Tuesday, January 28, 2014

Remember Your First Ice Fishing Trip?

Remember your first ice fishing trip?  Leave a comment and tell me the story.  Here’s the scoop on my first time on the ice.  But first, some background…
Wisconsin Ice.  Isn't it beautiful?  You can see some old holes cut and the trail of an angler checking holes for fish.  This photo is courtesy of Iceshanty.com.  Join that site if you like ice fishing if you already haven't.  It's free, and full of info, and has plenty of wallpaper pics like these.  I can't believe that I used to be afraid of something like this!
Many moons ago before I fished the hard water, I would hate this time of year.  Back then everything froze, the rivers, creeks, and even the Chesapeake Bay.  The only places you could find open water to fish were power plants with warm water discharges or below the dams of lakes.  I had heard of some people ice fishing the small local lakes, but never actually witnessed such an event.  Even still, I would have never set foot on the ice back then to check it out.  I held a huge level fear and respect for the ice.

Stories in the news about people falling through the ice and losing their lives, warnings from my parents about the dangers of ice, and my lack of understanding about ice safety in general kept those fears alive, leaving me to satisfy my fishing habits in other ways, like outdoors shows.

I’m really not a resident of ice fishing country.  People that live in the western part of our state ice fish often because of the higher elevations and colder temperatures.  But for the most part, you have to drive North to find safe ice in our neighboring friendly State of Pennsylvania.  People in my neck of the woods think pretty much the way that I did about getting on lake ice, much less ice fishing.

I recall a story from my Mother about someone in her high school that fell through the ice, and the unfortunate victim couldn’t find the hole where he fell through, leading him to his demise.  As a youngster, seeing that scene in the movie “The Omen,” where that kid fell through the river ice and people screamed in horror as they helplessly witnessed the current carry the child under the ice downstream impending doom, didn’t help matters either.

The local news always seemed to have stories unfortunate victims that ventured out onto the ice and fell through.  Every winter, these tragic deaths occurred, it seemed, leading one to believe that no ice is ever safe.  Well, there is some truth to that.  Having that wariness also makes us better ice anglers, or at least safer ones.  My respect for the dangers of thin ice always leads me to err on the side of caution.  I’ll address ice safety another day.

On top of the fears, my unwillingness to even think about ice fishing was compounded with some sort of notion that everyone just sits on one hole waiting for a fish to swim by and bite, while sitting outside freezing your you know what off.

Then, one day, I was talked into attending an ice fishing presentation and workshop by my friend Glenn Cumings, then a Park Naturalist for our regional parks system.   After the presentation, I was introduced by Glenn to the presenter, Jeff Redinger, who put on a very good presentation, enough to spark my interest in the subject.  The resulting discussion between Glenn, Jeff and I resulted in an invite to ice fish the following weekend.  I was terrified, but I agreed to go.

I’ll never forget that first trip…it was cold out but not uncomfortable.   It was an afternoon to evening trip to a small lake in Pennsylvania.  Jeff’s goal was to catch fish and at the same time, show us what it’s all about.  We had a chance to put into action what we learned during his presentation.  Our primary quarry, bluegills.  Jeff had plenty of gear.  All I had to have were some warm boots and clothes.  I brought a small box of my favorite open water panfish jigs with the idea that maybe I could catch a few on my stuff.  Yeah, I’m stubborn like that!!!!

The ice was crystal clear, was as slick as glass, and the water had about  six feet of visibility.  It was kind of spooky.   Jeff let me borrow a spare set of cleats for this trip.  The metal on ice sound on our cleats clicked and clacked as we walked across the frozen lake.  When you’d walk on it, sometimes pressure cracks would occur, sending fear up and down your spine, at least to a newbie like me already full of the fear of breaking through.
This picture was taken a couple years after Jeff showed us the ropes.  But, you can see Glenn fighting a fish that he watched using his sonar unit, a Zercom Clearwater Classic.  Glenn still uses this unit to this day.  The blue box is like the one Jeff  had with his Humminbird flasher style sonar.  Jeff eventually purchased a Clearwater Classic too, also my first sonar unit.  At the time, it was state of the art.  You can see how clear the ice was with the pressure cracks.  That's what it was like on my first trip, minus the snow.
During Jeff’s presentation, he talked about ice safety, where on a lake would be the safest place to get on, and places to avoid where there could be thin or weaker ice.  After a quick review of that short lesson, we were off to cut holes and look for fish.  He showed us how to use his hand auger as he discussed his methodology to find fish holding structure, and fish.

