SMALL TOWNS: End of an era in Orihula

A Winnebago County couple served fishermen and boaters for a quarter century
Published: Jun. 1, 2023 at 6:28 PM CDT
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ORIHULA, Wis. (WBAY) - Over the last 25 years, a Winnebago County couple has met boatloads of nice people along the Wolf River.

But this spring marks the end of an era for their bait shop and boat landing. This week in Small Towns, we travel to Chico’s Landing in Orihula.

The stretch of the Wolf River between Fremont and Orihula is known as the White Bass Capital of the World.

And every May, Chico’s Landing is the place to be to see the latest catch and to get some advice.

“Fishermen are always in a hurry, so the first thing I do is say, ‘Hey, slow down, you’re on the river, you’re not working, just enjoy yourself and the fish is a bonus.’ So yeah, so many people have taken that and went with that,” says Gary “Chico” Chikowski.

Growing up in nearby Berlin, Chico spent a lot of time on the Wolf River. But in 1999, the self-employed floor installer became a regular along the river.

“My knees were giving me problems, and a couple of doctors were telling me, hey, you need to get off your knees, and so every time I came up fishing, Chuck Pufahl owned it before us, and I said, ‘Hey, if you ever want to sell, let me know,” recalls Chico.

The owner was ready to sell, but first Chico had to sell his wife on the idea, which required a little leap of faith.

“I knew nothing about fishing,” says Julie Chikowski, Chico’s wife. “I was not a fisherman. I mean, I didn’t know a floater from a lead head, I didn’t know, and it’s been an education, a huge education. Now I can tell you what they’re catching them on, how deep to go. I’ve learned a lot.”

Both Julie and Chico also learned they couldn’t ask for a better place to raise their son and daughter.

“They have met so many people. We have Greek friends, we have Filipino friends, we have Romanian friends, we have Polish friends, we have Hmong, Japanese, Vietnamese, Yugoslavian, the people that we’ve met and our customers who have become friends, beautiful,” says Julie, holding back tears.

Along with the bait shop and boat launch, Chico’s Landing offers five rental cabins, meaning those customers come back year after year after year.

“The best experience anywhere. I mean, these people are so nice, they’d give you the shirt off their back. The one time I needed butter, Chico is like, ‘Go in my house and grab a butter out of the fridge.’ I’m like, ‘Really?’” Mark Saylor from Illinois says.

“All I ask for is a handshake, and that’s the way we do business around here, with a handshake,” adds Chico.

Even if the fishing isn’t hot for walleye, white bass, or catfish, Chico’s is quite the hangout.

“I have so many old-timers around here and every one of them has got a key, because of course they go to bed with the birds and they get up way before I want to get up, so they open up, they start the coffee, help the first few customers, and yeah, they start cribbage at basically 6:30 in the morning and they play 12-15 games of cribbage every morning,” says Chico. Those games of cribbage very often include Chico.

Originally, Chico and Julie’s plan was to own Chico’s Landing for seven years. But that turned into nearly 25 and would’ve been longer if not for an offer to sell, they say they couldn’t refuse. It’s safe to say, you can expect a few tears in the weeks to come. “It’s been fabulous, it really has,” says Julie.

“It’s been great, it’s been a great living I’m telling you,” adds Chico with a smile.

While Chico and Julie only have another month owning Chico’s Landing, they aren’t going far. They’re building a home right across the street, and Chico says he’ll probably end up working a couple of days a week in the bait shop.