red arm like items as far as my eye could see. I did a double-take on whether these were really part of our group or just some random coincidental shape and color that looked like Automatic Fisherman. I will never forget that specific moment of trying and failing at counting how many Automatic Fisherman were out waiting to be set. I was immediately struck with the realization of the actual amount of time and effort that had gone into everything being ready by 6:00 am for our group of anglers. Over fifty holes had been drilled through what was at least a foot of ice, and next to fifty of those holes were Kerry Paulson's Automatic Fisherman. Even as I sit to write this, I am in awe of the herculean efforts it took to be so prepared for us to be able to fish the very moment our feet hit the ice.
Fish on! I was jolted out of my mind’s moment of observation by the national angler call. I turned to see bodies rushing towards the action of an Automatic Fisherman. As I reached the hole a circle had already been formed. Curiosity of every level present. Was it a brown trout, was it big, was it fighting, will it be the day's winner or the holy grail of a master angler size? Before these questions can even be asked or answered the fish seemingly leaps from the hole with a swift experienced catch made by none other than Kerry Paulson. What a beautiful fish! What a huge fish! The smile of the angler whose catch it was infectious. Immediately the words of praise were shared, and every angle of picture taken all with a sense of respectful urgency to return this wonderful specimen back to the comfort of the frigid Lake Michigan water. As quickly as the scene was generated it separated as each observer returned to their chosen hole with even greater determination and confidence that they too would soon experience the euphoria of a Milwaukee Brown fish on.
While waiting for the next adrenaline rush to come I spent time working my way around the group. I was so curious of many things as usual. One particular shack grabbed my attention. I had no idea who was inside, but I did notice there were holes drilled on every side of it. My mind could not conjure up the reason for this and before I could think farther on the why's the sound of a heavy zipper was present, and a woman emerged from a heavy cloud of steam. It was Hannah Stonehouse Hudson. I was thrilled! I had been following her and her fishing adventures with little to no knowledge about her. I did learn much more from following the most recent Women Ice Angler Project. I knew even before WIAP that I would be lucky to ever meet her. Yet, there she was, like a fishing genie rising out of that cloud with a big smile and a hearty "hello." I felt my mind race into super drive, what angler knowledge would I glean from her presence. Questions were forming, but words did not come out with ease about fishing. I found myself circling her shack again to return face to face with her at which point I asked why so many holes were around the shack. Hannah shared with me something she had learned herself that day. Her fishing partner had put a hole in the center of all four sides and lightly flooded the edges of their shack for the purpose of allowing the water to freeze and thus hold the shack down in case of wind. They had no tent spikes, and this was what he had grown up doing as a natural shack holding process. Yes, Hannah and I had learned something new. This realization gave me the confidence to see her as a fellow angler that I knew I would be able to talk to as a friend rather than the famous angler she has become.
Over the next couple of hours, we experienced more gorgeous Milwaukee Browns with the call of "fish on". Each time the rush of metal teeth across the ice was heard, with an occasional slide to the whole by a Wolf Pack Adventures guide or Kerry Paulson, followed quickly with the cheers of a catch or the condolences of a loss by all anglers’ present. Between one of these adrenaline-filled breaks in the quite I had a chance to speak with Kerry Paulson one-on-one. I was excited to ask him what it was like to look across the ice and not only see the fifty Automatic Fisherman set up by the Wolf Pack, but to look beyond in every direction and see them at every other hole drilled in the ice by those not part of our group. Kerry was all too happy to share his history and experiences with me.
The story of the Automatic Fisherman goes back to his childhood when fishing with his family. It seems he comes from creative bloodlines, as the modern version of this industry-changing device has been in the making for a few generations. Long before CAD programs and Wisconsin Women Fish were part of everyday experiences Kerry's family was just looking for a better way to catch the fish they sought when on the ice. He shared how in the early days his family would put a plastic bobber on the line and pull it out many feet away from the hole and watch it from their shacks with binoculars for it to disappear into the hole, thus signaling a fish was on. They would adapt repeatedly to the ways that would yield the best holder for their poles with the easiest way to see when a fish was on, preferably without needing binoculars. Kerry did not grow up however dreaming about being an entrepreneur, he spent over twenty years in a blue-collar job until the circumstances changed and he found himself seeking other employment. He did not rush into being an entrepreneur, but he did think his family’s idea was a worthwhile venture and in doing so has literally changed what the surface of ice fishing had once looked like. I asked him when he realized that he had a product that was a hit with ice anglers near and far? He told me about an annual ice fishing event in Racine Wisconsin. He had already been contributing a nice monetary prize for the largest fish caught on an Automatic Fisherman for a few years. The event organizer would invite him every year, finally on one of these annual invites the organizer told Kerry he just had to attend because he really should see what was happening. This was the first time out in the field Kerry had the "ah-ha" that was the weight of an anvil. There across a not very large body of hard water were over eight hundred Automatic Fisherman! I could sense in our conversation the hair rising on the back of my neck just imagining the feeling he must have felt to see his work as a true success. Even when relaying this to me his excitement of that day was visible. He had by then already sold over 130,000 units, but he had yet to make it out to an event that presented the results of these sales in such mass. I realized even more so how lucky we all were to have him with us that day.
