This article by Ray Spitzenberger first appeared in IMAGES for November 14, 2019, East Bernard Express, East Bernard, Texas.
Some years ago, my son-in-law and I had a bay boat and we went fishing quite often in Matagorda Bay. Having grown up in Dime Box and having fished only in Lee County creeks and ponds, I had to learn totally new fishing techniques. Bay fishing was both fun and hard work, and we did catch a fair amount of fish in those years, mainly when the weather was warm, which is most of the year in Texas. I developed a special fondness for flounder fishing, because I loved to eat them so much, and because they were easier to catch than red snapper, etc. Nothing my daddy had taught me about fishing for perch and catfish in Dime Box creeks and ponds helped me in floundering.
The recent cold front, which blew in yesterday and has kept the temperatures no higher than 45 degrees today, plus the news accounts of snow and ice farther north of us made me think of winter in Michigan in the 1970’s when my wife and I were there for graduate school studies. It occurred to me that, though I would walk down to a creek (that’s what I called it) near the campus in midwinter and walk on the frozen-hard water, I never went ice fishing. Neither did my fellow students in the graduate program in which we were all enrolled; we were too busy having seminars, writing papers, taking field trips, and spending time in the University of Michigan library. I learned a lot about slipping on icy sidewalks, spinning your tires in the snow, and scraping your windshield, but never about ice fishing.
Most of my fellow graduate students, like me, were married, and we were pinched for money, so catching our own fish to eat would have been a great thing. Most of the students living in “married housing” like we did grew their own zucchini and other vegetables in little makeshift gardens in front of the apartment units. Just didn’t have time for the ice fishing.
Even great fishermen in Texas haven’t got a clue as to how you go about ice fishing, but it’s common knowledge in places like Ann Arbor, and really, quite easy. The first thing to know, of course, is whether the ice is solid enough to walk on. I was told that ice six inches deep was safe, and when ten inches, you can drive a car on it. But, if it’s only two inches, you can’t even walk on it. Also I learned that you don’t need power tools to cut through the ice, that a sharp ice chisel will work quite well if you know to use it right, — in fact, you can cut through six inches in a minute. It’s also better to ice-fish in smaller bodies of water.
In winter, the fish apparently live at the bottom of the creek or lake, a few species even burying themselves in the mud, — kind of like flounder in warm water? So once you’ve got your hole chiseled out in the ice, what do you use to temp the semi-dormant fish to swallow your hook? Ice fishermen seem to prefer mealworms as bait (the mealworm is actually a beetle rather than a worm, as the worm-stage morphs into a “darkling beetle”). We have mealworms in Texas, but Texas fishermen prefer grubs. Obviously, you don’t use it after it’s a beetle.
With its over 11.000 lakes, Michigan is an ideal place to go ice fishing, winter fishermen catching bluegill, perch, walleye, northern pike, trout, and sunfish, some of the same fish you can catch in the summer. On the plus side for ice fishing is the fact these fish are easier to catch in the icy water because the cold slows down their movements. Bluegill seems to be the most sought after fish, as it is probably the tastiest of the panfish and delicious fried.
Even though more cold weather to come is forecast for us, and even if we do get a hard freeze at some point, I would not advise ice fishing in our area. Even in Dime Box (a little farther north) in frigid winters in the 1940’s, the ice on the stock pond near our house was rather thin. Although new ice is stronger than old ice, my brother and I found that even a small pebble would break through the thin sheet. And by midday, it will be melted anyway.
Ray Spitzenberger is a retired teacher and pastor, and author of the book, It Must Be the Noodles.