Outdoors: Ice fishing experts help hook the next generation

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Todd Willis tries to help his daughter, Alyssa Willis, 12, of Rochester catch fish Saturday during the Take A Kid Fishing Event at the reservoir at Chester Woods Park. She, and her brother, John Willis, 14, were shut out but her dad said she enjoyed trying.

EYOTA — "See what we're seeing here?" Aaron Stevens said to Alyssa Willis, 12. "That's you," he said as he pointed at a colorful blip on the screen of his Humminbird flasher.

"You want to keep close to the bottom," he told the Rochester girl. "There are fish down there, hugging the bottom."

Alyssa looked at the flashing greens, yellows and reds on the flasher. This was her first look at that kind of fish finder, and her first look at ice fishing.

She said she wanted to learn to ice fish because her brother wanted to go to the Chester Woods Park reservoir to learn. She has fished Mille Lacs in open water, said her dad, Todd Willis; her first fish was a 22-inch walleye.

Alyssa was one of 701 youths and adults who registered Saturday for the Take A Kid Fishing event at the reservoir west of Eyota. Fortunately, she and her brother, John Willis, 14, were sitting next to Aaron Stevens, who owns the Stevens Outdoors guide service. He and others from his service volunteered Saturday to help novices.


His first bit of advice to her father was good for ice and open-water fishing: "Get them the right gear."

Fortunately, that is getting easier. Ice fishing is growing in popularity, and gear quality (and quantity) has more than kept up.

Of course you need an auger. Stevens used a hand auger for several years, but he eventually switched to a power auger because he can drill a lot more holes. That's important, especially with ice as thick as it is this year. If he doesn't catch fish or get bites within a few minutes, he moves to a new hole.

But he was getting ahead of himself. The first things a novice ice angler needs are decent rods, reels and lines, he said.

They don't have to be super-expensive, but they have to be sensitive enough to detect a sunfish nibble. That means forgetting about stiff rods. Reels can be open- or close-faced, or the new ones that look like flyfishing reels.

Quality line is critical, Stevens said. For panfish, don't go any heavier than 3-pound; 2-pound is better. It has to be subtle. He prefers clear line, but others like colored ones that are easier to see on the ice. "This lake is crystal clear," Stevens said. "We try to minimize line so fish can't see it." Once colored lines go deeper, they do tend to disappear, he said.

He prefers spring bobbers, which can be attached to the end of almost any ice rod. They're super sensitive, and when sunnies inhale the lure, the spring bobber will dip down, he told Alyssa and John. When crappies take it, it will pop up, because crappies take bait from below.

The next thing you should consider is a flasher designed for winter. The big three are Vexilar, Humminbird and Marcum. Your chances of catching fish are much greater when you know the fish are below you, he said. They are especially good for crappies that suspend; without a flasher, you have to guess they are there and at what depth.


New flashers are wonderful, but they can complicated and difficult for a beginning to read properly. "Sometimes, it's too much for some people," Stevens said. "The basic stuff is the best place to learn."

The final thing he would consider buying, and one that makes fishing a lot easier, is a portable fish shack, he said. You can also buy heaters and turn nasty weather into comfortable weather inside.

A few final tips when taking a kid ice fishing:

• Bring goodies, such as hot chocolate and food to nibble on when the bite slows.

• Even if you have a shelter, dress the kids warm. The walk back to the truck can be cold.

• Take a break and make snow angels. Let the kids explore.

• Go the Department of Natural Resources Web site and look for its lake finder feature that will tell you how to get to a lake and some basic contour information. Or go to local bait shops, they know what's biting.

• Check Craigslist or other places to buy equipment cheaper.


• Perhaps most critical: when the child says it's time to go, go. Don't force the child to endure being cold or bored or hungry while you crank in fish. That will turn them off.

Reporter John Weiss has covered the outdoors for the Post-Bulletin for more than 37 years. If you have a comment or story idea, call John at 507-285-7749.

To read more, go to this Department of Natural Resources article for children:

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John Haight, 9, of Stewartville shows off the .634-pound bluegill he caught at the reservoir at Chester Woods Park Saturday. About 1,000 fish were caught, nearly all panfish.

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