By the time you read this, I'll be crossing the Mackinac Bridge, fighting off the gravitational pull of the U.P., heading south to Bay City to fish and cover the Mark Martin Ice Fishing School on Saginaw Bay, Feb. 6-9, an event I've enjoyed for years. The aptly-named "Shiver on the River" ice fishing tournament has been going on for 24 years, attracting about 2,500 Saginaw/Bay City area anglers every year.
I'm tickled pink to know the guy who won it in 2009, and saw the fish he won it with, a whopper of a 13.45-pound walleye he caught on a Jigging Rapala. Don Leuenberger is a world-class geezer; a spry 77-year old ice fisherman who was way more pumped over the bragging rights than the $1,000 prize money he took home.
"I've fished every Shiver for 22 years and finally won it!" he beamed wide-eyed as his winning walleye. "I've come in second, third and fourth, all the way down to ninth place and finally finished first."
Don has spent a lifetime fishing Sag Bay, and knows his way around the legendary Black Hole and other fish-holding humps and bumps. He is also a regular at Mark Martin's Ice Fishing School and likes fishing with the pros as much as I do.
"Last year the fish gods smiled through a white-out blizzard that turned on a mega-bite catch of 300 fish, " said Professor of Walleyeology, Mark Martin, "Not just walleye, but a mixed bag of lake trout, whitefish, catfish, smallmouth, perch and northern, he added. "Goodness knows what we'll run into this year."
For the uninitiated, an ice fishing tent or shanty is like an outhouse; they can be one or two-holers, single wides or double wides. You sit in about the same position except the hole is in front of you, not beneath you. I like the two-holers so you can fish with a friend and enjoy a thermos of hot orange juice and blackberry brandy to ward off the chill. A nice hot cuppa gumbo, venison booya or clam chowder hits the spot out on the ice as well.
I also like ice fishing alone for getting into the zone and listening to the ice creak, crack, groan and gurgle, inducing a nice low-level hypnotic trance, but not so deep that you don't notice your rod tip heading for the hole.
School runs from pre-dawn to after-dark, but there's something exhiliarating about a long day on the bay. For one thing, I love riding a snowmobile across a frozen lake. Doing a shift in a shanty with these guys, all pros at the art, science, magic and sport of catching fish, is quite an education. Seminars focus on ice safety, equipment, gear set-up, fishing tips and techniques.
Students get personalized instruction from AIM Fishing walleye pros Mark Martin (Mich.), Mark Brumbaugh (Ohio) and Mike Gofron (Ill.), guides and area regulars who know the water, and win prizes for the biggest and most fish caught. You see the latest in underwater cameras and electronic fish-finding technology, product demonstrations, jigging techniques, tip-up strategies, and learn to identify structure and fish migrations. The laser drills they have bore through a foota solid ice like it was standing still. You can shave with those blades, too close for comfort.
Tips from the pros: Try jigging so still that your bait is barely quivering in place. Rest your rod steady on your knee, then tap your toe slightly. When the bite is slow, try aggressively rip-jigging, raise your rod sharply, then drop it back down to the bottom, then raise it slowly and let it settle or flutter back down and get ready to get bit on the fall.
Experiment between vertical jigs tied on the end such as Swedish Pimples, Vinglas and Do-Jiggers, and horizontal jigs tied on top like Jiggin Raps and Lindy Fat Boys. If they don't hit live minnows, switch to Berkley Gulp minnows and grubs, cutbait or frozen smelt.
Ice fishing has kicked into high gear throughout the frozen tundra of the U.P., with shanty town on Keweenaw Bay numbering 100 shacks and Escanaba-Gladstone's Bay de Noc tip-up town close to 200. Most Yooper inland lakes look like swiss cheese.
For more information on the school, visit markmartins.net or linwoodbeachmarina.com. For ice conditions and fishing reports, visit franksgreatoutdoors.com. For attractions in the Saginaw Bay area, go to visitsaginawvalley.com or call 888-BAYTOWN.
Local ice fishing tournaments this month are the MTU Blue Key Winter Carnival Ice Fishing Tournament Saturday, Greenlight tournament, Feb. 19 (523-4487), and Chassell VFW tournament Feb. 26 (Jesse Sohlden, 523-9089).
Jim can be reached 24/7/365 at firstname.lastname@example.org.