Those who fish all their lives develop a knack for the sport.
A feel for the lay of the lake…how to place the bait just right on the bottom.
Ray Groff of Fond du Lac has been fishing all his life but when he pulled up anchor on a recent windy day off the shores of Lake Winnebago this seasoned enthusiast was taken aback.
“It was around 11 a.m. on Sept. 4 and as soon as I saw the barrel I knew what it was,” he said.
There — hooked on the end of his anchor — was a flintlock musket, rusted and weathered by the passage of time.
“This is crazy. It’s like one of those tall fish tales,” he thought as he held the ancient musket in hand and turned his 14-foot Lakeland fishing boat toward shore near Clarence’s harbor.
The 47-inch heavy iron barrel was coated with zebra mussels and a large portion of the wooden stock was missing — eaten way after centuries of resting at the bottom of the big lake.
A piece of flint was still lodged in the corroded firing mechanism of the old muzzle loader. It was frozen in a half-cocked position.
Groff estimates the old firearm dates back to the late 1700s/early 1800s. From what he can tell, it matches flintlocks he found online from that era.
Area historyThe life-long Fond du Lac resident wonders who could have owned the musket and how it got lost. Maybe a trapper was out hunting, or a Native American from a tribe who lived in the region.
The Winnebago Indians were the major tribe to occupy the Fond du Lac area, according to the Fond du Lac Area Convention and Visitor’s Bureau. They controlled all of the streams and rivers flowing into the lake. Their homes were dome-shaped wigwams, made from basswood saplings, and covered with woven mats.
In 1801, two Frenchmen, Augustine Grignon and Michael Brisbois, built a trading post along the Fond du Lac River. They ran a thrivingbusiness with the Indians along the rivers and the lakeshore.
Whoever lost it could have been in a canoe in summer or maybe on the ice in winter and fallen through, Groff speculates.
Catch of a lifetimeHe calls it the catch of a lifetime. Groff began his fishing career as a young boy, riding his bicycle from home to Lakeside Park every day to catch fish — perch to be exact. He still lives in his childhood home on Wilson Avenue.
“I love being out in the middle of the lake — nobody bugging me,” he said.
His buddies tell him that he’s so good at the sport he could “catch (expletive deleted) fish out of a toilet.”
“I just got it down to a fine art,” he said. “For 40 years I’ve been fishing the south end of Lake Winnebago because I don’t need to go much further. I catch all the fish I want there.”
When his wife Nancy Groff saw the rifle he brought home as his catch of the day, she just shook her head.
“She used to come with me fishing, but one day she was trolling andreading a book and she ran over my line. She never went fishing again,” he said.
Other than putting some kind of sealant on the gun, Groff said he plans to display it in its current condition — just the way it came out of the lake.
“I’m not going to start messing around with it,” he said.
The rifle will be mounted on the wall near his other prize catch — a 44-inch northern.
“But the flintlock beats that by a long-shot,” he said.
Sharon Roznik may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (920) 907-7936.