I had many opportunities to watch Kerry throughout the day as he took the time to show personally every angler in our group who asked, how to best use the Automatic Fisherman. While wandering from shack to shack and occupied jig hole, I was able to meet new anglers as well as share some healthy giggles and leg pulling with friends. At almost every turn I could see one angler helping another. Sharing equipment like Vexilars and augers, stories of past fish caught, and an appreciation for the efforts of our event leader Dodie Gibbs. Throughout the morning Dodie circled the group over and over again to ensure all had what they needed, provide a fish count, and a notice of when lunch would happen. The time seemed to pass quickly as the sun continued its rise in the sky and the fish count rose to four. Suddenly, I was lifted by the scent of pizza and I almost floated on the thick smell across the ice. Yes, I said pizza! Our guides from Wolf Pack Adventures were partnered with Brew Pub Pizza which they had so graciously brought a pizza oven to the docks and were baking fresh pizza for us all to enjoy. I do not have a lot of familiarity with ice fishing, this being only the fifth time I was ever out on ice, but if fresh baked pizza is a common thing, I have clearly waited too long.
During lunch Kerry did a group presentation of two different models of the Automatic Fisherman, explaining every aspect including their indestructibility through a high toss in the air and landing with no ill effect to the the unit. This was all caught on video by the Badger Farm Girl team. Kerry also shared how through continuous angler feedback he has been able to adjust his device for improvement of balance, adjustable positioning, and ease of removal if frozen to the ice. As he wrapped up his demonstration and lunch began to wind down with the anglers eager to get back to their shacks, holes, and jig lines, Dodie announced it was time for the raffle. As she pulled the raffle sheet piece of paper from her pocket and unfolded it, the winning number was announced. "The winner of today's raffle is number 6" says Dodie. That's right, number six! My host who had sworn she would not remember, and I swore I would, was nowhere to be found. It was quickly discovered that she was in a shack working hard to catch a brown. "Six, six!" The chorus of voices could have easily been heard in one of those tall buildings along the shoreline. "That's Laurie!" I shouted. "Laurie, Laurie" the chorus of voices pushed the call across the ice and Laurie stuck her head in the window of her shack. Once she realized her name was being called, she made it quickly to the side of Kerry Paulson to claim her Automatic Fisherman. I knew how excited she was to be the winner and being entrusted to remember her raffle number had been all the more vicariously rewarding.
As mid-day became afternoon the rush of excitement to fish had become a bit quieter. I spent my time finding holes to jig as I still have a competition with a fellow angler who keeps me motivated to do so at every opportunity. I moved along the docks and observed again that every group of anglers that day were using Automatic Fisherman. I did not even know who Kerry Paulson was or anything about an Automatic Fisherman before this day, but I can tell you I will never forget him and how proud I am to see the success of an entrepreneur, who as Dodie says is, "Just a real guy you can talk to about fishing," and I agree.
Towards the end of our event I found myself at the open water near the "bubblers" and the ramp out of the marina. As I stood working that jig, I had the opportunity to talk with almost every person who went up or down. I found an interesting connection that I have also noticed in our WiWF group. Almost every person who chose to stop and talk shared a piece of the connection. One gentleman has a wife who is a member but not there due to work. Another gentleman just wanted to fish the open water too because he had the same draw I do to it. One guy came by to compare lures, he wanted to see mine and I showed him, he was really impressed. He showed me a small clear box with a set of identical lures as mine but much smaller than what I was using. I shared how much I really wanted a gold one of this series, as gold lures seem to be making a comeback. He finally shared with me how he and his fishing partners had seen my lure earlier and that he knew he would want to say hi, his friends he said were a little shy. We talked about the WiWF group and he quickly shared he knew some of the members as well. It seems the group I know to feel so close and connected has an even broader reach than I had been previously fully aware of.
As I stood at the entrance to the docks I was met consistently by a tired angler from our group who still had plenty of energy to smile, hug, and share a bit of their days' adventure. I felt like I was receiving a precious gift with each exchange. I still have these gifts with me now. The connection I found this weekend was that in this world of diverse anglers we are all seeking fish as much as each other. Whether an advanced angler or a novice you are seeking out what other anglers are doing. I have heard on more than one occasion how people will follow the WiWF group online well before they take the step to become part of the group that is just as eager to meet them. I too have been one of those silent observers at times, but within this group, I have found a voice that I am comfortable using. So, I would like to say to any angler out there, and even you odd non-angler folks, feel free to follow what excites you when it eventually goes beyond the digital and into the real world, you will see we are all here for each other.
I would like to thank Wisconsin Women Fish, Barb Carey, Dodie Gibbs, Wolf Pack Adventures, Kerry Paulson, and the City of Milwaukee and an extra huge thank you to my host Laurie Lambrecht!