BRAINERD - It's a bit unnerving to travel via pickup truck atop a frozen lake covered by several inches of water. But, on Tuesday afternoon, that's what Lindy Frasl of Fort Ripley and I did. Our plan was to fish for crappies and to hopefully secure enough for a fish dinner.
The scene had been totally different just three days prior, when Lindy and I dragged a portable ice fishing shelter to a different lake -- a small crappie hole tucked among rolling hills studded with oak and jack pine. Then the snow was deep and at times our feet broke through a top layer of ice and into slush below.
Between the two fishing forays, Old Man Winter had taken a break. Unseasonably warm weather and two days of rain had eliminated the snow on area lakes, and now, while en route to Lindy's ice fishing shelter, a wake of water rolled ahead of Lindy's pickup.
"When this rain water freezes, it'll make for some great ice skating," I said.
"You don't see people ice skating much anymore," Lindy responded.
A week or so earlier Lindy had transported his fish house onto the lake. It was positioned over 32 feet of water, a spot where Lindy had had success catching crappies during previous winters. He had used his GPS to relocate the spot.
Lindy's fish house is a wheeled affair -- a nifty rig he built himself. He can simply attach the shelter to his pickup truck and drive onto the ice of a lake. The shelter is heated with a propane stove, and electric lights illuminate its carpeted interior.
It took just a few minutes to clean the holes of ice. In short order, we each had two lines down, all dressed with a small jig of some sort upon which was impaled a crappie minnow. Our riggings were suspended below slip-bobbers set to keep our offerings a foot or so off the bottom. Lindy and I both employed flasher-type fish locators, and we each lowered a transducer into separate holes in the ice.
Not much happened for the first half-hour. When it was fully dark outside, a few blips began to show up on our fish locators. Soon, from the lake bottom up to about 15 feet, our screens were so lit with green blips it was difficult to discern our jig-and-minnow combos on the dials. Those green blips, I've been told, are hatching insects that rise from the lake bottom, and they usually start just after dark.
Insects and tiny minnows are discernible on the three-color locators as green blips that appear and disappear. Larger targets such as crappies normally show first as green blips, then orange and finally red if they are in or near the center of the transducer's cone. Baits -- our jigs and minnows -- appear as orange or red blips, depending on the depth and how high the gain is adjusted. To Lindy and me, half the fun of ice fishing is watching the locator light up when a fish appears, first green, then orange, and as the fish moves closer, finally red. Then, hopefully, a bite.
Outside, the wind howled, at times gusting to 30 miles per hour. The gale rippled the water that was atop the ice, scattering the reflections of lights emanating from shoreline homes. It was odd sight on a February night.
Some time later a red blip -- a fish -- appeared on Lindy's locator. Lindy watched his bobber dip below the surface, but when he set the hook, the fish was gone.
It was 7:30 when Lindy finally reeled in our first crappie. It was a "keeper" but not a big fish. While fumbling with my camera, I glanced at my fish locater and noticed a red blip where my jig and minnow should have been. Then I realized the tip of my tiny ice fishing rod and reel combo was bouncing up and down. I grabbed the rod, set the hook and reeled in our second fish of the night.
Ultimately, that was the final fish of the evening. We had missed hooking a few crappies that had grabbed our jigs, and overall the fishing was extremely slow.
About 8:30 we called it quits, the two crappies looking a bit forlorn in the bottom of the pail.
Bill Marchel, an outdoors columnist and photographer, lives near Brainerd.