116 3rd St SE
Cedar Rapids, Iowa 52401
WILLAR, Minn. — At some point during a typical day on the ice, Mike Wirth serenades us with a few bars from one of his favorite songs.
"Mamas, don't let your babies grow up to be cowboys …
“Don't let 'em pick guitars or drive them old trucks …
“Let 'em be doctors and lawyers and such."
We never heard Wirth warble a few weeks ago during what was likely our last major ice fishing trip of the season.
It was a microcosm of our hard water season. It was marked more than once by what was missing rather than by what we found.
A couple of days before Wirth, Ward Stubbs and I left the Waterloo-Cedar Falls area, I went shopping for the one-pound propane tanks we use in our portable heaters — an ice fishing essential. I tried the big stores, from Walmart and Fleet Farm to Menards and Scheels, as well as family and friends, and I got the same answer at each stop.
No propane. Depending on who you ask or what you read, there are myriad reasons. Some point to a shortage of steel, others to shipping issues, and a couple noted a sharp increase in demand by private businesses during the pandemic.
Bait shops proved to be difficult to find, too, as we headed north toward the Willmar, Minn., area. We chose this spot because it offered less snow cover and better accessibility than some of the other destinations we favor.
In some cases, bait shops identified by Google searches no longer existed. Convinced there was something we were missing, we circled one location three times and all we found was a boarded up shed. Another promising stop featured plenty of signage, and Mike had even spoken by phone with someone there a week earlier. However, it was locked up tight in the middle of the day.
We did know of one ARCO convenience store that stocked minnows, but it was 20 miles out of our way and we needed something that was at least close to the route we were traveling. So, we took a slight detour into New Ulm, Minn. Again, we circled the Google address of a bait shop a couple of times before Wirth noticed a small sign pointing us to an alley behind a house.
Sure enough, in the far corner of a cold, poorly lit, dilapidated garage filled with furs and gear that largely belonged in a museum was a small tank where a friendly lady sold us more minnows than we could use in a lifetime for about $10. They did not have any propane.
Eventually, we arrived at one of the lakes we know near Willmar and set up for an enjoyable afternoon of perch fishing.
The following morning, we headed for a different lake where two winters ago we got in on a tremendous bite when we caught and released 100 or more crappies between 9 and 12 inches in length. A lot of other anglers got in on that bite, too, with hundreds of shacks bunched up over the most prominent structure.
Two years later, the only crappie we caught was a 14-incher that Stubbs iced. We tried different areas of the lake, different depths and different presentations. Locals we talked to suspect fishing pressure has decimated the crappie population.
When Wirth and I first began exploring various lakes in Minnesota, Wisconsin and South Dakota, mobility helped us find fish. Then, we drilled so many holes that the ice around us looked like an Abalone board and we "hole hopped." Using our flashers to find fish, we'd catch what we could and then resume the search. It was and still is a great approach when the weather is favorable and fish like crappies are moving around.
When it's so cold your holes ice over, so windy you can't detect a bite or when there just doesn't seem to be many fish available, all you can do is hunker down and hope the fish find you, like the 27-inch walleye that ate a minnow under my float during that morning we spent on the crappie lake.
We never found any propane, but fortunately Wirth and Stubbs had enough to help me get by.
Overall, we didn't find a lot of fish, but enough fish found us to keep us interested and invested.
On the other hand, it wasn't anything to sing about.