Ice Fishing

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The invitation was there, so I took it.   Ice fishing, in northwestern Wisconsin on the Chippewa Flowage!  It wasn’t a bucket list item, but hey, why not?  After working in St. Paul, we left for about a 2.5 hour drive “north.”  Roads were in good shape, with the sides cleared of trees a good distance so drivers have a better chance of avoiding deer, as well as wrecked vehicles to be found. Comforting, right? 

It’s rural, pockmarked with little towns that on average, have two to three little restaurant/bars, a general merchandise store, a beer store/gas station, with homes a small distance along the road on either side.  Throw in a grocery store, an occasional motel and fast food restaurant, and there you have it. What do people do up there for a living?  Well, there is some industry tucked away, but otherwise it’s farming and catering to the needs of hunters, fishermen, snowmobilers, and retirees.


Sure.  The people are friendly.  So, we stopped at this little spot, regarded by my friend as having the best food between “here and there.”  He should know as he grew up in the area and has stopped at most of the bars over the years.  And, I had a tasty fried fish sandwich, coleslaw and the obligatory beer.  It was a small place, where people obviously knew each other, one selling raffle tickets for an ice fishing competition that was scheduled for the next day.


So, what’s involved.  First, there is a fair amount of preparation needed – minnows, fishing rod/reel, ice auger, something to sit on, and general winter clothing.  My friend had extra clothing to help me out, but as he put it, “It’s like Spring!” meaning the temperatures were in the high 30’s and no wind to speak of. 

So, we gear up and hop on to his ATV and head for, ultimately, an island known as Little Banana.  I’ll help with a map.  I’ve marked the spot with a “1” below, just south of island.


First, we get the ice auger out and drill.  Frankly, it’s kind of fun.  You drill until you feel it punch through, then lift it with what should be Black Gold or Texas Tea bubbling up, but it’s only ice water.  I mean, you’re standing on a lake and drilling a hole.  The water gushes up and then quickly freezes. 


After drilling the whole, you take a plastic scoop on a long handle and dig out the displaced ice to clear out the hole.  Helpfully, the handle also serves as a measuring stick, and the ice was generally 13” to 17” thick where we drilled.   I gather around “4” is when people feel comfortable walking out on the lake.

At this point, and drilling several holes in a row, you bring out the electronics to see how deep it is.  This is a visual indicator where a lake shelf might be located because fish tend to follow the terrain.  By law, you can only tend three holes per person, so we end up with six holes.  Only, there’s only two of us, so you can only tend two, right?  Well, not so much.

However, there are these helpful little fishing tools called “Tip-ups.” It’s essentially a line that connects to a board that spans the hole, and should a fish strike the bait, it twists a catch and a spring loaded flag pops up to alert you get moving, yank the line, and pull it in.


If that’s not enough of an advantage, the electronics also can show you where your bait is compared to the bottom and give indications when fish are in the area. 


So, now all this left is to be “Grumpy Old Men” and pile into a comfy ice fishing house, complete with heater and a day’s worth of beer. 


Those may exist somewhere, but not here.  First, this “lake” has marginally developed shoreline, so on the best weekend in a couple of months for ice fishing, we saw only a couple other people doing it.  So, no congestion.  Also, there was the spring-like weather, so it ends up looking like this:


Not much different than sitting on a boat seat, only no boat.  Now, let’s say that it was colder and/or windy.  Well, behind the AV we’re pulling a pre-packaged “ice fishing house.”  It’s a sled with two mounted chairs that fold open, along with a cover that can be positioned overhead like a tent.  Just drill two holes a few feet apart, and you and a buddy can sit there in a tent and fish the holes.  It looks something like this, as erected by a guy who chose 50 yards from us as the best spot to fish among the 15,000 acres of fishing paradise.


So, you sit and fish.  And nothing bites.  Nothing shows on the electronics, and eventually you brag about your (lack of success) with a Facebook post because really, what else are you to do in an era when smart phones operate on a frozen tundra?


Spot #1 didn’t work out, so we relocated to #2 over by Big Banana island.  More holes to drill (fun), but it was just as uneventful as the first spot. 

Day 1:  0 bites.

Okay, it’s Day 2.  Due to ice auger issues, we borrow some holes that had frozen over near home base (X on the map).   Only, it’s Sunday.  And it’s a doubleheader for the NFL Division titles.  No problem.  We have tip-ups.


So, in the comfy den, we keep an eye on the flags, and when one pops, we rush to put boots and jacket on, hop on the ATV and drive the 100 yards or so to the flags.  Happily, we had several occasions to do so, resulting in the catch of one (1) Northern Pike.


If we were starving, we could have eaten this one.  But we weren’t, so we let him go.  First, I was very happy to have caught the fish, about 14” but fairly slim.  It’s reportedly a decent fish to eat, though not as tasty as Walleye (out of season anyway) or Bluegills.  Whatever. Caught a fish.

It should be noted that my friend’s refrigerator and tables are decorated with many photos of him or his grandson holding fish that generally measure 30” to 42”.  It’s a really good fishing environment, and… at least I caught one. 

So ice fishing was a first, as was driving an ATV, with a daily double of first time driving an ATV on a lake.  “Don’t drive over there (a shallow dead end) but you can go wherever you want.”  So, I did.  By this time, I’d observed how my friend had stayed wide of the markers that define the snowmobile trails and often looked over his shoulder (the rear view mirror was marginally helpful).

Now, snowmobiling.  They tend to hunt in groups, which makes sense should one break.  But even in the best weekend weather in a while, that weren’t that many.  Those that were there, though… zoom.  It looks like fun.  Helpfully, they put maps in the lake to guide them, to lodges, trails (which connect paths on both shores, for example).  Still, it’s a little surreal to see “road” signs on a lake.


Economically, it makes sense, because other than the speed demons, people tend to drive from one lakeside bar to another for adult beverages.  Not a bad deal if you can get it.  Anyway, I drove “a ways” ultimately contenting myself by driving around an island for no other reason than I could.  It’s kind of a fun ride.  There was several inches of snow, but certain areas were icy which is pretty much exactly what makes ice driving fun.


All told, I had a great time and got to appreciate why people love winter recreation in the north.  Fortunately, that doesn’t require living there.  No, not because I’m afraid of the cold, but rather giant mutant mosquitos and other insects that eat people alive in warmer months.  Yeah, it’s not the cold, really.


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