Thursday, January 23, 2014

Ice. Ice. Baby.

On a weekend during the dark months of winter most will surrender to a warm place by the fire watching tv. Some like myself like to defy the elements to break the cabin fever on occasion and enjoy the outdoors. With this winter being far colder than most I couldn't wait to get out.
With that in mind I went ice fishing Sunday for the first time in 20 years. I've caught some big fish through a hole in the ice before but most of the time the objective was perch, even better are bluegill. I have no proof but to me, fish that feed on aquatic insects such as bluegill taste different than fish that feed on other fish. Not better but sweeter tasting. Similar to but not quite like wild trout caught in streams.
In Newton County Indiana the DNR manages a state owned property called Willow Slough that is adjacent to the Illinois border and not too far from our farm property. Here, a stream held up by a man-made dam has become a wide marsh with a large body of water at it's center. It is a popular waterfowl hunting and fishing location open to the general public. As with any lake near large population centers it became biologically unbalanced due to over harvest and invasive species. When this occurs a popular quarry such as bluegill or other singular gamefish species become a stunted population.
About every fifteen years ago the DNR drained the lake in order to remove carp and rough fish then dredged out habitat before filling it again stocking it with variety of game fish and forage fish. The over result was maintaining that delicate balance again. The result is a more fertile body of water where fish thrive and became larger. Not many years ago a bluegill that went over 8" was rare while those under 6" were common.
Sunday we caught many bluegill in the 10" class and some larger. They are fun to catch, easier to clean and fewer of them will fill the frying pan.

In the last twenty years ice fishing has become easier and more comfortable due to a wide array of equipment improvements. Manufactured portable lightweight shanty/sleds similar to the one my friend Doug now has are common sights on local frozen lakes and ponds. 
All those years ago most fishermen either sat on buckets in insulated coveralls while some clever DYI'ers built and fashioned their own much heavier shanty rigs that resembled outhouses. Those work for the seasonal angler that leaves the shed on the ice but hard to drag out for the weekend warrior.

The modern shanty consists of a plastic tub with bent tubing and nylon cloth that once on-site it folds up and over into a windproof enclosure. Add a simple lantern or propane heater and the temperature rises quickly inside. The best part about this rig is it will fold down creating a complete enclosure or on warmer days when the wind blows it creates a shelter to break the wind when open halfway to provide a more open outdoor experience. During the wintertime on a snowy icy lake the wind is your #1 enemy.
Another positive to an enclosed shanty is it creates a dark shady spot that if placed over underwater habitat such as a weedy clump or submerged timber it can attract a school of fish in close for an easier harvest.

And that is exactly what we did on Sunday.
When Doug called me last Friday and told me the bluegill bite was on there was no hesitation on my part. It wasn't until Saturday night when he told me we had to be on the ice by 5am. ??? Well, if that's when the best bite is on then I'm there. The temp was near 0 degrees when we hit the ice.

Doug and his son Dan had been out a few times so they were well aware of the where and the when and they were correct. That made it easier for me to enjoy a fine winter day outdoors.
We caught many and I kept 12 all no smaller than 10". Tasty.


Dan from Madison said...

Man I do love me some fried bluegill. Nice catch! Especially the bottle bass! (or in this case, can bass).

Gerry from Valpo said...

Chose that can for size relationship.

Chose that brand just for you and Carl.

Carl from Chicago said...

That looks like a lot of fun! Can't believe that you waited 10 years to go back there. Maybe you can try out new gear for the store and tell them how you like it as an outdoor veteran.

I like the sunrise picture and also the great photos on the masthead.

Why did you have to go at 5am? When the fish are under the ice do they still bite the best at dawn and dusk?

Gerry from Valpo said...

When and why fish bite can only only be determined by spending a lot of time on the water or ice. Dan and Doug have been at it for a few weeks and between 5am and 9am has produced the best action for numbers and quality. During the mid day they bite but not as often, they tell me.

In summer months on Lake Michigan we have had great results near the noon hour when everyone else has headed for shore having been on the water since 5am.

The only reason it took so long for me to ice fish again has been a lack of safe ice. Until recent years the freeze/thaw/snow/slush makes it iffy. After having fallen through unsafe ice once years ago I can tell you it will never happen to me again.