Forest Preserve District of Cook County, Illinois
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Ice Fishing
Nature Bulletin No. 327-A   January 11, 1969
Forest Preserve District of Cook County
Richard B. Ogilvie, President
Roland F. Eisenbeis, Supt. of Conservation

We have a peculiar class of people known as the "Frosty-toed Tribe". As soon as winter comes and the ice permits, they put on all the clothes they own and what they can borrow, pack their automobiles with equipment, and start early in the morning for some inland body of water or a bay along one of the Great Lakes. Usually, two or three go together and they may drive 50 or 100 miles. For hours, even in below zero weather, they huddle around holes cut in the ice, fishing patiently, sustained by hope, hot coffee, and a lot of conversation.

Some days a man may catch nothing. Other days he may bring home all the law allows. Sometimes he fishes vainly until almost sundown and then begins to haul them in, all of the same kind and size, as fast as he can re-bait his hook. In the meantime, other anglers have rushed over, cut holes, and are fishing all around him -- usually in vain, because one of the strange things about ice fishing is that, although you may catch fish out of one hole, you may get nothing out of another only a few feet from it, using the same kind of bait at the same depth. There are a lot of hotly contested theories but nobody knows why. After watching and questioning scores of ice fishermen, some of them noted for their prowess, we find that although each has his own secret techniques and favorite spots, good catches seem more a matter of luck than skill. Although they are sluggish and don't fight, fish caught in winter have the firmest flesh and finest flavor. The biggest thrill comes from the skillet.

Surplus clothing and other army gear, such as flight suits and what was made for Arctic use, are ideal for ice fishing and have helped to make it increasingly popular. In some states, small shanties are permitted and become so numerous on certain lakes that the "ice towns" elect a "mayor" to keep order and settle disputes. Each shanty usually has a small camp stove to keep the bait from freezing and the coffee hot.

The holes in the ice should be round and about a foot in diameter, with the lower edge carefully smoothed. Because an ax leaves a ragged edge and is dangerous, the Fisherman's Encyclopedia recommends a worn- out 2-1/2 inch chisel welded to a 4-foot length of 1-inch pipe having a T-coupling and handle at the top. The preferred tackle is a light hand- line with one hook, a split shot for a sinker, and a light bobber to hold the bait just above the bottom or wherever desired. Fish live in deep water during the winter.

Small live minnows are the standard bait for crappies, which usually congregate in large slow-moving schools, and yellow or ring perch. Perch are frequently caught also by "jiggling", which keeps a small spinner in motion. Crappies and yellow perch make up the bulk of the catch in most localities. In recent years, however, bluegills are being taken on worms, larval wasps from mud dauber' s nests, corn borers and mayfly-larvae. We know some "Frosties" who prefer the insect larvae found in the stalks of giant ragweed, or in galls on goldenrod stalks. Some northern pike, walleyes, and lake trout are taken through the ice, but rarely any bass and never any catfish, carp, or fish of many other kinds.

In regions where the season lasts 100 days or more, ice fishing may make up a fifth of the year's total, with better than average catches per man-day. Resort owners complain that this will hurt their business by removing so many fish that summer fishing will be poor. Instead, it will probably be better because thinning out certain species leaves more food for the game fish.

An ice fisherman needs a strong back and a weak mind.

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