You either have a cabin or know someone who has a cabin. That’s one way to tell if someone is Minnesotan. My parents bought a place on a lake when I was two and have been going up there ever since. The first six years we had the place, it was one of those Memorial-Day-to-Labor-Day deals–pretty frequent for most Minnesotan cabins. Weather up here is unpredictable and it can be below freezing outside of that window. When my family bought the place, it didn’t have heat or AC–also typical. We tore it down in 1994 and my dad built a new place in the same spot. This time, a cabin with heat. Since then, my parents have been going up there almost every weekend. Even in the winter. It’s close enough to spend an afternoon on the water, then head back home (or to “The Cities” as locals refer to Minneapolis and St. Paul).
My first taste of ice fishing was when I was just a wee one not long after the new cabin was built. I’d fish all summer with my Snoopy rod before graduating to a smaller casting setup when I had the arms for it. Ice fishing rods are much smaller than rods used in the summer when lakes are free of ice. A common length is just under three feet. My casting rod is almost six feet and my fly rod is eight-and-a-half feet for comparison. My dad has been ice fishing for decades and has a nice collection of antique fish sticks. Some ice fishing rods don’t even have reels, especially the older ones.
Sitting on a bucket next to an auger-drilled hole in the ice was never really appealing to me. I’d only last for an hour when I was younger before I got too cold to continue. On many lakes up north, lots of folks have ice houses that stay on the lakes all winter. March 1 is usually the date when permanent ice houses need to be removed because ice can get thin with warmer spring temperatures. These permanent ice houses can have heat, beds to sleep in, electricity and even satellite television. Some of my friends will spend entire weekends in an ice house on Lake Mille Lacs reeling in walleye. My dad and I never really used a fish house, so sitting on buckets it was.
Audra and I saw an opportunity to join my parents at the cabin recently. We both had a Monday off and we decided to make the trip. I was also craving a crappie dinner, which fueled my desire to ice fish. If you ever have the chance to eat crappie, do it. Don’t choose walleye instead, or some other fish–eat the crappie. I’ve had plenty of freshwater and saltwater fish. Crappie is the best to eat. Our overnight trip was then set. A crappie hunt it will be.
These fish like to be active when the day turns to evening. How they can even tell beneath snow-covered ice, I have no idea, but that’s when they are active. You can catch them on minnows, waxxies or jigs. When crappie fishing, set your line so the bait is about one foot above the bottom of the lake and move it frequently enough so the fish know it is there. When crappie bite, they are very soft, unlike other fish that hit quickly. If you’re fishing with a bobber and get a crappie on your line, the bobber will slowly sink. Don’t set the hook too hard or you’ll rip it out of their paper-thin mouths.
My bucket was near two holes. In one hole, I had a minnow with a bobber. In the other, I was jigging a waxxie. Taptap. I got a bite. It didn’t hit very hard. “This is a crappie,” I thought. Yes, fish one of two dozen. I reeled it in without much of a fight. “Probably a little guy,” I told Audra and my dad. When I saw the fish, I was fucking shocked. It was a bass. A largemouth bass. Never in my 26 years of ice fishing had I caught a bass on a waxxie jig. Bass rarely are caught in the annual ice fishing contest held on our lake in February. They just don’t do much in the winter. But this day was different.
The fish was 10-12″. Nothing impressive. It had the red eyes of a rock bass with the stripe and body of a largemouth. And here it was, sluggish. “Too small to keep,” shouted my dad. “It’s gotta be at least 14.” Yep. Back into the hole it went. Farewell, my unusual friend.
The rest of the evening on the ice progressed as usual. Audra caught the most fish, the biggest being an 11″ perch that was too fat for its own good. She reeled in a decent crappie, too, as well as a smaller one. I added another small crappie to the pile. My dad was skunked. Our tip-ups were inactive as well. Four fish isn’t generally enough to clean up for a meal for multiple people, but we decided to do so anyway.
Dinner the following night was fantastic. I picked up some Shore Lunch from the store and mixed in some Hamm’s beer. The perch and crappie were cut into smaller pieces of similar size so they could have similar cook times. We steamed up some green beans as well, cooked rice and washed everything down with a Summit Winter Ale. If you’re going to sit on a bucket on a frozen lake, you might as well come home with something.