LAKE METIGOSHE, N.D. — The winter scenery surrounding the quiet lake is Christmas-card perfect. Beneath the frozen cover swim big bluegill and crappie, treasures sought after by avid ice fishermen. Many are dedicated to the quest.
"It's been in my blood ever since I was a little kid. I just have the love for the sport," said Justin Potter, of Souris, North Dakota. "I've kept with it all my life. Now, as the kids get older, things are starting to evolve with them."
Potter and his wife, Nicky, have made ice fishing a family affair. The husband-and-wife team have earned a reputation as formidable competitors on the National Association of Ice Fishing circuit. They've fished through the ice from Indiana to Montana, but they consider Lake Metigoshe a true ice fishing treasure.
"This is my home away from home in the winter," explained Potter. "I absolutely love Metigoshe. I've been fishing it for five years now and I think I've got it figured out."
The Potters can be found on Lake Metigoshe virtually every weekend during the hard water season. To them, ice fishing is family fun with 9-year-old Kaitlyn and 8-year-old Dylan thoroughly enjoying their time on the ice.
"It's just a great outdoor activity and a great family adventure," said Potter. "I think ice fishing is a great family thing. Our biggest thing is we'd rather put a fishing rod in our kid's hand than a Nintendo controller."
Snow cover on Lake Metigoshe has made ice fishing somewhat more difficult than what it has been in recent years. Hard-packed snow makes it difficult to drive a vehicle onto the ice. Most ice anglers use snowmobiles to move from one place to another on either the north or south portions of the lake that straddles the U.S.-Canada border north of Bottineau, North Dakota.
The lure of catching bluegill and crappies is an enticement for fishermen, many of whom are accustomed to fishing walleye or other fish during the open water season. For an avid fisherman the challenge provided by big panfish is simply too much to ignore.
"You just gotta fish! There's nothing more to it," said Bob Kraus, of Minot, North Dakota, as he was preparing his snowmobile and portable ice house for a trip onto Lake Metigoshe. "As long as there's something fighting back, it's worth it. That's the main thing."
Ice fishing methods and equipment have evolved immensely, especially in the last several years. Portable shelters can be moved about and set up with ease. Fishing is done from comfortable chairs built into the collapsible structures. Small propane heaters provide enough warmth to fish without a cumbersome winter jacket.
There's been huge advancements in hard-sided ice houses, too. Many have all the conveniences of home — microwave, satellite television, stove, ample lighting and plush seating. Such accommodations on the ice help make ice fishing a social event. Often there's chili on the stove and a deck of cards on the table.
Today's modern augers drill holes through even the thickest ice with ease. For those who choose to fish outside, clothing has changed over the years, too, allowing ice fishermen to keep the elements at bay and fish in relative comfort.
"I can remember just sitting on a bucket the whole day and not catching a fish, just staring down the hole," remarked Potter.
Now, with the new electronics, the key is being mobile. "It's no different than trolling in your boat. I call it ice trolling. I've punched many holes in a day."
Popular presentations for ice fishing change, too. One of the biggest developments in recent years has been the use of tungsten jigs. Tungsten is much heavier than lead, which allows fishermen to utilize very small presentations under the ice. Tiny jigs tipped with the bait of choice and guided by four pound test line is a common set-up for bluegill and crappie.
During the winter, subtle and small can be very effective in getting bluegill and crappie to bite. Generally, the fishermen need to add only a very slight action to the line to convince bluegill to bite. Sometimes no action at all will work.
"Bluegills and crappies can be finicky. You can see them on the Vexilar but you can't get them to bite," said Potter. "The key is to find out the attitude of the fish. They'll tell you how they want a jig to move. Figuring out the cadence is the key to chasing bluegills and crappies."
Lake Metigoshe is the best known of several lakes in the Turtle Mountain region that have excellent populations of panfish. However, fishing pressure during the winter remains less than what might be expected given the quality of fish. A number of pound bluegill were caught during the recent NAIFC tournament at Lake Metigoshe. Other lakes in the region have been known to produce big "gills" as well.
"I've been asked by tournament anglers, doesn't anybody bluegill fish?" said Potter. "My answer is, not really but there's getting to be more."
Potter works in the oil fields when not on the ice. He says he'd like to continue to grow in the fishing industry. With that in mind, he started Got Ice fishing guide service, an operation that has begun to capture the attention of those seeking to hook up with bluegill and crappie in a winter adventure. However, says Potter, he offers a summer guide service as well.
"It's kind of been one of my life dreams," said Potter.
It's understandable, particularly when you feel the tug of a bull bluegill on the line through the ice.
"It beats the doldrums of winter," exclaimed Kraus. "You can't sit in the house and complain about the weather."