STODDARD, Wis. (MCT) - Frank Ouimet was poised on his bucket, intently watching his quivering rod tip, when a visitor from the east barged onto the scene.
"Did you remember your sunglasses?" said Ouimet, squinting into the orange glow. "Easy to forget this time of year."
The beach under our feet is powdery and white. But thanks to several inches of insulated clothing from head to toe, we won't be needing any SPF 50.
As for the sun, well, we can turn our backs to it.
Ouimet doesn't get the chance.
His rod dips and he lifts to the weight of a hefty fish. After several pirouettes, the fish_a 9-inch bluegill_is pulled through 20 inches of ice and into the gathering light.
From my vantage, the big-shouldered bluegill completely blocks the sun.
Now that's a welcome to the new day right out of an angler's dream - a panfish eclipse.
Ouimet tosses the fish among a growing pile on nature's flash freezer and we resume our jigging.
Ouimet and I have ventured onto the Mississippi River for a day of ice fishing near Stoddard. Part of the Upper Mississippi River National Wildlife and Fish Refuge, the fishery here has benefited immensely from a recent habitat improvement project and now draws lots of anglers.
We had trusted the forecast and expected 20-degree temperatures. Walking onto the ice with the mercury at minus 3, we talked about our decision to not bring the portable ice shelter.
It was not the first time either of us have said the meteorologist's name in vain.
But the half-mile walk got the blood flowing. And with a moderate wind and proper clothing, we know we can make a day of it.
The refuge was created by Congress in 1924 to provide habitat for breeding and migrating waterfowl as well as native fish, mussels and plants. It covers 261 river miles from Wabasha, Minn., to Rock Island, Ill. The stretch is divided by 11 locks and dams, creating pools.
The water off Stoddard, known as Pool 8, was transformed by a project in the late 1990s. The Army Corps of Engineers constructed seven islands in the area, helping to deflect waves and current and creating an area where plants and animals could live and reproduce.
"If you look at aerial photos from the 1950s, you see a band of islands off Stoddard," said Ron Benjamin, area fisheries supervisor for the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources in La Crosse. "There was good habitat and a great fishery. Over time, we lost all of them to erosion."
Fish like bluegill and largemouth bass don't do well in strong currents. Valuable plant species like arrowhead and wild celery, too, do better in areas out of the channel.
The area around Stoddard now has the look and feel of a Mississippi backwater. Vegetation like lotus and bulrush has come back. And so have the fish.
According to DNR surveys, the number of bluegill (age 1 and older) caught per hour near Stoddard went from zero in 1998 to 31, 133, 197, 496, 489, 587, 363 and 435 in successive years (ending in 2006).
"The habitat gives bluegill a place to evade predators," said Benjamin. "It also has very good oxygen levels and is just a little warmer than the main river, making it a valuable overwinter area."
Anglers have been keyed in to the location for the last five-plus years and now spend a good bit of the winter months here, too.
But on this mid-January day, Ouimet and I have the river to ourselves at first light. We set up in a shallow flat in the purple of pre-dawn and began the business of drilling. The bluffs behind Stoddard show a rim of orange at 7 a.m.
Intent on showing me his favored jigging technique, Ouimet landed a 12-inch crappie on his first attempt.
Ouimet and his wife, Gail, reside in Franklin but they live for time spent on their 80 acres in Crawford County. Autumn finds Frank bowhunting for deer. But once the water hardens here on the river, he's out exploring the sloughs and channels for panfish.
Ouimet relies almost exclusively on the same system for all his ice angling for panfish. It includes a special 4- to 5-foot graphite rod that has a simple line-holding reel. Unlike most rods with exposed line guides, the line runs through the hollow center of the rod and out the end. A small spring bobber is attached to the rod tip to help detect strikes.
"If you're in shallow water, it's a big advantage not having a reel in freezing conditions," said Ouimet. "You spend much more time fishing, not fixing problems."
Once you locate fish, you use the rod much like a cane pole, dropping the bait down and lifting it - and hopefully fish - up on a fixed line.
The reel is spooled with 2-pound test, both to help fool shy fish in relatively clear water and help see.
For bait, he uses a very small ice-fishing jig tipped with a narrow 1-inch strip of anise-scented plastic. Ouimet credits the business end of his system to Richard Moreau, a tackle maker from Racine, Wis.
The plastic is positioned so it hangs horizontally in the water column, making it easier for the fish to inhale.
"As you jig it, the plastic tail quivers and the fish hit it," said Ouimet. "Using only plastic makes it more challenging but also a lot more efficient."
There is no messy bait to handle. And it seems, Ouimet says, to result in the catch of only bigger fish.
We've ventured out with one sled and a minimum of equipment today. No flasher, no underwater camera.
But we catch fish from Ouimet's first cast. It's a mixed bag of bluegill and crappies, running from 5 to 9 inches for the bluegill and 9 to 13 inches for the crappies.
The fish are in a neutral mode. We find it helps to change holes often, putting our baits in front of new fish every 10 minutes or so, hoping to find the most active fish. We stop short of taking our 25-fish-per-person bag limits of bluegill and perch, but have more than enough for a couple of meals.
Just north of here, Onalaska proclaims itself "Sunfish Capital of the World." A gargantuan bluegill replica overlooks the river there.
I'm sure that manmade fish can cast a shadow. But it has nothing on these fish.
"Some dandies in here," says Ouimet, 43. "And a lot better to eat than statues."
© 2009, Milwaukee Journal Sentinel.
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