SHIOCTON – The journey for the most part begins in darkness more than 70 miles downstream at Lakes Winnebago, Butte des Morts, Winneconne and Poygan.
But when walleye reach western Outagamie County via the meandering Wolf River, their spawning goes viral.
The fish are hugging the bottom, but thanks to an underwater camera in New London and two more in Shiocton, their movements are broadcast live on the internet for all to see.
Some will watch on their laptop, personal computer, or from their phone during a break from work. Teachers have been known to incorporate streams into their lesson plans.
For patrons of Muddy Waters Bar & Grill in Shiocton, two of its televisions behind the bar showed Thursday afternoon the final round of the season opener between the Milwaukee Brewers and the Chicago Cubs at Wrigley Field. The TV in between was all about the fish. And it was absolutely fascinating.
“It’s a much better picture than it was,” said Andrew Janssen, owner of the bar along the river for six years and serving homemade pizzas. “They are in the schools. You won’t see anything and then you’ll see a whole lot of it.
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This year marks the 14th season of Wolf River Cam, the brainchild of lifelong Shiocton resident Gary Bunnell, who works as a parts manager at a powersports company in Clintonville but has been hunting walleye since he could hold a rod. fishing with a minnow. .
Bunnell, 48, had no idea his cameras and live streams would attract viewers from across the country. He just wanted to better understand what was going on underwater and maybe get a better idea of when to fish. Bunnell hooked up his first camera to the internet so his father, the retired police chief of the village of 854, and other family members and friends could also watch.
It started streaming in 2009, but when people started talking about it on internet fishing discussion forums, over 200 people viewed the stream in its first hours of operation. While surprising and humiliating, it was also expensive since Bunnell was billed based on the amount of bandwidth he used.
After burning through $100 in bandwidth the first morning, Bunnell realized he needed to switch to a provider that offered the services for free in exchange for advertising on the site. He now uses Twitch, a company that has made a name for itself with the online gaming community.
“If you were paying for bandwidth, it would be maybe $100,000 a month, and no one will be able to afford it, so that’s the trade-off,” Bunnell said. “It’s a big expense on my back. My goal is, still to this day, if we decide to stop (streaming) tomorrow, I’m still going to have a camera in the water to see what’s going on when I’m not around.
Sometimes only a few leaf fragments or other debris float across the screen. But then a shadow may appear in the distance before fully revealing itself as a plump walleye, one of the most desirable fish in Wisconsin’s food chain. Suction cups were also plentiful last week as rough fish, which some like to pickle but are prime prey for northerners and muskellunge, headed north.
The New London camera shows similar images but can sometimes include a minnow attached to a hook. Not so long ago, the minnow was gobbled up by a northern pike.
Bunnell initially had to purchase its underwater cameras, but Aqua-Vu, a company that specializes in underwater cameras primarily used by ice fishers, now provides the cameras free of charge. Bunnell’s operation has become a test lab for Aqua-Vu, which considers a camera in water four to five hours a week for 20 weeks to be heavily used. Bunnell’s cameras are in the water 24 hours a day for months at a time.
Bunnell declined to elaborate on how the cameras are rigged and where they are, but said he typically places them in 7 to 13 feet of water shortly after the ice leaves the river, which which is generally from mid-March to the end of March. The cameras are left in the water until they break, die of exhaustion, become submerged in brown algae or the ice begins to form again months later.
“Sometimes we run out of cameras because we use them a thousand times longer than anybody else,” Bunnell said. “Aqua-Vu said no one has had a camera in the water longer than us.”
Unique fishing style
Shiocton is a river town and its culture reflects its motto “Where Nature Begins”.
The fishing style here is unique. Some use traditional fishing boats, but many prefer a raft, which can be described as a rigid ice shack placed on a pontoon boat. Rafts can include small kitchens, large windows, generators, televisions, and in some cases even a bathroom. Most are tied to the shore in prime locations, such as at the bend in the river near Shiocton Cut Stock, which turns logs into pieces used to make pallets.
But instead of holes in the floor, the rafts also have an open deck area equipped with multiple rod holders, as Wisconsin fishing regulations allow three lines per person.
The village also has seven places where anglers can park their rafts for $20 per season. One is located at Village Hall, with three each at Bamboo Bend and the Public Works facility.
“It’s usually the same people every year,” said Tammy Free, the village’s assistant clerk. “It’s huge here.”
Across the street at Johnson’s Hardware & Sporting Goods, owner Dick Johnson uses a large wooden cash register, has two working rotary phones, and since the 1970s has watched when the ice leaves the river between the downtown bridge and the railroad trestle. It carries on a tradition that dates back to 1851 and has copies of the data for free on its counter.
His dog, Buddy Baxter, 15, sleeps on the store’s hardwood floors, while the walls contain mounts of wild game, including the shoulder mount of a deer shot in 1924 and a monstrous 10 walleye pounds and 29.5 inches grabbed by a cousin in the early 1990s.
“That’s a thing of the past,” said Johnson, 70, pointing to his cash register. “This whole place is, and that’s how I like it.”
More than gold
Back on the river, it’s not just walleye and suckers that find themselves in front of Bunnell’s lenses. All species in the river eventually make an appearance, but none are larger than the sturgeon, which in a few weeks will begin its annual migration. The event will draw thousands to Bunnell’s website and to Shiocton where fish can be seen spawning along the riprap rocks at Bamboo Bend, near the Stanley the Sturgeon statue.
This year, Bunnell has found a way to livestream drone footage to its site, which will allow viewers for the first time to get a birds-eye view of prehistoric fish snapping and splashing.
Across from the park, Shadows on the Wolf, an outdoor educational organization established in 1992, has built a $250,000 education center and will also place three live cameras embedded in cement blocks in the water once the sturgeon will begin its race. Sometimes the fish knock over the cement blocks, said Wayne “Ace” Van Straten, vice president of Shadows on the Wolf, which educates young people about hunting, trapping and gun safety.
“It’s a springtime ritual,” Van Straten said of the sturgeon run. “I’m 62 years old and I’ve seen the fish spawn every year of my life. It never gets old.”
Barry Adams covers regional news for the Wisconsin State Journal. Send him ideas for On Wisconsin at 608-252-6148 or email [email protected]