A return to the deep freeze should send a lot of anglers to the ice this week. And they should be conscious of changing ice conditions.
Mild temperatures and rain have pounded away at what had been a pretty solid sheet of ice on lakes and backwaters in Iowa. The deterioration is more apparent across the southern half of the state; with slow current winding through old stream beds.
To the north, many ice anglers barely left their posts. Temperatures have been colder longer. Ice came earlier and thicker. Ahead of the thaw late this month, reports on Clear Lake ranged from 10 to 18 inches thick. That was thick enough for small towns to form there and on some of the bigger waters through the state.
Just don't call them “ice shacks.'' A lot of the shelters dotting the ice on Iowa's big lakes could pull into a summer campground … except for the holes in the floor.
“They're really equipped with all the comforts of home,” DNR fisheries biologist Scott Grummer said. “You see people fishing, as comfortable as you sitting in your easy chair in the living room, watching TV.”
Grummer pointed out some as we headed across the ice. Some were built with more traditional wooden walls. Others — trailers — were towed out to the angler's favorite spot. The wheels were cranked out and up, dropping the structure onto the ice. These “permanent” shelters stay here, with the owner's name and hometown, until weak ice threatens or Feb.20, whichever comes first.
We walked past the one with the TV antenna. Nobody home. Dave Orr answered our knock at his door, though.
His wall-mounted propane panel heater was a welcome feature, after a windy walk across the ice. Small windows let him know when it is dark.
Coat hooks, wooden stools, a shelf and fishing gear fill the interior. There was no custom cabinetry, satellite TV or other perks, featured in some of the photos Grummer showed me earlier. This one was built for fishing.
And it did the job.
“I found a little deeper water this year. I'm having pretty good luck; every time I've been out, I have caught fish,” said Orrr, who is from Clear Lake. As he spoke, he pulled up a small yellow perch that had just chomped on his minnow.
“From this size up to 10 inches; crappies ranging from seven up to 12½ inches; yellow bass (up to) 10 inches.”
He and fishing partner Brad Boldt caught five fish in the 20 minutes we spent looking over their shoulders.
“There seems to be a lot of crappies in here. I'm real happy with that population,” Orr said.
One reason is the recently concluded dredging and deepening this area of west Clear Lake.
“They are getting a lot more crappies now,” Grummer said. “We have a couple strong year classes entering that “angler acceptable'' size. On a lot of days, anglers catch more crappies on the lake than yellow bass. You wouldn't have heard that five or 10 years ago.”
As always, it depends on where you go. And when.
Grummer did note that low light — near dawn and dusk — is often more crappie friendly. Beyond that, smaller baits and spring bobbers can help clue you in, when one of those slow-moving fish makes a subtle late winter move.
And as we head deeper into winter, it's even more important to know your ice.
In east central Iowa, ice thickness on Lake Macbride ranged from zero to nine inches, with most areas six to eight, before a Tuesday morning thunderstorm washed warm rain over the ice and the surrounding watershed.
“It can be treacherous; ice fishermen should be very careful,” DNR fisheries biologist Paul Sleeper said. “Probe ahead as you go out. Make sure you know where you are going.”
He notes that most open areas tend to be near north facing banks, which get more sun.
Wind blowing across any open water slows new ice from forming. On many of Iowa's artificial lakes, built by damming streams through the area, old creek channels still direct slow- moving water through the lake bed, sometimes eroding ice from the bottom up. Rocks and mud in shallows and along shorelines absorb sunlight and reflect heat, eating away at the near-shore ice.