We moved out to the middle of the lake, and Jeff started cutting holes.  He cut about ten holes where he’d estimate the creek channel edge to be.  It didn’t hurt that he’d been out on this lake and had some experience catching fish prior to our trip.  After cutting the holes, he’d check each one with his sonar to see if he could mark a fish, or what might be a fish.  After checking a few holes without marking anything, he yelled out to us that he might have marked a fish.  The next step was to confirm that what he saw on his sonar was, indeed, a fish.  Then, he taught us his approach to catching them.

Jeff likes to fish for panfish, targeting bluegills, perch and crappie mainly, but gladly landing anything that would be willing to bite.  First, he’d drop an ice jig tipped with a waxworm or maggot (commonly known as a spike) down the hole, to test the reaction of the fish by watching his sonar, and to see if the fish would bite.  If the attempt produced a bite or at least have the fish seem interested, then he’d stay for a bit on that spot a bit longer.  If he caught a fish, then he’d stay even longer.  If he caught and marked multiple fish on his sonar and they were active, then he’d stay and fish it out until they stopped biting, then move to another hole.  That, my friends, is a hot spot…or a hot hole.
The spot that got me hooked!
When the fish stopped biting or became finicky, then he’d try downsizing his lure to tempt them.  If that didn’t work, then he’d move to find more active fish, checking the other holes that he cut or move on to cut more holes until he’d find another school of active fish and start the process over.

Jeff was using an old Rapala ice jigging rod with a spring bobber attached to the tip, spooled with either two or four pound test line.  A spring bobber is a form of strike indicator that is attached, usually, but not always, to the rod tip.  Often, it’s made of fine wire or a light spring.  When a fish inhales the tiny ice jig, the spring will bend enough for you to see the bite, where your next effort would be to set the hook.  With a traditional rod tip, you might not even see that bite.

The old Rapala jigging rod was made entirely of plastic.  It looked very cheap and simple, and was inexpensive..  Basically, it’s a rod and reel combination in a sense, but more of an instrument to hold the line, and doesn't really look like a fishing rod and reel.  If I had seen one prior to that day, I’d think that maybe it was some sort of kite flying reel.  With these rods, you don't reel in the fish.  You bring the fish up using a hand over hand method.  Where is the drag if you hook a big fish?  You hand over hand the line back in the hole!
Jeff has a few nice slabs iced, posing with a Rapala jigging rod and his trusty Zercom Clearwater Classic flasher style sonar.  When using this type of fishing rod, you don't reel them in, you hand line them.
Jeff gave us a quick lesson on how to use the sonar to not only find fish, but how to use it to determine fish behavior and actually be able to tell if a fish might bite, and when.  He used a flasher type of sonar back them made by Humminbird.  As he let his lure fall, he pointed out a bar of light on his round sonar display moving downward, saying that was his jig.  He also pointed out that the bright thick band at the calibrated twenty feet represented the bottom.

I asked, “What are all those marks in the middle?”  “Fish,” he said, as one of those fish marks moved vertically toward his falling lure.  Just when the jig was above the fish, he’d stop, wait, maybe twitch the rod tip a tiny bit causing the spring bobber to move ever so slightly.  As the fish moved closer to the lure, the sonar bands became one larger thick band.  He said, “Now is the time to take your eyes off the sonar and watch the spring bobber and look for a bite.  If the spring moves even the slightest amount, set the hook!”

The spring moved down a tiny bit.  Jeff set the hook lifting the palm rod way over his head, followed by fighting the fish by hand, pulling line up hand over fist, literally, giving some back to the fish during a short run.  Out through the hole appeared a fat yellow perch.  “I thought, wow, this stuff really works!”  I couldn’t wait to catch a fish now.  My next move was to cut a hole not too far from Jeff.  Not that I wanted to fish over the same fish that he was, but at least I could hear what he was doing and learn a thing or two.  And, he could relay info to me about what the fish were doing.  Were they on the bottom or suspended, and if suspended, how high?
My good friend and ice fishing mentor Jeff Redinger sporting some fine slabs for the dinner table.
The ice was building.  When it does that, it makes these booming noises, almost like thunder but not quite.  It really sounds more like someone bending a large piece of sheet metal.  When the pressure under the ice builds up, it would put pressure on the ice along the shorelines, and the result was usually a pressure crack to relieve that pressure, but also accompanied by that booming sound.  At least, that’s what I think is happening.  Perhaps someone familiar with the science could offer the exact explanation in a comment if I’m not on the mark here.  Jeff said, after one big boom and crack, “She’s making ice, and that’s music to my ears.”

