Walking on water

Ice fishing the winter away

Kim Fundingsland/MDN An ice fisherman enters a heated shelter for a comfortable afternoon of ice fishing.

Holesome fun! A chance walk on water and shorten the winter. Hard to explain. Welcome to ice fishing.

To those who think the best way to spend a cold and blustery winter day in North Dakota is inside, maybe curled up with a blanket and watching a favorite movie, explaining the enjoyable points of ice fishing is a difficult, perhaps impossible, task. To those who enjoy getting out on the ice and putting their posterior to the test while staring down a hole in a lake, ice fishing makes perfect sense.

Yes, what stirs the soul of some to don heavy socks, techy underwear, cumbersome boots, giant mittens and goulish face masks may be mystifying to those wearing warm robes and enjoying a hot cup of coffee while looking out through frost-covered windows. What they see is their abnormal appearing neighbors preparing to venture forth on a journey that can only result in a later search for their frozen remains. Surely their minds are already frozen!

Ah, do not rush to judgment here. Try it. You’ll like it. Well, maybe you won’t, but others do. They see ice fishing as a perfectly wonderful excuse to get outside, accept the challenges of catching fish and even shorten the winter season.

The days of sitting on an over-turned bucket, back to the wind with snow swirling about, while constantly keeping a hole in the ice from freezing over, are no more. Today’s ice fishermen have more options than an over-stocked shoe store. From apparel to fishing tackle to mode of comfort, the modern ice fisherman scarcely resembles the image of the man whose derriere was destined to freeze to a five-gallon pail about the same time as numbness claimed his fingers and toes.

Kim Fundingsland/MDN Getting outside and enjoying a winter day with laughs and fun is all part of the ice angling experience.

Today’s portable ice fishing shelters are insulated and quick to set up. Portable heaters have come a long way too. It may be sub-zero temperatures and gusty winds on the outside, but inside the shelter ice anglers shed winter jackets and silly looking hats with furry ear flaps in favor of shirt-sleeves. The heat keeps the holes in the lake from freezing over too. No need to suffer through cold toes and fingers either.

Pull-type ice houses are popular too. Many have the comforts of home, such as a stove, microwave, television, dining table, bunks for sleeping and ample lighting. No question about it, the image of ice fishing has greatly changed over the past several years. The basic concept remains the same, however – a hole in the ice with a fishing line dangling through it.

Virtually all species of fish can be caught through the ice. In North Dakota the favorites are walleye, perch and northern pike. Some lakes produce a good crappie or bluegill bite too.

To most ice fishermen any fish will do. Sometimes the activity is busy. Sometimes time passes slowly. Sometimes morning or evening bites will be rapid but of short duration. Really though, the bite doesn’t matter as much as the pursuit. Ice fishing is an opportunity to be indoors outdoors, during the most forbidding season on the calendar.

All travel on ice should be done with an abundance of caution. Veteran ice fishermen know to check ice conditions regularly with the use of a steel bar or ice auger. Today’s augers can easily cut through ice, making it easier than ever to gauge ice thickness. Safety first. Fishing second.

Kim Fundingsland/MDN Kaitlyn Potter, Westhope, smiles as she shows off a large bluegill caught through the ice at Lake Metigoshe.

Augers come with a variety of drill widths. Six- to 10-inch holes are common, sometimes determined by the species of fish targeted. No need to drill a 10-inch hole for panfish when a six- or seven-inch hole will suffice.

A Vexilar, or similar product, is a common piece of equipment for ice anglers. It sits atop the ice, receiving signals from a transducer lowered into the same hole a fisherman is using to entice fish. It reveals movement of fish under the ice, particularly if they are approaching a fisherman’s presentation. For panfish, that is usually a tiny tungsten jig tipped with, prepare yourself, maggots. Ummm. Fish love ’em!

Fishing tackle proper, not including the portable ice house, electronics and heater, can be carried in a jacket pocket or two. Ice fishing jigs, lots of them, can be contained in a miniature suitcase not much larger than today’s smart phones. Bait, hundreds of maggots, fit easily into a tuna can-sized container. Fishing rods and reels are small too. Line is two to four pound test, far lighter than what is used in open water.

During a recent ice fishing outing at Lake Metigoshe the bluegills and perch were plentiful. An underwater camera confirmed that. But it was one of those days when the fish were very picky and very reluctant to commit. Some did, though. Even though the perch caught were very small, a fair number of larger bluegills provided some activity.

A text message and photograph exchange with another fisherman on another lake provided a humorous moment. A picture of a four-inch perch was sent out and a picture of a 40-inch northern pike was received, both caught about the same time. It was a reminder of the fun associated with ice fishing and ice fishermen.

As the temperature warmed a few degrees during the afternoon there was the occasional creaking of the ice. Sometimes it was very loud. At Lake Metigoshe the ice was about 30 inches thick, but the sounds of the ice pack contracting and expanding was a reminder that even during the coldest days of winter a lake continues to move.

When the fishermen decided to call it a day, with several bluegill on the ice destined for the frying pan, they emerged from their warm and cozy shelter to brisk winds and surprisingly cold temperatures. The heat of the day, what little there was, had given way to a falling thermometer and gray skies.

Within a few minutes the vehicle left the ice and the fishermen began their journey home, wondering when they’d experience their next opportunity to enjoy a few hours of fishing through the ice – no explanation necessary.

Ice fishing guides

“Got Ice” Fishing Guide Service

Lake Metigoshe

Justin Potter, 848-6103

“Perch Patrol” Guide Service

Devils Lake

Zippy Dahl, 351-3474