To a lotta Yoopers who like their action on ice fast as in hockey, ice fishing is about as exciting as watching lakes freeze and paint dry. I'll admit it's not as fast as a speeding puck, but there's something exhilarating about a day on the bay. Make that a long day on the bay.
When I go downstate to cover Mark Martin's Ice Fishing School (Feb. 7-10) and the Shiver on the River Tournament on Saginaw Bay, the days run from pre-dawn to after-dark.
Now in its 23rd year, the Shiver on the River is a big deal as ice fishing tournaments go. Last year, more than 2,500 anglers signed up for the annual tournament hosted by the Saginaw News, paying $5,000 in prizes, including $1,000 for biggest fish and a free wall mount from Mid-State Taxidermy in Midland.
Fishing with Mark Martin, Mike Gofron and Mark Brumbaugh is always a hoot, and the close quarters of a shanty makes it easy to watch, listen and learn. I've been in their boats and not caught fish while they were reeling them in left and right. Now with holes a couple of feet apart, they're still catching fish and I'm not. Usually the only way I'll catch a big fish is to hook a little perch or crappie and have a huge walleye or northern appear outa nowhere and nail it. I love it when the food chain comes to my hole.
Doing a shift in a shanty with these guys, three different walleye pros turned ice fishing professors, you get three different theories and techniques, all successful at the art and science of catching fish. You also get to see and do what they say and do. I even go so far as to repeat things they tell me. It sounds good and creates the illusion that I know what I'm talking about.
At dawn, the cold cut through my Carhartts as we got on Saginaw Bay at Linwood Beach Marina. You can get on at linwoodbeachmarina.com. Martin upgraded media travel arrangements last year, and they herded the outdoor press onto an open trailer packed with augers, gear, ice chests and hay bales for seats. I was the token Yooper covering the event with writers from downstate and the Great Lakes region.
About five miles out on the bay, we'd come to the end of our ride. The ice fishing safari of 30-some anglers spread out over acres of ice, pitched their shanties and holed up, boring through 12 to 16 inches of mostly snow-free ice, so slippery you had to wear ice creepers.
One of the most knowledgeable locals around is veteran Saginaw Bay fisherman and Ice Fishing School regular, 75-year old Don Leuenberger, who won the coveted 2009 Shiver on the River first place trophy and $1000 prize money for the big 13.425-pound walleye he caught on a Jigging Rapala and weighed in last Feb. 7. Don knows his way around Sag Bay's legendary Black Hole and where some fish-holding humps are.
"It took me 22 years, but I finally got it!" Leuenberger beamed.
No stranger to the competition, he has entered the contest for all of its 22 years and has cashed checks for 15 of them.
"I've finished second, third and fourth, all the way down to ninth place, but never first," said the lucky Leuenberger.
"I fished every day of the tournament," he added. "At my age, big fish bragging rights outweighs the money."
It can be pretty hypnotic staring down a hole unless you see fish. But these guys have the latest electronics, AquaVu underwater cameras, Vexilars and such to help locate fish and watch them take your bait, or not.
"Watch this," Martin said pointing to the Aqua-Vu as he held his jig stationary in the water. The big walleye on the screen held still. "Pausing is important," he whispered as if the fish could hear us. "When you stop, they stop. Then the slightest lift or motion can trigger the bite."
"When the bite is slow, try aggressive rip-jigging to get their attention," Martin tipped as he raised his arm sharply, then dropped his jig back to the bottom, then raised it slowly and let it settle. There was a rhythm to it. A few drops later, his rod tip dipped toward the hole with the weight of a good fish. He set the hook and got good skull. A 6-pound walleye headed for Lake Huron with his Buckshot jig before he brought it back though the hole.
By the time Ice School was over, I was thinking things I'd never thunk before; like matching the movement of my presentation to the mood of the fish, slowing down and speeding up until something works and triggers the bite. Who knew fish gave off body language that was possible to read?
Tips from the pros: Try jigging so still that your bait is barely quivering in place. Or holding your rod steady on your knee, then tapping your toe slightly, even dead-sticking it. Watching the fish approach your jig on the Aqua-Vu can be nerve-wracking. They'll creep up on the minnow, seemingly mesmerized, inching closer and closer, bumping it with their nose, trying to steal it and not get caught. They suck it in and spit it back out ... now, set the hook!
Oh well, maybe he'll be back.
Jim can be reached 24/7/365 at firstname.lastname@example.org.