Ice fishing a practice in patience
Years ago, when I was a young firefighter in the Beloit Fire Department, there was an older firefighter named Hank who had a reputation as a serious fisherman.
It was a slow tour at the firehouse, and we made plans to fish Lake Mendota the following day.
We took Hank’s boat, which was suspiciously clean for a watercraft owned by a serious fisherman, and got into a nice mess of suspended crappies off of Governor’s Island.
After an hour of continuous action, Hank opined we should go probe waters around Maple Bluff, looking for even faster action.
I told him it didn’t make much sense to leave fish to go find fish. We were in his boat, so two minutes later we were on the way to Maple Bluff. An hour later, with not so much as a nibble, he made the command decision to return to Governor’s Island to catch some more of those willing crappies.
We probed the area for at least an hour but couldn’t locate the school of crappies again. I reminded Hank that it didn’t make much sense to leave fish to go find fish, opening a bag of potato chips to pass the time.
“There will be no eating in my boat!” he barked.
The worst thing an off-duty firefighter can do is bark an order at another off-duty firefighter when engaged in a recreational pursuit.
I dumped the bag of chips on the boat carpet, then walked through them to stow my rods. Of course, I was being a real jerk. But I realized at that moment that Hank wasn’t really a serious fisherman. We never fished together again.
Finding fish is the initial—and critical—component in catching them. The only logical reason to leave fish to go find fish would be if you were pre-fishing for an upcoming tournament and wanted to locate several possible productive spots.
This is especially true right now, with fish extremely lethargic under the ice. With today’s sensitive electronics and underwater cameras, locating fish is a fairly easy proposition.
Of course the most frequently used fish locator on the Madison chain or Delavan Lake is a pair of binoculars, especially when the quarry is panfish. Savvy anglers use the pack of bucketeers as a general reference, grinding a number of holes 25 to 200 yards away from the edge of the pack.
If the quarry is perch over deep water, the school will eventually work your way. This is especially true on Lake Mendota. The “yellow tigers” coast in lazy, counter-clockwise schools just off the bottom in 60 to 75 feet of water here, feeding on tiny invertebrates called bloodworms.
A small jigging Rapala or a “hanger” rig is the best way to ice these fish before they continue on their way. If the bite slows, sit tight. Eventually they will work around under your holes again. Trying to stay ahead of perch on the move is an exercise in futility.
Winter bluegills on Mendota—and the more fertile Lake Waubesa to the south—spend the cold-water period relating to green weeds. If you stayed awake in high school science class you know that dead weeds consume rather than produce oxygen.
Oxygen is required of most living things, including bluegills. Drilling holes near the edge of green weeds is almost always more effective than wandering into the middle of a pack of bucketeers and dropping your line in the water.
Bluegills still cruising under the middle of a “community” spot have been educated. The best way to catch these fish is a tiny black jig with a B-Y plastic mud bug or single red spike, using 2-pound fluorocarbon line and a sensitive strike indicator.
If you can get away from the “festival on ice,” bluegills might be less wary and more willing. But just because you locate fish doesn’t mean you can make them bite.
Active feeding windows are short with high pressure ruling the environment. Finding fish is the critical first step. Stay over them long enough and eventually they will bite.
Exceptionally small lures with little animation can be a key to success. If you’re patient and keep a line in the water you’ll eventually get bit.
Taking something to munch on can help pass the time. Potato chips are tasty, even in below-zero temperatures.
Ted Peck, a certified Merchant Marine captain, is an outdoors columnist for The Gazette. Email him at email@example.com.