SHABBONA – Toby Tobin and Reidar Jakobsen have been ice fishing for many years.
“There is a certain technique to it,” Jakobsen said.
“The bite is much more subtle,” Tobin agreed.
The two men were among a group of about 25 who were ice fishing last week at Shabbona Lake.
“This is the great American pastime,” said Jim Dennis of Streator. On a 24-degree day, he sat out in the open several hundred feet from shore.
According to Dennis Sands, former owner of Lakeside Bait & Tackle, which his son now owns, this has been one of their best years ever for ice fishing, mainly because of the weather.
“The ice is 20 inches thick,” he said. “Last year, half the lake was open water. It never completely froze over.”
“You can drive a truck over it,” Jakobsen said. “But they won’t let you.”
Shabbona Lake State Park Superintendent Kerry Novak said ice fishing was possible much earlier than normal this year because the lake froze so quickly. To safely support ice fishing, clear ice must be at least four inches thick. Cloudy or white ice is weaker and should be at least twice that.
Sands said judging the thickness can be deceptive, since ice can be four inches in one place but thinner nearby, so people always have to be careful.
Once the ice is secure, Sands said fishermen are allowed to walk wherever they want on the lake. Although some lakes allow it, all motorized vehicles are banned at Shabbona Lake. Veteran ice fishermen carry a variety of equipment, including fishing gear, an auger, a fish detector, a heater, and, often, a portable pop-up tent called a shanty.
Augers, Sands said, can be powered by battery, gas or propane and drill a hole about 4 inches across into the surface of the ice. Fish finders are small mechanical devices that measure the depth of the lake and show if a fish is approaching.
“You want to move your bait with the fish,” Sands said. “But that doesn’t mean they’re going to bite.”
Despite the bitter cold, Tobin said a heater can be so efficient anglers can even take off their coats.
“It’s like sitting in your own living room, only without your old lady nagging you,” he said, laughing.
“This gives you a buffer against the winter,” Jakobsen said. “It gives you a reason to get up in the morning.”
Matt Kraft drove out from the suburbs with two friends to fish on a day off from work. He said ice fishing has a different atmosphere than regular fishing. Among the advantages of ice fishing, David Tadlock of Chillicothe said, is that there are fewer people to deal with.
Kraft and his friends didn’t bring shanties. Once they found the spot they wanted, they emptied and upended their buckets and sat on them out in the open.
One of the keys, Rick Faillo of Kirkland said, is to remember where you had success fishing before and stake that area out. Still, that doesn’t always guarantee success.
“The fish move and you have to move with them,” Tobin said. After catching a crappie in an hour, he and Tobin decided to relocate to another part of the lake. Not far away, Jim Dennis and Ryan Yuhas of Streator were having the same problem.
“I can see the fish, but they’re not biting,” Dennis said.
The state park also has other winter activities, such as cross-country skiing, snowmobiling and tobogganing.
“The park is always open, but the staff may not always be here,” Sands said.
A regular fishing license, Novak said, is all someone needs to go ice fishing. In fact, fishing licenses issued the first part of the year are good for about 15 months to include ice fishing. The cost of a license is $15 for adults, $7.75 for those 65 and older, and free for those younger than 16.