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Ice fishing: Hobby, passion, tradition

Indigenous fishermen in northern Wisconsin use ice fishing to get away and connect

RILEY LAKE, Wisc. — It was a sunny day at 25 degrees, right off the Forest County Potawatomi Reservation where ice fishermen are setting up to catch their first prey.

Ryon Alloway, Forest County Potawatomi, is no stranger to these waters. He’s been watching an eagle perched up in a tree that’s hanging over where they’re drilling their first hole of the day. 

“They are waiting for a fish to come out,” Alloway said.

His 19-year-old cousin, Dawson Vanzile, explains how ice fishing is a time to get away from everyday life. 

“Everytime we go out it’s either me or him, otherwise a couple of other people,” Vanzile said.

Time spent on the frozen lake has slowly turned into a way of life for Alloway and Vanzile, and has been a way to help them and others get through a tough time.

“My dad when I was about nine, he went to a rehab when I was younger and my older cousins brought me out fishing and stuff and that helped me take my mind off all of that negative stuff,” Alloway said.

Down the road is Oneida Nation Chairman Tehassi Hill De-hassi who says his community also relies on ice fishing for winter food.

“I think that’s a large part of our Indigenous culture fish is a part of our diets, our seasonal diets so trying to make sure that we maintain those connections whether we need to go out and subsistence fish or if we can afford to buy fish but I think it’ always a good learning and good experience,” he said.

Melting from climate change has changed the best time of the year to go fishing.

De-hassi said the first ice fishing trip would happen during Christmas vacation but has recently been pushed to January when the ice is thick and safe enough, he said.

In the end, catching a fish can bring tribes together and continue a tradition going for generations to come.

“If we are lucky enough we get a good amount of fish that we get to bring home,” De-hassi said.

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