A group of Wisconsin fishing women bring generations together on the ice

HOWARD – Sharon Herlache Kugler, 84, of Algoma, has been ice fishing the waters of Green Bay since she could walk.

As a toddler growing up on the Door Peninsula, she accompanied her parents on hard water trips.

“It was part of life here, part of what we all did,” Kugler said. “I loved it from the start.”

A prized family photo from a 1941 outing shows Homer and Helen Herlache, Kugler’s parents, wiggling through a crack of ice. Kugler is just out of frame; she says she has always been included in the trips.

The family’s hard water tank that day was a 1939 Nash.

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The first lessons began and Kugler became a lifelong fisherman. Over the decades, she has accessed winter fishing grounds by foot, snowmobile and ATV as well.

But at the end of December, she was treated to a first: an airboat ride.

Casco’s Captain Zach Burgess used his “Why Knot” airboat to take Kugler and seven other female anglers to Green Bay for a day of ice fishing for yellow perch.

In the uncertain ice conditions, it was the only motorboat to leave the boat that day.

The aluminum shell glided like an air hockey puck over slick sections of snow and ice and, if necessary, cut through slush areas.

Burgess revved the 350 Chevy over the three-quarter mile run to an ice-covered flat northeast of Howard and fishtailed to a stop.

“Wow!” Kugler said. “It was a good start to the day!”

The outing was organized by Wisconsin Women Fish and its founder, Barb Carey of Oxford.

In fact, the propeller ride wasn’t the only first Kugler recorded that day.

The fishing party included his daughter, Brenda Maier of Forestville, and granddaughter Kelsey Kornaus of Shoreview, Minnesota. Never before have the three generations of Kugler’s family come together to ice fish for yellow perch on the water where she cut her teeth.

“We are very grateful,” Maier said. “What a great way to spend time together.”

Burgess made two trips to ferry fishermen and supplies from the landing to the fishing spot.

In addition to the Kugler trio and Carey, the group included Chris Boche from Oxford, Carol King from Danbury and Jane McMahon and Lisa Wilson, both from Poynette.

Carey is a retired police officer and nurse who formed Wisconsin Women Fish in 2005 to help fellow women become more active in the sport.

Carey said when she tried to learn more about fishing, she was often turned away by people who weren’t willing to share their knowledge. But she pushed on, gained more experience, and even earned a Great Lakes Charter Captain’s License.

She knew, however, that this path was not right for everyone.

“I decided that a group like this could help speed up the process and help more women gain confidence in the outdoors,” Carey said. “We have no secrets (at WWF). Helping people succeed is where all the fun is.”

When Carey started the organization, most trips were made by shore fishing. Over time, more and more members bought boats. Today, dozens of members own their own fishing boats. Some have also become tournament guides and anglers.

Today, the club has 425 members; ages range from 18 to 86. Outings are scheduled throughout the year, mostly in the Upper Midwest.

Even before the sun set over the bay, the WWF formula was on full display.

A large hub (ice fishing tent) was erected by club members and heaters were turned on to create a warm shelter. Meanwhile, others were untangling fishing lines and preparing gear for the day.

After Burgess drilled a few dozen holes in the ice, other WWF members still cleared ice shards, baited lines with minnows, and set up “dead stick” rods.

“OK, we are fishing! Carey said around 7 a.m.

With a 15 mph wind cooling the air to 25 degrees, Kugler, Maier and Kornaus fished off stools in the shelter.

The Green Bay pole vaulting god also seemed lined up for the outing, when after just 10 minutes Kugler’s line tightened, her rod doubled up and she reeled in a 12-inch jumbo.

It was high-fives everywhere for all three generations of anglers.

The action was also good on the outside, as McMahon landed an 11-incher and a dozen other poles between 7 and 12 inches were frozen in the first 50 minutes.

The best presentation was a 2-3 inch long fathead minnow hooked live from its upper back and fished within a foot of the bottom.

Although all three generations of Kugler’s family are anglers, she didn’t hesitate to take the opportunity offered by the WWF to get them on the ice in the same place on the same day.

“What’s even more special is that I grew up fishing,” Kugler said. “This water and these poles are in my blood.”

While it seemed destined to happen, it took some comfort for Maier to get her mother to join the WWF and sign up for the exit.

Maier has been a member of WWF since 2017, while Kornaus joined in 2019.

“Mom was worried about getting in the way or slowing us down,” Maier said. “I said to her, ‘Mom, don’t you remember when you took me fishing when I could barely walk? I was always on the way, but you always walked with me. Please , you come with.'”

Kugler joined the WWF in October, and the trio set their sights on the airboat ride across the bay.

The sun rose in a cobalt sky and the wind remained brisk all day. Bald eagles and herring gulls provided overflights. WWF members fanned out and tended the holes, waiting for a rod to shake or tip.

Then it’s off to the races to put the hook.

Some fishermen have also installed flashers and jigged with tiny lures fitted with soft plastics.

The action picked up each time a school of poles moved through the area, then fell back. Everyone in the group caught fish. A hearty cheer went up when Kornaus landed her on the first of the day.

“They had been playing with me,” Kornaus said of the fish that escaped its hooks.

At the end of the day, about fifty dandy poles were brought ashore by the group. Some WWF members ate fresh fish that night.

Burgess brought the group back to the landing around 4:15 p.m.

Dragging his last feet on the ice, Kugler wore a broad smile.

“I just want to say I couldn’t be happier to be out,” Kugler said. “I may be 84 but that’s nothing. I’m ready for more.”

About Patricia Kilgore

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