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Back in the day


Kathryn A. Kahler

The DNR family was saddened in mid-October with news of the passing of former magazine editor David "Larry" Sperling. Sperling, 66, grew up in White Plains, New York, came to Wisconsin to attend UW-Madison in 1970, and decided to make Wisconsin his home. He edited this magazine from September 1987 until he retired in April 2011. Prior to his work for the magazine, Sperling was a public information officer for the DNR's solid waste program.

Larry Sperling photoLarry Sperling

"He was a proud editor of Wisconsin Natural Resources magazine," according to his obituary, and "also a leader in the community. He was a strong advocate for environmental conservation. David was a talented cook and entertainer, and loved to travel, especially with his family. Family was a primary focus of his life. He was a husband, father, son, brother, and friend, who loved and protected passionately and relentlessly and impacted everyone he met."

An author search of our magazine archives yields almost 100 stories written by Larry, about subjects as serious as the Public Trust Doctrine, groundwater protection or dealing with hazardous waste, to a feature piece about harvesting wild rice. He was a skilled storyteller, no matter the subject, but that was just one of his talents.

Larry had a way with words that inspired readers to volunteer their time to environmental causes, go afield in search of fish and game, or simply enjoy a hike in the woods. But the stories most cherished by readers were those that offered a glimpse of his persona, when he shared a little about himself with his readers. It was that kind of story that developed a bond with the reader, who was introduced to a truly kind, generous and caring person.

We share an excerpt from one of those stories, "Sanctuary on ice," from the February 2001 issue, when Larry asked readers to send photos and stories about their ice-fishing shacks. With our current ice-themed issue, it seems appropriate to highlight Larry's fishing tale — almost as if he wrote it just for "Back in the day."

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I moved to Wisconsin 30 years ago, but my distant relatives didn't sense they were losing me until I not only accepted, but embraced Wisconsin winters. Though I still don't relish driving icy streets, a bright, sunny day in winter is darn enjoyable, and a day of ice fishing is a charmed day, indeed.

Then as now, I like keeping it simple. My first ice-fishing sled was bequeathed to me by Spud, a fellow student who was leaving Wisconsin to seek fame and fortune in Oklahoma. The sled was two wooden soda crates bolted together and hinged with plywood tops. Nailed to the bottom was some scrap of tough plastic, so the rig glided effortlessly across the snow. The sled held everything I needed for an outing, and more — a small tackle box with tiny festive-colored jigs, a small hemostat, drop weights, tube weights, two rods, a few tip-ups, an ice scoop, film canisters containing assorted fishing grubs, a Thermos, a flashlight, a brown paper bag with a bologna sandwich and a plastic bag for fish. Moreover, it easily fit in the back of my aging Chevy Vega.

That rig sufficed for 20 years, and it is still my favorite sled. When I turned 40, my spouse decided I should get out of the wind a little, so she bought me a molded plastic ice fishing sled complete with a molded holder for a minnow bucket and three metal tent poles that fit into holes around the seat. I can drape a simple black cloth around the poles to form a windbreak. It's quite comfortable on a mild day with a light breeze.

Well, winter doesn't always provide mild days, and we all know the ice fishing season has been way too short for several years. So last year I seized the chance to join a friend who has a portable shelter that collapses into a big sled. We needed his minivan to haul it near the ice. We dragged it out across the frozen scape a mile or more, drilled a few holes, set up the tent, lined the plastic sled with a beat-up remnant of oriental rug, started the propane heater, opened the door, loosened our winter clothing, and sat in comfort searching for perch despite cold and bluster.

One cold night when the wind chill had dipped enough to warrant a block heater on the dog, I got a call from the same buddy, who said, "Let's go fishing. The walleyes are hitting in the shallows." I reminded him that even on my best days, walking across the ice at nine in the evening to set up a tent in a steady wind just won't have the ring of "fun." He said another friend of his owned a permanent wooden shanty that we were welcome to use. Further, it was positioned on a "key spot" over a deep weed bar and some rocks.

So off we went, carrying nothing but a bait bucket.

In the distance, the shanty emerged from some swirling snow. As we got closer, it seemed a modest rectangular affair. We unlocked the door and lit a gas lantern. I couldn't believe my eyes. Here sat a propane heater and two comfortable chairs. Here was a small table with a window. Here were hooks on the wall for our heavy jackets and a small rack of ice-fishing rods and tip-ups all rigged up for success. Here was a boombox with a stack of CDs. And in the middle of the false floor, here were two pre-drilled holes covered with some Styrofoam and carpeting to ward off freezing.

The fishing wasn't great that night, but I have to admit I got a bit spoiled by the experience. It added a whole new dimension of comfort that could make a winter angler out of a Caribbean bone-fisher.

Kathryn A. Kahler worked with Larry for 25 years, savored his office potluck contributions as much as his fishing tales, and will miss his friendship.