CADILLAC — As we waited in the pre-dawn darkness for the last stragglers to line up for our masse assault on Lake Mitchell, I had a moment of absolute clarity: We were nuts.
The thermometer was in the low single digits with the weatherman predicting it was headed nowhere but down. The wind, already steady, would build throughout the day, too, he said. And the snow, soft in early hours, would intensify, he promised.
That is not exactly a prescription for a pleasant day of ice fishing.
Still, nobody wanted to back out, either. It was the first morning of Mark Martin's three-day Ice Fishing Vacation/School on Lakes Mitchell and Cadillac. As usual, Martin had assembled a bunch of ice-fishing talent — both local and national — to help with the program. And everyone who enjoys ice fishing gets something out of these gatherings.
I've been going since, well, since before Martin actually made a school out of the experience and simply staged an "event" for the media and his sponsors. It's always a combination good time/learning experience and this year I was looking forward to learning one thing: whether or not it was worth going when conditions are, in a single word, brutal.
It was still dark while we set up portable shelters. Shortly after good light, one of Martin's students caught a keeper walleye.
Before too much longer, Martin, who was fishing less than 50 yards away from me, called out that he had a flag on the tip-up he was tending. I grabbed my camera and begrudgingly left the propane heater and shanty behind for 5 degrees and 15 mile-an-hour winds. Martin hoisted a pike — a dandy, too — though the ice.
Maybe this bad weather fishing's not so bad, eh?
Well, it was for me. I fished from dark to dark, spending the first half of the day jigging a Swedish Pimple tipped with a minnow (or half a minnow; I switched baits every 30 minutes or so) and the second half of the day with a jigging Rapala. Far as I could tell, I never had a sniff.
But my failure was at least partially my own fault; several other anglers abandoned the walleyes, down-sized their offerings, and scored with the panfish — bluegills, pumpkinseeds, perch and crappie — for which these lakes are famous. The best of the bunch had a mixed bag of 15 keeper-sized fish in his bucket. I'd say pretty darn good fishing considering the conditions.
Which were brutal. (I said that already, didn't I? Well, it bears repeating.)
Between the temperatures and the wind, it was hard to move around. Nothing wanted to work right. We had four machines (two snowmobiles, two quads) break down and, when we wanted to move our shanty, we simply pulled it 50 yards, rather than risk disassembling it and hoping it would go back together the way it was designed.
This is the second year that Martin has held his school here. Last year, when it became obvious that the ice was going to be questionable at Saginaw Bay — where he's been holding annual events for nearly a decade — he hastily assembled an event here. It was so well received that he decided to come back again, even though this year's Saginaw Bay event is scheduled for next weekend.
The Saginaw Bay school, which is usually well attended, draws a crowd of students that vary from rank beginners to accomplished anglers. Some go to learn the basics, others to fine-tune their angling approach.
"You're going to leave after three days with knowledge that would take you years to gain on your own," Martin said. "You'll be more confident on your next fishing excursion — whether it's on Saginaw Bay or elsewhere — because of what you've learned."
Indeed, plenty of anglers say they signed up for Martin's school simply to learn about the Bay, which can be intimidating.
"It's always best to go with someone who is experienced, just from a safety standpoint," Martin said.
I second that emotion. I would not go on the Bay by myself. Period. Have your snowmobile break down five miles off shore and you could be in a heap of trouble.
But besides the escort/guide service, Martin spends plenty of time with the students, showing them everything from how to rig to how to jig. He works with them to make sure their getting the most out of their electronics, their underwater cameras, their tip-ups, all of their gear.
Martin, who is by far Michigan's best-known walleye fisherman, doesn't make a lot of money from his schools. He does it, he said, because he wants to help give back to the sport that has been so good to him.
"I want to try to help educate people while I can," he said. "I've had a lot of help along the way. And I imagine if you asked Kevin Van Dam, he'd probably admit the same thing, too. I feel like I have to give back."
But it's not a one-way street. Martin says he's learned plenty of things from others at his own events.
"I've learned from my students — it's a school for me, too," he said. "Over the course of these schools, I've been blown away with things that some of the students have showed me."
Martin's Saginaw Bay Ice Fishing Vacation/School is slated for Feb. 10-13. If you're interested, contact Linwood Beach Marina at (989) 697-4415.
I would recommend this event to anyone who is new to ice fishing or new to ice fishing Saginaw Bay.
I am neither. But I'm going anyway.