By John Bradley
I was going to write about a successful North Dakota spring turkey hunt. Hiking out into the badlands, the first camping trip of the year, and turkeys gobbling from their roost. I would have told you how I closed the distance, made a few notes on my call and that a tom came in on a line. Unfortunately, the weather had other plans and my turkey trip got scratched due to the spring blizzard that hit the state. And while it is bringing much needed moisture to our area, it has changed many of our plans to get outdoors and enjoy spring. So instead, I’m going to match the weather outside and reminisce about this past winter’s ice fishing season and another time when mother nature had other plans.
The high point of my ice fishing season was having my friend fly in to go ice fishing. He fishes and crabs off the coast of Oregon, but he had never experienced fishing hardwater. He brought with him several target species he wanted to cross of his list, including walleyes, perch, crappies, and muskies, and he mistakenly thought I was the man for the job.
When he landed, I had already loaded up the rig and after tempering his expectations of catching a muskie, we left straight from the airport to the lake. With only 3 days to fish we were going to maximize his time on the ice, regardless of weather, or so we thought. On our drive up to a small lake, the weather went from bad to a nasty, as in a can’t see 20 feet in front of you-style ground blizzard. We made the mistake of continuing and ended up getting stuck in a drift where the gravel road seemed to disappear, miles away from the nearest farmhouse. It was not a great start.
That weekend’s snow and wind prevented us from driving our truck out on the ice. Fighting the wind and deep snow, we pulled our sleds out to our spots. We joked regularly as we post holed through the snow how “it ain’t easy being a fisherman” and that the next trip will be someplace just a little bit warmer. When we did get out to our spot, we were met with slow fishing. Thankfully he had experience with slow days and made the best of it by watching trucks get high centered on snow drifts from a distance, drinking a couple of beers, and listening to the NFL playoffs.
After two days of catching mainly small walleyes and perch, with a few eaters here and there, we settled in for the evening bite of the last day. We were set up on a point that dropped off into the deepest part of the small lake we were fishing, the sun was just starting to set when my graph showed a fish move in slightly off the bottom. I made a couple subtle jigs and then slowly lifted my jigging rap up. Wham! I knew immediately that this was a much nicer walleye and played the fish as such. After a couple runs, I was finally able to get her head up the ice hole. After a high five, a photo, and a quick measurement – 27.5 inches – we released her back into the water. Finally, we had found the type of fish we were looking for.
As I was slowly coming down from that adrenaline rush from a nice fish, I noticed the minnow on my dead stick rod started to get nervous and I told my buddy to get ready, there was another fish down there. It felt like the words hadn’t even left my mouth when his bobber disappeared, and the drag of his reel started screaming. My friend played the fish perfectly and when I saw the flash of gold through the ice, I reached in and guided it onto the ice. His walleye measured 26 inches, dwarfing the 12-to-15-inchers that he had been catching. That one fish changed his entire attitude about ice fishing, and it instantly made his trip worthwhile. He’s already planning a trip for 2023.
As we wait out the snow and this cold snap, I hope you can plan a trip to take someone new out this year and show them the realities of being a hunter or angler – somedays the fish aren’t going to bite, the turkeys aren’t going to cooperate, or the weather is going to turn. But hopefully that adversity will teach them that hard earned success is much sweeter and it’s what ultimately keeps us coming back for more.
John Bradley is a Dakota Edge Outdoors contributing writer and the Executive Director of the North Dakota Wildlife Federation.
Featured Photo: The author’s friend, Jake Kummer of Portland, Ore., landed this nice walleye despite challenging conditions on a ND ice fishing trip. DEO Photo by John Bradley.