Ice fishing provides the perfect respite from the doldrums of winter.
By Robert Kennedy
The cold months of winter can be some of the most seasonally depressing times of the year, but only if you don’t enjoy spending time ice fishing. The idea of rosy cheeks, frigid breaths and crystallized snowflakes slowly falling from the sky can be perceived as an annoyance. However, embracing the opportunities at hand can make the winter months seem fleeting.
I have always enjoyed the winter months for the nostalgia it has to offer. The ambiance surrounding it is usually generalized by fireplaces, huddling in blankets while sipping on a mug of something to warm our core. I am sure somewhere before my time the image was in a JC Penny’s catalog that circulated people’s homes. Similarly, in some of those old magazines, we could find pictures of outdoors people with their winter wear on, sitting on chairs and embracing the cold while in the pursuit of catching some fish through the ice. The picture of staying warm inside through the winter may hold a beautiful image in our mind’s eye, but the latter depiction is sure to fight off the cabin fever that we all experience.
A close-to-home activity I continuously partake in during the winter is small game hunting. It provides exceptional table fare, gets me outside and allows quality time with friends and family. Even though I enjoy the hunting opportunities that assist in fending off the cabin fever, ice fishing is something that I continually crave to do.
In my childhood, I was able to get a small taste of the excitement and pleasure ice fishing had to offer. Vague memories of staring at a small bobber, chasing tip-ups and spending time with family in the shanty were all the remembrances that I needed to provoke me in pursuing ice fishing once again.
The resurgence of ice fishing in my life began during my college days. The opportunity arose after striking up a conversation with a classmate about the hat I was wearing. The camo hat depicting a bow brand is all it took for Isaiah Battle and me to begin cultivating a friendship that surrounded the outdoor experience of fishing, hunting and trapping.
I found myself fortunate for his background in ice fishing experiences. With my faint knowledge of the scheme, I latched on to Isaiah’s intellect, and with a little persuasion, he offered to take me out on the Saginaw Bay. I had nothing to offer regarding equipment or knowledge, but that didn’t keep him from extending the invitation. Michigan is fortunate to have a Department of Natural Resources that prioritizes fish stocking for recreational opportunities.
We rode together, picking up some live bait along the way to launch the snowmobile on the east side of the bay. I became uneasy about the excursion while at the bait shop as we conversed with another fisherman. The man we spoke with shared some locations of weak spots in the ice that were created by weed beds underneath. His knowledge about the locations of the poor conditions in the ice was due to him submerging his four-wheeler a week prior. The thought of trying to decipher weak points in the ice covered by snow baffled me. Isaiah, on the other hand, seemed calm and explained to me on the drive that the spots mentioned are common locations and were marked on his handheld GPS.
On large bodies of water, like the Saginaw Bay and others, oftentimes forums are found online where continual information is shared on the quality of ice. These forums are an extremely valuable asset for ice fishers to share information to keep each other safe. Until it was mentioned, I had been unaware of these cautions Isaiah and others took. On top of that, we were prepared for the worst by carrying ice spikes (similar in appearance to a screwdriver) to assist in pulling ourselves out if the worst were to happen and we fell through.
After arriving at the launch, we loaded up the gear into pails secured to the shanty, fired up the GPS, hopped on the snow buggy and set out across the seemingly endless sheet of ice. As I rode with my friend across the frozen waters, I embraced the rosy cheeks that many find distasteful. To me, the slight inconvenience signified a more impressive feat when comparing it to favorable circumstances.
It seemed as though we had picked the location at random with no strategy in mind. Rather, as we set up Isaiah’s portable shanty, he could relate to me the usefulness of sonar maps. Though they’re not an essential tool for catching fish, using the maps to look at minor differences in the depth charts, marked rock piles, possible weed beds and sedimentary differences can increase the possibility of finding fish.