Later, while sitting on a bucket fishing, a crack formed, heading straight toward me and right between my legs, scaring me nearly to death!  Pressure cracks aren’t really dangerous because the ice is pushed together into a near solid joint.  Although, Jeff recommended that when walking across the ice, try to avoid spots where multiple cracks cross, just to be a little extra safe.  Although, when snow covers the ice, you really can’t see the cracks, so you just go forward and trust that things are safe.  Again, I’ll address ice safety another day, but a good thing to do when conditions are iffy is to carry a spud bar and test the ice thickness as you proceed forward.  That day, I made sure to follow him, step by step!

Jeff, if I remember correctly, caught several fish out of that one hole while we were still trying to figure out how everything worked.  I tied on one of my favorite panfish jigs from my open water experience, a one inch Bass Pro Shops Squirmin’ Grub in pumpkinseed, color hooked on a 1/64 ounce orange ball headed jighead.  Jeff pretty much identified that the area held fish, and being without sonar, we had to figure out how deep to fish.  How do you do that?  Ask the guy with the sonar, over and over, “How deep are they?  Are you still marking them.”  Or, just go over and watch for yourself over his shoulder.  Those were valuable lessons actually.  It not only helps you to learn what is going on under the ice, but newbies like me can watch the more experienced ice angler work the fish!

After my lesson, I dropped my jig down the hole, using Jeff’s spare ice rod with my soft plastic jig.  I’d let it sink to the bottom, then when my line went slack, picked up the slack and wound up a little line so that the jig would be about a foot or two off the bottom.  I wasn’t going to see if the fish were finicky, so I jigged pretty aggressively, then let it sit, then repeat the process.  I’d work the bait slowly up a foot, then slowly all the way to the bottom, and repeat.

All of a sudden my spring snapped down.  A hit!  My first bite ice fishing!  I set the hook and pulled the fish up, hand over hand, and landed a nice fat yellow perch.  I guess the soft plastic grub was a winner after all!  Let me tell you that this was over 25 years ago, long before the popular ice fishing soft plastics of today.  Not long after that, I caught my second fish, a nice hand sized bluegill.  After that the fish became really active and I caught one after another, a mixed bag of species too.  When the bite slowed, I’d bounce to another hole and try again, while asking Jeff, the man with the eyes underneath, “Are you still marking fish?”  Sometimes he was too busy hauling in one bluegill after another to respond, but eventually he’d cough up that valuable info.

I was amazed.  I was hooked.  I thought that this ice fishing thing was cool!  It was like a whole new world opening up to me.  No more long cold icy no fishing weekends.  From then on, I prayed for frigid temperatures to build ice each winter.  And that sonar?  I had to have one.  It took me a couple years to save enough money but eventually purchased one, then later, another.
Eventually, I purchased a sonar unit too.  That's my Clearwater Classic, my first sonar unit, that now serves as my back up sonar.  It still works great!  My first purchases were rods, jigs, cleats and an ice auger.  After that, my arsenal exploded with gear.  Obviously I went from being hooked to addicted!
Jeff was hammering the bluegills, big bump headed bull bluegills too, one after another.  He was on such a good bite that he didn’t move from that one hole all afternoon and evening.  At times, his jig couldn’t get to the bottom because the school of gills was so thick.  He had a bunch of fish laid out on the ice that he was bringing home for the table, the best of the big bluegills and a few fat yellow perch.  Normally he’d bounce from hole to hole, and leaving those fish on the ice are a nice reminder what holes are hot and what aren’t.  Of course, that might not be such a good idea on a crowded lake for all to see!

I wasn’t on that type of bite, but I was steadily catching fish.  It was really cool watching the fish come up viewing through the ice from several feet down.  It kind of creeped me out at the time.  Now I love those types of days.

