SIGOURNEY — Solid ice, warm weather and large, hungry fish.
This is about as good as ice fishing gets, I said to my friend and host, Tom Monroe, on the first day of the continuing January thaw.
“We were born to do this,” Tom said, as he returned another chunky bluegill into the pond from which it came.
“Gilly gilly,” I said, repeating for the umpteenth time a slightly modified tag line from a popular Bud Light beer commercial.
Though the ’gills were coming through the ice too quickly for accurate accounting, Tom estimated he caught at least 100 of them from the same hole on the afternoon of Jan. 18. From a nearby hole along the same 7-foot contour line, I caught at least 75.
In our three hours hunched on buckets over those holes, the red lines indicating fish never once left the screens of our sonar units, and those red lines almost always merged promptly with the yellow lines indicating our wax worm-tipped jigs.
As usual, Tom caught them on his $7 Schooley rod, a low-tech instrument with which he is extremely proficient. Rather than an actual reel, it is equipped with a plastic spool from which he lowers and raises his fishing line in hand-over-hand fashion.
Once satisfied the fish weren’t going anywhere, Tom turned off his sonar unit and removed its transducer from the water, eliminating occasional tangles with hooked fish and maximizing his catch rate.
I did not in the least mind that, with my state-of-the-art $80 in-line reel, I could not keep up.
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Meanwhile, on the other side of the pond, a dozen more of Tom’s friends — invitees to his annual three-day ice fishing extravaganza — caught fat bluegills at a similar rate.
One of them, longtime participant Mike Brooke of Ottumwa, attributed the good fishing in large part to Tom’s management of about 20 Keokuk County ponds. With judicious stocking and harvests and a catch-and-release ethic for big fish, he maintains healthy populations of bluegill, crappie and bass with abundant trophy opportunities, Brooke said.
On the second day, after morning stops at other ponds, all the participants gathered at that same pond in the afternoon for more bluegill action.
August Bach of Reinbeck took over Tom’s hot hole, and his friend Judd Maschke of Des Moines and I fished nearby, the three of us catching bluegills at a pace nearly as brisk as that of the previous day.
You can always tell when the action wanes as anglers drill new holes in search of biting fish, but across the pond no one moved, except to reel in another fish.
Among the many busy bluegill catchers was Travis Krousie of Walford, accompanied by his faithful fish dog Biscuit, a golden retriever who rests his muzzle on his forepaws at the edge of the hole and snaps vainly at the fish yanked into the air by his master.
Krousie, proprietor of J and S Custom Jigs, makes and sells ice and open water fishing lures, including the micro plastics that the fish on that unseasonably warm afternoon found irresistible.
Writing on the J and S Facebook page, Krousie later said, “The ’gill fishing was crazy good. The pond seems to have an endless supply of 8- to 9-inch ’gills.”