Learning the basics of ice fishing at DNR's Hard Water School

Beginning angler Kyle Draper (mom Angie is in the background) proudly shows off his catch.

Feb. 27, 2014

Ice fishermen will tell you it takes a career to learn the ins and outs of ice fishing, but you have to start somewhere. Last weekend, a number of neophytes started their ice-angling education at the Carl T. Johnson Hunting and Fishing Center at the Department of Natural Resources' (DNR) ice-fishing clinic at William Mitchell State Park in Cadillac.

The weekend event is one of a number of clinics that park interpreter Ed Shaw and his staff put on to help would-be hunters and anglers jump-start their outdoor pursuits. This year's first ice-fishing clinics - dubbed Hard Water Schools - are the first the staff has held on its own; for the last two years, they've partnered with professional walleye angler Mark Martin, who held his annual ice-fishing/vacation school there.

Martin skipped Cadillac this year, but Shaw said enough people called about it to make it worth doing.

As sometimes happens in the winter, the weather was somewhat uncooperative - cold and windy - so a few of those who had signed up to attend failed to show. But the 18 people who did got a taste of winter fun and a number of them caught their first fish ever through the ice.

Seven-year-old Kori Draper is all smiles after a successful catch at the DNR's Hard Water School.Folks like Kyle and Kori Draper, 11-year-olds who both caught perch after their mother Angie signed them up for the school.

"We went to the free fishing weekend and when I heard about this I thought, 'Why not'?" Angie said. "It was well worth doing. They both like to fish. It's a memory they'll have for a lifetime."

Said Kori after catching her fish: "Awesome."

The clinic cost $30 and students received a bucket with enough gear - a rod and reel, some basic tackle and a tip-up - to fish. They also received about three hours of classroom instruction on everything from fishing regulations to how to tie a knot and bait a hook.

"We cover everything - ice fishing from A to Z - but even the most advanced fisherman is going to learn something," Shaw said. "It's a lot of moms and kids - that's kind of cool. It's inexpensive and it's short, just a weekend, so people don't have to make big commitment to attend."

John Zakrajsek, a staffer at the Johnson Center, was the main instructor. He drew up and copied texts for the students as he walked them through the process. Zakrajsek, who retired from the insurance industry, signed on at the Johnson Center three years ago and his work there dovetails perfectly with his personal passions - he's a dedicated angler and past president of the local chapter of Trout Unlimited.

The DNR's Charles Fales helps Hard Water School ice-fishing clinic participants get started.After the morning classroom sessions, attendees broke for lunch while staffers went out on the ice at Lake Cadillac to set up for the fishing. They drilled holes and set up some shanties - many of which Shaw borrowed from friends - to help initiate the students into the ice-fishing fraternity.

A typical student? There's no such thing. They varied widely, youngster and oldsters, boys, girls, men and women. Nickie Drysdale of Cadillac brought her 7-year-old son P.J. "We wanted to learn something new to enjoy these long winters," she said. And recent retiree Dale Boerson brought wife, Kathy. "I ran out of things to do," he said, explaining he'd only been ice fishing twice, many, many years ago. "I learned a few things."

Last weekend's clinic was the second of the season for Shaw, who also holds clinics on deer, bear and turkey hunting and has a steelhead school planned for March. The January Hard Water School coincided with a blizzard and only a handful of folks showed up for the event.

"People come from all over the state," Shaw said. "We had people signed up from Saginaw, Detroit, Grand Rapids, the Lansing area - but the people who had to travel canceled."

Mitchell State Park interpreter Ed Shaw assists 7-year-old Kori Draper on ice fishing basics. Shaw, who's been lauded for his educational efforts - he was recently named Educator of the Year by the Michigan Chapter of the National Wild Turkey Federation - said the clinic was the result of not only having a good staff, but plenty of volunteers, too; guys like Spanky Meeuwes, a local state employee who showed up to help walk some of the beginners through their time on the ice.

"I like to fish," Meeuwes said. "This gives me a chance to pass along what I know."

That's not unusual, Shaw said.

"People come out of the woodwork to help us out," Shaw said. "It's mostly local guys who have been involved for years. We try to involve the community as much as we can."

Although the bite was pretty tough, which sometimes happens, anglers who returned on Sunday - "the weather was even worse," Shaw said - were treated to some tip-up action and saw pike hit the ice, something that didn't happen on Saturday.

For his part, Shaw's already thinking about how he can improve, and hopefully expand, the Hard Water School for next year.

"We had to turn away 20 to 30 people - people who wanted to get into the program but it was already full," he said. "We got a ton of calls - there's a high interest in these sorts of programs. There's definitely a demand and a need."

For more information on the Carl T. Johnson Hunting and Fishing Center, as well as other outdoor education programs, visit www.michigan.gov/dnrvisitorcenters. To learn more about upcoming spring and summer fishing opportunities - like the popular "Hook, Line and Sinker" learn-to-fish program and the Summer Free Fishing Weekend - follow updates on the DNR website at www.michigan.gov/fishing.