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Wisconsin Natural Resources magazine

Wisconsin Natural Resources magazine

August 1999

The secret smallmouth lake in the U.P.

The lure of a secret fishing hole was a sure thing.

Dave Crehore

The story began in the White House Lunch on a June noon in the mid-1950s.

The White House Lunch was on the north bank of the Manitowoc River, surrounded by the Manitowoc Shipbuilding Co., Burger Boat and the White House milk condensery. It was small, noisy, hot in all seasons and incredibly busy when the shipyard was working three shifts.

Illustration © Tom Lowes

The White House smelled wonderfully of fried onions and cigarette smoke, which darkened the walls and even the pictures of pretty girls and bird dogs on the calendars. When you walked in, Rich, who owned the place, would point to an empty stool at the counter, yell "hamburgeronion" to the kitchen, and slap down a ruby-red plastic glass of ice water. You didn't want a hamburgeronion? Tough. Hamburgeronions were du jour and du always at the White House.

Trouble was coming, but Dad didn't sense it as he left his sweltering office at the shipyard and headed for lunch at the White House that day. Even the hellish spit, pop and flash of welding in the yard's fabrication shop didn't seem like a warning.

But when the screen door of the White House banged shut behind him, Dad saw that the only vacant spot at the counter was next to Clifford. That was an omen.

Clifford was a thin, red-headed welder and a lonely nonstop talker. He lived to fish, but not at local places like Pigeon Lake or the Carptown pier. For Clifford, real fishing didn't start until you were north of Highway 64, as far back in the woods as possible, and in the company of a good listener.

Clifford saw Dad, smiled and patted the empty stool beside him. Knowing that Dad was a bass fisherman, he shifted smoothly from perch, which he had been discussing with a grizzled pipefitter, to smallmouth bass in the Northwoods.

"Dammit Dave you know that little smallmouth lake up in Michigan I'm always talking about well I was thinking the other day I said to myself dammit I've got to get Dave Crehore up there because he's the only other guy I know who likes smallmouth and why should I keep it to myself I just got a new tent so why don't we drive up there Friday night and camp out right on the lake we won't need a boat and we can take my car so what do you say?" Clifford said.

Dad loved to talk, but he was careful and thorough and no match for Clifford in words per minute. He thought the proposition over as he began the ritual of filling and lighting his pipe.

"Well—," Dad said, between initial puffs.

"Well that's great dammit y' know I found that lake way back in the woods when I was working for the CCC in 1935 we built a little road to it but nobody's been in there since dammit Dave you're going to love it I'll pick you up after work Friday jeez I'd better get back to the shop," Clifford said.

Dad was a marine engineer who worked six or seven days a week when the yard was busy, and he had to take his fishing how and when he could get it. And so it came to pass that on the following Friday afternoon, he sat on the porch with his Mitchell 300 reel, treasured Airex spinning rod, tackle box, bedroll, frying pan, coffee pot, "6-12" mosquito dope, waders, flashlight and axe. What is so rare, he thought, as a day in June on a wilderness bass lake that hasn't been fished since 1935?

But when Clifford pulled up, almost on time, Dad's sunny optimism began to cloud over. For one thing, Clifford's car was remarkably old, a pre-war Hudson with sun-bleached paint and a rotted muffler that made flatulent noises.

"By golly Dave you're all ready let's get your stuff in the trunk dammit this is going to be fun careful the door latch on your side doesn't work," Clifford said.

"OK," Dad said.

And off they went, west on Highway 10 to Appleton and New London, north on 45 to Antigo, where they bought Michigan licenses at a bait shop, and on to Land O' Lakes.

It was midnight when they crossed the Michigan line and entered the Upper Peninsula. Bats and bugs fluttered in the headlight beams as they drove through young plantations of red pine. Then Clifford slowed down.

"Dammit Dave I'm pretty sure we take the next right and go east about five miles or so whoops I think that's the road but I'd better drive on and make sure it isn't the next one no that doesn't look like it I think it really was the first one so I'll turn around and go back," Clifford said.

Clifford turned off the highway onto a narrow gravel road. After they had climbed the first couple of hills, the road turned into a two-rut logging trail. As they ground along in first gear, the ruts narrowed, the grass between them got taller, the hills got steeper, and the Hudson began to slow down. Finally it stopped altogether halfway up a hill.

"Jeez Dave I wonder what's wrong sure am glad you brought a flashlight my God the mosquitoes are thick you'll have to hold up the hood for me dammit the accelerator cable is busted no wonder it won't run suffering Christ how are we going to fix it?" Clifford said.

Illustration © Tom Lowes.

Dad dug his tackle box out of the trunk and found a wire musky leader. With his fishing pliers he cut the leader to size and spliced it to the stub of the broken accelerator cable with a pipe cleaner. It worked perfectly.

"Dammit Dave it was a good idea to bring an engineer along now listen to her roar the old girl hasn't run this strong in years well let's get going the road to the lake is just over the top of this hill I think we're almost there," Clifford said.

The road to the lake wasn't over that hill or the next one, but they finally found it – a faint track leading off to the left, almost invisible in the side spill of light from the headlamps.

"Dammit Dave I'm pretty sure this is it let's stick our nose up here and find out jeez it's rough look at that popple right in the middle of the road the bugger must be three inches thick 'course I haven't been down this road in 20 years," Clifford said.

Out came the axe and down went the popple.

