Geoffrey's Journal: Memorable Moments

Geoffrey’s Journal: Memorable Moments

WTTW camera crew posing with commercial fishermen in Leland, Michigan's Fishtown
WTTW camera crew posing with commercial fishermen in Leland, Michigan's Fishtown. Left to right: Director of Photography Tim Boyd, Producer Eddie Griffin, host/writer Geoffrey Baer, fishermen Joel Petersen and Eric Petersen.

We filmed two very different and very memorable ways to catch fish.

On a July day in Leland, Michigan, I set sail at the crack of dawn with two of the last commercial fishermen on Lake Michigan, Joel and Eric Petersen. Their vessel, a trap-net fishing tug called the Joy, is harbored at a restored fishing village called Fishtown.

Leland fishing at the crack of dawn
The fish tug Joy pushes off from the dock in Leland, Michigan just after dawn. Photo by Geoffrey Baer

We motored for more than an hour through dense morning fog to retrieve nets they had set earlier in the week in the deep waters off the Manitou Islands. There was a GPS to guide us, but Joel and Eric didn't seem to need it. They easily found their fishing buoys and began hauling their nets up from the bottom with the help of a motorized winch. After a few minutes, the end of the net surfaced, bulging with whitefish struggling to escape their fate. They showed me how to measure each fish, and we threw back ones that were too small. "This is your lucky day, " I wryly said to one of them as I pitched it overboard. We also had to throw back any trout caught in the nets, and some of them were enormous. Tossed overboard, they would loll in the water, groggy for a moment or two, then rocket back into the depths like a torpedo. By the end of the morning, we had hauled in nearly 500 pounds of whitefish. Not a particularly good day, according to Joel and Eric. The once-booming fishery has been in a long decline due to invasive species and overfishing.

A trap net is lifted out of the water
Joel and Eric Petersen measure their catch
Boxes of whitefish on the tug Joy
Left to right: A trap net is lifted out of the water, Joel and Eric Petersen measure their catch, and boxes of whitefish sit aboard the fish tug Joy on Lake Michigan. Photos by Geoffrey Baer
Chubby Mary at The Cove in Leland, MI
Geoffrey poses with his very own Chubby Mary at The Cove in Leland, Michigan's Fishtown. Photo by Erica Gunderson

Back in Fishtown, we videotaped the catch being cleaned and filleted with assembly-line precision at Carlson's fish market. Within hours, the fish would be sold fresh, smoked, or blended into Carlson's signature whitefish pâté. To cap off my tribute to Leland's fishing history, I stopped by The Cove, a dockside restaurant, for their signature drink, a Chubby Mary. It's a Bloody Mary garnished with, yes, a smoked chub.

Fast forward to a bitterly cold January afternoon in Wisconsin's Northwoods. I donned long underwear, multiple layers of clothing, and my warmest coat, hat, and scarf, stuffed toe warmers in my boots, and trudged out onto a frozen lake where an all-female group of anglers called Wisconsin Women Fish gleefully introduced me to ice fishing.

Sandy Whiteman of Wisconsin Women Fish shows Geoffrey Baer how to hold a rod
Jan Michalets patiently gives Geoffrey Baer some beginner ice-fishing pointers
Michalets drills holes in the frozen ice with a power auger
Left: Sandy Whiteman of Wisconsin Women Fish shows Geoffrey Baer how to hold a rod while ice fishing. Middle: Jan Michalets patiently gives Geoffrey Baer some beginner ice-fishing pointers. Right: Michalets drills holes in the frozen ice with a power auger. Photos by Erica Gunderson
Geoffrey tries his hand at ice fishing
Geoffrey tries his hand at ice fishing. Photo by Erica Gunderson

The group's mission is to encourage more women to become active in sport fishing through instruction and group outings. Our host, Jan Michalets, punched 11"-diameter holes in the foot-thick ice with a power auger and showed me how to test the depth with a weighted line. I could barely keep my glove off for a few seconds, but the cold didn 't seem to bother her a bit. She patiently explained the rather complicated process of setting a "tip-up." It's basically a wooden stick that goes across the hole and supports the fishing line attached to a spring-loaded flag. After setting a few tip-ups over different holes, the angler retires to a nearby tent. "To have a nip. Not a nap," explains Jan.

When a fish bites, the flag pops up, and the anglers race excitedly to the hole to watch the owner of that particular tip-up try to pull in the fish. If it's too big to fit through the hole, Jan says, "The fish wins," and she cuts the line. Unfortunately, there were no nibbles while we were there. And we couldn't wait around. Our next location beckoned: a warm, dry, Wisconsin supper club offering comfort food and Wisconsin-style brandy old fashioneds, "sweet."

Geoffrey sits atop his Ski-Doo snowmobile
Geoffrey sits atop his Ski-Doo snowmobile in Eagle River, Wisconsin. Photo by Erica Gunderson

And there was another unforgettable experience in the cold Northwoods. A full immersion in snowmobiling. I had snowmobiled exactly once in my life, almost 40 years ago, and I have never been colder. So I was glad the outfitter, Trackside in Eagle River, provided me with some heavy-duty gear: bib pants, a wind-proof coat, and a full-coverage helmet, all accented in snazzy, fluorescent yellow. The Ski-Doo machine they rented me looked like a ninja bike. And even better, it had heated handlebars.

The Sno Eagles of Eagle River
The Sno Eagles of Eagle River
The Sno Eagles of Eagle River, Wisconsin. Photos by Erica Gunderson

We were guided on the trails by a group called the "Sno Eagles," mostly retired men (there was one woman) who were very disappointed when I declined their offer to go 60 or 70 miles an hour. Producer Eddie Griffin drove a two-person snowmobile with cameraman Tim Boyd on the back and rode ahead of me on the trails. Tim had to face forward, of course, so he held the camera over his head pointing backwards and craned his neck up to see the viewfinder and keep me in the shot. This also required Tim to keep his visor up. I still don't know how his face didn't freeze solid. Even keeping our speed to a respectable 20 or 30 miles an hour, it was exhilarating. But it was nothing compared to what we witnessed later at the World Championship Snowmobile Derby.

Snowmobile Derby fans
Snowmobile Derby Queen pictured here with her court
Snowmobile Derby fans and the Snowmobile Derby Queen (pictured here with her court) at "Friday Night Thunder," the first event of the 2019 World Championship Snowmobile Derby in Eagle River, Wisconsin. Photos by Geoffrey Baer

We taped "Friday Night Thunder," the first event in what's called the "Indy 500 of Snowmobile Racing." Even with temperatures hovering near zero, hundreds of avid fans gathered outdoors on a hillside overlooking the quarter-mile ice oval. In this sea of camo-clad spectators swilling Busch Lite, I stood out like a rube in my bright red ski coat. Waiting for the races to start, kids merrily slid down the hill. On closer inspection, Associate Producer Erica Gunderson noticed their cardboard sleds were made from empty beer cases. We set up the camera right next to the starting line. I really must have looked like a wimp when I reflexively clamped my hands over my ears in response to the deafening roar as the starter dropped the flag. These racers go more than 100 miles an hour, kicking up clouds of ice and routinely sliding into the hay bales that line the track. After one snowmobile clipped another and both crashed, the two drivers ended up in fisticuffs. "Tempers flare!" shouted the track announcer over the PA. After each race, the Derby Queen and her court in puffy, white, snow coats, sashes, and crowns presented the winner with a trophy. The winner then took a victory lap, waving the checkered flag, past the hillside by now littered with crushed beer cans.