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Hardwater Angling In Indiana's 'Ice Zone'

Hardwater Angling In Indiana's 'Ice Zone'

From the cold north of Ft. Wayne all the way to Morocco and beyond, here's where you'll find some of our state's hottest ice-fishing action this season. (January 2009)

There's an old duck hunter's poem that starts with the lines: "The hunters of ducks are a crazy breed, a hole in the muck is all they need." As a duck hunter, I can appreciate those poetic words of wisdom. As an ice-fisherman, I can see how a slight twist to the opening lines of the duck hunter's poem could be just as appropriate for ice-anglers; that is, "a hole in the ice is all they need." Once the ice forms on northern lakes and ponds, that is.

Whether or not we are at the beginning of a major or minor period of climate change -- or even in a period of weather flux at all, is a matter best left to the scientists and best argued, it seems, by politicians. Regardless, things aren't likely to be drastically different in the next several years any more than what they were for the previous several years.

That being the case, I'm safe in saying the lakes and ponds on the northern end of Indiana are going to freeze over sooner each winter than the lakes and ponds in central and southern Indiana. I'm on firm footing when I say popular fishing lakes and ponds in the northern third of Indiana always freeze hard enough for a month or two each winter to provide a layer of ice substantial enough to keep the fishermen on top separated from the soft water under the ice. I'd be on "thin ice" if I were to make any such claims for the central or southern part of Hoosierland. In fact, once a person gets much south of Indianapolis, there are plenty of winters when the ice on popular fishing lakes never freezes adequately to be called "safe" for fishing

Safe and lasting ice in the northern third, what I think of as the "ice zone" of our state, generally comes on in the last half of December and generally lasts into the last part of February. Safe and lasting ice in the middle and southern part of the state is subject to the whims of winter more than dates on a calendar.

So when is ice safe? Unless you're at an indoor ice-skating rink, there is no sure answer. Ice is tricky, and just because a lake or stream is frozen all the way across does not mean the ice is thick enough to be safe for people wanting to fish on the frozen surface.

Here are some general guidelines:


  • Two inches of clear, solid ice is usually safe for one person walking.
  • Four inches of the same kind of ice is usually safe for ice-fishing.
  • Five inches of the same kind of ice is usually safe for snowmobiling.
  • Eight to 12 inches is usually safe for vehicles to be on ice, but driving on ice should be avoided whenever possible. Traveling in a vehicle on ice is commonplace in states to our north. Almost anywhere in Indiana, it's an accident waiting to happen.
  • New ice is usually stronger than old ice. As ice ages, the bond between the crystals weakens, reducing the strength of the ice even if melting has not occurred.
  • Wind speeds influence ice formation. Light winds speed up the formation. Strong winds force water from beneath the ice and can decay the edges of the ice.
  • Snow can insulate ice and keep it strong. It can also insulate it to keep it from freezing. When ice is covered by snow, great precautions need to be taken to determine ice thickness before starting any activity. Snow can also hide cracked, weak and open-water spots.
  • Slush is a danger sign. Slush indicates that ice is no longer freezing from the bottom. Slush also indicates weak or deteriorated ice.
  • Ice conditions always change with time. Temperature, precipitation, wind, amount of sunlight, water depth and water quality are all factors that affect ice strength and thickness.
  • Before you head onto ice, check with a local bait shop, conservation officer or local angler for known areas of thin ice or open water.

An old-timer is a person who can remember when there were no national big-box stores in Indiana. Old-timers can remember when there were shoe stores, clothing stores, grocery stores and other small shops in every town, stores that were quickly driven out of business when national big-box shops came to town. I'm not arguing whether or not this is good or bad, but one of the things I do miss is the town bait shop.

Nearly every town had one; towns located close to popular fishing hotspots may have had two or three anglers' emporiums. They had their own smell, you could be sure they had the exact lures or bait the fish were nailing in area lakes; but most important, they always had the latest information about what was biting, where and how the fish were being caught.