"Dave, you're a regular Paul Bunyan wow here comes the wind was that lightning off there to the west yup there it goes again well we better get a wiggle on it's only about a mile to the lake," Clifford said.

It was two miles to the lake, two miles of overgrown trail blocked by four more popples that had to be felled and about a dozen smaller ones that Clifford pushed down with the car and ran over. The branches of the last one tore off the Hudson's exhaust system and left it lying on the trail like a crippled snake.

Liberated from its tailpipe and muffler, the Hudson snarled like a P-51. The western sky was livid with lightning, branches of overhanging trees clawed at the car and a rain of Biblical proportions began to fall. The windshield was soon covered with wet leaves and twigs that jammed the Hudson's feeble wipers.

And then, deliverance. Jolting and bouncing, the Hudson splashed into a small clearing and its headlights shone onto open water.

"Sonofagun Dave we finally made it I knew this was the right road well let's get the tent set up before we drown she's a brand-new rubber-covered Canadian Army surplus mountain tent guaranteed waterproof I don't suppose you've ever set one of these up 'cause I've never had her out of the bag jeez it's windy dammit there goes the instructions."

With Clifford holding the dying flashlight, Dad stuck Pole A into Slot B until the reeking, crumbling tent assumed a rough inverted V-shape. Grabbing their bedrolls from the car, they shoehorned themselves into the tent. Exhausted by driving, talking and watching, Clifford fell asleep instantly, but Dad remained awake to reflect on life's rich tapestry.

First of all, it was obvious to Dad that Canadian soldiers had run small in the '40s, because the tent, advertised as a two-man, was only big enough for a honeymoon couple. Never a touchy-feely type, Dad spent the first half-hour trying to edge away from the snoring Clifford, who kept snuggling up like an affectionate golden retriever.

Second, he noted that like all items described as "waterproof", the Canadian mountain tent did a better job of keeping water in than out. Before an hour had passed, the condensed sweat and exhalations of two men began dripping down on him from the tent's roof.

Third, he wondered about the identity of the persistent, snuffling, bad-smelling thing that spent half the night trying to open the Hudson's trunk and steal the bacon. A skunk? A bear? Two bears?

Morning came early. Driven by an overwhelming need to escape Clifford's clutches, brew some coffee and light his pipe, Dad gave up trying to sleep and crawled out of the tent into the gray-blue light of false dawn.

It was the work of a moment to find a little dry birch bark, and within 20 minutes he had a quart of lake water boiling over a small fire. Sitting on the Hudson's front bumper, Dad sipped a tin cup of gritty camp coffee, sucked down refreshing lungsful of Kentucky Club, and watched fanciful towers of ground fog drift across the lake.

The rain had washed the clouds away, and as the eastern sky turned a rose color, Dad could see that the lake was a jewel, about 100 acres of iron-stained water surrounded by dense stands of cedar and black spruce. Maybe, just maybe, it will be worth it, he thought, as he put his rod together and threaded up the line. Maybe a couple of naive wilderness bass would join them for breakfast.

"Old Sam Peabody, Peabody, Peabody" sang the white-throated sparrows as Dad made cast after cast into the beautiful little lake. No smallmouth were forthcoming, but it hardly mattered. The sun and a gentle breeze eased over the eastern horizon together and brushed golden ripples on the water.

Hypnotized by the birdsong, the glittering water and the rhythm of casting, Dad hardly noticed the first flash of light from the opposite side of the lake. The second flash, on the periphery of his vision, got his attention and he stopped fishing to watch for another. In a few minutes there was a third flash. It was the reflection of the rising sun from the windshield of a fast-moving car.

"Clifford," Dad said, as he prodded the tent from the outside, "there's a highway on the other side of this lake."

"I'm up I'm up jeez Dave there can't be because I walked all the way around it in '35 and there wasn't no other road."

"Well," Dad said, "there is now."

It was a short, quiet breakfast. After two hours of fishing which yielded one angry, stunted rock bass, Dad and Clifford packed up and headed for home. They stopped for gas at a station in Watersmeet, and while Clifford took his turn in the men's room, Dad asked an elderly mechanic for a little Upper Peninsula lore.

"About five miles east and two miles north there's a lake back in the woods that used to have real good smallmouth fishing. Know anything about it?"

"Oh God, don't bother going over there. It was our secret bass lake back in the '20s – took half a day to walk back into it. But the government cut a trail to the south side in '35, and those CCC boys about fished her out. Then after the war when the new highway got built along the north shore, she just went to hell. Ain't good for nothing but rock bass now."

The following Monday noon, as Dad lingered over his hamburgeronion at the counter of the White House, he heard a familiar rapid-fire voice from a booth in the back.

"Dammit Wally I just got back from the best doggone weekend of fishing I ever had you know Dave Crehore well he and I drove up to Michigan to a little bass lake I found when I was working for the government by golly we had to chop our way in but we caught smallmouth like hell wouldn't have it say you know there's a little spring pond not too far from there and nobody's been to it in years it's just full of brook trout and I know you're crazy about them hey let's drive up there this weekend I got a brand new tent just used once and we can take my car I'm telling you you're gonna love it what do you say?"

"Well—," Wally said, as he thoughtfully tapped a Pall Mall on the side of his Zippo...

Dave Crehore is DNR's public affairs manager in Green Bay. This is his third family story about hunting, fishing and enjoying the outdoors near his childhood home in Manitowoc.