A co-worker came up to my desk this morning and said, “You probably wish you were ice fishing on a day like this.”
He knows me well enough to know there was a time I wouldn’t have hesitated to hit the ice on a morning when the mercury flirted with 20 below zero, as it did today. I’ve done it numerous times over the years and often have been rewarded with great fishing for my efforts.
I’ll have to admit, though: Not once this morning have I wished I was ice fishing. Maybe I’m getting soft in my old age or maybe it’s just common sense.
Either way, I don’t feel like I’m missing anything by not being on a frozen lake today.
My co-worker’s comments got me to thinking about some of the great fishing I’ve had on subzero days, though. The largest walleye I ever pulled through the ice came from the Manitoba side of the Red River on a late December morning several years ago. The fish measured just a hair less than 30 inches, and the mercury that morning was just a hair less than 30 below zero F.
Then there was the morning in January 1987, when I left my parents’ house near Roseau, Minn., for a day of fishing on Lake of the Woods. When I stepped outside shortly after 6 a.m. to start my Ford Escort that wasn’t plugged in because the block heater cord was broken, a glance at the thermometer outside the front door showed the air temperature was 47 below zero.
No way, I thought, was the car going to start in that extreme cold, but since I was up, I decided to give it a try. The driver’s seat was hard as rock, and the engine groaned in protest when I turned the key, but amazingly, it started.
There was nothing else to do but go fishing.
Arnesen’s Rocky Point Resort north of Roosevelt, Minn., was still plowing an ice road back then — these days, they use tracked vehicles to shuttle customers to their rental houses — and the report inside the store was that fishing was pretty good. The man behind the counter pointed out the window in the direction of Gull Rock Reef and told us to follow the road toward the small group of houses set up on the ice.
We didn’t have a GPS or even a depth finder to determine how deep we were fishing; instead, we randomly picked a spot, said “this looks pretty good” and decided to see what the day would bring.
My ice fishing equipment in those days was limited to a hand auger and a two-hole portable fish house. Still, it wasn’t long before two of us had muscled two holes through 3 feet of ice and were warm and comfortable inside the canvas shelter heated by a propane sunflower heater.
I set the bobber so the jig was about 6 inches from the bottom and baited the chartreuse-and-orange “Walleye Hawger” with a minnow. I dropped the jig to the bottom, and the bobber kept sinking.
Thinking the jig was too heavy for the bobber, I lifted the line to put on a bigger bobber. That’s when I felt the weight of a fish at the other end of the line.
The fish was a big sauger — the first of more than 40 the two of us would catch that day, along with several bonus jumbo perch. There wasn’t a walleye in the bunch, as I recall, but the action was nearly nonstop.
If I’d owned a Vexilar or other electronics at the time, I can only imagine what the screen would have looked like.
Despite the frigid temperature — the high that day was about 20 below — the sun was shining, and there was no wind so the portable house stayed warm. Just to be safe, I started the car every hour or so.
It remains the single best day of ice fishing I’ve ever had on Lake of the Woods.
As I told my co-worker this morning, the only way I’d go ice fishing in such frigid conditions anymore is if I was fishing out of a resort where they shuttle you onto the ice in a warm vehicle, and you walk into the fish house to find the holes drilled and the heater blasting.
Otherwise, I’m content to wait until the temperature warms up a few degrees before venturing out on my own. I might be missing out on some great fishing, but the fish will keep until the mercury rises.