In Michigan, warm weather doesn’t dampen spirits of ice-fishing experts

Norm Smith of Lewiston demonstrates proper jigging technique to students at the Michigan Department of Natural Resources’ Hard Water School near Cadillac. (Michigan DNR photo)

There are two common sayings that anglers accept as gospel: “You learn by doing” and “Weather trumps all.” Of the two, the latter is more powerful.

Or at least that’s the way it was at a recent Hard Water School, the ice-fishing clinic that the Michigan Department of Natural Resources hosts several times a winter at the Carl T. Johnson Hunt and Fish Center at Mitchell State Park, located on the outskirts of Cadillac in Wexford County.

The spring-like weather that descended upon Michigan in mid-February made the ice too iffy to take a group out. Park Interpreter Ed Shaw decided against holding the on-the-ice portion of the school. Shaw guaranteed, however, that if any of the students wanted to return in the future, the staff would be glad to take them out on the lake.

But the cancellation allowed more classwork time, letting the instructors go into more depth and allowing Shaw to explore some additional subjects that would not have otherwise made the agenda.

And the students, while disappointed they didn’t get out on the ice, said the classroom portion of the class was valuable and they were glad they attended.

“I’d say 95 percent of what we’re teaching takes place in the classroom,” Shaw said. “Out on the ice we just fine-tune what you learn in here.”

Classroom sessions are led by a variety of instructors, some of them full-time DNR staffers, some of them part-time seasonal DNR employees, and some of them simply interested civilians who want to pass along what they know.

Take for instance Norm Smith of Lewiston, who is on the pro staff of a major ice-fishing tackle manufacturer. Smith has been putting on seminars for years and joined up with the DNR team a couple of seasons back.

“My goal is to show people what took me many, many years to learn,” said Smith, who was one of several lecturers on the art and science of jigging for panfish through the ice. “Presentation is 80 percent of fishing; if you don’t present the bait the right way, you are not going to catch them.”

Smith spent much of his time discussing the options – type, size and color of line, appropriate rods and reels, even picking the right jigs. A retired auto worker who says he’s been ice-fishing “seriously” for 22 years, Smith said he gets a big kick out of passing along the knowledge he’s gained.

John Zakrajsek, a seasonal interpreter at the Hunt and Fish Center, presented a seminar on tip-ups, mechanical devices that present bait – usually for pike or walleye, but for other game fish as well – that anglers can monitor from a distance, allowing them fish a larger area of the lake than is possible with just rods and reels.

“I’ve fished with tip-ups for some 50 years,” said Zakrajsek, who had about a dozen different devices on display. “I don’t consider myself an expert, just an aficionado.”

Zakrajsek’s hour-long presentation included a rundown on various types of tip-ups as well as the meat and potatoes of using them – where to set them on the lake, how to set them in relationship to the bottom or the cover, and much more.

“My whole game plan here is to shorten the learning curve,” said Zakrajsek, who’d spent much of his day – two days earlier – on the ice, drilling holes and exploring areas where he planned to set tip-ups on Saturday.

“I want to make the whole experience easier,” he said.

The bulk of the clinic was taught by Shaw, who covered a wide swath of topics, including everything from ice safety to appropriate clothing to the latest in gear for the ice angler.

“I love doing these classes,” said Shaw, who schedules a variety of outdoor skill-building clinics throughout the year. “This is how my time is best spent. We’re working with people who are interested, people who will be buying fishing licenses. These classes help create fishermen and hunters. Isn’t that our goal?”

It was certainly the goal of those in attendance, who ranged from youths to the gray-haired, and ranged in experience from neophytes to fairly experienced anglers.

Carl Smith, for instance, drove up from suburban Detroit – where Shaw said the bulk of the students come from – to try to figure out why he was so unsuccessful the few times he tried ice fishing.

“I’ve been ice fishing three times, went out there, didn’t catch anything, and was kind of mystified by it,” he said. “I got out there, cut the hole and said, ‘what do you do?’ I decided if I wanted to do this, I’d better learn about it. “

Smith said the day was well spent.

“It was definitely worth doing,” he said. “Just learning about what you have to pay for the gear – that you don’t have to make a big investment to get the right gear – was well worth it. Two-pound test line? Who knew? That they use such small hooks? I learned a lot.”

Matt and Amanda Taylor, a married couple from Fife Lake, came to the seminar with decidedly different backgrounds. Matt said he “grew up around ice fishing.” Amanda said she had “done very little of it.” But both got something out of the clinic.

Amanda, a full-time Michigan National Guard soldier, said she was passionate about open-water fishing, but had almost no knowledge of ice fishing. She corrected that deficit. And Matt, an engineer, said he knew absolutely nothing about walleye fishing. He found that part of the seminar to be extremely interesting.

The fee for attending the session was $30, which included lunch as well as a gear bag with a rod and simple reel, hand warmers, a small box for baits and a slush scoop for clearing the holes.

Typically, the students are supplied with gear and bait for an afternoon of fishing, where they can work one-on-one with instructors. Then they go to dinner, where they can discuss what happened and have questions answered. Those who stay overnight can meet up with instructors again on Sunday for more time on the ice.

That didn’t happen this year because the students received a graduate seminar in one of the basic rules of fishing: Weather trumps all.

For more information on Hard Water School and other outdoor skill classes, visit www.michigan.gov/outdoorskills. Check out a video on the Carl T. Johnson Hunt and Fish Center.

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