Trolling in January?

Lake Michigan Trolling…In January?!?

By: Chris Carns

Badger Sportsman and A1 Big Fish Charters have been working on getting together for an outing on Lake Michigan for the past couple years, but the dates just never worked out.  Finally, we were able to get a date that worked for both sides. The “catch” of the original arrangement was that we would be trolling on Lake Michigan during January or February. And on top of that would likely need to be, “breaking ice to get the boat launched.”  As we talked, to me, it seemed a little farfetched.  I mean we are based in Oshkosh and typically it is well below zero during those months and, on top of that, EVERYTHING is frozen!!  I realize Lake Michigan doesn’t freeze, but still…

Well, this year we, or I, was able to take them up on the offer. However, we went in December, not January or February.  Which now that I have experienced it in December, I would love to try.

Now a little background on me.  I have only charter fished on Lake Michigan once and that was when I was about 8 or 9 years old, of course in the summer, nice and warm, sunshine, etc.  So, I have no real experience with fishing on Lake Michigan (and for sure not in winter) but I am pretty much “game” for most things when it comes to fishing or hunting.  I looked at this as a great and fun opportunity-no disappointment there.  And, to boot, I decided to “double down.”  Why not take my son Collin, who is 10, along with me? … Great idea, what 10-year-old wouldn’t want these bragging rights on the playground Monday morning?

Well, this turned out to be a truly unique experience that I can only imagine is way MORE unique in the frigid sub-zero months of January and February after busting through ice just to get the BOAT, in the water.  Hard for me to imagine, salting the landing and busting through ice to get the boat in to go fishing.  The cold, inconvenience and sheer effort for most would certainly be a deterrent.  For the guys at A1 it is just “part of the experience.”

When you climb aboard the 22-foot Crestliner, it is quickly recognized that the “elements” are not going to be a problem.  The setup the guys from A1 Big Charters have is something in itself.  Inside is fully heated so the outside temperature doesn’t affect the fishermen, or women, or in our case kids; except briefly when stepping out to reel in fish, which we did do a bunch of.  And let’s be honest, who gets cold reeling in a fish?…  especially when it’s a big brown, rainbow trout or salmon.

Our adventure went more or less as follows…Collin and I got to the boat landing about 8 a.m. and Mike and his partner, Jim La Fortune, were there and ready to go.  We quickly parked the truck (I think there may have been 2 other trucks in the lot, go figure), put our “fishing costumes” on (knit hats, winter jackets, boots, etc.) and headed to the boat which was now launched and ready.  We had both been talking about it the whole way down and were certainly excited, unsure and anxious to get fishing.  After some brief introductions and rundown of the operation, we were off.

We didn’t go far and the room and ride in Mike’s new Crestliner Authority 2250 which Cedar Lake Sales in West Bend had outfitted for trolling and included an enclosed space with a heater, (hence no REAL need for too much clothes), was plenty wide, deep, comfortable, and was certainly a smooth ride.  Outfitted with a Mercury 300 Verado, there wasn’t any worry about getting back to the landing at the end of our trip.

When we got to the spot where Mike and Jim were the day before, “catching upwards of 30 fish including browns, rainbows and some salmon,” Jim got to work setting out the boards.  With “yesterday’s report” Collin and I looked at each other and were more than a little pumped up.  We could both feel that first fish pounding away at the end of the line.

Mike and Jim, like most, if not all anglers, set the lines at different depths, each pulling different baits.  I was informed that water temperatures under 40 degrees call for Brad’s Thin Fish crankbaits paired with Mustad hooks in brighter colors.  My favorite color being, “Red Hot Tiger.”  When water the temperatures are over 40 degrees it is time for spoons.  A1 Big Fish Charters uses Michigan Stinger as the spoon of choice in various colors.  Crankbaits and spoons were on the menu today since the water temperature was in between ranges.  The rods were outfitted with Okuma reels because of their ability to, “withstand the elements and not freeze up in the subzero temperatures.”  Baits were set all over the water column from near the surface to closer to the bottom.  Church tackle Tx-12 planer boards were in full effect keeping the lines away from the boat and giving us a great spread.  A couple down riggers were put to work as well.

It wasn’t 10 minutes in to the trip and we heard the sudden and exhilarating sound of Jim’s voice, “Fish, Fish!!”

With that, I looked over and said, “Alright Collin, you’re up. Go Get ‘Em!”

Collin near jumped out of his seat, staggered to the back of the boat, got the butt of the pole set to his gut, and got to work cranking away on the Okuma reel.  All I could say was, “keep the tip up, keep reelin’, keep reelin…’” and after some time cranking, a lot of my excited encouragement and Collin’s tiring arms, the fish could be seen. And, Wow! A nice fish.  Jim swooped in with the net and there it was, the first fish, a nice brown trout. Our first fish, and we weren’t even 10 minutes in.

Collin, of course, was all smiles.

Needless to say, I thought to myself, “We are in for some fun today.”  And we were on a couple different levels.

First and foremost, it is tough to beat being out fishing with your son on a new adventure trolling Lake Michigan in December. Next, the fishing and setup were fantastic.

It was about 20 minutes later, and once again that great exclamation, “FISH, FISH!!”

My turn.

Like a 12-year-old, my heartbeat jumped, and I was up and at it.  I grabbed the pole from Jim and got to cranking away.  After a relatively one sided battle,  Jim deftly unclipped the orange Church Tackle planer board, I gave it some more cranking,  and closing with Collin’s excited, “There’s it is, I can see it!!”  And again the quick swoop of the net.

