Though I’m not exactly sure why, ice fishing has never really been my thing.
Don’t get me wrong, I go ice fishing. Just not with the same spirit that I have behind many of my open water adventures during the warmer months. In the past, I’ve only hit the hard water a few times per season, if that. In 2019-20 season, I only went once. A couple Christmases ago, I was lucky enough to receive a brand new MarCum M3 flasher. As the water froze this year, that awesome gift was still sitting in the box, untouched.
I’ve often joked that I view ice fishing as little more than an excuse to drink beer with my friends during the daytime on Saturdays.
It’s not that I didn’t have fun while ice fishing. I just couldn’t get excited about it. Maybe I wasn’t fishing the right spots or targeting the correct species or using the proper techniques. Maybe I just had a bad attitude.
But this year, that all changed. I knew from the time I set my very first tip-up that this season was going to be different.
It was early January and my dad and I teamed up with a couple friends for a morning trip to a local northern pike spot. It was a mild winter day by Wisconsin standards with temperatures in the upper-20s with little wind and considerable cloud cover. Very comfortable conditions.
I put the large golden shiner on the red treble hook and sent it to its final destination. As I set the blaze orange tip-up in the hole and set the flag in the ready position, it hit me. This was my ticket to the serenity and mental clarity that I enjoyed during my 132 open water fishing trips the previous year.
In reality, it had been little more than two weeks since the last time I went fishing. But I already missed it and I knew that I needed to get the feelings of enjoyment and fulfillment that the sport brings to me back into my regular routine.
We ended the day with five pike. Each member of the group had the opportunity to pull in at least one. Before we left, we were already making plans for the following weekend.
Much of the next week was spent cruising amazon. I purchased a jigging rod (the first one I had ever bought) and a new tip-up.
On Friday night, I found myself getting the M3 on the charger and running to the local bait shop for minnows, wax worm, and jigs.
The following morning, I picked up one of my friends well before sunrise and we made our way to Beechwood Lake, a small fishery near the southern border of Sheboygan County. A picture-perfect winter day greeted us as our party descended upon the boat launch — bountiful sunshine and temperatures in the 30s.
We set nearly a dozen tip-ups and popped a few more holes for jigging. I got to bust out my new flasher for the first time. It was a game-changing experience. Flashers aren’t cheap, but it’s hard to put a price on the real-time feedback these units provide. Being able to know for certain if there are fish underneath you and then seeing how those fish engage with your bait is addicting. Having one of these tools at my disposal made me feel as though I was participating in a completely different sport than the ice fishing I had previously known.
Though we didn’t catch any fish, we left that day determined to keep trying to find success. The next morning, some of the group from the previous day made the trek to Little Elkhart Lake. Thanks to a little intel from a family member, we were able to change our fortunes.
After drilling the first hole, it quickly became clear we had found a solid school of fish. The screen of my flasher showed numerous marks. I couldn’t get a jig in the water fast enough.
Once we figured out the presentation the fish preferred, action became steady. Our group of four ended the trip with 40 fish to its credit, all small panfish with the exception of one 24-inch northern pike we got on a tip-up. More than enough to raise our spirits.
It was at this point in the season our group fell into a routine. There was this unspoken assumption that Saturday mornings were for ice fishing from here on out. We went out every Saturday (and many Sundays) from the first weekend in January until the first weekend in March.
At times, it could be a decent amount of work. But I grew to appreciate the structure these new weekly commitments provided me. Not only did the prep work and cleanup fill some of my free time, it also forced me to be disciplined. Friday nights were spent acquiring bait, tuning-up equipment, and packing. This forced my to be organized and go to bed at a decent hour.
Most Saturdays, my alarm went off well before sunrise. I found an incredible amount of peace in that first, uninterrupted hour of the day. I quietly milled around the house, checking the final items off my list and making sure I was fully-prepared for the morning ahead.
Once we returned from our trips, it was time to clean-up, unpack, and get the leftover minnows situated. Many weekdays were spent as a de facto minnow farmer, keeping as much our bait alive as possible until our next outing.
I took a lot of pride and found a good deal of fulfillment in all of these processes. It was exactly what I needed to keep myself in a good headspace during the winter months.
In total, I went on 18 ice fishing trips in that two-month span. I personally caught a total of 80 fish in that timeframe, while those who accompanied hauled in 117 of their own. We even fished in a tournament on Long Lake the last weekend of February.
That day was a testament to just how much my attitude toward ice fishing had changed during the prior months. We hit the ice hours before sun-up, using flashlights, headlamps, and the natural light of the full moon to get set up. The old version of myself, the one who often looked for excuses not to go ice fishing, would never have considered putting in this type of effort.
But now, not only did I not mind, I was incredibly excited to put in the work to try something new and get the competitive juices flowing a bit.
Ice fishing gave so much to me this year. From the many adventures, to the new spots, and a refreshed sense of purpose from the outdoors. For that, I am incredibly grateful.
My open water season has already started and I eagerly await all of the excitement that the following months surely hold. But there is a part of me that is also looking forward to the future return of colder weather and another season of ice fishing. This time, with a new-found passion.