A holesome endeavor

If you have to explain it, it is probably because the inquirer is extremely skeptical. Most likely he or she has already determined that you are on the wrong side of sane. It is understandable. Most people prefer to wait out the cold rather than step into it.

Temperatures have dropped, lakes are becoming frozen and ice fishing season has arrived. It is frozen joy to dedicated and determined fishermen and an infinite source of amusement for those who prefer a warm and cozy couch.

Each winter, ice fishermen venture out onto frozen lakes and ponds, an action that seems wildly improper to those who haven’t experienced it. Hidden behind face masks and dragging a sled while slowly ambling across snow covered ice, the ice fisherman boldly accepts the challenge of cold weather in the hopes of fooling fish through a hole in the ice.

The typical image of an ice fisherman is that of a bundled-up guy sitting on an overturned bucket, small fishing rod in hand, wearing a hat with over-sized ear flaps, monstrous mittens and the snow swirling around him. Is it any wonder that many question the sanity of a person who foregoes a warm home for the frozen opportunity to sit on ice over 20 feet of water during a nasty winter day?

The reality is, today’s ice fishermen have the warmest clothing, finest electronics and comfortable ice houses that easily defend against the coldest of winter days. Fishing rods, line, lures, electronics and augers have all improved too. The transition from open water fishing to the frozen pond has never been easier than it is today.

“This is the off-season for me,” said Brad Durick, a Bowbells native who resides in Grand Forks and is a well-known catfish guide on the Red River. “I (guide) four other people all summer long so, when winter comes around, it’s a change of scenery. It is a nice way to get outside and catch a fish in North Dakota. That’s why I do it.”

Durick describes himself as “a kind of geek” when it comes to fishing.

“I’m always trying to figure something out, learn something,” said Durick during a recent ice fishing excursion.

That’s the way it is for many other ice fishermen too. They enjoy getting outdoors, no matter what the elements. Many enjoy the challenge of discovering what depth to fish, whether to use live or artificial bait and how best to present their underwater offerings.

Most ice fishermen choose either a hard-sided permanent ice house or one of many portables on the market today that set up within minutes. A small heater quickly warms the interior. Shirt-sleeve fishing is common. A powerful and sharp auger makes short work of drilling holes even in thick ice.

“Ice fishing is so revolutionary compared to everything else,” said Durick. “Take my electronics. I’m using an FL28 from Vexilar that’s got automatic range on it. It is crystal clear. I’m loving it.”

Good electronics have become a must for many fishermen. Manufacturers have responded with a growing and improving lineup of “ice only” units that allow fishermen to distinguish their presentations from fish lurking nearby. When a fish begins to approach the bait it is shown as a colored bar moving on the electronics. Sometimes the bar will merge with another bar representing the bait. It means a fish has approached the bait, but it doesn’t guarantee a bite.

If the bar on the electronics moves away from the bait, it means the presentation was not to the liking of the fish. The ice fisherman must then decide whether or not to adjust his method of fishing or hope that another fish will prove more willing.

“I immediately noticed yesterday that plastic wasn’t the answer,” said Durick during his second day on the ice Thanksgiving weekend. “Today, with some live bait, success has been a lot better.”

According to the North Dakota Game and Fish Department, participation in ice fishing has been slowly increasing throughout the state. Popular ice fishing destinations include Devils Lake, Lake Audubon and Lake Darling, but ice houses and ice fishermen can be found on just about any water where access is available.

“On average, 25 percent of our annual effort is ice fishing,” said Greg Power, NDG&F fisheries division chief. “The trend is growing slightly. Of people who fish in North Dakota, 40 percent of them ice fished.”

The most sought after species, said Power, was walleye, “but not by much.” The state’s ice fishermen target perch and northern pike, too. Non-residents though, according to Power, are more likely to target perch than other species.

Darkhouse spearfishing is another activity on the ice that continues to grow in popularity. The state’s first spearfishing season was held in the winter of 2001-02 with only a few bodies of water selected for the season. Now more than 200 lakes and rivers are open to darkhouse spearfishing.

Last winter, a record number of 2,582 fishermen registered for darkhouse spearfishing. According to Game and Fish, they accounted for more than 12,000 spearing days. The average pike speared weighed 8.2 pounds. That compares to a low of 4.7 pounds taken by spearfishing during the winter of 2009-10.