It’s nice to have my ice legs under me again.
I probably “shoulda been there last week,” but it wasn’t gloom and doom when I took to the ice last Saturday. It wasn’t bad at all.
Accompanying me was Charlie Pauke, who was optimistic that fish would bite in front of an impending arctic blast. Optimism should be used with caution, of course.
My own optimistic expectations included just getting onto and off of the ice in one piece. Rain followed by cold had slickened the ice surface to a dangerous point. By last Saturday, a little snow had made the surface somewhat better for foot travel.
Still, in some places the snow had not bonded to the ice, making it a little interesting. There was the danger we could end up like flipped turtles, I thought.
Hidden slick spots were spaced just far enough apart to allow each one to be a bit of a surprise. Even so, the treacherous lake failed to fully dupe us. Not a tumble was taken. There were some arm-waving lurches punctuated by the usual expletives, but no crashes to the ice.
I attempt to set my expectations low when I ice fish. Real-world experience has taught me that. I’ve been ice fishing since I was a child.
Properly tempered with a bit of pessimism – and I do mean realism – nearly any, or at least most, ice fishing adventures can feel successful.
Many suggest beer can aid in the pursuit of this successful feeling, but Charlie and I were sans beer, for whatever reason. We must have expected the fish to entertain us – just the sort of assumption that can lead to disappointment. But it wouldn’t.
Really, just employing the tactics and using the gear associated with ice fishing can be entertaining in itself.
In contrast to the usual gear of today, I recall fishing with the simplest of jig poles. The “reel” was a pair of pegs charged with the functions of both storing and severely kinking your line. The kinking effect was especially pronounced if said line was like 99 cents for a 1,000-yard spool. A lengthy monofilament accordion would result.
One unwrapped line from the pegs and allowed a depth-finder – a hunk of lead secured to a clip – to straighten the kinks and find the depth. Then, you hauled up the line hand-over-hand, removed the depth-finder, watched the kinks reappear, baited your hook and fed your monofilament accordion through the hole. It was fun.
Imagine yourself atop an overturned five-gallon bucket in zero-degree temps, jigging in 30 feet of water.
You’ve just cleared the ice from your hole – a hole bored with no small effort – for the fifth time in as many minutes and you’re watching its surface crystalize again (not unlike the sweat you worked up cutting the hole in the first place).
Suddenly, your foam bobber with the tooth pick that secures it to your line twitches. Ice breaks from your eyebrow as it raises in expectation. Your lethargic arm sweeps upward in a pathetic attempt to set the hook.
Of course, the fish is long gone, because you reacted too slowly and failed to effectively pull all of the kinks out of the line. At least the fact that there’s a hungry fish down there is warming to the heart. I know – too bad it’s not warming to the extremities.
Suppose that fish does hang on. Sometimes they do so long enough for you to actually set the hook.
You pull up 30 feet of line, heaping and tangling it on the ice – which matters naught to you in your eagerness – and eventually haul in a 4-inch perch. Good for you!
Of course, by now, the wind has blown your loose line around your auger, sled, fishing partner and left boot. You move your left foot and the line knicks the auger blade and parts. Then, you stumble forward, pulling line as you go, causing your ensnared partner to flail his arms like he just walked through a spider web. His jig pole swings and spills half of his beer (the other half is frozen securely in the can). You slip on the beer slush and fall. It’s fun.
My recent outing with Charlie didn’t have such high adventure, our jig poles being equipped with reels and the lake being a shallow one. Long tangles of line would come only from our tip-ups and be the result of long runs by fish.
I set up with two tip-ups and a jig pole. Charlie started with a wind tip-up, a tip-down and a jig pole. The tip-down, after being thrown to the ice by the rather unfriendly wind several times, was replaced with a tip-up.
Our offerings were basically just below the ice. The depth was about five feet and we were fishing above thick weeds.
We enjoyed temps in the low 30s, but had to endure that rather forceful wind. With the wind as a constant companion, there was a certainty that there would be false alarms. Almost as soon as we got set up, there was one.
Charlie’s wind tip-up, which is a device that, purportedly, allows the advantage of wind-action moving your bait while operating as a tip-up as well, did make some vigorous movements, suggesting that something was going on. Of course, it turned out it was just the wind.
We thought it was the same when, shortly, one of my flags tripped. We stared stupidly at the flag, noting that the spindle was not turning. Suddenly, though, it did spin. I continued to stare stupidly for only a short while longer. My first flag of the year.
Line peeled off the spool as I approached and soon I was hauling in a pickler northern. Calling a northern a “pickler” is a way of placing worth on it, instead of just calling it small and embarrassing it. A pickler is worthy, specifically, of being filleted and soaked in brine. Anyway, the skunk of the day, and the year, was off. It was a start.
Other anglers were leaving the ice as the wind speed increased and the temperature dropped, but Charlie and I are more dedicated or more stupid than most. We stayed and actually had a relatively interesting afternoon of fishing.
We were hopeful for a few bluegills and crappies for the pan, but were having no luck enticing these fish.
I watched fish which I suspected were good enough for the pan on the Vexilar – a tool designed to at once fascinate and frustrate the ice angler – but could not elicit more than an occasional nibble on my waxie-tipped jig.
Charlie was having similar success tipping his jig with tiny blaze-orange, garlic-flavored marshmallows – which, as tempting as they sound, are apparently not for human consumption.
Suddenly, Charlie’s jig pole was doubled over and the drag of his tiny spinning reel was screaming. Or maybe Charlie was screaming. I’m not sure, but something was screaming.
It took a little while, but his four-pound line held and Charlie hauled in a northern. It was no trophy fish, but it was made large by the light tackle. The pike was hooked securely in the nose and could not bring its teeth to bear on the line. Another pickler was on the ice.
As the day grew later, the flags increased and we managed to haul in a few more fish. A decent pile of picklers, including one mid-20s pike that Charlie caught on a tip-up, ended up atop the ice. Additionally, I had a nice surprise.
One of my flags went up. I knew the lake was more likely than most to produce a bass through the ice, so I predicted a nice bass as I approached each of my tripped flags – though I truly expected a pickler.
The spindle was flying as I approached the tip-up. I eased the spool out of the hole and set the hook. A very good fight ensued. I remarked to Charlie that it felt better than the others. Moments later, a pretty good largemouth was laying on the ice – a 19-incher.
Right then, Charlie was chasing a flag of his own and was soon to land another pike. For a few furious moments life was exciting. An evening run.
Shortly after resetting our lines, I even finally caught a fish while jigging. I had, by then, forced the Vexilar on Charlie, and I managed to catch the bluegill without even knowing it was down there. Impressive, huh? I let the mighty 6-incher go.
We left the ice fairly satisfied that evening. Despite the wind, we didn’t even freeze our fingers while retrieving our rigs. Call it the warm glow of success.
Even so, the glow didn’t keep the backs and legs from aching as we dragged our gear back to the landing.
I suggested that Charlie’s awesome homemade sled was already so heavy and gear-laden that I might as well ride on it on the pull out, but Charlie thought otherwise. Even though I was just kidding about the whipping and yelling, “Mush!”
Charlie took the picklers home. Though I rarely keep bass, I took home the one I caught that night. It became the best part of my supper. The fresh-caught bass was excellent table fare. I don’t recall ever having eaten one caught through the ice prior to this and will go so far as to say that it was better than any bass I’ve ever dined on.
With the decent action and a great meal, I found myself chomping at the bit to get back out there and get something else. I checked out the weather forecast while formulating my plan. Below zero with wind chills in the double-digits below, it said.
I can wait.
Craig Turk may be reached at email@example.com