Ice-out occurs in roughly the same way people describe going bankrupt: slowly at first and then all of a sudden.
Certainly, the signs have been there: The Canada geese are standing around in pairs, and a few red-winged blackbirds and robins have been spotted. It won’t be long. And though ice fishing is, frankly, No. 11 on my top ten list of enjoyable sporting endeavors, a conversation with my sometimes angling partner Chris Freiburger got me interested in one more outing.
Freiburger, a Department of Natural Resources fisheries biologist who dearly loves ice fishing, was lamenting that he thought it was finished in southern Michigan for the season. Naturally, I called him everything just short of a sissy; he agreed that we should take one more stab at it.
Last ice is known as some of the best fishing of the year. Why that is, exactly, is somewhat mysterious, but my theory (one I’ve heard repeated by guys who are brainier than I) is that as the ice begins to break up along the shoreline, the water becomes more oxygenated and gets the fish going. That can make getting on the ice a little tricky, but if you can do it, the off-shore stuff is often still in pretty good shape.
So Freiburger and I found our way onto a small mid-Michigan lake on a recent late afternoon. It wasn’t easy — there were a lot of places you couldn’t get on — but once we were out, there was about three inches of solid ice. And it was a gorgeous day — blue sky, near 40 degrees — so at least the conditions wouldn’t be too hard on us.
I bored a hole in what I imagined was 15 feet of water, but when I pulled up the augur I was greeted with murky water. I went out a bit further and it was the same. We started fishing but no dice. Was it seepage from around the mucky shoreline or from somewhere a creek came in? Who knows?
Freiburger went out twice as far, bored a hole, dropped a spike-tipped teardrop, and caught a nice bluegill. And another. We were in business.
When I bored a couple of holes, I saw the water was clear here — obviously far enough away from the source of the discoloration — and shallower, but it had fish, so who cares about the depth, eh? I dropped a fly tipped with a spike and caught a nice bluegill. In no time I had five on the ice. The bite slowed for a second and then I hauled in a pumpkinseed. Then two more.
So had the school of ‘gills moved on and the ‘seeds moved in? Or were they both there all along, but the bluegills were more aggressive? (Ultimately, who cares?)
The ‘gills started to bite again. It was fairly steady. In no time I had a good pile on the ice.
One of the nearby property owners walked down to the edge of the lake and asked how we were doing. I left my rod on the ice — with the bait down the hole — and walked over to talk to him. A short while later Freiburger joined up for the chat. The visitor offered advice on where he’d caught them a few days earlier, but we were doing fine.
When we got back, Freiburger was chagrined. Seems he’d laid his rod on the depth finder (bait in the hole, of course) and it was gone. We theorized that maybe a bass had taken it — we’d caught several bass, mostly on minnows we’d brought along to see if we could catch some crappies, too — and dragged it in. I walked over to my rod and the tip was twitching.
I set the hook and hauled in a bluegill. And Freiburger’s rod, too; apparently the fish (which turned out to be a bluegill, too) that grabbed his bait had pulled in the rod, swum off toward my hole, and tangled around my line. It was the catch of the day — two ‘gills and a fishing pole. Top that.
We decided to call it day on the high note; both of us had more than we really wanted to clean. We gathered up our gear and began the trudge back. Freiburger talked about how many times, as a youngster fishing with his dad, they’d get back to edge of the lake only to find the ice had deteriorated around the shore and they’d have a whole ‘nuther adventure getting off.
So what do you think happened? You guessed it. I went through as we neared the bank — knee deep, my over-sized ice-fishing boots filling up, the fish scattered across the broken ice. Well, I was already wet. I waded back in and collected my bounty, then squished my back to the truck.
So that’s my tale Of Ice and Men. And although it may not be the last for the season, I can just about guarantee it’ll be the last from anywhere very far south of, say, Grayling.