My Squirmin’ Grub caught big bluegills, fat yellow perch, a few slab crappie and some small foot long largemouth bass.  At the end of the day, I finished with almost thirty fish.  My buddy Glenn did nearly as well.  It was his second trip out on the ice.  Already he was hopelessly addicted.  He’d driven to Pennsylvania the previous weekend and raided the local tackle shops for ice gear and lures.

We didn’t have the internet to place orders back then.  Shopping for fishing gear was all done through a catalogue via the mail, or by shopping at the once numerous Mom and Pop tackle shops in the area.  Waxworms and spikes back then were hard to come by in Maryland, but some of those Pennsylvania stores supplied us throughout the ice season.

But man was I hooked.  I thought about all those years that I’d visit a lake and turn away, wondering if the ice was good enough to get out on and fish.  And for many years, ice fishing was legal on those lakes.  Remember the drownings that I’d heard about?  There were the reason the lakes were closed off to ice fishing after them.  Knowing what I know now, those people ventured out onto ice that wasn’t thick enough.  They didn’t know what they were doing, or what ice was “safe” or not “safe”.  They didn’t know Jeff’s lessons on what to look for.  Why?  Nobody in our area ice fished, or very few did that knew what they were doing.
Not only did I have a blast on my first trip, but I brought some home for a tasty fish fry.  This photo was a few years later, but caught from the same lake that gave me my first start.
But Jeff knew what he was doing.  He was, and still is, a student of the sport, and a pretty darned good teacher too.  He learned much from reading articles about Dave Genz and his methods, and applied those tactics in his home state before moving East.  Dave Genz basically preached the use of electronics (sonar), to stay mobile and go find fish.  Don’t just go out and cut a hole, hope that they are there, and wait for a bite.  Go find them!  It’s more like fish hunting than just fishing.  After all, when fishing out of a boat, most anglers don’t sit in one spot all day.  They move until they catch something, right?  It’s the same thing on the ice.

Since that fateful ice fishing presentation, Jeff has become a dear friend of mine.  I’m forever grateful for my friends Jeff and Glenn, what Jeff taught us, what Glenn and I learned together.  I eventually introduced other friends to ice fishing.  And, eventually, I helped others like Jeff helped me, showing other anglers throughout Maryland and Pennsylvania how to use sonar and the benefits to catching more fish.

Most of the time they’d approach me and ask what that funny looking blue box was for.  After showing them, even letting them fish using it, they were hooked.  Some of those people eventually met me again on the ice and thanked me for helping them, even years later!  I didn’t recognize them at all first, but after that, some became my friends that I still fish with to this day.
Pictured here are my buddies Bill and Mark.  Bill's sporting a nice crappie.  By this time, all my buddies had sonar and we were veterans on the ice.  No more fear for me of the ice, but I still respect it and am careful.
Over time, more and more people started showing up with portable sonar units on the ice.  But back then, I may have seen one or two people at the most over the course of several years using sonar.  And those were the LCD type, not flasher style sonar.  Now, it’s mainstream and just about everyone uses them.  Now there are several brands and also underwater cameras (which I also have and love to fish with).
Here's my first sonar unit, a Zercom Clearwater Classic.  The transducer arm has a level on it.  The battery powered snake light that I rigged to the handle of my Dave Genz Blue Ice Box served as a temporary light so I could fish in the dark until my lantern would be fired up.
This is my current sonar unit, the Vexilar FL-18.  Notice the green and orange bars at about three o'clock.  Those are fish marks, and thick orange bar at about five o'clock is the bottom.  When you drop a jig down the hole, it will show up as a mark like the ones above.  Watch your jig mark and the fish marks and when they come together, watch your rod tip for the bite!  Also, notice the float supporting the transducer in this model.  
Not long after that, I discovered a website for ice fishing and met some more guys to fish with, many from Pennsylvania.  But that website died out, but a new one showed up.  The new website was great, and grew in popularity by leaps and bounds.  Today, it is undoubtedly the most popular ice fishing forum on the web, www.iceshanty.com.  If you haven’t had a chance to check it out, and you’re interested in ice fishing, please do so.  If you are interested in maybe giving ice fishing a try, like I did, or are an ice fishing newbie, then definitely check out Iceshanty, because there is a wealth of information on the site and plenty of knowledgeable helpful anglers to give you a hand.
Fun and eats on Wisconsin ice!  Iceshanty allowed me to meet some really cool friends, thanks go way back to Jeff and Glenn introducing me to this fun filled sport.