EAU CLAIRE — A year ago Wisconsin’s fishing season opened at a time of swirling uncertainty regarding the safety of anything other than staying home during the COVID-19 pandemic.
Even the state Department of Natural Resources, normally a huge cheerleader for fishing, officials were talking more about social distancing and hand sanitizer than walleyes and bass.
But a funny thing happened when the fishing season arrived: People headed to Wisconsin’s boat landings and shorelines in droves, eager for a way to have some seemingly safe fun at an otherwise scary time.
Wisconsin fishing license sales rose by 8% in 2020, with the DNR reporting that the number of first-time license buyers more than doubled, as new and experienced anglers sought refuge from the pandemic storm on the state’s lakes, rivers and streams.
“People had more time off and more desire to recreate outdoors, and anglers found they could pretty easily socially distance as long as they weren’t in the same boat,” said Joseph Gerbyshak, a DNR fisheries biologist in the Eau Claire area. “Hopefully, more people discovered or rediscovered an enjoyable hobby and will continue that in the future.”
With the pandemic persisting and so many more people wetting a line last year, the fishing boom shows no sign of letting up as Saturday’s fishing opener approaches.
Just ask Gary Oemig, owner of Oemig’s Sport Shop in Stanley.
Oemig, whose family has operated the shop for 51 years, said he’s never seen anything like last year’s mad rush of anglers — and the corresponding nationwide shortage of rods, reels and related equipment.
“It was absolutely insane,” Oemig said. “I still don’t have life jackets from last year, and when I place an order I’m not sure if we’re going to get it.”
The demand for fishing gear was reflected by the pressure on area fishing holes such as Otter Lake in Chippewa County, he said.
“A Wednesday looked like a weekend,” Oemig said. “The lakes just got pounded.”
As for this year, Oemig expects the enthusiasm to continue — starting Saturday — even if many other traditional summer activities such as youth sports, weddings and family reunions are slowly returning.
“The outlook looks good, especially considering how many people went fishing last year with the way the world is,” he said. “I expect to be busy. Getting things to fill the shelves is still really tough.”
The story is similar for Mike Buroker, owner of Buroker’s Taxidermy, Bait & Tackle in Eau Claire.
“My business has been absolutely nuts,” said Buroker, who described similar difficulties obtaining inventory but also a surge in requests for taxidermy as more people fished and hunted and found success.
“COVID just wreaked havoc on the world, and the only thing people felt they could do safely was be outdoors,” Buroker said.
In many ways, the rush to experience the great outdoors — whether through fishing, hunting, biking, kayaking or hiking — helped to salvage an otherwise miserable year for the state’s tourism industry, said Julie Fox, northwest regional tourism specialist for the Wisconsin Department of Tourism.
“Taken as a whole, it was a rough year, but what we’re doing is focusing on the recovery and on those strengths like outdoor recreation,” Fox said. “We’re trying to elevate what we in Wisconsin already know — that our state is a fantastic place for outdoor recreational opportunities.”
And sport fishing is one of the state’s biggest catches among those activities, supporting 22,000 jobs, generating $2.3 billion in spending annually and attracting 330,000 nonresident anglers a year to Wisconsin, Gerbyshak said.
That means it’s good news that the game fish season, which always begins on the first Saturday of May, will have the earliest possible start this year.
“Big fish are big business for Wisconsin, which sells the third largest number of out-of-state fishing licenses of any state (behind only Florida and Michigan),” said Anne Sayers, acting state tourism secretary. “Home to countless fishing competitions and leisure fishing trips, Wisconsin’s more than 15,000 freshwater lakes and 43,000 miles of rivers draw in experienced and novice anglers.”
So what might anglers expect when they hit the water this weekend?
An early warm spell that caused the ice cover to leave Chippewa Valley lakes a week or two ahead of normal this spring should have been good for early season fishing, but it was counteracted by below-normal temperatures in April that have left water temperatures a little below normal. That could slow action somewhat, although a forecast calling for highs in the low 80s Saturday could help significantly, Gerbyshak said.
“It looks like a beautiful weekend for the opener,” Gerbyshak said. “The warmer the water is, the more fish gotta eat.”
Fish populations should be plentiful in regional rivers and lakes, he said, noting that a recent fish survey on Lake Altoona indicated that several years of strong natural reproduction have yielded about eight adult walleyes per acre, or about double the average rate on lakes in the northern half of the state.
