Weiss: Ice is still good, camaraderie better at Wabasha Marina
Outdoors columnist John Weiss says part of the ambiance of late-season ice fishing is no hurry, no worry. Pick a spot, drill a hole, sit down, join the conversation or be stick to yourself.
WABASHA — Their backs to the wind, sitting on two summer folding chairs on ice in the Mississippi Parkside Marina Wednesday morning were Jared Sagdalen and his dad, Jeff Sagdalen, waiting for flags of tip-ups, used to fish northerns, to suddenly snap up.
His back to the wind, sitting on the marina’s barge, was Mark Johnson, waiting for more perch and the arrival of three friends.
I dragged an old plastic sled with my gear onto the ice and set up, my back to the wind, wondering if some new Liquid Willowcat plastic baits would work for catching perch.
That’s part of the comfortable ambiance of such days of ice fishing — no hurry, no worry, no fearing boats would bang during open water. No, pick a spot, drill a hole or two and sit down, join the conversation or be monkishly reserved.
I didn’t know what to expect for fish. Others have said we usually get morning or evening bites. And I wasn’t sure about ice because we’ve had rain and some warmth.
Mike Pierce of nearby River Valley Outfitters assured me marina ice would be good. In other places, ice “is getting sketchy,” he said. He was right, marina ice was about 18 inches thick; other anglers told me getting onto ice at Finger Lakes south of Wabasha was really bad, so they came to the marina.
When ice starts getting sketchy, it signals the last gasp of ice fishing but that time is often the best because water is warming and winter-hungry fish get more active. Pierce said it’s been a good winter, especially with sauger and walleye on Lake Pepin, but that bite is nearly done because the first towboats have broken up the lake’s ice.
For Jeff of Chester and his son, Jared, of Plainview, it was their first time on the marina ice this year and even that wasn’t perfect timing. “We’re a little bit early,” said Jeff. It’s better when the the ice along shore gets pitted and weak from the sun and rising water. That signals the real burst of great late ice fishing for northerns that will be starting to spawn. Also, sunshine helps northerns see or move more, he believes. Sunshine was meager and wilting Wednesday but hey, “we thought we would come and try it,” he said. You never know for sure.
They didn’t have to wait long to know; one of their flags snapped up into the wind that was becoming vexing. They rushed over and dad saw the reel was spinning — fish on! He set the hook, slowly pulling it in. It was a fat 26-inch fish, perfect for a friend to pickle and for them to enjoy the feast. “They’re really sweet in wine sauce,” Jeff said.
He later came over and we talked about this and that, you know, how we’re doing, what we’re doing, about our back injuries (you talk with almost anyone about back woes). Soon he rushed over to help his son land a 22.5-inch northern.
As we chatted, I had a hard hit on my plastic. I had been trying to fish on the bottom, which is standard technique, but realized my bait had been higher. I dropped it maybe a foot below the ice and boom, boom, boom, three smallish perch hit. All went back — a titch too small. Just as suddenly, nothing — I had hit a roving school perfectly, but they roamed past.
Mark, using fathead minnows, caught a few more perch to add to three on the ice. “I come here almost every day, on average four to five times a week,” said the Wabasha man. He’s not sure how many more times he’ll be here; it depends on the notoriously finicky late ice. He used the new Innovative Tip-Downs that look strange with their tall poles topped by a simple one-guide balanced fishing rod. “They’re deadly,” he said. “There is no resistance on the minnow below. They like to push it around, they don’t feel the resistance.”
So far, “I would say it’s a pretty good day like right now,” he said as his rod dipped but he missed the fish. Oddly, Tuesday was sunny but fishing was defunct, he said. That’s one of the great fishing mysteries. “Nothing is guaranteed, right?” he said.
Soon, his friends arrived — Ray Weis of rural Chatfield; his son, Jason Weis of rural Stewartville; and his son-in-law, Pete Stavlund of Chatfield.
The four have fished and hunted together many times; Mark and Pete do a comic schtick, joking and jabbing. It made the fishless time pass.
Pete’s Tip-Down bowed. He felt the line. He realized it was big and that he was fishing 2-pound line. Easy does it. He eased the fish out of the water. It was a northern in the 18-inch range.
He gave the fish to Jason and a zinger for Mark: “You might have more but I have the biggest.” Mark just smiled.
Wabasha’s noon whistle sang out — the Sagdalens packed it up and packed it in.
Every now and then, Mark or Jared would add another perch. “They’re biting pretty good but uneven,” Mark said. Maybe the snow-rain-cold front expected for Thursday had something to do with it. Pete would catch one or at least see his rod dip. “It seems like the smaller minnows are working better,” he said.
He tried a small nightcrawler and was rewarded when the rod bowed. Again he felt weight. Again, he knew his 2-pound line was fragile. Again he landed a northern, this one larger, this one full of eggs, this one released.
“Boy, what a day,” Mark said. “You got me beat Pete.”
I had a few more bites but was down to my last cookie. I decided I would have to catch a fish to earn it or wait until leaving the ice a bit before 2 p.m.
I left the ice to head home as Mark, Ray, Jared and Pete stayed on, looking for more fish. A few more anglers came onto the ice, maybe hoping for the evening bite.
I ate the cookie on the way home.
John Weiss has written and reported about Outdoors topics for the Post Bulletin for more than 45 years. He is the author of the book "Backroads: The Best of the Best by Post-Bulletin Columnist John Weiss”