Finding Meaning on the Flowage

The Jambo is a celebration of everything I value about ice fishing

Finding Meaning on the Flowage

This story is part of a series on ice-fishing culture. To read all series posts, click here.

The annual Rhinelander Lions Club Fisheree, henceforth referred to as the Jambo, is the crescendo of our ice fishing season. From the time we hit the ice in late December or early January until mid-February, we’re pre-fishing for the Jambo.

The Jambo takes place on the second week of February. It is held on Boom Lake, part of the Rhinelander Flowage system, our primary fishing waters. There are cash prizes for the largest northern, walleye, perch, crappie and bluegill each day of the two-day tournament. Northern is the top payout, at $500 per day. That’s what we target. Every year 29- to 32-inch northerns that most people wouldn’t think much of on other lakes win significant cash prizes in the Jambo. 

Between entry fees, the raffle tickets they stop by the shack to sell us, and the paddle wheel at the tournament’s Hodag Park headquarters, I have paid far more to the Lions than I will ever see in return. Yet every year we’re here. We talk about it all winter. We plot and scheme to set up in the best possible spot. Being in a spot where we can catch fish is important, but it’s not the only consideration for placement of the Snake Chaser.

A good Jambo location isn’t too close to other shacks. We bring a lot of guys to the tournament and we need space to fish. And park. We’re a boisterous group, so it’s a courtesy to try to keep a little distance. If possible, it’s also very nice to set up in a location that provides a bit of a windbreak. It doesn’t matter so much on warm days, but keeping the wind off you when it’s below zero makes a big difference.

In the week leading up to the tournament there’s a steady stream of shacks moving out onto the ice, jockeying for position. All the traffic and commotion on the ice undoubtedly play a big role in this routinely being one of the worst fishing weekends of the year on the Boomer.

It’s easy to dislike many things about this tournament, from other shacks crowding you to the total dearth of quality fish, but we love it. We’re out drilling holes at 6 a.m., an hour before the tournament officially starts. We fish, laugh, drink and make good food. It’s a great weekend. 

This will be my 15th Jambo. My first was in 2005. Saturday, February 12, 2005. It was just me and Steve in our old shack — a lightly insulated 7- by 9-foot plywood box on a rusted out dual-axle trailer. We built it together the winter before. I’d just moved home to take care of my mom after she was diagnosed with cancer. It was Steve’s idea to build a shack, and I’ll always be thankful for that. 

We were positioned in an area known as Peggy’s Slough. We’d been set up there all winter and had caught quite a few northerns, but more and more shacks moved in as the Jambo approached. When we arrived that Saturday morning it was like a circus on the ice. There was a truck parked right next our shack with tip-ups set up even closer. We literally had to step over another guy’s tip-up to get into our shack. It was one of the most ridiculous things I’d ever seen on the ice. 

I don’t recall how we did fishing that day, but a few things stand out. For starters, it was a beautiful day and you couldn’t throw a stick in Peggy’s Slough without hitting someone. Secondly, one of the guys fishing right off our porch left his jig pole sitting on the ice with his line in the water. At one point a fish grabbed on and pulled his whole pole down through the hole. To everyone’s delight, another guy caught that fish a few hours later, with the jig pole still attached. It seems impossible, but if you’d seen the number of people fishing out there that day you’d have no reason to doubt it.

My most significant memory of that day, however, is something that will stay with me forever. My mom was home on hospice care at that point, and sometime mid- to late afternoon I got a call saying I needed to come home. Even when you know it’s coming, you’re never ready for that call.

Steve himself lost his dad far too early. I was a senior in high school at the time and Steve was in college. His dad was a fixture at our hockey games. He’d wait up for Steve after games and give him a frank assessment of our play. We always wanted to know what he had to say the next day. 

I think I was kind of numb as I wrapped up my boards that afternoon, almost on autopilot with my head and heart already completely gone from the ice. As I put my stuff in my truck and got ready to head out, Steve stopped me and said, “Hey, remember the good times.” It was a simple comment, and it wouldn’t have meant half as much coming from anyone else, but I will never forget it. I’ve shared those words with a few other friends in the time since. They always choke me up.

That’s been on my mind quite a bit in the two weeks I’ve been out here writing and thinking about what this means to me — why I spend my time out here. I’ve written about everything from orange soda to family history to tactics for northern pike. It might seem like a joke, like I’m just getting paid to go ice fishing, but I’m trying to tell a story that’s bigger than putting a line down a hole, and I hope that comes across. I’ve felt a surprising amount of pressure to do it justice. 

If you've hunted or fished an area for years, you know that you develop a deeper appreciation for it. You notice everything that changes from season to season, from one year to the next. I appreciate that part of it very much, but in the end, I come out here because of my friends. I wouldn’t be out here without them. I wouldn’t have been on Peggy’s Slough that day; I wouldn’t be one quarter owner of one of the most esteemed shacks on the flowage; and I wouldn’t be sharing all these stories with you. 

I was lucky to have the kind of mom I had, and I’m incredibly thankful to have a group of friends who I’m connected to by far more than DNA. That’s really what the Jambo is all about for me. 

Oh, and krausening. Don’t forget the magic of krausening. It’ll make you fish better. Or at least happier. Cheers.

This story is part of a series on ice-fishing culture. To read all series posts, click here.


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