So, before I started writing this article, I searched out a few of the remaining bait shops in the "ice zone" of Indiana and asked the proprietors of them about the best bets for ice-fishermen in their areas.

I talked with Gracie Dickey, owner of Gracie's Hunting and Fishing (1350 Pine Lake Road) in LaPorte. Since her shop is along the shores of Pine Lake, which connects to Stone Lake, most of her customers are fishermen stocking up to fish those two lakes.

According to Gracie, both Pine and Stone are reliable producers of bluegills and perch for those fishermen using bee moths or spikes. Put a minnow on the line and expect either a perch or a crappie to tug on it.

She said when she walks outside she has a pretty good view of the lake; on most days, there are fishermen scattered over much of the lake's surface area. "There just aren't the big concentrations of fishermen in one area with large, empty areas between them like I've noticed on other lakes. I guess everyone has his favorite spot," she said.

"There are bass to be caught in both lakes, but in the winter, anglers who use golden shiners on tip-ups pull in more walleyes and northern pike than bass. I weighed in a 7 1/2-pound walleye last winter," Gracie said. "Hudson Lake is a better wintertime bass destination and it's probably a bit better for crappies than Pine and Stone."

Gracie's is open seven days a week, 7:30 a.m. to 5 p.m. (4 p.m. close on Sundays). Call Gracie or Ron for information at (219) 362-7913.

There's only one place that people who are visiting the Horseshoe Bait and Tackle Shop are heading to fish, but that destination may well be the top panfish lake in the state these days. Several years ago, J.C. Murphey Lake, the keystone feature of Willow Slough Fish and Wildlife Area in Newton County, was drained, refilled and restocked. This was the forth incarnation of Murphey and the result each time was several years of world-class fishing, especially for big bluegills.

These blu

egills come with an attitude and an average size that continues to make fish biologists scratch their heads at the growth rate (twice the state's average). At the same time, these fish are putting permanent smiles on panfishermen.

Rosy Matheny, along with Randle Partein, operates the Horseshoe Bait and Tackle just across the road from the main entrance to the property. She keeps up with ice conditions and where the best bite is occurring.

"There are three main areas to access the lake. Usually, the best fishing starts on the eastern edge of the lake accessible from Birdhouse Point or at the parking lot at Filbert Lane. Later in the season, the western basin of the lake turns on and limits start happening in what local anglers call the 'front' of the lake.

"I sell every sort of ice-fishing jig imaginable and people buy all of them. They'll tip the jigs with bee moths (wax worms) about 95 percent of the time."

The limits Rosy spoke of are special regulations enacted to ensure Murphey Lake continues to be a top producer. Instead of the no-limit-on-bluegills regulations in effect elsewhere in Indiana, anglers on Murphey Lake have a 25-panfish limit. Bluegills, crappies, redears and pumpkinseeds all count as panfish and have to be counted toward the daily bag. There's an 18-inch size limit on bass and enough pike in the lake to make bringing along a tip-up or two and baiting with golden shiners a trophy tactic.

Horseshoe Bait and Tackle is open 7 to 5 every day of the week. Call them at (815) 435-9305 for more information.

Dick Parker has operated his store for years, and it is a stone's throw from the St. Joseph River. A popular spot for steelhead and salmon fishermen, Parker furnishes a full-scale operation for ice-fishermen, as well.

"Many of my ice-fishing customers go north to several lakes just across the Michigan line to fish, but I do a good business supplying bait and tackle for anglers heading for Simmonton and Heaton lakes here in Indiana," Parker said.

"Heaton Lake has a good fish population, but most of the ice-fishing there is for bluegills. Simmonton anglers try for perch or bluegills, and the walleye fishing there can be very good.

"You can't do it every year, but when the bayous off the St. Joseph River freeze well enough to allow them to be ice-fished, watch out! They provide a trophy northern pike fishery unlike anything else in Indiana. How big? Numerous fish are caught in the teens each year, with the biggest I've ever weighed in slamming the scale down to 26.5 pounds."

