Sometime the greatest secrets in the outdoors are right in front of us in familiar places that for one reason, or many, just get overlooked. When the report came in that my brother Ben and my buddy Josh had stumbled on some fast walleye fishing in a deep hole on the frozen flow I grew up fishing – mostly in the summer for smallmouth and white bass – I was almost in disbelief. But the pictures of their early-season success of limits of eater walleyes and a few big ones that they had released confirmed the fact that, in a spot we’ve buzzed over five hundred times in an effort to get to other places and never once had thought of ice fishing, there was success to be found.
We made our way out onto the ice under the dull orange glow of the streetlights, parking on the curb of the pothole filled road that curved along the waterway. Gingerly, we wound our way down a passable area of icy bank grass made slick by the recent melt. It led out onto the well-traveled path of sled tracks and bootprints which my brother had forged on the ice with his fishing buddies in recent days. Apparently this not-so-secret spot was known by others, as another angler arrived just after us and headed to the upstream side of the spot my brother identified with a quick sweep of his hand in the dimness of pre-dawn morning.
We set to work punching holes and flipping over our shacks in the mild morning temperatures over an 11-to-12-foot deep hole in a wide straightaway on the flow, and it wasn’t long until the first few fish lazily moved in underneath us. They’d hug the mud bottom, maybe give a flicker or two suggesting tentative upward motion, and then just as slowly drop back down, uninterested in the fluttering spoons and nearby minnows suspended under a bobber.
As dawn approached, the fish became more aggressive, following our lifted offerings up as far as two or three feet before committing or moving on. As is the usual discussion, my brother advised me that I should have been there last week, when the bite was fast. But just as quickly as our conversation ended, my bobber went down and up came a healthy walleye. We’d pick a few more off and miss a couple others as the gray dawn rolled out heavy between the shoreline skeletons of bare trees that in summer gave some concealment, but now were as useless as cover as they were against the rising weekend wind. I wandered the half dozen holes around our two shacks, jigging the occasional fish off the bottom with a small spoon in three of them, but unable to turn their interest.
“Here’s one,” Josh announced before the zip of his drag went off after a rod-doubling hookset, “and a good one at that,” he concluded.
He wrestled the fat fish up to the hole about the moment I unzipped the red door to his flipover, and he was reaching down to hoist it into the air. The 23-inch walleye was thick from nose to tail, and he held it up for a picture before turning it back down into the icy cylinder for a quick release. It was a suitable cap to the morning and proof that options for good fishing often lie in overlooked places.
Sometimes in the outdoors, we tend to rush. We pass over hidden gems because we already think we know where we need to go. This weekend on the ice showed me that every stretch of river and those ignored pockets of “fly over” water (or areas we’d never have dreamed of fishing in the winter) can provide some fast action and fun memories. It only takes a little extra inspection, viewing it in the setting of a whole other season, to find a new familiarity in those overlooked places…in our outdoors.