OAKWOOD — Believe it or not, some central Illinoisans have loved spending hours outdoors in this woeful winter weather of ours.
While the bone-chilling cold has meant a lot more school snow days than usual, it's also meant a lot more prime ice fishing days.
"We haven't had any bad ice," said John Hott, superintendent of Kickapoo State Park, where the ice fishing is always popular but this winter has become an almost daily activity.
Hott has been on frozen waters more this winter than any other in his 15 years of ice fishing. Ponds and lakes throughout East Central Illinois have been frozen for months, which isn't normally the case. Most winters, he said, it's hit or miss, with intermittent periods of good ice and bad ice — and only the diehards braving it.
"When you have a year like this, you have lots of days to fish, and it's a lot more popular," he said from a private pond near Oakland, which he shared with six others Wednesday. "Seems like we have people on the ice almost every day."
Even on days like Tuesday, when the mercury stayed in the teens, Kenny Obanion and Jeremy Andrews were quite comfortable in their ice fishing tent in the middle of snow-covered Lake Mingo, at Kennekuk County Park in Vermilion County.
They sat on five-gallon plastic buckets in front of two ice holes, each with a Coleman lantern keeping them warm inside their four-walled fishing tent — just as the Danville duo has done almost every day they've had off from work this winter.
Obanion bought the ice fishing tent at rummage sale several years ago, and the first two years he had it, there wasn't enough ice to try it out. But he's making up for it lately.
Obanion and Andrews had the lake to themselves Tuesday, but it's been much busier on the weekends. The evidence was in the thousands of foot tracks in the snow leading from the parking lot to the frozen lake, then eventually splintering off in all directions.
Everett Walters, owner of Uncle Boonie's Bait Shop, said this time of year is usually pretty slow for his Homer business. But not this winter. He's had "a bookoo number of people coming after bait" — so many that Walters said he has had difficulty keeping his shelves stocked.
"My suppliers that raise the bait didn't get prepared for this. They didn't know we were going to have all this ice," said Walters, who finally tracked down a place in Michigan that shipped him some.
Walters said the bait of choice is small grub — the larvae of a bee moth that gets into bee hives. Butterworms, another kind of larvae, are also popular. He's had requests from the crappie fishermen for minnows, too, but Walters has had a tough time keeping his minnow tanks from freezing.
While bait is the biggest request, people have also come to Uncle Boonie's looking for augers, auger blades, poles, buckets and dippers to scoop the ice out of the hole.
"Normally this time of year, it's completely nil," he said.
Walters said a lot of local outdoorsmen would like to go fishing in the wintertime, but it's not a huge sport around here because the ponds and lakes don't typically ice over all winter.
"Ice fishing would be a real good business if there could just be more bad weather," he said. "But we have too many people praying to not have bad weather."
Obanion's wife, also an avid fishermen, told him he was crazy to go out in Tuesday's cold. But it didn't stop Obanion and Andrews, who started fishing at noon and had hauled in more than a dozen blue gill by 3 p.m.
Keeping warm depends how prepared one is, Hott said. With the proper clothing and boots, a tent or other shelter to keep the wind off and maybe even a little heater, an ice fisherman can stay fairly warm if the sun's beating down. Hott's group usually hits the ice at 9 a.m. By noon, they'll likely have their coats off inside their shelter. Around 5:30 p.m., they call it a day.
"Ice fishing is more of a social fishing event," he said.
Hott said he never goes ice fishing alone — for safety reasons. It's not only the danger of falling through the ice, but because frozen ponds can get slick, causing injuries from falling.
It doesn't take a lot of equipment to ice fish, Hott said: just a pole, bait, a pick or auger to cut a hole in the ice, a little scoop to dip ice out of the hole, and a dual-purpose bucket — to sit on and carry equipment and fish in. Most fishermen in East Central Illinois use hand augers, Hott said, because there's not enough ice for an extended amount of time to justify a power auger. Even with hand augers, it takes less than a minute to drill through the ice, Hott said.
"There are so many years you don't have good ice, (a power auger) would just sit in the garage," he said.
Hott said you need about four inches of ice to be safe. That hasn't been an issue this season; he's seen 12 inches consistently.
One thing fishermen like about winter is getting to places they've always wanted to drop their lines but aren't accessible by foot or boat in warm weather.
Hott's Vermilion hot spots are Kickapoo, Kennekuk and Lake Vermilion. Walters' customers love Homer Lake, Danville's Lake Vermilion, the stone quarry in Fairmount, Walnut Point in Oakland and numerous farm ponds all over Champaign and Vermilion counties.
Another plus of fishing in frigid weather?
"One thing I don't hardly sell is any mosquito repellent this time of year," Walters said. "That, and sun screen and sun shades. No need for it."
5 things to know about ice fishing safety, care of takemefishing.org:
1. If ice is 2 inches or less, stay off. Four or more is generally considered safe.
2. New ice is usually stronger than old ice. Four inches of clear, newly formed ice may support one person on foot. One foot or more of old, partially thawed ice may not.
3. Ice seldom freezes uniformly. It may be a foot thick in one location and only 1-2 inches thick just a few feet away.
4. Ice formed over flowing water and currents is often dangerous — especially near streams, bridges and culverts.
5. Schools of fish or flocks of waterfowl can adversely affect safety. The movement of fish can bring warm water up from the bottom of the lake, opening holes in the ice that snowmobiles and cars have broken through.