Well, of course, the fish wasn’t as big as my son Collin’s.  I should probably add, “thankfully.”  But it was a nice brown trout nonetheless.  And it was MY first Lake Michigan fish in over 35 years. We were both already “off the schnide,” and the day had just started. We were off to a great start.

So, we worked the same area for a while and lost and boated some more fish; mainly brown trout with some rainbows and a chinook salmon.  The wind fooled all of us and decided to come out of the north instead of the west like it was supposed to which caused some pretty good swells, so we worked our way down the shore and around a point that would be out of the wind.  Calm water, much better, and the fish were there yesterday as well.

We worked the calm waters tucked around the point with more success.  Including the biggest fish of the day. It went like this….

The same fantastic, sudden, and heart pumping exclamation from Jim, “FISH, FISH!!”

Me asking, “Hey, kiddo, you up for this one?”  (Which was really a rhetorical question.)

HA!  Before I could stand up, Collin was passed me, at the back of the boat, and reaching to get the pole from Jim.

Then, as Collin started to reel, the other words fishermen love to hear, Jim says, “Ewww, this is a bigger fish.”

And better yet, Mike, the Captain, asks, “Do you need the bigger net?  Better get the bigger net for that one!”

Collin’s eyes turned into saucers.  And the battle was on.

All I could say was, “Keep crankin’.  Keep crankin’.”  The fish wasn’t really moving anywhere, kind of like a dumbbell was hooked to the line, my heart, “thump, thump…thump, thump.”  I could only imagine Collin’s.

So, I offered to, “…help out with the pole.”

With arms shaking, rod wavering, red cheeks puffing, and a sideways look from Collin, I was taken up on my offer. I was more or less allowed to hold the rod.  But, Collin would not let me help reel (of course, this was gonna be HIS fish, I couldn’t blame him).  It took some time.  Collin was focused on the line counter to see how much he had left.

In my “expert advice,” I could only say, “Keep crankin’!”  Finally, off goes the planer board.

And then, Jim looking out says, “There it is, Wow, that’s a nice fish.”

When that comes from one of the guides, you know it is a good one. I am pretty sure I could hear my son Collin’s heart pounding.  Or, maybe it was my own.  Gotta love it.   It was an exciting moment and as fishermen know an anxious one.

Jim grabbed, “the bigger net,” and again swooped the fish up.  It BANGED pretty good when it hit the deck.  A dandy, Dandy rainbow trout.  Not a trophy, but it was to us.  Biggest fish of the day. Certainly, we got some good pics of Collin and “his fish.”

Thinking back on it, in that moment, I think the ends of Collin’s mouth actually touched his ears.  Pretty sure he knew he had bragging rights for the day, and likely a long time to come.  HA! I just knew I was in for a long ride home.  In that moment I said to Collin, “Great job kiddo, …that-was-awesome.”

We continued fishing and caught more fish. It wasn’t “one after the other” which I am told can be the case when the water temperature drops, “upwards of 50 fish a day” is possible.  And I believe it, because these guys know their stuff.   When the water temperature gets colder and more fish move in, I was told it is nothing to have multiple poles going at once.  Sounds like a great, “problem” to have.   I can only imagine the hustle and lines and tangles and lures and “stuff” happening.  That would be fun.

One funny thing, (Collin wanted me to be sure to include) was on one fish we caught that happened to be on my turn.

So, a board goes back and Jim says, “Fish, BIG, Fish!”  (We later learned this was a good one by Jim, who knew I was next up.)

“HA!  Here we go. I’ll beat him yet.”  I thought as my competitive nature leaped to the forefront.

Now, I am up cranking away, battling, and all the while making a few smart comments about how Collin, “Didn’t really think he was gonna beat his old man, did he?”

I can’t wait to get the big one in.  As I continue to reel it in, I am not real confident how ‘big’ it is?  It is hard to tell for sure.  But, Jim said it was big so it has to be.  As it comes up toward the surface, I can just kind of make it out in the water, the net goes in, and…about an 8-inch brown trout.  Not. Such. A. Big. Fish.  Obviously, to Collin’s sheer delight.  That’s fishing.  Not the first time a fisherman has been fooled and won’t be the last.

I think Collin may still be laughing.  As a matter of fact he brought it up a week later, just to make sure I got it in the article.  So, they weren’t all big enough to keep, but plenty of them were.

We caught some more fish and then it was time to get going.  The waves and rocking of the boat were starting to do Collin in. And since it was about 12:30, I needed to get home for my 6-year-old son, Eddie, who would be getting home from kindergarten on the bus.

Back at the landing, Mike and Jim made short work of cleaning the fish.  They asked how I was going to cook them and cleaned the fish accordingly.  This is part of the package when you go on a charter with A1 Big Fish Charters; fish cleaning and done how you like it, packaged up, and ready for the cooler for transport.   It was a great wrap up to the day.

If you are looking for something different, fun, productive and, more importantly, want to experience catching Lake Michigan fish out of a boat in January or February, this is it.

Mike Hanke, and his partner Jim La Fortune of A1 Big Fish Charters out of Racine, WI will give you a truly unique experience. These guys catch lots of fish in the dead (and I do mean dead) of winter on Lake Michigan.  While the weather outside may be below zero, the heated boat will be plenty comfortable.  And, what they told my son Collin and I on Friday, Dec 2nd was that the water, “Really needs to get colder to improve on the fishing.”  These guys thrive on catching LOTS of fish and the colder the better.  So, if you don’t want to sit in an ice shanty, and like to try new things, being in a warm boat trolling in January or February is for you.  Check them out at

It is a blast and a trip you won’t soon forget.


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