Spring arrived in South Dakota last March in the form of a rare, but welcome, day of sunshine. And while the brief respite renewed hope that winter was nearly over, there was still plenty of ice on the area’s lakes for an ice-fishing adventure.
I was invited by Outdoor Forum contributor Dennis Foster, of Mellette, S.D., to join him as he filmed a late-season ice episode in northeastern South Dakota for Minnesota-based Focus Outdoors TV. When Foster called last February with the details, I asked if I could bring my 8-year-old son, Gavin, along.
Gavin had never been ice fishing before, though he has fished plenty from boats, docks and shore, so to get him started I thought there would be no better time than to go during late ice when the weather would likely be more favorable.
Additionally, late ice has the potential to produce plenty of action — enough to hold the attention of an 8-year-old — because fish activity increases as fish begin to feed more often and more aggressively in preparation for their spring spawning rituals.
Admittedly, I’m not much of an ice fisherman, which was another reason why I wanted Gavin along so he could learn from a pro like Foster instead of his old man. Further, like many kids, Gavin has the tendency to easily forget or ignore any advice I have to offer, whether it’s fishing, swinging a baseball bat or washing his face. However, when another adult has something to say, especially in a teaching capacity, he responds better.
We arrived at the lake at 10 a.m., and within minutes we were drilling through 30-40 inches of ice.
“This bay we’re fishing has good structure and opens up quickly to the main body of the lake,” Foster said. “During late ice, predators such as pike, walleye and bass cruise through here at all times during the day, and they’re usually pretty cooperative.”
After punching more than a dozen holes through the ice in a “V” pattern, Foster began baiting some HT Polar Pop-Ups with large creek chubs, measuring between 4 and 6 inches.
“I like using the biggest chubs I can find during this time of year,” Foster said. “Bigger bait means bigger fish, especially when large predator fish would rather hit a large bait than trying to swipe through an area and feed on smaller baitfish. Big fish will expend as little energy as possible while still seeking the highest reward.”
While Foster was busy setting up the third pop-up, the first two had already popped.
“Fishing with tip-ups or pop-ups is like fishing with a bobber in summer,” Foster said. “They’re great for using with kids, because they provide visual confirmation that a fish is on the line.”
Gavin was all over the first pop-up, staring straight down the hole and showing us with his hand how fast the pop-up’s spool of line was spinning. Foster knelt beside him on the ice and began Gavin’s first lesson.
“The key to hooking fish using big chubs like this is to have enough patience for the line to stop,” Foster said. “When fish grab that chub, they’ll run with it sideways in their mouth, then stop to turn the bait headfirst in their mouth so they can swallow it. Wait for the line to stop, then slowly pull in line until you feel the weight of the fish, set the hook and hold on. If you don’t wait long enough, you’ll miss more fish than you catch.”
Time literally flew over the next 12 hours as we caught more than 100 fish. A majority were nice, head-shaking pike, but an occasional walleye, perch and several hefty bass also found their way to the top of the ice. And that’s not a bad way to introduce anyone, regardless of age, to ice fishing.
At 10:30 p.m. as we tore down the last pop-up and readied for shore, I pulled Gavin aside and told him how proud I was of him for sticking it out, never complaining and being patient as he learned some of the basic tenets of ice fishing.
“I’m proud of you, too, Dad,” he said. “Can we do this again tomorrow?”
Turns out the lesson I was given was far more important than any Gavin had received that day, because in that moment I learned trips like these are about much more than simply catching fish.