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Ice Fishing: A Cool Pastime

Local ice fishers say the sport is all about enjoying nature with friends and family for a small investment.

Ice fishing. What comes to mind?A guy in thermal outerwear sitting in a camping chair on a frozen lake watching a hole in the ice and jiggling a short fishing pole, waiting for the line to move.

You pretty much have the picture, but let me fill in some details to explain the allure and enhance the reason to pursue this frigid sport.

Ice fishing is an activity that is a great outing for families and fishing enthusiasts alike who want to contribute to the development of sport fishing in McHenry County, as well as enjoy the camaraderie of friends.

Times may change, but fishing never goes out of style; in fact it’s booming and enduring.

Ice Fishing Rookie
I ventured out to test the frozen waters of ice fishing with Larry Green, McHenry County Conservation District’s assistant ranger, and his lifelong fishing buddy, Richard Gillis, on Crystal Lake.

Yes, I am a rookie; I’m not embarrassed to admit it. My first time out I wrestled with a hand auger (a drill used to cut a hole in the ice), although I noticed others on the lake using gas-powered augers. I’d like think that my auger exercise helped to keep me warm. Gillis and Green seemed to be traditionalists although high technology was available.

This brings us to the best technology ever invented: disposable, chemical (nontoxic) hand and feet warmers.

These little packets of toasty joy in my mittens made the entire experience endurable. Don’t fool yourself, modern technology created insulation for warm boots and outerwear that keeps moisture out and heat in. Take advantage of them in order to best enjoy this sport. Nobody was looking trendy on the lake, believe me. They were all practical people.

If you’re a hard-water angler, you may be laughing at me right now. That’s OK, really. High-tech gadgets can only make it easier as your time progresses in the freezing temperatures.

Portable fishing shanties have been used since the beginning of time and keep out the wind. You may even be able to take off a few of those high-tech layers and get warm inside with your portable heater.

Raison D’être: Finding the Fish
Using sonar (a technique that uses sound propagation underwater) gives the depth of the water and indicates the location of the weeds and movement of the fish. When sonar is not used, the old-fashioned way prevails. “You can use a depth finder to see if a hole over there is deeper than this one here,” Green said. “This pole and line here have a peg on it, so I have the depth set for this one so I know exactly how deep the water is.”

Knowing the pattern of the lake on which you’re fishing helps you find fish easier. “If you know the fishing territory from summertime fishing, you’ll be better off during ice-fishing season,” he explained.

It all made sense to me as I watched and listened.

“Where we are right now on this frozen lake, in the summertime, there is a hump under the water,” he said. “We are setting the poles at 8, 11 and 12 feet. Individual lines are set up at various depths and locations. We are waiting to see if the fish are on top of the hump.”

On Crystal Lake the fish are usually in the weeds, except during winter when there is so much snow cover that the weeds die off. When there is less snow cover the sun penetrates and will keep the weed growth strong.

When weeds start dying they don’t give off oxygen to the fish, so the fish will slide off into deeper areas. As winter goes on the weeds get bigger.
“So that’s why we are just moving around, cutting ice holes and trying to locate some fish,” Green said.

Sonar usage certainly helps to pinpoint the bottom, jig location and fish sightings.

When fish come in the area it will turn green or yellow and when the colors together turn red you know where to set the hook for the fish. “If I was going to a lake that I’ve never fished in or if I was fishing in 45 feet of water the use of sonar would be most helpful,” Green said.

An Affordable Day of Fun
The Perz Family, Scott and his two sons, Brent and Greg, enjoyed their time on the lake. “We’re fishing for primarily Northern and walleyes, crappies and bluegills … mostly panfish,” Brent said. “But really, it’s a social thing. It beats sitting around at home when it is cold.”

“Ice fishing’s great,” Scott added. “You don’t need a boat. It costs you about $14 for a fishing license and about $20 to $40 for a rod, reel and bait. For less than $50, you can be on the ice.”

Anyone can do it. With the right bait, of course. “We use wax worms — they’re short and fat — as well as smaller ones called spikes,” Green instructed. “Once you split open the worm, the fish can smell that. It all depends on how aggressive the fish are. Sometimes you can drop the bait in and as soon as it hits, well, it’s a catch. Other times the fish just sit there and look at it. And that’s why imbibing of beverages — hot or cold —  helps to make your day more pleasant.”

Some fishermen will persevere for an entire day, until they get cold or until they get bored. They just keep moving until they locate fish. “There is a spot on Wonder Lake where one day I fished over 100 and the next time we went out we got two — all in the same place,” Richard said.

Patience is a Virtue
A caveat: You have to have a lot of patience for fishing in general, but especially hard-water fishing.

“This is what we love,” Larry said. “We are catch-and-release guys. We do take fish home once in a while for supper. But fishing is all about getting out and doing something in nature.”

Ice fishing can be made easier if you have a snowmobile. You can reach previously unreachable areas on large bodies of water or maneuver through unplowed areas to reach prime lakes. Or if some drill sites are non-productive you can jump on your snow sled and cruise to a new location. Easily tote your fishing gear on a snowmobile or pull a pack sled of equipment.

Before you head out, however, take heed and get local ice reports. No need to be fearful, just prudent. No matter how good of a swimmer you are mid-winter is not the time to test those skills.

On any given winter weekend in McHenry County, a vast number of people will be out on the county’s many waterways.
Many lakes, like Crystal Lake, also are stocked with fish.

As the recession lengthens, more people are turning to low-cost experiences, ice fishing being one of them.
Your investment is minimal: fishing license, bait, line, pole and an auger (unless you can borrow one from a neighbor). If you’re good at it and have a productive day you can even save money on dinner. That sure is less expensive than skiing or flying to someplace warm. Returning to the simplicity of nature and family is also priceless.

Local Ice Fishing Resources

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