Winter on the homestead is always a time to reflect on the last growing season. It is also a time to plan next years adventures, but most of all for us its a time to fish. Ice fishing has been a part of our winters for as long as I can remember.
It has always been a family affair, and just like the homestead, our approach to it has been refined over decades of learning and equipment upgrades. When most people are at home watching the NFL playoffs we are still enjoying nature out on the ice. Ice fishing also gives us the opportunity to harvest beautiful pan fish. Fish caught through the ice have tighter flesh and taste cleaner than those caught in the summer.
When I first began ice fishing in my early 20’s, my uncles, myself, and a few of our friends set out with axes, tip ups, minnows, and enthusiasm. We would spend half of our time chopping holes in the ice and the other half trying to keep our hands dry. Our first ice fishing acquisition was a spud bar that allowed us to finish our holes without getting wet. Unfortunately, that spud bar is at the bottom of a lake somewhere. Our first lesson was to always put the loop around your wrist. Soon after the bar was lost, my uncle and I tried to drill some holes with a dirt auger, however, while it didn’t end up at the bottom of the lake, it also didn’t drill holes through ice. We then acquired an old eskimo hand auger with a very dull blade, even though it took two men to drill it was still quicker than the old ax. One day while ice fishing with my friends Tom and Butch, I was introduced to the fire barrel. At first I was worried it would melt through the ice, but I soon realized that we had been missing a key component to our set up, heat.
Heat made ice fishing not only bearable, but also doubled as a place to shoot the breeze while we waited for flags to go up. Tom also had a great homemade sled that made transporting our gear much easier. As soon as I got home, I began making plans to build a sled and make a barrel. The barrel was easy, my mother’s old water heater was perfect. Its diameter also was the same size as a grill we had, so now we had hot food as well. I think most of my fall season’s haul of venison was eaten on the ice in those days. The sled was a whole different animal. I started with an old set of skis and worked my way up. I tend to overbuild things and the sled was no different. I think it weighed 75lbs and when loaded with wood barrel and equipment it probably was well over 200lbs. It was affectionately called “the widow maker”. The sled and barrel served us for over a decade until they were replaced during our ice fishing enlightenment. Earlier I said that ice fishing was a family affair. Not only did I fish with my uncles, but once my sons were old enough they joined in.
Ice fishing is tailor made for young boys. Limitless space, fishing, snow, and slippery ice are a dream for them. A day on the ice will ensure a sleeping child on the way home. My younger son Luke’s first trip was at 11 months, as soon as he could walk. Small children have to be watched so they don’t fall in a hole. A 5″ auger is a good idea when you have small children fishing. Even though they were young, they could jig or pull in fish on tip ups. The memories I have of sitting by the fire eating venison with them will be etched in my mind forever. Watching them knock each other over running to flags always made me smile. The ice is truly a place for boys to be boys. One wonderful Christmas Tracy gave me a brand new gas auger as my gift. It made drilling holes so easy, and we did drill a lot of them. As the years went by we stuck to our time tested tactics until one fateful day. Our friend Dwayne showed up at the lake with a borrowed vexilar. A vexilar is a compact sonar that is made specifically for ice fishing. We watched as he moved from hole to hole until he found fish. Then like magic he dropped his lure down and caught fish after fish. This was our enlightenment.
After trying his vexilar, jigging without it seemed boring. At $300 it was a little rich for our blood, but Luke at a young 11 years old saved all of his money until he could buy his own. And after all my friends and Luke had one, I had to get my own. With the switch to Vexilar fishing came a change in tactics. We no longer sat in one spot but drilled hole after hole until we found the fish. The widow maker was replaced by a light and slick jet sled and the old fire barrel by a shelter and a “mr buddy” heater. We were now lighter and more mobile, and we also caught a lot more fish. Every year we would try to catch enough fish to feed our family on Fridays during lent, and with the vexilar we had no problem achieving our goal. We would fish every weekend , spending the whole day on the ice. When Go pro cameras became popular, Luke again saved his money and bought one. It was then we started making ice fishing videos.
We now shoot most of them with our i phones. What started as a hobby for us became a passion, we were even making a bit of money from our videos on youtube. We made enough money to buy a flip hut so that we could fish even in the worst weather. Youtube eventually changed its policies, and put us out of business, but we still love to make videos and fish. Recently we have upgraded our auger to an eco-friendly electric model, the strike master lithium 40 volt. It is super fast and keeps all of that two stroke oil out of the lake.
We have even fished in a few tournaments and won some prizes. Our friend Tim even started his own tournament. Even though we are well south of ice fishing meccas like Michigan, we still get in several months of great fishing. Every year we can’t wait until that ice is at least 4″ thick so we can get out there and catch some perch. Ice fishing checks all of the boxes for us outdoors. Fresh air, exercise, bringing home food, and most of all family. I hope that when I am 100 years old my sons will still be dragging me out to catch some fish for dinner. So when cabin fever starts to get you down, don’t fret, just grab some minnows and start your own ice fishing story, just like we did all of those years ago.