Tough Conditions Don't Stop Winter Free Fishing Weekend

February 23, 2012

There's an old saying among anglers, "Weather trumps all", that had to be on the minds of participants in last week's Winter Free Fishing Weekend events in the southern part of the state.

What happens when you've planned an ice fishing event but don't have any ice?

Fortunately, the Department of Natural Resources staffers, volunteers and clubs, who put together the free fishing festivities, had contingency plans. And while the events might not have come off exactly as hoped, plenty of folks, especially youngsters, showed up at the Winter Free Fishing events.

Bay City State Recreation Area has held its annual Winter Festival since before Free Winter Fishing Weekend began and ice fishing has always been one of the activities. This year's event drew more than 500 folks and the youngsters did get to fish through the ice, but not on it.

A youngster fishes through the ice from the dock on Tobico Lagoon at Bay City State Recreation Area.Youngsters arriving at the area's Saginaw Bay Visitor's Center were ushered through a 12 station tutorial on ice fishing that included building a wooden ice fishing rod, selecting a jig (and painting it, if they so chose), learning a knot and then tying on their lure, identifying fish (and which ones to eat), and attending an ice fishing "tips and tricks" lesson. But the last station, ice fishing safety, conducted by the U.S. Coast Guard, included some advice about determining whether the ice is safe. Among those tips: Be careful around ice that is discolored or slushy near the shore line.

That was exactly the situation at Tobico Lagoon where the fishing was to take place. Though the ice would support anglers, Bay City Recreation Area park interpreter Valerie Blaschka said they didn't want to give the kids the impression that they should ignore the advice they'd just been given.

Instead volunteers augered holes through the ice along side the fishing dock on the pond, which allowed youngsters to stay high and dry but still get in some ice fishing. Don Watz, a 77 year old volunteer was representing the Bay City Walleye Club and who has been for the last 15 years at this event, said he was delighted to help out, even under adverse conditions.

"You've got to get the kids involved," he said, as he scooped slush from the holes the youngsters fished.

Unfortunately, the fish didn't get the memo. Fishing was tough. But Watz said he's seen that same thing happen when conditions were good. And the fact that the kids were able to experience ice fishing was a plus, Blaschka said.

"We had one year when it was 62 degrees," she said. "We had the kids using Zebcos, fishing from the dock that winter."

On the plus side, a fresh blanket of snow allowed some of the other activities, snowshoeing and a sled dog demonstration, to go on as planned.

"I think families enjoyed the event," Blaschka said. "I think we were successful in introducing people to fishing. And the kids got outside; that's the point of the event. The comments were all positive."

A couple of young visitors build their own rods at Bay City State Recreation Area.The 54 folks who attended the event at Sleepy Hollow State Park in Laingsburg found mostly open water on Lake Ovid, but. DNR Fisheries Division's Elyse Walter made sure the youngsters had something to fish for.

Walter set up a "Backyard Bass" area on the grass outside the shelter at the beach where youngsters could cast, with rods outfitted with bobbers or practice plugs, at plastic fish that were scattered across the grounds. The fish resembled slippers with a slot in the top so youngsters could drag their "bait" across the fish, have the line slide into the slot, and reel in a fish. No, the backyard bass didn't put up much of a fight. But judging by the smiles, the young anglers, many of them just a few years old, were as proud of the plastic pisces as though they're reeled in trophy pike.

Elsewhere on the grounds, a troop of local Boy Scouts helped youngsters make pop can fishing rods. They'd tie a length of monofilament to the pop top on the can, and then wind the mono around the can like a reel. With a simple flick of the wrist, the anglers could cast the line off the pop can.

Mark Stephens of Project F.I.S.H. at Michigan State University manned a jig painting station, where youngsters could pick out an unfinished tear drop and, using a new product, heat it up over a flame and dip it into a powder substance that instantaneously melted and coated the jig.

A volunteer helps a youngster bait up at Bay City State Recreation Area.

World champion ice fisherman Mike Boedeker of Lansing, freshly back from competing in a contest in Kazakhstan, set up a display that showed the differences in tackle used by American ice fishermen and Europeans. When anglers saw the miniature rods the Europeans use, suited for the tiny fish they pursue, it became obvious that Michigan is a recreational angling hot spot.

Although ice fishing was tough in the southern part of the state, events to the north went much more smoothly.

At the McDonald Lake Ice Fishing Derby in Gulliver (Schoolcraft County), 244 adults and 108 youngsters participated in the contest.

"It was a great time," said event treasurer B.G. Kokesh. "We had beautiful weather and the kids really had fun."

Winter Free Fishing Weekend may not have gone as planned everywhere, bringing to mind another angling adage: "We'll get 'em next time."

Michigan again celebrates Free Fishing Weekend June 9-10 with events to be scheduled around the state. Check the DNR website at for a schedule of events as the dates approach.