As sure as the sun comes up in the east and the snow always drifts right in middle of the driveway, fishermen have a rock-solid warranty from Mother Nature the white bass will run up the rivers in late spring, the walleye will be concentrated in western Lake Erie in early summer, and the lakes of the Irish Hills will surrender their panfish to the patient and persistent anglers.
But when it comes to ice fishing, all bets are off, and she never shows her hand prematurely.
One year, she teases us with flashes of cold weather, only to leave us standing alone at the altar, ice auger in hand and shanty in tow, as temperature bounces and fits of wind destroy the ice before we get to drill that first hole.
Another time, the ice comes and goes maybe a half dozen times, so there is little continuity, making it difficult to plan ahead and always leaving us with this feeling that the ice we do get is tenuous, at best. And on a few occasions, winter slams in and sits on the lake, forming a magnificent platform that fishermen can utilize for at least a couple of months.
In just the past five winters we have had two that provided good ice fishing — 2014 and 2015 — and three that served up little or no fishable ice — 2013, 2016, and 2017. That freakish and unpredictable pattern makes it tough on retailers who are trying to stock their stores with goods that will move, not something that will collect dust in the warehouse for a couple of years, waiting on the fickle lady of nature.
So when the temperatures fell off a cliff just before Christmas and stayed in the deep freeze for two weeks, Lake Erie went from virtually no ice to almost 90 percent ice coverage — and the rush to buy ice-fishing gear was on. And just like the bread shelf and the milk case at the grocery store as a snowstorm approaches, the ice gear gets whacked hard when fishable ice appears.
“When that cold spell hit in that week between Christmas and New Year’s, we basically went from a full warehouse of gear to being pretty much wiped out,” said Dustin McKinnis, the Hunting and Fishing Manager at Bass Pro Shops who oversees the fishing department. “The ice-fishing stuff was really moving.”
Late last week, Bass Pro had a supply of power augers and some portable shanties, but most of its ice-rod display was empty, and there were a lot of blank spaces on its long wall display of ice-fishing lures.
“With most of the vendors, when we place an order they only make ‘X’ number of items to fill that order,” McKinnis said. “We try to order heavy, but if you order too many of these things, you’ll get stuck with them all year long.”
Bass Pro had its ice-fishing gear on display well before the latest polar vortex blasted its way into the Midwest in late December, but the product was not moving.
“We put this stuff out in mid-October, and it just sat there,” McKinnis said, as anglers waited to see what the coming winter would offer. “And then in that one week, it seemed like everyone decided to buy at the same time.”
He said Bass Pro is working with its vendors to set up direct shipment of some additional ice-fishing gear. “What is coming is not a full assortment of shanties and all, but we’ll have enough to get people out on the ice.”
At Maumee-based tackle supplier Netcraft, owner Bob Barnhart said he elected to stock on the heavy side this year, anticipating a decent ice-fishing season, and that hunch has paid off.
“It is an absolute roll of the dice, trying to gauge what kind of winter we’ll have and how much ice-fishing equipment to stock, but it’s certainly part of doing business in this area,” Barnhart said.
“You hedge your bets, and this year we bet right because we had plenty of gear staged and ready, so we’re sitting pretty good right now.”
Netcraft stocks the full complement of ice fishing gear, except for shanties.
“Ice fishing has its own set of ultra-specialized equipment, from the specialty rods to the tiny lures, locators, the power augers and hand augers, and a lot more,” Barnhart said. “And as soon as it stayed really cold for a while, the chase was on with guys looking to stock up on all of those things.”
Barnhart said a couple of warm days last week combined with some potent northeast winds can scramble the situation, but he feels optimistic about the long-term viability of the ice-fishing season on Lake Erie.
“Things aren’t in full swing yet, but once that south shore refreezes and locks in around Crane Creek, and guys have access to the lake, I think the pursuit of ice-fishing tackle will be on once again,” he said. “There’s no reason to panic, because history tells us that the best ice fishing usually comes in February.”
EXTREME CAUTION: Anyone considering venturing on the Lake Erie ice should consult with sources on the islands or along the lakeshore, as well as the local ice-fishing guides. Veteran ice angler John Hageman reported during the weekend a strong northwest wind had produced sections of open water in areas that were seeing ice fishing just days earlier. Lake Erie’s ice can be a rapidly changing dynamic.
FISH FRY: The Ottawa Lake Sportsmen’s Club is hosting six Friday fish-fry nights startin this Friday, followed by events on Feb. 2, Feb. 16, March 2, March 16, and March 30. The menu for these events includes all-you-can-eat Alaskan Pollock, chicken fingers, fried chicken, burgers, and shrimp baskets. Food is served from 5 to 8 p.m. at the club, located at 9480 Memorial Hwy. (Old 223) in Ottawa Lake.
WILD GAME DINNER: The Wolf Creek Sportsman’s Association will conduct its annual wild game dinner Feb. 17 at St. Clement Hall. The doors will open at 5:30 p.m. with dinner served at 6 p.m. There will be summer sausage and turtle soup appetizers, with venison, goose, rabbit, smoked turkey, and fried perch among the many entrees. There also will be a variety of desserts, plus free draft beer with the ticket purchase. Tickets are available for a $25 donation by calling Rick Ferguson at 419-836-5264.
Contact Blade outdoors editor Matt Markey at: email@example.com, or 419-724-6068.
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