Some places fill a space larger than their actual geography. In front of us laid what seemed like an eternal winter of frozen water. Pressure cracks formed by expanding ice razored the surface with the hard crust attached firmly to shore. Sometimes a brilliant detail emerged like crystal clear water pulsating in a fresh cut hole or a multi-colored bluegill being pulled from icy depths.
Yes, the ice is in and the anglers are out, for the time being anyway. For many, it has been a full year since they’ve heard the unmistakable sound of razor sharp augers gnawing through a lake’s frozen surface. Yes, ice fishing can be a “hole” lot of fun.
“I was beginning to wonder if we were going to have any ice fishing opportunities,” said my friend Jeff Newsome as we met in a local bait shop. Until the turn of the New Year, winter appeared to be nothing more than an extension of fall. Newsome, like many hardwater anglers, was preparing to spend time on the ice with family and friends while conditions allowed.
“I can’t wait to get out there,” said Kokomo businessman Kent Kennedy, as he readied his equipment before setting out on his first ice fishing trip of the season. “I want to get out there as soon as I can because you never know what this crazy weather will do,” he added.
The past weeks cold weather locked in many of our area’s lakes, ponds and reservoirs allowing those an opportunity to reap a tangible reward for spending time outdoors. However, it could be short lived with extended forecasts calling for above freezing temperatures. But for now, anglers are welcoming the frozen surfaces stilled by winter’s firm grasp.
First ice, like anything new, brings out the excitement for those who enjoy this winter tradition. Maybe it’s because it creates another opportunity to enjoy an exciting outdoor activity, or more than likely the thought of sharing time with friends while coaxing tasty panfish from small, round holes. Experienced hard water anglers know panfish, like crappies, bluegills and even walleyes are notorious for being aggressive feeders during newly formed ice. But nobody knows everything about places like this, nor should we. Our lives are made better by such mysteries and longing.
Being on the ice again felt like being reacquainted with an old friend and in some ways it was. With the flick of a switch, the portable electronic flasher whirred to life for the first time since last winter. The red, green and orange blips that flicked across the screen were almost hypnotic when viewed against the fresh blanket of white snow covering the ice.
As with most fishing endeavors, time went by fast and darkness soon fell, but not before we managed to bring in a good number of tasty panfish while at the same time reaffirming friendships.
Being there was like opening the back of an old pocket watch and realizing how complicated the mechanism is. Things proceed at their own pace where man has no influence. Frozen lakes are not just a place of physical transformation. People change too. They learn to see the world differently, to find beauty not only in serenity but severity. This is a place where a person must accept a certain rawness of landscape and experience, yet some cannot be as cheerful.
As with any sport, ice fishing has become more technical. In many cases the iron spud bar of the past has been replaced with razor sharp hand and powered augers. Manufacturers have also developed sophisticated electronic equipment suited specifically for ice fishing. Although these and other products like portable shelters, sleds, and high-tech clothing have made us more comfortable and efficient, all it really takes is a bit of simple, inexpensive equipment to get started, and of course, desire.
Basic tools consist of a hand auger, ice skimmer, a few small rods and several small inexpensive ice lures made specifically for coaxing fish from cold water. The only other item is a plastic five-gallon bucket to carry everything in. The best way to get started is to ask almost any ice fisherman if you can tag along. Hardwater anglers are some of the most personable and welcome introducing newcomers to the sport.
As with any ice fishing adventure, safety should be the number one priority. To be honest, there is no such thing as safe ice. There are too many variables. The standard rule of thumb is never venture out on ice less than four inches thick. But in reality I have seen clear ice four inches thick that was much safer then white, honeycombed ice six inches deep. Some even wear flotation suits or life vests for safety reasons. And it should go without saying, never venture out alone.
Never assume ice thickness is the same throughout the body of water you may be fishing. Ice can be a foot thick in one area and treacherous in others. Springs, current, thermal hotspots and even wildlife like beavers and geese can keep ice dangerously thin. No equipment can take the place of common sense. When in doubt, don’t go out!
For anyone who takes advantage of our ice fishing opportunities, remember two things. First, there are bold ice fishermen and there are old ice fishermen, but there are no bold, old ice fishermen. Second, the only safe ice is what’s in your glass. And, depending on what you are drinking, even that may not be the case!