Fishermen on the ice do not necessarily mean the fish are biting. Last week, men were everywhere on the Upper Mississippi – in the backwaters, at river’s edge, even out on the hazardous main channel. I am not being political incorrect when I use the terms “fishermen” and “men” to describe the people who were fishing. I was close enough to fifty or sixty individuals to identify gender, and I saw only one woman among them. Women enjoy fishing, but apparently few will use a vacation day from work to sit on the ice. As far as I could tell, the fishing was marginal, so fishermen were out mostly because Tuesday and Wednesday were the first warm days of 2022. 

In last week week’s blog I wrote that cabin fever is especially severe this winter, and the large number of fishermen on the ice midweek supports this assertion. With little to do and too cold to do it, many longed for the chance to sit on a bucket and jig for perch and bluegills. When the fish are not biting, I tend to go ice fishing no more than once a week. Last week the fishing was poor, and still I went twice in two days.

While I prefer summer fishing to winter fishing, one benefit of fishing in the winter is that the fish taste better. Cold clear water produces firm clean fillets. Some friends tell me the difference is in my head. Others admit winter fillets might be firmer, but speculate the reason is because fish in the summer sometimes die on the stringer and are not as fresh. All I know is that panfish on the river in the summer taste muddy, so much so that all of my fishing in August is catch-and-release.

Every winter season I have to go out a few times before I work out the bugs in my fishing gear and my technique. This year, when I pulled my equipment down from the rafters in the garage, I found a hammer among the poles, auger, and ice skimmer. Unable to remember why I ever used a hammer to ice fish, I returned it to my tool cabinet. This past Tuesday I remembered why I needed it. It is to make a live well. Most ice fishermen toss their catch directly on the ice. I prefer to make a small swimming pool for the fish. This way the fish stay active and alive, and then at the end of the day, I can decide whether to take them home or return them to the river. I create the live well by drilling a series of closely packed saucer-sized holes part way through the ice, then filling the holes with water from the river. The hammer is to bust the narrow ice walls between the individual holes to create a single large pond. Without the hammer I wind up with a half dozen self-contained fish bowls. Each bowl is large enough to hold two panfish, but not large enough for the fish to swim around.

Steven Simpson