OKEMOS — Nearly three decades ago, when I returned to ice fishing after a 10-year absence — I’d been living in the South, where ice fishing is rarer than liberal Republicans — I got some advice from a now retired Department of Natural Resources fisheries biologist: Start with bluegills. They are numerous, nearly ubiquitous, and, generally willing to play, he said, and you can master the basics of ice fishing before moving on to more exotic species.
I had this very thing in mind when I recently shared the ice with a practical first-timer.
Ed Golder, the public information officer at the DNR, came to the agency with knowledge of parks and recreation programming, but very little experience in the hook-and bullet lifestyle. He’d been on the ice once with some guys who set tip-ups, which is a worthy pastime, sure, but in my mind, not at all representative of the sport. I took it upon myself to fix that.
So I found myself on a private lake that has been good to me in the past. The lake has a fair population of nice-sized ‘gills in it and there is nothing worse for newbies than a tough bite. (I remember a time, for instance, when I recruited a young photographer to go with me as I was looking for a particular type portrait that I didn’t feel competent to capture. It was a tough day. At one point he turned to me and asked: “You guys do this for fun?”)
I enlisted Ray Rustem to help. A long-time DNR employee who fishes the lake in question, Rustem had helped me out some 25 years ago when I took the local Cub Scout pack ice fishing. None of the other adults were anglers and there were too many youngsters for one guy to handle. Rustem, who has worked extensively on youth programs, was a godsend. By the time we’d finished, all of the boys had caught fish. That’s about all I had hoped for.
For whatever reason, Rustem said, the lake had not been fishing particularly well this year. Still, it was as good a bet as any and we found ourselves on the lake during the recent warm-up. It was warm enough, in fact, that we barely had to drill holes; we just kicked in the skim ice of the holes others had used in the previous few days, de-slushed, and started fishing.
And we started catching, too, but all of us missed bites regularly and when we did connect, it was often to 3-inch specimens. (Does that explain all the misses?) Rustem said he had fished the lake with his brother a couple of days earlier at that they’d experienced the same — they caught plenty of fish but only three of them were keepers.
Finally, I iced a 7 ½-incher and then Rustem did, too. Golder, who hauled his share of dinks though the ice in the early going, caught a nice fish, too. That’s when things turned, right? Nope. It stayed slow.
So we wandered, drilling new holes, deeper and then shallower. Nothing really seemed to work. I fished the shallowest water of the morning, missed a half a dozen bites in succession, then hauled up another 3-incher. Yikes.
What occurred to me then was how much better we fish now than we did not that many years ago. I remember when the basic drill was to find bottom, reel it up about a foot, attach a bobber, then hand-over-hand the line up, bait it, and wait. When the bobber went down, you’d set the hook, hand-over-hand it up again and start over. Reels? Nothing but line-holders.
Spring bobbers changed everything, especially if it was a soft bite. You can tell when a fish as much as breathes on the bait now and we catch fish that, were you to wait until you felt the bite, you’d never connect with. That alone shorts-circuits the learning curve significantly.
Personally, I’ve gone to high-end rods that eliminate the need for spring bobbers when bluegill fishing. They are sensitive enough that you can see the bite and I think the rods really helped Golder catch on to what we were doing quickly. He fished about as well as either Rustem or I did and we probably had about 100 years of combined experience on him.
But I had him fish with a spring bobber rig, too, just to help him get the flavor of it. And Rustem gave him a quick tutorial with a depth finder, to show him how, when the bite is slow, you can sometimes get them to go by slowly raising the bait up above them, enticing them to commit. He caught on to that, as well.
We fished for about three hours and by morning’s end, had iced about 15 keepers among us, mostly bluegills with a couple of pumpkinseeds thrown in and one keeper-sized yellow perch. We never found any crappies, which are a not-so-rare bonus on this lake.
Rustem and I were both disappointed that we hadn’t shown him what it was all about. Golder said he wasn’t disappointed; he did well as a first-timer and, not having any additional experience with which to benchmark the outing, didn’t know what he was missing.
Truth is, it’s probably better we didn’t slaughter ’em as I had agreed beforehand to clean ’em and send ’em home with Golder. Fifteen fish are just about the right amount to clean in one sitting.