Ice fishing can be a special time in the winter

When I was in my late 20s and early 30s, I was befriended by a couple of older gentlemen who were very dedicated ice fishermen and always invited me along with them a time or two each winter.

They had plenty of extra gear so all I needed to do was dress warmly enough and show up. I marveled at their special sleds they had made to transport all their equipment and other necessities over the ice.

To hold up my end, I always brought along a thermos or two of hot soup, or on days when the wind wasn’t bad, a portable stove or hibachi to cook some hot dogs or burgers.

That welcome contribution to those winter outings always got me invited back, and a simple lunch of soup and a hot sandwich never tasted any better than it did out on the ice. Both of my original ice-fishing mentors are gone now, but those days spent on some frozen lake with them are among my fondest outdoor memories.

My last ice-fishing outing came about four years ago and proved to be quite an adventure. While on a late-February trip to Door County, Wis., with several other outdoor writers, our agenda included a day of ice fishing on Lake Michigan. And to say folks in that part of the world take their ice fishing seriously is putting it mildly.

We rendezvoused with our host for the day, Capt. Dale Stroschein, at a lakeshore marina shortly before noon. During the warmer months, Stroschein operates a walleye guide service and once the lake freezes over he switches his focus to ice fishing.

I was somewhat surprised to see the amount of activity at this ice-locked facility, most of it related to providing ice anglers with food, bait, tackle and other services. After a quick lunch, our group piled into a couple of pickup trucks for the trip to our fishing spot.

But rather than heading onto the highway, we drove down a boat ramp and out across the icy surface of Lake Michigan, accompanied by a small convoy of snowmobiles and ATVs.

After traveling several miles over the frozen lake, a small encampment comprising a dozen or so portable ice shelters came into view. Some were wooden shanties built on a set of runners so the structure could easily be towed around the ice.

Others were basically small to medium-sized tents that could offer refuge from wind or snow. Fortunately, the weather that afternoon was sunny and clear with little or no wind, making protection from the elements unnecessary, so we were quickly able to drill a few holes and join all the other anglers already set up around the site.

Whitefish were the target species there, and a good bite earlier in the day had produced a bunch of them. Things were a little slower most of the afternoon, but talking shop with some of the other fishermen made the time enjoyable just the same.

A couple hours before dark, we broke camp and, in what looked like a military-style deployment of people, vehicles and gear, headed several more miles across the lake to a “walleye spot.” The walleyes apparently didn’t get the memo about the location, so action was also slow there as well.

Some of the most beautiful sunsets I’ve ever witnessed have been on the Great Lakes, and that evening another was added to that list as the setting sun painted the winter sky a brilliant purple and orange over Lake Michigan.

Last week while taking my camera for a walk at Canoe Creek State Park, I ran into Craig Garman, waterways conservation officer for Blair County. He was preparing to head out on the lake to check the dozen or so ice anglers fishing there and allowed me to tag along with him.

The lake is currently drawn down about six or seven feet, and Garman told me the fishing had been quite good over the past week or two, saying he had checked many anglers with nice catches of bluegill, crappies, largemouth bass and chain pickerel. That trend seemed to have subsided, however, as most of the fishermen we talked with reported catching few if any fish most of the day.

Fishing should pick up this week out at Canoe Creek Lake, as 1,500 trout are scheduled to be stocked there tomorrow morning. Trout bite to bite well under the ice, so getting out there and rigging some tip-ups with waxworms or Powerbait should produce some action. And even if the fish aren’t biting that well, as one of the ice anglers told me last week, “It beats sitting at home on the couch.”