It was a typical Sunday. I had three loads of laundry to tend to, a house to clean, and I still needed to ride the dreaded exercise bike.
Since the ice first formed on Houghton Lake, there have been a million excuses why we couldn’t go fishing. The main reason being we were ill prepared.
I know what you're thinking, "That's a lame excuse, Marianne!" but there were so many things yet to do...
The fishing lines had to be rigged with new hooks, the portable shanty needed a hitch fabricated for it, the 2020 stickers needed to be put on the snowmobiles, and our rides needed to be fueled and in good running order before venturing any distance from home. Not to mention finding every bit of our fishing paraphernalia (there's a ton!), and getting it all packed in the sleds.
And why does it seem that the more you have to get done, the longer you put it off?
Well, this day would be different.
We would be going ice fishing... at last!
The forecast predicted 1-3 inches of snow on the day we decided to go. Nothing much compared to the past few winter blizzards that dropped a foot of snow at a time, so the weather wasn’t about to deter our ice fishing plans. The only thing that could get in the way was all the stuff we had to do beforehand.
Like a kid with the promise of going outside to play as soon as the dishes were done, I scurried around the house that morning cleaning away. I got the laundry done, cleaned the bathrooms, vacuumed and mopped the floor, did the dishes, prepared dinner in the crockpot for that evening, made us some lunch, and even hit the exercise bike for a 45 minute ride somewhere in between.
By the time I sat down to lunch, I wondered if I had enough pep left to trek out for ice fishing. Watching the wind kick up snow devils across the frozen ice, I also wondered if I wanted to stay inside where it was warm.
But I had been waiting to go ice fishing since the ice started crusting over in November. Now February, it was time to go catch some Walleye, and let me tell you… fresh fish dinner sounded pretty darn good to me!
As I bustled around the house getting chores done, my husband worked on our fishing excursion prep, and by the time he came in for lunch, I was wondering if he was too tired to go, also.
First he got the snowmobiles prepared. The new registration stickers had been applied, the spark plugs changed, and the tanks fueled up for the trip. Being they were a couple of roadside specials that we picked up the end of season last year, it was with amazement that both machines decided to start and stay running.
Our trusty steads ready for a blast across the ice, he hooked up the supply sled behind one, and the pop up shanty behind the other, then proceeded to load them up with fishing gear.
We loaded up jigging poles and tip-ups, a bucket of fresh minnows, the ice scoopers (big spoons with holes like a colander to scoop slush out of the ice hole), the gaff, a fish measuring device, the DNR fishing rulebook, the new Mr. Buddy Heater with spare fuel cylinder, two tackle boxes filled with fishing tackle, a pair of reading glasses for any intricate hook tying work while out on the lake, flashlights with good batteries, and snowmobile registrations just in case the DNR decided to stop by and say hi.
Inside, I located my fishing license and drivers license, charged up the depth finder/underwater camera and ice auger batteries, and proceeded to don layers of warm clothes such as long johns, shirts, and wool socks.
Afterward, I hauled out the snow pants and snowmobile coats, found my Iceman's (super warm boots), located both pair of gloves and mittens, a hat and snowmobile helmets, and packed a small cooler of snacks and beverages since we planned to be out for 2-4 hours.
But no matter how prepared you think you are, you will have forgotten something. It never fails.
And it's never a subtle thing... remembering. It's a sudden, "Oh Shit!" moment that comes over you, as the memory of past years is abruptly brought to the forefront of your mind.
For example, you would think the year before when you forgot the heavier hat and the neck warmer, that you wouldn’t ever forget them again.
It's when you start your trek across the ice with the freezing wind and snow blowing down the neck of your coat and attempting to freeze your brains while whistling up into your helmet that you recall being uncomfortable like this once before, and you quickly damn your forgetful mind at not remembering something so important as a thicker hat and neck warmers.
Forgotten items aside, if there is one thing you never, ever want to forget, it’s to wear the warmest boots you own.
Cold feet on ice is the most miserable sensation, ever! As your tootsies slowly turn into frozen stubs inside your boots, and it starts to hurt when you wiggle them around to keep the blood flowing, you suddenly become unable to think of anything else. All you know is how cold your feet are, and wonder the whole time just how long it will be before you can get off that freezing ice and go home.
After too long, you begin to wonder if it will be too late by the time you get home... that your toes will be black with frostbite when you peel your boots and socks off. Just wear warm boots and you will be all set!
The first thing the cold ride reminded me was that I needed some warmer clothes.
The second thing the cold ride reminded me was electronic devices DO NOT like the cold.
Using google maps to find our summertime fishing spot, my husband handheld his phone on the ride out, but the cold air quickly sapped the battery to the point of no return.
Having one phone left, we were careful to use it only as necessary, tucking it back into the front of my bibs between uses. Having a working phone is kind of important if there is an emergency, or as a gps if weather conditions cause you to lose sight of shore. So always remember to keep your electronics close to your body for warmth, and all will be good.