With today’s technology in cell phones, there are many applications available to anglers to learn about new water bodies to fish. Digital mapping information isn’t always one hundred percent accurate, but it helps dictate general starting points for anyone looking for a new adventure. Fishidy and Navionics Boating are both popular phone apps that are comparable to the sonar maps Isaiah and I were using. Additionally, the apps allow users to share coordinates publicly if they choose. This can be used for sharing bad spots in the ice and successful catch locations, but it can also create too much pressure on one specific fishing location.
In our case, we used the maps at our disposal to target a specific depth of water. Walleye were our target species, but there was potential to catch some perch as well. After drilling some holes with a hand auger and setting up the shanty, the fishing equipment was brought inside. With the small propane heater warming up the shanty, we prepared the ice fishing rods with a basic set up of spoons and a minnow hooked to the bottom of the dangling treble.
Of all the equipment we had, the fish finder Isaiah had was undoubtedly the most beneficial to us. Often referred to as a flasher because of the original design, the fish finder gave us a real-time display of what was happening below the sheet of ice. We could watch our lures spiral their way towards the bottom on the flasher, and before it would even hit the sandy lake floor, we would set the bail at our target depth. We could twitch our rod tips and see the action relayed on the fish finder, and even more importantly, we would know if fish came in to investigate our presented lures — which they did.
Trying to portray our lures as injured fish by twitching our rod tips a few inches and occasionally longer rips through the water column created minute vibrations to travel through the water and trigger the senses of the fish’s lateral line. This method brought fish into view of the sonar flasher, where Isaiah coached me into reeling up my first walleye through the ice.
At first, when the fish came into view on the flasher, it appeared that it was focused on Isaiah’s presentation. I watched him as he vigorously shook his rod tip and simultaneously raised his lure to keep it slightly above the marked fish. When that method proved ineffective, he told me to do the same thing as he had just done. As soon as I started my shaking and raising motion of the lure, my presentation was inhaled by the toothy walleye.
I wasn’t prepared for the impact that was delivered to my lure, and Isaiah had to wake me from my astonishment by telling me to set the hook. The adrenaline started coursing through my veins as it got closer to the hole in the ice, and when my friend reached over with a gaff to pull it through the ice, we were both overwhelmed with excitement. He had just successfully got a budding ice fisherman his first walleye through the ice, and I, in turn, had just reignited a passion for a wintertime outdoor activity.
After hauling in the 24-inch walleye, more schools of walleye moved through as the evening sun slipped over the western horizon. During the laughter and excitement shared between friends, more fish were caught before we decided to call it a night. We fell short of a two-person limit, but the quality of fish exceeded that of a family dinner. I was fully absorbed into the experience, and while we were packing up for the ride, Isaiah and I were already making plans for our next venture.
Over time, our ice fishing adventures took us down to Lake Erie for walleye, many inland lakes for panfish and up north on Little Bay De Noc during the short period of time I lived in the Upper Peninsula. Each time winter rolled around, a new piece of equipment was purchased, a new plan was made for exploring ice fishing possibilities and we brought more people along for our adventures.
Due to Isaiah’s graces of reigniting my ice fishing passion, the whole idea of ice fishing in the winter has blossomed into annual fishing trips with a multitude of friends and family. People new to ice fishing are invited annually, just like I was with Isaiah.
It has never been easier for newcomers to experience the joys ice fishing has to offer. Clothing is warmer, safety gear is more available and technology has allowed for a greater chance of success. On top of everything mentioned, the continuous fish stocking programs maintained by the DNR across the state allow for plenty of opportunity on many bodies of water.
If the attempt to pursue ice fishing alone is taken, use caution. With all the joys ice fishing has to offer, dangers are still present. If traveling on foot, using an ice spud for checking the thickness of the ice is a must. Plus, a spud can be used to make yourself a hole in the ice rather than an auger.
Following people in and out from the launch is also another approach, which is easily accomplished by striking up a conversation on forums, social media or in person.
Sometimes, folks just need a little help. And often, anglers are willing to provide their expertise if you ask. Help from other anglers can assist in remedying the seasonal depression that can be brought on by the shorter days of winter. Even after the sun has set on a successful day of fishing, the euphoria of the experiences and food provided from our labors produce happiness through the fading light.