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Weiss: Learn To Fish Day includes small crowd, big memories

Approximately 25 people showed up last Saturday for a learn-to-fish event, put on by the US Fish and Wildlife Service, just north of Winona.

Eli Nicklay, 9, of Winona, holds up a bluegill he caught at a learn-to-fish event north of Winona.
John Weiss / contributed photo

WINONA — “OK, so there’s your hook going down,” Gary Mrozek told an enthralled Eli Nicklay.

“Okay, he’s coming up to look at it, yes he’s looking at it,” the veteran ice angler told Eli, 9, who eagerly watched as a fish appeared as a marker on Mrozek’s Vexilar fishfinder.

Eli, of Winona, wanted to make sure that fish took his hook so he tried to jig hard.

No, no, said Mrozek of Rollingstone. “Wait now, the water is cold so the fish are kind of slow," he said. “They get lockjaw this time of year.” Just a little motion now and then to get their attention. They’ll bite when you stop jigging.

Eli’s spring bobber twitched. "Reel him in, reel him in," Mrozek said.


"We got him?" Eli said.

"Yeah, reel him in," Mrozek said.

Eli reeled real hard and — voila! — a nice bluegill popped out of the hole in the ice.

“Yeah!” said the youth. He held it up for pictures but as he did, it broke the line and — voila! — it was gone.

But not the memory. That he will keep for a long time. And that is the reason for learn-to-fish events — hooking youths with such memories.

Alas, It was the first — and only — fish caught last Saturday in the learn-to-fish event put on by the US Fish and Wildlife Service at McNally’s, a landing on the backwater of the Mississippi River just north of Winona. But the day was cold and it was mid-January, which is often a time when fish are lethargic. This time of year was chosen for it virtually assures solid ice, and avoids December holidays, said Mary Stefanski, manager of the Winona District of the Upper Mississippi National Wildlife and Fish Refuge.

Predictions of snow and bitter wind chills kept many people from attending a learn-to-fish event a week ago. Still, about a dozen youths showed up with parents and volunteers.
John Weiss / contributed photo

In all, the event on a cold January day attracted 11 adults who were accompanied by 12 children. Sixteen volunteers, three refuge staff and two interns helped drill and keep open holes, slipped on waxes and encouraged youths and adults.

Participation was low, she said, but dire predictions of cold, wind and snow the day before probably kept many at home. Also there were two fishing contests and a hockey tournament that day "so competition was high," she said.


She praised the number of volunteers proving people want to give back and help kids learn about the outdoors. "We'll hope for better weather and maybe fewer competing activities for next year," Stefanski said.

Let’s let a few who were on the ice tell their stories, and Mrozek, in the end, will offer tips for those who want to learn on their own:

• Eli is a third grader at St. Stanislaus Elementary School in Winona and said his classmates were going to hear “that I caught a big fish” on Monday because even on Sunday evening, he said he was still excited. One fish, just about any fish, can do that to a 9-year-old.

He wanted to come out "because I want to ice fish," he said. For him, there was no talk of communing with nature, experiencing the great outdoors — that might come later. For now, it was simply wet a line, catch fish.

After all the excitement of his reeling in the one bluegill, he said "I didn’t even feel it. He (Mrozek) told me it was on there and then I reeled up. And then I started feeling it."

Eli said he would like to go again.

— — —

Gary Mrozek shows Eli Nicklay how to correctly jig ever so lightly when a fish was looking at his lure. In the background, volunteer Judy Shepard looks on.
John Weiss / contributed photo

Mrozek, his mentor, is a retired heavy-equipment operator who loves to fish and hunt ducks on the Mississippi. He’s wanted to help out in the past and this year, it worked out. "It was a pleasure of mine to do so," he said


"I grew up fishing on the river," he said. "I was born a block and half from the Mississippi River, the river has been in my blood all my life. Now people are so disconnected to the outdoors."

They come to the event wanting to learn, he said.

Despite his work, only one fish was caught, but that’s not surprising because of time of the year, he said. Still, he was happy he showed up and hopes that the little bit he was able to work with them was worth it. "I hope they don’t give up," he said.

— — —

Bob Koenig of Winona, who his family calls “Umpy,” helps his great-granddaughter Maci Miller, 6, of St. Charles try her luck.
John Weiss / contributed photo

Nearby, Bob Koenig of Winona, who his family calls "Umpy," was helping his great-granddaughter Maci Miller, 6, of St. Charles try her luck. Her mom, Tara Miller, said her daughter is a very outdoors-oriented girl, enjoying hiking, camping, snowmobiling and four-wheeling. She has fished before, "usually dock fishing … She said she wanted to go ice fishing."

Koenig had no choice but to say yes. "When your great-granddaughter said take me fishing, you don’t have any choice," he said. "I do like fishing, I do it every chance I get." He told Maci that in the Mississippi, you might catch a lot of different species. "You just about name it, they’re in here," he said.

They left before the two hours were up. "It was cold, she got cold pretty quick and discouraged when there wasn’t a bite," mom said. Maci said she’d like to try it again, but on a warmer day, maybe with a high near freezing. She has fished on Lake Winona in open-water time, landing perch and bluegills and once, even a large snapping turtle.

Still, it was a good day. It’s not always going to be warm and besides, it was fun hanging out with Umpy, she said. And Maci said the best part was being able to choose her own hole in the ice.


— — —

Chelsie Kiekbusch of Dover was on the ice with sons Mason, 12, and Marek, 10. Her husband, Matt Kiekbusch was also ice fishing, but he was north of Brainerd, fishing with about 12,000 other anglers in the giant Brainerd Jaycees Ice Fishing Extravaganza. "We thought we would try our luck" at McNally, she said.

Mason said he attended "because I thought it would be good time, catching fish," he said. "I think it would be cool to catch fish for some people."

Chelsie was hoping her husband would win the first-place prize, a pickup truck. Alas, that honor went to a 13-year-old boy from from Hutchinson who reeled in a 9.45-pound walleye.

— — —

Though Mrozek used a Vexilar to help Eli catch that one fish, he said it’s not a necessity. If you fish shallow, you can just about know that the fish will be near the bottom. He said a spring bobber on the tip of the rod really helps and it’s a lot cheaper than a fishfinder.

He has a new in-line reel but said all you need is an old-fashioned jiggle stick that holds line between two dowels or metal pins. Use light line, maybe 2- or 3-pound and buy a few ice-fishing jigs; if you’re going deeper, tungsten jigs are better but quite pricey. Wax worms are all you need for bait.

As for drilling a hole, just go close to where others are fishing, which is a likely spot to begin fishing, and find a hole no one else is using. Check before you take an open hole near others because many anglers will drill several holes and basically troll from hole to hole. If there are none open, virtually every angler will be happy to use a power auger to drill a few for you, he said.


Dress for the cold but Mrozek said there’s another way to warm up a bit: "If you catch a fish, you forget how cold you are, your metabolism speeds up," he said.

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”

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