Door County, Wisconsin can be a tourist hot spot in summer, but in the dead of winter the frigid temps send snowbirds south. For commercial ice fishermen Will Henriksen and John Koessl, they can sometimes arrive to work before their pick-up truck ever warms up. These fishing partners meet along the shores of Green Bay, just outside Sister Bay.
It’s a bitter cold and bumpy ride via snowmobile as they head more than two miles out onto the ice and into no man’s land. Tree limbs embedded in the ice mark the route and warn of danger. Will Henriksen says, “Probably the hardest part of my job is dealing with the weather. It changes quickly and one minute it will be calm and the next it’s galling. It gets dangerous on the water.”
Will and John know these waters well. Both got an early start to their fishing careers following in the footsteps of the generation before them. Will said, “Growing up my dad was a commercial fisherman. As a kid he used to take my car seat and put it on the dash of the boat and take me with him. So I’ve been on a boat my entire life.” For Will this is a lifelong dream and it’s been a lifelong friendship with John. “We’ve been friends more or less since we were four or five-years-old. Out here, it’s just the two of us and we get along pretty well so there’s no real arguing or nothing,” Will said.
On this day, they are looking to lift six nets and hoping to gather 300 to 400 pounds of fish. Will grins and says, “We’ll be happy if we just see fish.” The “Catch of the Day” is Whitefish. And soon after they start pulling up the nets they spot one, then another.
It’s proving to be a good day of fishing. The nets are lowered 65-70 feet down to the depths of Green Bay and the lead in the line takes them straight to the bottom. That’s where the nets stand 15-feet high and extend out 100 yards in both directions from the fishing shanty. A guideline is tied to the net so it can be hauled up and into the shanty where the fish are collected. Then the net is fanned out again as John pulls the rope back under the ice spreading out the net.
Handling the fine mesh nets can be brutal and bone-chilling in ice cold water. It’s impossible to wear gloves and still feel the delicate net so bare hands are required. Will lumbers to his feet from a kneeling position with a big sigh. The back breaking work is getting to his knees and the cold weather is getting to his hands. “The worst part is just the dampness from the water. Get them a little bit damp and then all of a sudden the cold sinks right in,” Will said. Cold hands, but a warm hear out here on the ice. This is life in rural Door County. Will said, “It’s peaceful. Everyone knows everyone and everyone has each other’s back. It’s my home, it’s my source of employment, it’s… it’s where I love to be.”
Where Do All Those Fish Go?
Will Henriksen and John Koessl are commercial ice fisherman in Door County. They can catch up to 400 pounds of Whitefish in a single day. They make quick work of cleaning those fish and then box them up for shipping. Watch and you’ll see where they end up.