REMEMBERING LITTLE LAKE
BUTTE DES MORTS
Most people who live in the Fox River Valley in eastern-central Wisconsin do not realize there is a lake on the Fox River between Green Bay and Lake Winnebago. It actually isn’t much of lake and no more than a widening out of the Fox River so perhaps that is why it is overlooked by many people.
The lake is called Little Lake Butte des Morts. It is surrounded by the cities of the Fox River Valley. To the north is the city of Appleton and to the south is Neenah. Much of the lake is bordered on the east by the city of Menasha and to the west by Highway 41. It is easy to miss.
When you look at a map of the Fox River Valley you clearly see Lake Butte Des Morts just to the west of Oshkosh, up the Fox River from Lake Winnebago. But Little Lake Butte des Morts is a bit more difficult to find even on a map.
I am not sure how I heard of Little Lake Butte des Morts, but I found it when I came home on leave one winter when I was stationed at Fort Leonard Wood in Missouri. It was the last year of my enlistment, and I had returned to the states after my first tour in Germany. I took a short one week leave in February to return to Oshkosh. Leonard Wood was only a one day drive and we ended up driving through a blizzard in Illinois to get to Oshkosh. Looking back at it now I realize what a dumb thing it was to drive through a blizzard with my wife and two young daughters. But we had a relatively new car, a three year old Gremlin, and my wife and I were young so we didn’t recognize the risks then.
I was back in Oshkosh for a couple of days when someone told me about this little lake in Menasha. I do not know who told me about it but they assured me it had lots of perch in it. One of the things I truly missed during my two years in Germany was fresh fish. I caught trout while I was there but they didn’t have anything like perch. Actually, Europe does have a fish similar to our perch but they have a humped back and they were relatively rare to catch. On another tour to Germany I would catch a perch or two but that was it. What I really missed was catching perch or panfish and having a fish fry.
In my parent’s basement I had left a bucket of ice fishing rods, an ice scoop and my ice chisel, or pick or spud as they were called. Ice fishing was simple and a bit rustic in those days. I got out the ice fishing gear, picked up a couple dozen wax worms, and filled a thermos jig with hot coffee. I didn’t have a lot of cold weather clothing but I had my grandfather’s red insulated deer hunting pants and jacket. Red was the deer hunting color then before the orange laws went into effect. I also had a pair of cheap rubber boots with a thick felt lining. They were the warmest pair of boots I had then and they actually worked well. On top I had a pull-on wool stocking hat and a lined pair of leather mittens. For years that was my ice fishing clothes. I still have the mittens but the rest is long gone, out-grown and discarded
I was all set and one afternoon drove over to Little Lake Butte des Morts. I found a street taking me down to the edge of the lake. There was a place to park my car and a path through the snow other fishermen took to get out on the lake. There were about ten guys fishing so it seemed I found the right place. I gathered my gear and walked out on the ice. I realized it had been over two years since the last time I walked on a frozen lake.
I talked with a couple of the other fishermen and they told me to chop a couple of holes through the ice anywhere in this small bay and I should catch perch. Everyone also had a small pile of perch sitting on the ice. I chopped two holes, turned over my bucket, put wax worms on a couple of jigs and dropped them down through the ice holes. I then poured myself a cup of coffee and watched the two small bobbers floating on the water. It was incredibly simple.
The bay was shallow and there was only about six feet of water under the ice. As I looked through the ice holes I could see green weeds on the bottom. Every now and then I would lift the rods, jig it a couple times and then set it back down again. It didn’t take long, perhaps only a few minutes when one of the bobbers began to dip under the water and shaking off my mittens I grabbed the ice rod and set the hook. The light jig rod doubled over as a fish ran off. Since the water was so shallow, I only had to lift the rod up and the fish was splashing in the ice hole. The fish was a small perch like the others I saw on laying on the ice. Although I was using a very light jig stick, I was amazed at what a good fight this little perch had in him.
I baited the jig stick and dropped it down again. Slipping back on my mittens, I reached for my coffee. A moment or two later my bobber began to move again. For the next fifteen or twenty minutes a small school of perch must have come through under the ice where I was because one or both of my bobbers seemed to constantly be sinking in the ice hole. I was so busy catching fish and baiting hooks I did not have time to put my mittens back on. By the time this school moved off I had about a dozen fish lying on the ice and my hands were red and stiff from the cold.
The fishing stayed fairly consistent for the next couple of hours and I amassed a good size pile of perch on the ice. By this time I also ran out of coffee and it looked like I had enough perch for a fish fry. They might have been small but I caught enough of them to make up in numbers for what I might not have in size. I turned my bucket back over again, dumped in the perch and walked back to my car and drove home. That night we ate those perch and it might have been one of the best fish fries I ever had. The fish were breaded and cooked in lard. We used lard in those days; everyone did. There were few kitchens in those days that did not have a tub of lard in the refrigerator. It was cheap and tasted good and we were not aware of today’s health risks associated with lard or animal fats. Besides then we were young and invincible.
