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An ice fishing fling
This 11 1/4 inch bluegill is my new personal best on the ice. I'm happy! (Jim Gronaw photo)

You know, I guess it just makes sense that our off-again, on-again winter would continue in 2016.

Last year, we had the coldest February on record in the Mid-Atlantic and our local waters iced up with more than a foot of solid ice, making it plenty safe for ice fishing. The year previous was almost as cold with similar results. But this cold-to-warm-to-cold pattern this winter has made it discouraging for those who ply the hard waters.

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And, if predictions come true, by the time you read this we will be huddled under some very cold conditions yet again.

Just before the blizzard, we had a week of nighttime lows in the 10- to 14-degree range which was enough to put 4-5 inches of clear, hard "safe ice" on some Mason Dixon area ponds. Four inches is considered the minimum for safe foot travel for ice fishing and that does not include softer white or slushy "snow ice" that does not have near the strength of the clear, black ice.

With that, I took advantage of a very narrow window of safe ice conditions and did a little bit of ice fishing at a local pond.

What I found was exactly that — 4-5 inches of solid ice with about six inches of snow ice on top and temperatures below freezing so that the conditions were not deteriorating during my few trips. I also choose to fish during the warmest part of the day from 12 noon until around 4 p.m. Rigging up a few short 28-inch jigging rods with 2- and 4-pound test, I grabbed a small box of spoons and tungsten ice jigs along with some bait and gave it a go.

My first afternoon on the ice was nothing spectacular. After drilling a number of holes with my 7-inch auger and asserting safe ice conditions, I began jigging for my intended quarry ... bluegills.

Panfish species of all types can be caught readily through the ice and are high on the list among winter anglers throughout the "ice belt" of Americas' Upper Midwest and Great Lakes regions. I employed a 1/12th ounce Kast Master spoon tipped with a few wax worms and went from one hole to the next, slowly jigging the spoon just off the bottom.

This was a very shallow pond and most of my presentations were in 3-5 feet of water, so quiet foot travel would also be essential to keep from spooking anything below.

We always use a wire extension from our rod tips that serve as a sensitive indicator for light-striking fish in the winter. After over an hour of tedious jigging with riviting eyes trained at the rod tip, I finally got a slight bump and sent the hook. To my surprise I hooked a foot-long largemouth bass that quickly came up through the hole from the shallow depths. I was pleased, but not much so. I did indeed meet with success on my first ice outing in a few years, but the diminutive bass would have to go back.

And that was the highlight of the day. No more strikes or even a hint of a bite.

The next day was calmer and slightly warmer, a good thing. I decided to drill a series of a half-dozen holes just out and beyond from the area fished the day before. Although only a few yards away, it proved to be a good move with much improved results. The water was the same depths at just 4-5 feet. However, I occasionally snagged some remnant green weeds in most of the newer holes, and that was key to catching the fish. The first five fish I caught were again largemouth bass, with a pair of them going 15 inches. But along the way I managed a couple of bluegills, my target specie.

One of them was memorable. I was gently working the spoon with a "lift-drop" motion when the wire snapped down. As I set the hook I was sure I was into a quality bass of three pounds or more.

Two winters ago I had iced a mammoth 22-inch bass from this same water, so I knew larger game could be had. I played the fish cautiously on the two-pound test. But to my surprise when I saw the fish come into view just below the ice it was a very large bluegill. I got a little nervous when I saw the fish and wondered if my 7-inch diameter auger would accommodate the fish's girth. It did, but it was a little close.

With the exuberance of an excited child, I eased the double-wide panfish up from the inky depths.

This fish would be my new "personal best" for bluegills on ice. At 11¼ inches long, it bested an 11-incher I had pulled through the crust at Deep Creek Lake nearly 10 years ago. I quickly took some photos of the fish then sent her back down the hatch to make some babies this spring and grow even bigger. I could have easily gone home right then, but I stuck it out for another half-hour and iced a few fore fish. The days total was 7 bass and a pair of bluegills. I was pleased with that.

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Two days later, on what will likely prove to be my final effort of ice fishing in 2016, I caught a pair of bluegills and nothing more. The wind picked up, I got cold so I packed it in. Knowing that a warming trend was coming with heavy rains, it seemed obvious that my ice fishing "fling" had come to a halt, almost as soon as it had started. I doubt seriously if any safe ice conditions currently exist along the Mason Dixon and strongly urge any adventuresome anglers to seek thicker ice in waters further to the north into central or northern Pennsylvania.

But for a few evenings, a few hours, I was able to get just a taste of the trials of the hard water fisherman.

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