Ice fishing warms the spirit - Milwaukee VA Medical Center
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Milwaukee VA Medical Center


Ice fishing warms the spirit

Two ice fisherman hold a large brown trout

William Thomas (right) and Jeff Lamberies, a pro staff member at Automatic Fisherman, hold the large brown trout that Thomas hauled in shortly after getting out on the ice (photo courtesy of William Thomas).

By Jim Hoehn
Wednesday, February 20, 2019

For someone raised in the Texas heat, it didn’t take William Thomas too long to master the subtle techniques and closely guarded secrets of successful ice fishing.

Venturing on to the Lake Michigan ice at McKinley Marina on Presidents Day , Thomas almost immediately landed a trophy-sized brown trout during the Veteran outing sponsored by Wisconsin Hero Outdoors.

“Other than catfish, it’s the biggest fresh-water fish I’ve ever pulled in,” said Thomas, who now lives in Fort Atkinson, Wisconsin, but still speaks with a Texas drawl. “It was amazing, especially as big as it was. It barely came out of the damned hole.”

Thomas, who served 16 years in the Air Force as a joint terminal attack controller, including five tours in Iraq and one in Afghanistan, was fishing with Kerry Paulson, the owner of Automatic Fisherman, which makes an ice fishing device of the same name.

“First fish on the ice ever in his life and it was a monster brown,” Paulson said. “It was the biggest in the harbor today so far. It was easily 36, 37 inches and probably 20 or 22 pounds. For a trout, that is what people come from all over the world for, to catch one fish like that.”

Paulson was one of about 15 guides who donated time, supplies, products, food and heated shanties for the event, which brought about 20 Veterans from the Milwaukee VA Medical Center out on the ice for an entire day of fishing.

A volunteer ice fishing guide talks with two Veterans

Volunteer guides were on hand to help Veterans with every aspect of ice fishing.

“I’m doing a good cause for a lot of good guys, that’s the way I look at,” Paulson said. “I think it’s an awesome event.”

Wisconsin Hero Outdoors was founded in 2018 by a group of Veterans and first responders. The mission of the organization is to help connect Veterans, first responders and their families to outdoor activities in Wisconsin.

“We really try to help make sure that after somebody goes through a program at VA, they have a community of Veterans that they know still is available to go do stuff with, and have a healthy atmosphere to do it in,” said Eric Falkner, a medically discharged Marine and co-founder of Wisconsin Hero Outdoors.

Falkner met co-founder Jason Bartol, an Air Force Veteran, while receiving treatment at the Milwaukee VA. They went kayak fishing with other Veterans, which led to the forming of Wisconsin Hero Outdoors.

The group has several other outdoor events in the coming months, including kayak fishing and bow fishing. They also held a smaller ice fishing event in early February.

The Lake Michigan ice fishing event originally was scheduled for mid-January, but canceled because of a lack of ice due to unseasonably warm temperatures. But, Wisconsin’s stubborn and unpredictable winter regrouped to offer an almost perfect fishing day with sufficient ice, temperatures in the mid-20s and bright sunshine.

The outing was part of recreation therapy program at the Milwaukee VA Medical Center. Recreation therapy helps Veterans improve mental and physical well-being, build on their treatment and connect through events in the community.

A Veteran fishes through a hole in the ice while inside a heated tent shanty

Army Veteran Ron Schneider ice fishes for the first time while inside a heated tent shanty provided by event organizers.

Ron Schneider, a 68-year-old Army Veteran, was enjoying his inaugural experience, comfortably seated in a heated tent shanty, working his line through the stereotypical hole in the ice.

“This is fun,” said Schneider, who hails from farther south down the lakeshore in Kenosha, Wisconsin. “I’ve never done this before. This is my first time on the ice on Lake Michigan.”

Christy Ward, a 42-year-old Navy Veteran, was warmly dressed and spent much of her time outside, savoring the fresh air and sunshine.

“I like learning about how they’re setting up things,” she said. “Plus, I like being outside very much.”

Although not an abundance of fish were caught, several large ones were hauled in and all were released back into the water.

Doug Ruplinger, a disabled Marine who also receives care at Milwaukee VA, came up with the idea for the ice fishing event. Ruplinger, who also runs Milwaukee Trophy Trout Fishing, had gone on a turkey hunt sponsored by Wisconsin Hero Outdoors, and contacted them about the possibility of ice fishing.

The rest, as they say, is history -- along with hard work and a little cooperation from the weather.

“But, it’s not just about fishing, either,” said Ruplinger, now the events coordinator for Wisconsin Hero Outdoors. “It’s a break from the daily routine, get you out of the monotony. And, a lot of these guys might bond with one another, or one of us, and later on in life, ‘Hey, I remember you. You’re the guy who took me fishing.’”

Photo Gallery - View more photos from the ice fishing outing in our flickr album
A rack of ice fishing rods
A veteran holds up a large fish he caught
Event organizers outside a heated tent shanty

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