ONCE A LONG TIME AGO
When you look around Little Lake Butte des Morts today it is hard to believe what it must once have looked like before the cities, streets, houses and businesses were there. A forest surrounded the lake four hundred years ago. Wild rice grew in the shallow waters bringing in rafts of ducks. The land around it was abundant with game. It was the land of the Fox Indians and then later the French explorers, trappers and traders.
Butte des Morts means “Hill of the Dead” and that name came after two battles between the French and the Fox Indians. In the early 1700s, a large camp of Fox Indians, estimated over eight thousand men, women and children lived in a walled town on the banks of the lake across from what today is Neenah. The Fox Indians were like pirates. They controlled the waterway, intercepting both other Indians and whites as they came through their area taking hostages and extorting furs and other items from those traveling through. This significantly harassed and interfered with the very lucrative fur trade, which in those days was not only a major financial but also political enterprise.
The French could not allow such disruption within their empire so they sent an armed group under the supervision of one of their military commanders to eliminate this band of Indian pirates. It was, as with many of these Indian battles were in those days, a no holds barred, no quarter asked or given, with death to the last enemy person. The French won both battles and the bodies of Fox Indian’s, men, women and children, were piled high and covered with dirt. These mounds became the “Hill of the Dead” and mentioned prominently in writing by exploreres and travelers through the area in the early 1800s.
THE NEXT WINTER
Six months after I first fished Little Lake Butte des Morts my enlistment ended and I returned to Oshkosh. The plan was to go back to school at the University of Oshkosh, get a commission through their ROTC program and go back in the Army. I had the GI Bill, my wife and I both had part time jobs and between a Wisconsin Vietnam era tuition grant and the money I was making selling magazine stories, I was able to put together what I needed to pay for college tuition. We would be barely comfortable enough to get through the next two years until I could graduate and get my commission. There were some risks involved, but again it was good to be young and be willing to take the chance.
It was exciting to be going back in college again. My grades were much better than they were the first time I was in college before I joined the Army; being a bit older with a sense of purpose made me a much better student. I breezed through the fall and then the first of winter settled in. I got through the first semester and now had almost a month off for winter break. Ice covered the lakes and snow was on the ground. I wanted to go ice fishing and I remembered how good it was on Little Lake Butte des Morts. I got my ice fishing stuff again out of my parent’s basement and got one of my ROTC buddies to go perch fishing with me on Little Lake Butte des Morts.
I remember the day was gray, promising more snow but not for that afternoon. It was chilly but not real cold yet and there was a light wind. We filled thermos jigs with coffee and stopped at a bait shop for three dozen wax worms. This particular bait shop put their wax worms in empty chewing tobacco cans. A couple of weeks later my wife found the container in the refrigerator where I put it, containing the left over wax worms from the last fishing trip. She was upset, thinking I had taken up chewing tobacco. I have had enough bad habits in my life but chewing tobacco wasn’t one of them. I explained those cans were used by the bait shop to pack wax worms in and I hadn’t taken up chewing tobacco. She really didn’t like the idea of having grubs in her refrigerator any more then the thought of my chewing tobacco, but she tolerated them as long as I pushed them way to the back where she wouldn’t see them. We survived the rest of the winter with the grubs in the tobacco cans as long as they were out of sight.
With coffee and bait we were all set up and I drove back to the street in Menasha that took us down to the lake. It was early in the ice fishing season yet and ice wasn’t very thick so it didn’t take long to punch a couple of holes through ice with the water gushing up in the ice holes. Throughout the winter the ice never got anymore then about a foot thick thanks to the current from the Fox River running through the lake. We scooped out the slush, dumped our gear on the ice, turned over the buckets, baited our hooks and we were fishing.
We fished in the shallow bay again like I had a few months before. As it turned out I never fished anywhere else on Little Lake Butte des Morts. For the rest of the winter I fished that bay and caught all the fish I wanted. We poured ourselves a cup of coffee and before we finished it our little bobbers were beginning to dip, bounce and sink in our ice holes. Sitting side by side, there were times we both had fish on at the same time and there were times one of us would have a fish on both jig poles. By the time it was getting dark and night was crawling across the lake, we were out of coffee and had a big pile of perch sitting on the ice. That night my buddy and his wife had a fish fry at his house and my wife and two daughters and I were eating fresh perch fillets at our house. The ice fishing season had good a start.
