Ice fishing combines tradition, technology


During the recent cold snap, several folks have asked me if I go ice fishing this time of year. I must confess I rarely do anymore, but some of my fondest outdoor memories are winter days spent on a frozen lake with good friends.

When I was in my late 20s, two older gentlemen who were both dedicated ice fishermen befriended me 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 and show up. I always 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. And the value of outdoor camaraderie we shared there was priceless. I can still recall them saying, “This sure beats sitting at home on the couch.”

My last ice-fishing outing came late February about eight years ago in Door County, Wisconsin. Folks in that part of the world take their ice fishing seriously, and that outing on Lake Michigan proved to be quite an adventure. After 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 ice-covered lake, accompanied by a small convoy of snowmobiles and ATVs.

We traveled several miles offshore until a small encampment of 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.

A couple hours before dark, we broke camp and, in what reminded me of a small-scale military 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 slow there. 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.

Like most other outdoor sports, ice fishing continues to evolve between tradition and technology. Both of my original ice-fishing mentors are gone now, but I can only imagine how delighted they would be with all the high-tech ice equipment and clothing available nowadays. First would be the wonderful outerwear and boots we now have. State-of-the-art insulation and fabrics provide warmth without unnecessary weight or bulk, while being waterproof, windproof and breathable as well.

Back in the day, many ice anglers made their own ice jigging rods by gluing a makeshift handle and reel seat to a short tip section salvaged from some broken fishing rod. Now there are any number of short ice rods as well as matching little reels designed specifically for ice anglers. Several manufacturers also make special ice-fishing line formulated to perform well in freezing temperatures.

The ultimate in high-tech ice gear certainly is some of the on-ice electronics available today. We now have portable, battery-powered sonar units made to give accurate readings right through the ice.

That capability makes it possible for an angler to locate precisely specific underwater structure that is likely to hold fish, such as drop offs, old creek channels, weed beds or humps. And when on a new lake, an angler prospecting with sonar can usually learn more in one afternoon than in several years of trial and error.

Simple and relatively affordable underwater TV cameras have even appeared on the market in the past few years and may be the most remarkable electronic gadgets being embraced by both open-water and ice fishermen. By lowering the miniature camera down a second hole a few feet from his bait or lure, an ice angler viewing a monitor topside can actually watch any fish that approaches his offering.

But whether you are decked out with all the latest gadgets or use the same gear our predecessors did 40 years ago, ice fishing is a great way to spend time outdoors in the wintertime, along with being one of the most interesting ways to get a fresh fish dinner this time of year.