The ice is thick, the air is brisk and the sun is glistening across the blanket of snow on the lake. For some fishing enthusiasts, it’s the perfect day to break out the rod and tackle for some good, old-fashioned ice fishing.
Friends of Fishing along with Valpo Parks held their 7th Annual Ice Derby at Rodgers Lakewood Park in Valparaiso Saturday morning, with a record-breaking 155 participants competing on the ice to see who can make the biggest catch.
For avid ice fisher Tony Wawok of La Porte, it’s a chance to enjoy a beautiful day outdoors with what he calls his fellow enthusiasts, his “hard water brothers.”
“I’ve been doing this for 47 years, and I still enjoy it at 57 years old,” Wawok said. “You meet a lot of good people out here, share tips and tricks, and just get out and meet new people. Any day on ice is better than a day in the office.”
Like many of the fishers, Wawok has been out on the ice since he was a kid, tagging along with family to learn tricks of the trade early on. For him, it’s more about the experience than the catch.
“God created the perfect day with the sunshine and nice weather,” Wawok said. “That’s what it’s all about, finding a place to be one with nature. Everyone who dreads winter, get snow gear, get fishing gear, and get out on the ice.”
Trophies and plaques were awarded to children and adults alike who caught the heftiest panfish, crappie, bass, redear bluegill and walleye. The group also raffled off ice fishing equipment such as rods and tents for future excursions.
All proceeds collected went to fund the group’s big Take-a-Kid Fishing Event held every summer, which gets families outdoors, and children a free day of outdoor fun.
Friends of Fishing President Charles Cook said the group meets at the Valparaiso Library the third Tuesday of every month to talk about fishing, host guest speakers and plan outings and events, and all are welcome to attend.
“This year we’ve had the most people come out,” Cook said. “As long as the ice is good and safe, we have our derby, and this year we teamed up with the parks district, so it’s been a good turn out.”
Mark Addis, Friends of Fishing treasurer, said this year tops the last derby they hosted in 2016, as this year brought a day of perfect ice fishing conditions.
“I think the word has gotten around,” Addis said. “We’ve been promoting on social networks, posting fliers wherever we can, letting people know on the radio and in the newspaper. We’ve got good ice and good weather, that’s what brings the people out.”
Addis said as the years go on, they see more and more high-tech equipment such as pop-up fishing shacks and sonar equipment to detect lurking fish under the snow-covered ice.
Randy Hall, club secretary, said the derby is for everyone, no matter their skill level or age.
“We have people just starting out to avid fishermen,” Hall said. “Seeing the kids have fun and have the chance to catch a fish, that makes the day right there. You get two, three generations of fishermen out there.”
For the Hesslings of Kouts, it was all hands on deck with grandpa, dad and daughter sporting their fishing rods, hoping to reel out some prize fish.
Josh Hessling taught the love of ice fishing to his daughter Olivia, 10, just like his father, Bob Hessling, did for him when he was a boy.
“Olivia started when she was 7 years old, she caught her first fish on this lake,” Josh Hessling said. “Now she has her own ice fishing gear.”
Off to the side of the lake, a group of ten teens camped out together, laughing and enjoying a Saturday on the ice. They were all members of the KV Fishing Club from Kankakee Valley High School, a club that freshly began last October.
“I think ice fishing is more relaxing than regular fishing, and you get to hang out with friends,” Nick Schoonveld, club president, said. “I love the competition aspect of fishing.”
Their club sponsor, David Hass, welding instructor at Kankakee Valley High School, said the club has been a great, positive outlet for the students.
“Some of them have never been ice fishing before,” Hass said. “It gives them more of a respect for the outdoors, and fishing and hunting, and it makes everyone equal. Out here, there’s no football players or band people, they’re just teens here to have fun. It also gets a lot of students who normally aren’t into school activities involved.”
For more on fishing outings and meetings, check out the Friends of Fishing Facebook page at https://www.facebook.com/Friends-of-Fishing-285123244948831/ and be sure to find more fun outdoor events at the Valpo Parks site: http://www.valpoparks.org/