When Making Lemonade, Grab a Tip-Up

Tip-up ice fishing for northern pike

At this point, you don’t need anyone to tell you this winter has been an epic bummer. For those who recreate on ice and snow, “Super El Niño” has been a super-sized annoyance. 

For me, it’s taken a special amount of effort not to be a super grouch about it. Ice season is when I do my most and best fishing. I love it dearly. Being able to walk onto most any lake means I can go places that are inaccessible to me in the open water season. Plus, cold temps mean I don’t have to sweat like a pitcher of ice water while I’m doing it.

The thing that stings the most (and is painfully ironic at the same time) is that last year’s ice season was awful because it was too wintry. Namely, too much snow. A couple hopelessly slushy outings meant my ice gear went back into hibernation sooner than usual. 

First attempt: swing and a miss

Look, I hate to complain. It’s no fun listening to other people do it, and fair’s fair. So, while I’d love to decorate this website with pictures of this year’s ice-season conquests, it’s time to acknowledge that won’t happen and move on. What I can offer is to tell you what I did to squeeze something good from this lemon of a winter. 

Monday I took my kids to a nearby lake to see what we could pull up. With recent record-breaking warmth, I went out ahead of them to gauge ice thickness. It was alarmingly thin: about three inches. I was ready to throw in the towel, but my daughter suggested we go to another lake on our way home. After all, there were anglers all over it the day before. 

With around eight inches there, that was a better call. After wasting time at the first lake, however, we didn’t have much time to fish. It was just long enough to know fish were biting, and that I didn’t want the rest of the sucker minnows to die in my garage. Before we even got back to the car, I had a plan.

Second attempt: home run

A morning of tip-up action—complete with donuts and coffee—seemed perfect. An invitation to Darren Amundson of FishDonkey, whom I met at the AGLOW conference in September, was quickly accepted. We met up on that spot yesterday morning. 

From what I understood, Darren hadn’t had much experience with tip-ups, which was great news. There’s nothing better than sparking someone’s love of tip-up fishing, something I’ve done many times before. All you need is a nice day and cooperative fish. 

Turns out, we got both. 

Things started out slow while the sun clawed its way up through the shoreline trees. The first taker was a largemouth of about 15 inches. I worried that the lake’s plentiful bass—not much fun on tip-ups—would plague the morning.

It wasn’t long, however, before northerns came to play. The first two were nearly identical, within half an inch of each other in length. They were also the right size for filleting, and therefore not afforded a return trip below the ice. 

For a good hour or so, we could hardly sit down and get two bites of donuts in a row before another flag would pop up. A midmorning lull gave us the chance to tell stories and finish our coffee. The fish perked up once again in the late morning for another flurry of flag-chasing. 

Quitting time came around noon, when there was just one dead sucker left between the four tip-ups. We’d lost track of how many fish were landed. Around ten, we thought, with three of them being bass and the rest northerns. The longest was a plump 28-incher which went back down to help maintain balance in that heavily-used fishery. 

Post-game analysis

In a year when Mother Nature dealt blow after blow to my plans, I needed such a morning. It was the perfect end to a season with less than five total outings. Even better, bringing home enough for a couple dinners curtailed a three-month longing for fish curry (and soon fried fish). 

Tip-up fishing for northern pike, Minnesota FishDonkey ice fishing

Darren seemed to appreciate the day as much as me. He remarked several times how much fun it all was, and that he felt more competent with tip-up technique than when he walked onto the lake. That was satisfying for us both. 

It didn’t strike me until today that sitting in one place all morning runs counter to an ice fishing culture that emphasizes covering lots of territory in the interest of finding fish. I know several people who probably would not be able to stand it.  

Moreover, in a year when factors that make or break the season are out of my control, you might think the impulse to try and steer my destiny would be irresistible. After all, we are constantly bombarded these days with messages like “go out and claim what’s yours” and “make your own luck.” 

Instead of going down swinging, however, surrendering myself to chance and living in the moment was a better choice. Sitting on a lawn chair, getting to know Darren better, and engaging in primitive fishing techniques brought peace to an ice season typified by impatience and frustration.

In all, it was a great day. You might even say it was super. 


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