For anglers who might wonder why that doesn’t translate into catching walleyes on nearly every cast, Gerbyshak explained the lake also has a big population of perch, which might make a more convenient and tasty meal than a passing lure.
Gerbyshak also extolled the diversity of fish species in the Chippewa River — from the Dells Dam in Eau Claire to the Mississippi River.
“That’s what makes the lower Chip neat,” he said. “You can put a half a night crawler on the bottom and there are about 60 different species you could catch from a couple inches long to 80 pounds.”
Eau Claire fisherman Marcel Welch said Thursday he wasn’t yet sure where he will fish Saturday, but left no doubt that he would be on the water somewhere in the Chippewa Valley.
“I wouldn’t miss it,” said Welch, who traditionally fishes with two or three of his best buddies on opening day. “It’s always a fun weekend to get out and see what everybody is catching.”
The group typically tries multiple spots and targets everything from panfish to smallmouth bass.
Depending on their luck, Welch and his pals might turn their adventure into a video for their Crew Outdoorsman YouTube channel.
“We’ll have to see what happens,” Welch said, echoing the attitude of anglers across the state eagerly anticipating the start of a new season.
There’s a difference, Tiit Raid tells me, between “looking” and “seeing.”
At 80, the UW-Eau Claire emeritus professor and visual artist has been observing the appearance of his surroundings for most of his life. Rather than merely “looking” at the world — that is, resorting to the shorthand identification system which so many of us rely upon — Tiit opts for the longer, deeper view. Don’t just “look” at the leaf, pay attention to the relationship between the veins and the whole, and the way the light and shadows reveals patterns. And further, how all of nature seems to be in harmony and balance with itself. Such a view of the world requires a willingness to put in the time. Generally, Tiit says, we don’t.
“We do not spend a lot of time looking at the appearance of things,” he says as we sit in his home studio, surrounded by dozens of paintings in progress. “We recognize, identify, label.”
In doing so, Tiit explains, we miss the beauty of our everyday world.
Born in Estonia in 1940, Tiit and his family spent five years displaced in Germany in the final months of the war before emigrating to Preston, Minnesota, in 1949. Tiit’s interest in nature — and birds, in particular — began during his years in Germany, and grew steadily upon his arrival in Minnesota. At 14, he took the bus to Powers Department Store in Minneapolis and invested his savings — 18 silver dollars — on a copy of Audubon’s Birds of America, which helped him see natural designs more clearly.
“I still have it,” he says, nodding to studio bookshelf just behind me.
Tiit’s artistic study soon moved beyond Audubon’s birds to include works by the masters — Michelangelo and Rembrandt, among others. Such artists helped Tiit discover his sense of design, a major step forward in his effort to see the world more deeply.
Which is precisely what the mid-career college professor attempted to do throughout a spring and summer in the mid-1970s: seated high on the south bank of Fall Creek, observing the appearance of the creek below him and the rock outcrops and trees on the opposite side. There, Tiit began to more fully understand natural designs. The more he observed, the more the world seemed to be complete and whole
“Everything looked like it was in place,” Tiit says. “I looked at this little moss-covered rock next to me, and how the leaves had fallen on it, and the twigs, and the seedpods, and it looked like a perfect composition.”
The elements of art are everywhere, he realized, if we only stop to notice.
It’s a lesson Tiit taught me a few summers back, during a chance run-in outside the Children’s Museum of Eau Claire. I was strolling toward the river when I noticed Tiit paused alongside the building’s exterior. He was studying the shadows of a few musical instruments attached to the building — a xylophone and a couple of bells.
“Hey, Tiit,” I called. “What are you up to?”
“Take a look at these shadows,” he said, nodding to the sidewalk. “Do you see what the light is doing?”
I suppose I didn’t. Not until he began to explain how the light altered the shapes of the shadows on the sidewalk, and how the colors of those instruments on the wall changed with the light.
Tiit’s careful study of the shadows on that sidewalk seemed to reaffirm 19th century French artist Paul Cézanne’s belief that “the artist is intoxicated by the visual world and immersed in its characteristics.”
But the artist’s intoxication goes beyond shadows on sidewalks; it extends to everything around him.
“Take for example the way water flows around the supports of the Grand Avenue walking bridge,” Tiit tells me. “The shapes created by the flowing water is an example of a perfect natural order.”
These, and all natural forms, have served as models to help artists understand natural design.
When confronted with a blank canvas, Tiit places his faith in intuition, beginning with a single brushstroke, followed by a brushstroke in response to the first. And so on. He avoids imagining any final image, which would only inhibit the process.