For the rest of my winter break I worked, wrote a couple articles, watched my two daughters when my wife worked, went rabbit hunting a couple of times and went fishing as often as I could on Little Lake Butte des Morts. Sometime after the middle of January my second semester began. Now the only day I had available to fish was Saturdays. Every Saturday I would leave about mid-morning and fished until I had enough fish for a fish fry. Once I got back home I put the frozen pile of perch in the basement until early evening when they were thawed out enough for me to clean. I would scale and fillet the fish and on Monday evening we had a fish fry.
I did this every Saturday for the next two months and always caught enough fish for our Monday dinner. This became my routine for the winter. Not only was it my outlet and excuse to go fishing every week but it also was a fairly cheap meal every Monday. It only cost me a couple gallons of gas and grubs. There were a couple different types of grubs available at the bait shop. One was wax worms which I started fishing with and the other was mousies. I found mousies to be more durable and worked just as good as wax worms so I used them to extend the use of my bait and normally I could get two weeks out of a three dozen tobacco can. My guess was my weekly fishing trip was costing less than five dollars a week. It was both cheap entertainment as well as an inexpensive meal for a family of four.
Most of my buddies and a few family members joined me every Saturday and we never left without a meal of perch. Some days it was cold and other days warmer. Sometimes it snowed and other days the wind swirled the snow on the ice around us. I remember one morning I only had a sip or two out of my coffee cup when a school of perch came through. It seemed for the next thirty or forty minutes we were very busy. Finally when the fishing slowed down I looked at me coffee cup to see it was full of snow blown into it by the wind.
Another time I came off the ice and wasn’t feeling well. When I got home my face was flushed with fever and when I got home I laid down for a nap. The nap and a handful of aspirin didn’t do much for what was ailing me and I still had a pile of a perch to clean. My wife took pity on me and went down in the basement to help me clean fish. She scaled the fish while I filleted them. Another day I came home with a bad case of chills. I kicked off my boots and sat down in the living room still dressed in Grandpa’s old deer hunting suit and she tucked blankets around me, brought me hot tea and aspirins. It took me a couple of hours before I felt normal again.
Although the fish were small we made up for the size in numbers. I figured for my family of four we needed two dozen of the small perch to make a meal. There were days I caught what I needed in couple of hours and other times it took me four or five hours to catch a meal. I used light fiberglass jig sticks and was always amazed at what a good fight even the smaller perch put up. I had about a dozen jigs I carried in a plastic 35mm film container. There seemed only a handful of panfish jigs available in those days. I used either what was called a tear drop of rocker jig. I used only three colors; either yellow, red or orange. One of those two jigs in one of those colors always seemed to catch fish. In another film container I carried about a half dozen small ice bobbers that weren’t any bigger then a finger nail. Ice fishing in those days was delightfully simple but effective.
Finally the ice fishing season came to an end. It started to get warm as we were edging into spring. It was a warm, bright sunny day. I drove over to the small bay for my Saturday morning a fishing trip. There were a few guys already on the ice when I walked out, and I felt it moving underneath me. Taking my ice pick I jabbed it into the ice and with one blow it went through the ice and water was bubbling up. I slowly backed up until I found thicker ice. I did fish that day and caught a meal of perch but I knew as I walked off the ice a few hours later the season had come to an end.
TWO FISHING BUDDIES
Some forty years later Little Lake Butte des Morts would come back to me. A fishing buddy, Doug Hurd, and I were traveling to northern Wisconsin on a fishing trip and we were talking. Doug grew up in Beloit in southern Wisconsin and I grew up in Oshkosh. In 1972 he enlisted in the Army and went to Alaska. In 1972 I enlisted in the Army and first went to Germany and then Missouri. We did not know each other until some twenty years later we both ended up at Fort Snelling in Minnesota. I would buy my first bass boat from him when he sold it so he could buy a bigger boat. Two years later, we both retired from the Army a month apart from each other. Doug and I became friends and fishing buddies and since then have fished all over Wisconsin and Minnesota together as well as parts of North Dakota and Canada. We have become like brothers and we are part of each other’s family. He and his wife and I and my wife get together regularly to watch Packer games or to have dinner. We know each other’s children, brothers and sisters and parents. We have shared weddings and funerals within each other’s family and births of grandchildren and all the good times and occasional bad times our families have gone through over the years.
At another time our lives converged and we never knew it until we were talking on the drive north to another fishing adventure we shared. In 1975, we both completed our enlistments and both left the Army to go to school. I was living in Oshkosh and going to the college there and Doug lived in Appleton and was going to school there. He also was married but did not have any children then. On Saturdays during the winter he also went ice fishing on Little Lake Butte des Morts. It is very likely we may have fished next to each other or at least close and never knew it. We would both soon return to active duty with the Army and seventeen years later we finally met while work together in the same unit where we both retired.
Now we share a lot of fishing adventures together as well as the common bond of once being brothers in arms. Of the places Doug and I have been to and the friendship we now share, it actually was at Little Lake Butte des Morts where we might have first met and never knew it.