Wisconsin Ice Fishers Feel The Recession's Chill

fromWPR

Jeff Schraml and his ice shanty i i

Could ice shanties like this one, built on Wisconsin's Lake Waubesa in 2005, be considered something of an economic indicator? Joseph W. Jackson III/Wisconsin State Journal via AP hide caption

itoggle caption Joseph W. Jackson III/Wisconsin State Journal via AP
Jeff Schraml and his ice shanty

Could ice shanties like this one, built on Wisconsin's Lake Waubesa in 2005, be considered something of an economic indicator?

Joseph W. Jackson III/Wisconsin State Journal via AP

It's not the GDP or the unemployment rate, but in one northern Wisconsin community, there's something else that might be considered an economic indicator: the number of ice-fishing shanties popping up.

Across the upper Midwest, fishing shanties are a common sight on frozen lakes every year. But the number of shanties has increased dramatically this winter on Wisconsin's Lake Wausau.

The view from the McCleary Bridge, which connects the city of Wausau to the prosperous commercial strip of nearby Rib Mountain, reveals more than a hundred ice-fishing shanties — more than three times the usual number — clustered together on the ice.

The Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources says interest in fishing and the sale of licenses traditionally goes up as the economy goes down.

"Money's tight," says David Niewolny, 64, of Rib Mountain, who fishes from the cab of his truck in the midst of the Lake Wausau shantytown. "People aren't going up north and taking their shanties up north, they're staying close to home. I think the money's the situation this year."

Niewolny says many of the fishermen are out of work. "I talked to quite a few out here that have been laid off for three, four months already," he says. "That's all they do is come out here all day, you know, and see if they can catch a meal of fish."

Looking out the door of his shanty, Gordon Berna of Wausau reaches pretty much the same conclusion.

"A lot of people laid off, I imagine," he says. "Nothing to do, so they've got a lot of time to fish."

Berna opens a hatch on the plywood floor of his shanty and, using a hand auger, clears the ice off the top of three fishing holes that let him drop a line deep into Lake Wausau. But ask him what he's catching, and Berna laughs.

"Nothing. I was out here yesterday; I didn't get anything," he says. "But they're catching bluegills and crappies."

Berna, who is retired, says he's seen his share of local businesses come and go in the area. "I worked at Murrays on Third Street. I worked for Kraft Foods on Scott Street for 18 years. They moved out of town; Murrays closed; I worked for Bard, they moved to Mexico."

A hundred feet or so behind Berna's shanty is 28-year-old Josh Hitz of Antigo, who sits on a bucket, a line dangling into a hole in the ice. A black dog and a young boy are sitting inside his warm SUV, which is parked on the ice.

Hitz, a certified nursing assistant, says he was laid off about three months ago.

"This is how I catch my meals — a lot of it, so we get by as much as we can, you know," he says.

Hitz, like a number of the ice fishermen here, is not optimistic about the short-term prospects for the economy.

"I think it's going to go down yet, I really do," he says. "I think it's going to get worse before it gets better."

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