Besides being cold, it was a rough ride out!
With all the temperature fluctuations so far this year, the track and wheel ruts from all the snowmobile and side-by-side traffic froze the surface into deep grooves that made for an obnoxiously rough ride that would threaten to rattle your teeth loose.
The pop-up sled holding the minnow bucket bounced along behind me like an old chuck wagon on the trail out west. It was a wonder I didn’t lose the whole lot by the time we found a spot to fish. But as it turned out, our fishing plans had not been foiled yet!
With no gps handy, as mine seemed to be sliding further and further down my pants from the bumpy ride, we eyeballed our desired location and stopped to drill a quick hole for a peek down below.
The new, electric ice auger worked like a champ, drilling through 8 inches of ice without kicking up a noisy, stinking fuss. Locating the depth finder in the snowmobile saddlebag, I carefully lowered the camera down into the ice hole making sure the wrist band on the gadget was secured safely around my wrist.
Pushing the power button, I waited for the screen to light up with my husband hovering over my shoulder... both of us hoping to spy the Walleye weeds we sought.
I turned the unit off and back on again waiting as the screen flickered a bit, but still... nothing.
”Well shit!” I said, wiggling the wires around and switching it on and off a few more times. “I know it works! I tested it before we left.”
Then it dawned on me... it was too cold, just like the phone.
After another minute fiddling with the screen cradled in my warm hands, the camera finally lit up showing us what the bottom looked like.
There wasn’t a weed in sight.
Triangulating our position with the shoreline to the west and the point to the north, we deduced the Walleye hole was somewhere further west. Winding up the depth finder, I stashed the gadget into the top of my bibs (along with Kurt‘s frozen phone), and we moved to another location in hopes of finding the weed bed.
Another hole drilled, and the viewfinder on the underwater camera plopped down to the bottom.
Yeehaw, it appeared we found the fishing hole! The screen showed weeds galore, with little minnows picking at the vegetation.
As I repositioned the pop-up shanty to open over the twin jigging holes freshly cut in the ice, Kurt continued punching holes for the tip-ups so they were spread out in a 50 foot radius around us.
My job was scooping the slush out of the holes, and then scooping out some big minnows for the tip-ups while Kurt baited the hooks and set the lines to depth.
With the tip-ups loaded and ready, we got comfortable in the shanty, rigging our jigging poles with minnow heads, and commenced to fishing after salting the holes (Pop's old fishing trick).
As the wind whistled around us, and the sound of the lake making ice boomed over the frozen abyss, we began the slow and steady jig pattern in hopes of luring a tasty Walleye in to take a bite.
Pull up on the line a foot, drop it back down so the bait smacks the sand, then lift it back to starting position about 6 inches off the bottom.
Wait a minute more before you do it all over again.
"Gully, gully, gully!" Kurt called out to the fish.
An old, charter boat captain out of Muskegon by the name of Bernie Tiff used to call the fish this way. I guess it must've worked, too, because my husband has been calling the fish this way ever since.
After half an hour, the winter storm rolled in.
As the ice pellets picked up their cadence on the plastic tent that sheltered us, we zipped the door closed and lit the Mister Heater until the space inside felt cozy and warm.
Peeking out the windows every few minutes to check for flags signaling a fish was on, it wasn't long before the storm eroded the visibility from seeing the shoreline to just barely making out the orange flags on the tip-ups.
At this point, the ants must have started crawling around in my husband's pants, so he went out to check the bait on the tip-ups and make sure all were alive and well.
In the meantime, I threw the camera back into the jigging hole to see what was going on below.
"Hmmm..." I thought, taking a better look at the weeds. When Kurt got back inside, I showed him the screen. "These aren't Walleye weeds," I said.
He looked at the screen, then looked at me. "Shit! You're right. What do you want to do?"
In all of our experience fishing Houghton Lake, it was rare we ever caught a fish worth keeping in the kind of weeds we were fishing in now.
I looked out the side window of the shanty contemplating the weather. "We aren't going to catch anything here," I said.
"I think we should have moved before the weather hit," he replied. "That's all we need is to get turned around out here.”
With safety first in mind, we decided to cut our first ice fishing adventure short and head in to shore. We would try fishing another day.
After getting home safe and thinking about being out there in the middle of a storm with little to no visibility, it was definitely in our best interest to call it quits rather than take a chance on getting mowed down by a band of snowmobilers, or worse... lost!
In the end, it was a good first trial run.
There are a few extra things I will pack next time out, including a compass. But even if I don't have my lucky fishing pole along for this winter sporting adventure in northern Michigan, I still know there is a tasty Walleye waiting out there for me to catch.
Until then, happy ice fishing season to you, my friends.
May you find the Walleye weeds and catch a big one!
Thanks so much for reading!
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