That's a big pike anywhere!

Parker's is open 6 a.m. to 6 p.m. daily except 6 to 4 on Sundays and is closed on Wednesday. Dick always has the latest fishing reports for the "Joe" and area lakes. Call him at (574) 255-7703. He always has a good supply of golden shiners to tempt those giant pike, as well.

When I called Steve Hill, owner of the Ultimate Warrior Sporting Goods (sells hunting/fishing gear and bait) just off I-69 at exit 150 near Angola and asked him what lakes his customers usually visit, he laughed. "There are over 100 lakes in this county where people ice-fish. There's no telling where they might be heading," he said.

I pinned him down on a few of his favorites, however. "Most of the lakes have some of everything in them. For game fish like walleyes, bass and pike, the larger lakes are probably better. Lake James is particularly good for walleyes and pike. Crooked Lake is near the top for walleyes and bass," he ventured.

"How about panfish?" I asked.

"There are dozens of great panfish lakes," he said. "Hogback Lake is particularly good for crappies, but claiming one is much better than any of the others is a stretch. Just have people stop in or call before heading this way and I'll gladly give them the latest reports."

Sounds like a good strategy to me. Call Steve at (260) 665-5522 and stop by to thank him when you get there -- and buy a little bait.

Ice-fishermen north of Indiana seldom venture out without the comfort of some sort of icehouse to shield them from the cold. Many are large enough to comfortably hold several anglers and have to be towed with 4x4s or snowmobiles.

There are not many of those semi-permanent shelters found on Indiana lakes. What are becoming more popular are collapsible shelters made of plastic, fiberglass and canvass. These shelters can be pulled out on the lake and transformed from a cargo sled to a one- or two-person icehouse in a couple of minutes. Inside, a propane heater or Coleman lantern quickly warms the interior into the comfort zone.

Besides the expense of the initial purchase, the downside to these is the lack of instant mobility and the fact you are not totally outdoors when you are inside one. Some days it's just great being outside, even if it is winter. That is, until you get cold. No matter how good the fish are biting, it's no fun if your feet feel like frozen blocks of ice.

These days, there's little excuse having to "endure" a day outside in all but the worst weather Ol' Man Winter dishes out. Modern lightweight outer garments, water-wicking underwear and space age layers in between can all team up to keep ice-anglers warm as toast.

The secret is to stay dry. Not dry because you don't fall in the lake. Dry from the inside. Don't pile on the winter gear until you get to the lake, and even then don't pile it all on at once. Put on your rubber-bottomed boots to ensure your feet don't get wet on the hike from the car to the fishing spot, but leave most of the insulated apparel packed away.

In Alaskan wilderness survival camps, one of the concepts taught is no one freezes to death while they are walking. Just the amount of effort needed to walk generates body heat that needs to vent away to the atmosphere to prevent overheating and the formation of sweat. And don't suit up until the holes are drilled and you actually start to feel a bit of the chill. Only then should you start adding layers.

The body doesn't adapt well from going from shedding heat mode to conserving heat mode. Painfully cold feet or hands while you are almost sweating from walking out on a lake to your fishing spot is a sign you are overdressed to begin with and your body's heat-regulating mechanism is conflicted.

The key to all of this is layering. Remove layers of clothing when you are traveling or active. Add layers when you stop or begin to feel the chill. Each layer adds another thickness of insulation and the air between each layer conserves heat, as well.

Avoid cotton since it absorbs water like a sponge and requires heat to dry out. Instead, choose a synthetic material, such as polypropylene, as a foundation layer. Moisture

easily passes through this material into the outer layers where it can escape to the atmosphere.

Ice-fishermen may be a crazy breed, but with modern gear, good information and equal parts of luck and determination, an excursion into Indiana's "ice zone" can make a memorable outing.

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