Largemouth bass struck lures with abandon. An osprey hovered and dived into the still water and emerged with a black crappie clutched in its talons.
The other sounds were from tourism officials and organizers of the 53rd Governor’s Fishing Opener.
Wisconsin Indian Head Country tourism bureau and local partners hosted this year’s event in Chetek.
“I’m always hoping the only ice we have for the opener is in people’s drinks and coolers,” said Deb Sterchy, manager of the regional tourism bureau that covers 24 counties in northwestern Wisconsin. “Now I can relax.”
Gov. Scott Walker led a delegation of state officials in attendance at the event, including Tourism Secretary Stephanie Klett and Department of Natural Resources Secretary Dan Meyer.
About 50 media members also participated in a tradition started by Gov. Warren Knowles in 1965.
The event helps highlight the fishing resources and tourism attractions in the host community, as well as the state.
Fishing is an important part of Wisconsin’s tourism industry, attracting more than 360,000 out-of-state anglers annually. On Friday, Gov. Walker and Klett announced Wisconsin’s tourism economy reached $20.6 billion in 2017, up $631 million from 2016.
Sport fishing generates $2.3 billion in economic benefits and supports 22,000 jobs annually in Wisconsin, according to state officials. The state typically sells 1.3 million fishing licenses.
At noon Saturday, participants gathered for lunch on the Chetek public beach after a morning of fishing. With a bright sun, a soft south wind and 70-degree air, the Chetek Chamber of Commerce couldn’t have imagined a better scene.
Especially since Lake Chetek was covered with ice less than a week ago.
Since 1946, the ice on Lake Chetek has gone out in May just three times: 1965, 2013 and 2018.
Thanks to a warming trend, and some wind and rain, the hard water was replaced with soft on Wednesday.
The transformation was supersonic.
As if a switch had been flipped, Mother Nature responded.
On Saturday morning, the ospreys had returned. So had dragonflies. Painted turtles pulled themselves out of the mud and crawled on logs to bask in the sun.
The fish were quick to act, too.
Walleyes, which don’t prefer to lay eggs under ice, were at the peak of the spawn on Friday and Saturday in the Chetek Chain, said DNR fisheries biologist Aaron Cole.
And the largemouth bass were on a prespawn prowl.
“There’s another one,” said Halfen as his retrieve was intercepted by a 15-inch bass.
I joined Halfen and Dan Meyer of Hayward for the morning of fishing. Halfen is a chemistry professor at UW-Eau Claire and also an electronics expert who runs a business called The Technological Angler. Meyer is a fishing guide and marine products dealer.
The Chetek Chain is located in southwestern Barron County. It is an impoundment of Pokegama, Moose Ear and Tenmile creeks.
The chain covers approximately 3,600 acres and is comprised of five lakes: Prairie, 1,408 acres; Chetek, 923 acres; Ojaski (also called Mud), 578 acres; Pokegama, 433 acres; and Tenmile, 266 acres.
The chain is stocked with walleyes at least every other year, and has strong, naturally reproducing populations of largemouth bass, black crappies and bluegills.
The system is relatively shallow, with a mean depth 8.6 feet ranging from 4 feet in Ojaski Lake to 13 feet in Lake Chetek.
Halfen, Meyer and I spent most of our time in back coves of Pokegama.
After casting crankbaits to shorelines for the first hour and catching a handful of foot-long largemouths, we carefully motored through a stump field into a back bay about the size of a football field.
The bay had a 10-foot-deep depression in the middle and its sides were pocked with downed trees and stumps.
The best pattern of the morning soon became clear as Meyer cast a crankbait toward the deeper parts of the bay. The lure — a rattling model with a bluegill finish — proved impossible to resist for the predators in the basin.
Over the next two hours, we caught more than 25 largemouths, including about 10 that were longer than the legal 14-inch size limit. All except four were released.
A 29-inch northern pike also hit the lure on one of my retrieves. It, too, was released.
We caught a few crappies and bluegills on small jigs in the cove, too.
The panfish, however, were all on the small side and were not aggressive. At times, we could see schools of them finning quietly near the surface.
“They are just going ‘ahhh,’ ” Meyer said.
With the bass fishing as good as it was, we weren’t about to complain.
Halfen also caught a 15-inch walleye casting a crankbait toward wood shoreline structure.