When I ask him how he knows what comes next — what color, what brushstroke, what design — he quotes writer Joseph Conrad: “My inward voice decides.”
To those of us who can barely manage a paint-by-number, Tiit’s process may seem a bit mystical. But he says that it’s simply the result of decades of practice, and trusting and following his inward voice.
“You can’t plan these things out,” Tiit says, guiding me through a few specific brushstrokes from a recent painting in his studio. “It all came from the making of it, in responding to what was happening.”
Even if Tiit himself can’t always explain what is happening.
Overanalyzing the artistic process is to risk inhibiting it. And after a lifetime of practice, Tiit has a better sense for what works. He rises early, drinks coffee, reads the paper, does a few word puzzles, and then settles in before his canvas. Eventually his eyes are drawn to the areas in need of attention. Maybe one color is too dominant, or not dominant enough; either way, it’s nothing he can’t attend to. Through this process, he discovers his image — despite never having an image in mind.
Yet you needn’t be an artist to find your inward voice, he explains. All you need is a willingness to listen. And a willingness to look deeply.
“The main thing I learned from spending a lot of time looking at the appearance of my surroundings was that gradually, the things I was looking at became more real and actual.” The longer you look, Tiit says, “the more you begin to feel connected to the world around you.”
In our time of great disconnect, we might all benefit from a reintroduction to our world. A world, I’ll admit, that has begun to look rather unfamiliar over the past year. All the more reason to get reacquainted, to extend our hands, and our ears, and our eyes.
Take the time to observe the appearance of your everyday surroundings.
You might just like what you see.
MADISON — A judge ruled Thursday that Republican leaders of the Wisconsin Legislature illegally hired private taxpayer-funded attorneys to represent them in anticipation of legal challenges over redistricting because there are no pending lawsuits over maps that have yet to be drawn.
Four Madison teachers, including the current and incoming teachers union president, argued that state law does not allow for legislative leaders to hire attorneys outside the state Department of Justice before a lawsuit has been filed. The Legislature has yet to begin the redistricting process.
Assembly Speaker Robin Vos and Senate Majority Leader Devin LeMahieu entered into contracts in December and January with two outside law firms to handle the redistricting process, including any future lawsuits.
The contracts allowed for spending of more than $1 million in taxpayer money to the two law firms.
Dane County Circuit Judge Stephen Ehlke ruled Thursday that the contracts are void because Vos and LeMahieu were not authorized to hire the law firms. LeMahieu and Vos did not immediately return messages seeking comment.
The Republican leaders hired attorneys Adam Mortara and Consovoy McCarthy with a Washington-area law firm that represented former President Donald Trump and the Republican National Committee.
Under that contract, the state began paying $30,000 a month starting in January to cover consulting. The monthly fee would have jumped to $200,000 a month in July or when a lawsuit was filed, whichever came first.
They also hired former Wisconsin Deputy Attorney General Kevin St. John at the Madison firm Bell Giftos St. John. His contract calls for him and his colleagues to be paid an hourly rate of $375.
The lawmakers argued that the Wisconsin Constitution gave them authority to hire the attorneys and that the contracts were lawful. But the judge ruled that neither the constitution nor state law gave the Legislature the authority to hire the outside attorneys for redistricting given that there is no pending lawsuit over drawing of the maps.
Had the Legislature intended to give leaders the power to hire attorneys for lawsuits that have yet to be filed, it could have specified that power in the law, but it does not currently exist, the judge said.
The judge ruled that the contracts were void from when they were first entered into and barred any future payments.
“They paid no attention to the law and hired another Republican law firm from Washington, D.C., to pay thousands of dollars a month and a million dollars this year on a lawsuit that doesn’t yet exist,” said attorney Lester Pines, who represented the teachers in the case. “The (law) doesn’t give them the authority to do that but they don’t care.”
Pines frequently represents Democrats, including Gov. Tony Evers, and their interests.
The Legislature is tasked every 10 years with drawing new maps for congressional and state legislative district boundaries. Republicans control the Legislature, but their maps have to be signed by Democratic Gov. Tony Evers to become law. Given the unlikelihood of that happening, lawsuits are expected.
Ten years ago, Republicans passed maps that were signed by then-Gov. Scott Walker, helping to cement GOP control of the Legislature over the past decade. Numerous lawsuits were filed over those maps that lasted for years; they resulted in the adjustment of boundaries for two Assembly districts on Milwaukee’s south side.