Classic rock tunes from the 1980s danced through the crisp darkness at The Bottom of the Lake. Fond du Lac, so named for its precarious position at the southern tip of Lake Winnebago in east central Wisconsin, buzzed with activity and excitement under its frozen crust. Small, chatty groups of people exited their vehicles and traipsed through the snowy, decoratively lit sidewalks, drawn like moths toward the warm pool of light and sound inside Lakeside Park. After weeks of preparation, Fond du Lac’s big weekend had finally reached its climax, and I intended to be a part of it.
Lake Winnebago is one of two locations in the entire nation to offer a legal sturgeon spearing season, and Fond du Lac’s Sturgeon Spectacular festival marks its opening weekend. The celebration is characterized by elements not entirely surprising for a local winter festival. There’s a chili crawl, multiple ice-carving events, the crowning of a festival queen, and live music and performances. Bonfires and party tents over frozen ground or ice are common elements of these gatherings, as I later realized when I witnessed the same thing at a ski/snowshoe race across the frozen surface of Lake Superior during a weekend getaway to the northern part of the state. In this case, though, the main event at the heart of the hooplah was Lake Winnebago’s special form of ice fishing.
For those of you who may not be familiar, a lake sturgeon is a relatively unsightly fish that can grow to be surprisingly large. A local man shown on television today had hauled in a lunker that was over 6 feet in length and weighed more than 140 pounds. In order to wrestle these monsters from the lake’s chilly depths, local ice fishermen cut holes of up to 8 square feet in area in the ice and then spear the fish with long poles. Once the tip of the spear is lodged securely in the giant fish, the pole is detached, and the fisherman uses a rope connected to the spear tip to pull the fish back through the water and onto the ice inside his tiny shack.
The crowd at the event hovered around the giant bonfire outside and swayed shoulder-to-shoulder inside a huge canvas tent, crooning along to covers of old songs everyone seemed to know by heart. The crowd was surprisingly diverse. A couple of ladies who appeared to possibly be in their 70s nodded a jovial “rock on” to a group of hardy-looking young men I assumed to be in their early 20s. Clusters of peer-grouped friends brushed past multi-generational family groups. It really seemed as if the entire town was present and couldn’t have been enjoying themselves more. Keg beer flowed freely, but no one appeared to be drunk or unruly. I wasn’t able to keep from smiling at the apparent wholesomeness of the whole thing.
As I observed the crowd, wrapped up in my own amusement, a young woman my daughter’s age snatched up fistfuls of my scarf in both of her hands and exclaimed, “Awww, your girlfriend made this for you! It’s beautiful! She did a great job!” My girlfriend was not with me, and I’m not sure how this young lady knew the status of our relationship, but she was indeed correct on all accounts. I’d noticed earlier that the event did seem to be a fashion show for handmade winter apparel. Homemade knitted and crocheted hats, scarves, and mittens were everywhere, and they ranged from quaintly understated to impressively complex. Had I known this would be the case, I’d have worn the Packer-colored hat my mother crocheted for me when I moved to Green Bay a few months earlier. “I made these mittens,” the young lady exclaimed, smiling brightly and proudly holding out her covered hands for inspection.
I’d no sooner finished reflecting on that encounter and returned to people watching when I accidentally made eye contact with a young man who I guessed to probably be in his mid-twenties. A good-natured smile spread across his face, and he approached, “Man, Wisconsin people are weird, aren’t they?” I agreed, and something about his tone convinced me it was safe to do so. I don’t think he ever mentioned where he was from, but he was insistent that his experience with Wisconsin submersion had led him to the undeniable conclusion that, as a group, they are one of a kind.
I’ve not seen enough of Wisconsin, its people, or its neighbors yet to know whether or not I completely agree with that, but I do know that in the short time that I have been here, I’ve found them to be interesting in a way that I would not have expected. While this festival for a fish did indeed showcase that uniqueness, it was also endearing in a way that I can’t help but appreciate. It’s inspiring how happy this little event seemed to make them. Well done, Fond Du Lac. Thank you for reminding me that sometimes happiness can be just a fish festival away if you allow it to be.