I'll never forget the very first fish that I ever caught through the ice. It was back in the late 1970s, when winters were brutal in the Mid-Atlantic. I was camped out on small lake and was jigging a spoon over a sunken tree in about 12 feet of water. As my rod tip snapped downward I set the hook with great anticipation as to what might be on the other end. Cautiously I played the fish up through the darkness of the water and winter ice. It seemed endless, but probably only took seconds. Finally, the fish emerged! It wasn't a bluegill or rotund crappie or even the standard issue yellow perch so popular among the ice crowd … it was a largemouth bass!
The fish wasn't big, maybe a pound and a half. But as my first fish through the frozen crust, I felt as if I had conquered the angling world! A measure of success, an achievement, a rite of passage…that sort of stuff. Yes, I was the only one jumping up and down and acting like an idiot. But over the years, I found that the catching of bass through the ice was not all that big of a deal. As a matter of fact, the largest northern strain largemouth bass ever recorded, an incredible 15-pound fish, was caught through the ice many years ago in a small lake in Massachusetts. Over time, and time again, bass showed up in our mid winter catches.
It should come as no surprise that bass are vulnerable to ice fishing. They have to feed throughout the winter and move about slowly like all the other gamefish species. They tend to show a particular fondness for areas that maintain green weeds…weeds that are still alive despite being under ice cover. These also happen to be outstanding areas for panfish species and pike and pickerel as well. They can also hole-up in some of the deeper pockets and areas of a given lake, making the occasional venture to shallow cover in search of a meal. A number of years ago my good friends Ron and Debra Munshower iced impressive bass from Rocky Gap State Park that went 6 ½ and 8 pounds using tiny panfish gear. I think Debra's eight pounder remains the 'family record'.
I got to revisit this ice- fishing scenario last winter on the heels of record cold that we had. I hit a local lake that had 5 inches of clear, hard ice and test drilled a number of holes for safety. You must have 4 inches of dark, clear ice to hold the weight of a small group of anglers. I fish on nothing less. The problem with the Mason Dixon area winters is that 'safe ice' only forms for a very brief time period, or not at all. The previous year, I got but one day on the ice before warmer weather softened it up. This year, it is likely the same song. I took advantage of this narrow window of opportunity.
Jigging a 1/10-ounce Kastmaster spoon tipped with maggots, my quarry was actually big bluegills. Although I had iced some gills here in past seasons, at least half of my catch was always bass. Not surprising, given that the lake was quite shallow, and I was jigging 3 feet deep in 4 feet of water. The first strike was a sharp snap on my wire strike indicator and I set the hook. Ahhh…nice fish! It ran the drag a bit and I had to baby her somewhat, but soon a very nice 17 ½ inch bass came into view. A couple pics and I'm back down the hole, jigging again with slow twitches a foot off the bottom.
Bam! The wire snaps down again and I set the hook. This time the fish doesn't move and I start to wonder about my 2-pound test and knots and things like that. The drag is running, a lot, and I am forced to plunge my tiny micro-sized rod down into the hole as the fish shoots way to the side. A long, give-and-take battle ensues, and I finally catch a view of a very fine fish emerging in the inky darkness of that black hole in the ice. I can also see that this fish is just barely hooked at the top of the lip with those tiny treble hooks. The fish is not ready, wants to fight more. I just want to get my hands on her, but the 6-inch diameter hole is going to be crowded. Finally, the fish calms down enough where I can ease it up and pin her against the side of the hole and then grab the fish by the jaw. My left hand is icy cold and soaking wet, but I don't care. The fish is 19-inches.
Well, as far as I'm concerned, I didn't have to catch another fish the rest of the day. And I didn't! But those back-to-back bass through the ice made for a great memory. And that's how it is ice fishing locally…very few and numbered opportunities to get out on 'safe' ice of 4 inches or more. By the time you read this our ice conditions may well be too thin and dangerous. Always check ice thickness with a friend and use caution. Likely, we may have to travel north to find better, safer conditions. But when you do get on the hardwater don't be surprised if a big largemouth bass shows up to sweeten the day. Nice!Jim Gronaw is a freelance outdoor writer from Westminster. His column appears in the Advocate on the first and third Wednesday of the month.