By John Martino
You have to love Indiana weather. It always keeps you guessing. The ice was in and the anglers were out, for a short time anyway. For many, it has been two years since they’ve heard the unmistakable sound of razor-sharp augers chewing through a lake’s frozen surface. Yes, ice fishing can be a “hole” lot of fun.
“I was beginning to wonder if we were going to have another winter like last year,” said Rob Packard, referring to last winter’s mild weather which did not produce adequately safe ice for those who enjoy one of winter’s favorite pastime. Packard, like many hardwater anglers, was preparing to spend time on the ice with family and friends.
“I can’t wait to get out there,” said Kokomo businessman Kent Kennedy, as he readied his equipment before setting out on his first ice fishing trip since 2011. “I want to get out there as soon as I can because you never know what this crazy weather will do. It could all be gone next week.”
It looks like Kennedy was right. It’s been a see-saw of typical Indiana weather over the past week. But hey, you just have to roll with it.
It was just last week cold weather locked in many of our area’s lakes, ponds and reservoirs, allowing those an opportunity to reap their reward for spending time outdoors. However, it was short lived with extended forecasts calling for above freezing temperatures and rain. For a short time, hardy anglers welcomed frozen surfaces stilled by winter’s firm grasp.
First ice, like anything new, brings out the excitement for those who enjoy this winter tradition. Maybe it’s because it creates another opportunity to enjoy a different outdoor activity or more than likely the thought of sharing time with friends while coaxing tasty panfish from small, round holes. Of course it helps to know panfish, like crappies, bluegills and even walleyes, are notorious for being aggressive feeders during newly formed ice.
Barely one week ago, Darrel Pennycoff and I decided to spend an afternoon trying to catch some of winter’s most delicious offerings. In his earlier years, Pennycoff was one of our area’s most avid fishermen. But like some, he chose to forgo his angling pursuits due to work and family obligations (not to mention his passion for golf).
“Since my family has all gotten older and my eyesight isn’t as good as it used to be, I wanted to get back into fishing,” said the 72-year-old Delco retiree. “It is hard to golf when you can’t see very well.”
Being the first time out, we cautiously stepped onto the slick surface and safely began checking thickness. Pressure cracks zigged and zagged like lightning bolts stretching across the frozen cap of solid water. Once determining the conditions were safe, we slowly made our way to an area I was confident held fish.
Being on the ice again felt like being reacquainted with an old friend — and in some ways it was. With the flick of a switch, the portable electronic flasher whirred to life. The red, green and orange blips that danced across the screen were almost hypnotic when viewed against the fresh blanket of white snow.
“I’ve got one,” Pennycoff soon said, hoisting a 10-inch bluegill from the small hole. “I am so glad I am getting back into this,” he added, while admiring his fish.
As with most fishing endeavors, time went by fast and darkness soon fell, but not before we managed to bring in a nice mess of tasty panfish, while at the same time reaffirming an old friendship.
As with any ice fishing adventure, safety was our top priority. Some believe there is no such thing as safe ice. One reason may be there are many variables when ice is concerned. The standard rule of thumb is do not venture out on anything less than 4 inches thick. But in reality I have seen clear ice 3 inches thick that was much safer than white, honeycombed ice 6 inches deep. Smart anglers never venture out alone and smarter ones will wear life jackets or flotation suits.
Never assume ice thickness is the same throughout the body of water you may be fishing. Ice can be 6 inches thick in one area and treacherous in others. Springs, current, thermal hotspots and even wildlife, like beavers and geese, can keep ice dangerously thin. No equipment can take the place of common sense. When in doubt, don’t go out!
It looks like for now, ice fishing has been put on hold for a little while, yet fishermen are a resourceful bunch and walleyes and crappies are already being taken from open water.
“Personally, I have an inherent fear of the ice, so I don’t ice fish,” said Paul Meriwether, as he reeled in a small crappie from Wildcat Creek. “I am glad it’s gone. Last year fished all year long.”
However, there is still a lot of winter left and some hard water anglers remain optimistic they will again have an opportunity to ply their trade.
“Oh I am sure we’ll get more ice,” said Jeff Peterson, who is keeping his ice fishing equipment in his truck in hopes he will be back out on the frozen surfaces soon. According to the forecast he could be right as cold weather is expected to make its return.
For anyone who does take advantage of ice fishing opportunities, remember two things. First, there are bold ice fishermen and there are old ice fishermen, but there are no bold, old ice fishermen. Second, the only truly safe ice is what’s in your glass!
John Martino is the Tribune’s outdoors columnist. He may be reached by email at firstname.lastname@example.org.