Ice Fishers Love Winter | A Sport that Capitalizes on the Worst of Winter


Dave McCoy is a rugged outdoorsman, but if the wind picks up he brings out his ice shack. Photograph © 2005 by Mark Paul Petrick.

It’s bitterly cold outside, just the kind of weather that puts Dave McCoy in a sunny mood. "It’s like my happiest time when it’s freezing cold out," says McCoy, a passionate ice fisherman, one of an estimated 60,000 in Iowa, according to DNR information specialist Joe Wilkinson. As temperatures plummet, these cold-inured sportsmen (and a few women) jump at the chance to leave their comfortably heated homes and sit on frozen bodies of water for hours on end.

One afternoon in December, after a whole week of ice-favorable temperatures, McCoy excitedly phones to invite me out for his first ice fishing foray of the season. We meet on the snowy banks of a partially frozen pond, where geese swimming on the unfrozen side eye us nervously. With gear in tow, McCoy gamely leads the way.

Three steps onto the ice and an ominous crack thunders across the surface. "Don’t panic," he says cheerfully, noticing that I am. "It’s just the ice shifting and settling. It’s a different feeling when it’s about to crack underneath you." McCoy’s never fallen in, so we trudge on, trusting his ice savvy but keeping a ten-foot distance between us just to be safe.

McCoy carries an ice augur, a five-gallon bucket that holds his equipment, and a smaller bucket with bait: tiny grubs lodged in dried flower stalks. I spot a can of Coke in his backpack–ice cold, no doubt–thinking that a thermos of hot coffee would be more the ticket for an outing like this. The fishing hasn’t even begun and I’m feeling a chill, lacking Dave’s arctic-proof gear: a puffy down coat over a sweatshirt, insulated waterproof bibs, and really thick boots with hefty soles.

Picking up his ice augur, McCoy deftly drills a six-inch-wide hole in the ice, then smooths the rough edges. "You don’t want to cut your line," he says.

He takes his gloves off to extract a small grub from one of the dried stalks (harvested by fishing buddy Jim Scherman) and baits the hook. "I’m sweating," he says, undeterred by sharp southeast winds. Seeing me shiver, he kindly loans me a knit hat and a pair of nifty handwarmers.

The Thrill of the Hunt

Now the real fun begins. Dropping a baited line down the hole, McCoy sets his fish monitor on the ice. This popular sonar device, which just about everyone calls a Vexilar (after the company that makes most of them), shows how deep the line goes, where the bait is, and any approaching fish. We look at the monitor and immediately red pixilated blips light up the screen, showing exactly what’s going on in the frigid waters below. If no fish show up on the monitor, it’s easy to try again in another spot. "Once you get them," McCoy says of his Vexilar, "they’re addictive."

All Those Toys

Talk to ice fisherman and you’ll always end up talking about equipment. While you can get started in the sport investing as little as $25, most can’t resist the attraction of high-tech tools and new gadgets. "Between my youth and now, the technology has changed so much that it’s just fascinating," says Jim Scherman, the owner of Martin’s Pharmacy in Fairfield. "I mean, we went out with a stick with a nail on the end of it. Now there’s neat little graphite rods and super-light reels and we’ve got depth finders showing the fish approaching the bait."

Sure enough, electronic fish finders like Vexilars have soared in popularity and have helped transform the sport, according to Mark Bentley, manager of the fishing department at Scheels All Sports in Coralville. "The onset of electronic equipment like Vexilar has just skyrocketted the popularity of ice fishing," he says. "It makes it into more of a game, almost like a Fear Factor, or a video game."

Warm weather fishermen sometimes use depth finders, but ice anglers using Vexilars have greater control over bait and fish. "It’s so neat now that you have the flasher units," says Scherman. "You can tell there’s a fish there and you can put your little tiny bait on its nose–boom, you’ve got him! It’s really fascinating."

While most ice fishers are gadget crazy, there are a few exceptions. Jeanne Meyer, one of the handful of women who like ice fishing, prefers to keep it simple. Eschewing fish monitors, she says, "After you fish for so many years you can tell on certain ponds where the fish will be." Mary Hollingsworth, who fishes year-round, embraces the low-tech approach, too. She’s tried her hand at ice angling a few times with her brother, Greg Fritz. "We seem to be very lucky–we just go out and say, ‘let’s try here,’ " she says, describing a recent winter afternoon during which they netted 30 bluegill.

The Lure of the Great Outdoors

Bluegill, bass, walleye, and crappies are generally what fisherman catch in this area. And all agree that fish caught in the winter taste markedly better than those hooked in the warm months. They taste fresher and "less fishy," according to Hollingsworth.

But ice fishing isn’t all about catching fish. Dave McCoy, whose UPS delivery route in Fairfield keeps him running all day long, jumps at the chance to get outdoors and onto the stillness of a frozen lake. "I never get bored," he says. "It’s peaceful and there’s not many days when you’re not doing stuff or seeing fish."

Jim Scherman, who grew up fishing in North Dakota, concurs. "You can have a whole lake to yourself," he says. "It’s just you and the clear sky and the geese flying over."

For Mark Greiner, who farms in Jefferson County, fishing’s a great breather between winter chores. "I’m a very hyper person," he says, "and it’s hard to believe that I can sit still that long, but it’s one thing that just totally relaxes me."

Indeed, Greiner goes to unusual lengths to fish when warmer temperatures make the ice uncertain: he dons a harness and ties it to his car, which he parks safely on the banks. "Any time the ice is questionable, I put a harness on. I figure it’s easier to retrieve the body," he says dryly.

And while most fishermen enjoy time alone, it’s not always about solitude. Dave McCoy, like most anglers, has fishing friends all over Iowa, and some in Minnesota, too. "The guys I go with in Ottumwa, we all have the same huts," he says. "They open on both sides. So we open the inside doors and make it into one big party room."

In years past, McCoy and Scherman have joined the largest gathering of ice fishermen in the world: the annual $150,000 Ice Fishing Extravanganza in Brainerd, Minnesota. As many as 13,000 ice fishing fanatics compete for prizes (Scherman won a four-wheeler one year) in temperatures commonly as low as 20 below zero.

Keeping the Chill at Bay

As hardy as most ice anglers appear to be, no one wants to get cold. Beyond bundling up in layers and wearing special ice boots, most never head out without their portable ice huts. Heaters are standard equipment, too, making it warm enough to fish in a T-shirt.

Embracing the Cold

In mid-January I run into McCoy as he dashes from his truck to make a delivery. He’s just had a phenomenal fishing weekend, and his eyes sparkle at the memory of it: "Three hours of fishing, three hours of cleaning fish," he says. His parents were in town, so his wife, Tere, cooked the fillets he brought home and they all enjoyed a feast together.

"I don’t like fish," he admits, "but there are so many people that want them." If he doesn’t throw them back, he distributes his catch to grateful family and friends.

Like many other ice fishermen, McCoy’s found that this rugged sport gets him through the long winter, when there’s not much else to do outdoors. "When I go fishing," he says, "that’s my day. I’m away from everything. I can stay out from sunup to sundown. I actually have a hard time coming back."

See the index for more articles on sports and recreation in Iowa.