WILLIAMS, Minn. — The fish were in a bad mood, which affected me similarly.
I probably swore even more than usual when fish after fish, as represented by red blips on my sonar flasher, lingered near the yellow blip representing my lure but eventually left without touching it.
Of the two types of “bad” ice fishing, the worst is when you hardly ever “see” a fish on your sonar flasher — a condition that has, during previous late January visits to Lake of the Woods, most often plagued me and my eight buddies: Jim Brace, Mike Stafford, Doug Reck and Don Dutler, all of Winthrop; Bill Sloan and Ted Wieland of Quasqueton; Richard Brace of Cedar Rapids and Dean Baragary of Monti.
This time, however, the fish were there. They just would not bite, which was an affront to our long-cultivated belief that skillful anglers can almost always turn “lookers” into “biters.”
Despite repeated lure changes that enabled us to identify whole boxes full of ineffective tackle; despite all manner of twitches and jerks intended to coax or shock fish from their lethargy; despite hooking minnows (and at times just their heads) in every conceivable manner; and despite dressing our hooks with fishy-smelling artificial attractants, looker after looker looked and left.
In four days I never came close to getting used to the nearly unremitting rejection.
You always hear about lunar conditions affecting fish activity, but as far as we could tell, the rare super/blue/blood moon that dazzled us before dawn on Jan. 31 made little impression on the saugers and walleyes 34 feet beneath a 3-foot ceiling of ice.
As we witnessed the celestial phenomenon — super in that it appeared larger than normal because of its close approach to the earth, blue in that it was the second full moon of the month and blood because of the color imparted by the lunar eclipse — we hoped it would somehow stimulate the sluggish fish.
It did not.
It’s not that we didn’t catch fish. We all experienced flurries of activity that enabled us to eat 30 of them at each of two fish fries and package 54 to bring home — just 18 fewer than the law allows.
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But we also all experienced long biteless droughts that made us second-guess both our skill and luck.
When confronted with either no biting fish or no fish at all, ice anglers’ standard recourse is to drill more holes and keep moving until you find what you’re looking for.
That, however, was not an option for us, confined as we were to heated shacks with pre-drilled holes, prisoners of a hostile world of subzero temperatures and ground blizzards in which even time outside for bladder relief was barely tolerable.
On Day 4, my worst, I caught two fish in the morning and whiffed on my only other bite. By the end of a biteless afternoon. I felt like a telemarketer whose every call ended in a no-answer or a hang-up.
If nothing else, the experience taught us to better handle rejection. As much as we may dislike it, we did not take it personally, and we will be back next winter, hoping to find the fish in a better mood.