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Ice Fishing: Search for the Heydey

Ice fisherman Don Cox reflects on 25 years of fishing through the ice

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With no other soul on the ice, winter fishing diehard Don Cox of Mullen fishes at the Valentine National Wildlife Refuge’s Pelican Lake. He longs for the days at Pelican when he’s not the only one on the ice.

Story and photos by Jeff Kurrus

Don Cox of Mullen clearly remembers 28 years ago. He was at Pelican Lake on the Valentine National Wildlife Refuge ice-fishing with his brother-in-law, Dave Fehlhafer, near an angler they nicknamed Red Man. While Red Man was catching some of the largest bluegill Don has ever seen, Don and Dave weren’t doing so well, spending most of the time second-guessing their tackle and technique.

Nowadays, Don doesn’t do a lot of second-guessing. An ice-fishing diehard with a number of tournament wins and thousands of hours on the ice, he’s ready to adjust at a moment’s notice, yet patient with the process that has allowed him so much success thus far.

Yet he has one goal that still evades him – and it goes back to that stranger on the ice so many years ago on Pelican Lake. Soon, he thinks, he might just have a chance to achieve it.

Hooked

On New Year’s Day in 1990 – several weeks before his first trip to Pelican – Don awoke to a bucket of fish on his front porch caught by brother-in-law Dave. Despite ice-fishing sparingly as a child with his father and great uncle, he found himself intrigued.
That afternoon, Don and Dave went to Calamus Reservoir, which was supporting 16 inches of ice they had to cut with a dull, spoon hand auger that could only manage about two inches of ice per minute. They were fishing with two tip-ups and a makeshift outfit that used a tree branch as the rod. “I caught one largemouth bass through the ice that New Year’s Day, but it changed my life forever.”

Don is all smiles while ice-fishing at Pelican Lake on the Valentine National Wildlife Refuge.

He was so hooked, in fact, that despite a ranching income that at the time was about half the state’s poverty level, he talked his wife into giving up the $25 entry fee for he and Dave to enter the Valentine Jaycees Ice-Fishing Tournament at Merritt Reservoir. “It guaranteed $5,000 in cash and prizes, and we thought about how much fishing equipment we could buy if we won the tournament.”

After a series of mishaps that included navigating one-way roads and disposing of a mule deer that had been hit by another driver’s van – all to avoid the motel cost of staying in Valentine for the night – they arrived 40 minutes late to their moneymaker.

It took them an hour and a half to cut two holes apiece, and their newly bought rods didn’t have enough line to get down to the 45 feet they needed to fish. They had no lunch, no water, and the beer in their system from the pre-tournament Calcutta the night before was gone. With head pounding, Don starting eating ice from the holes they had cut as they watched a team near them haul in fish after fish.

They didn’t catch a single one.

Red Man

After the tournament, Don and Dave talked to some guys who had fished Pelican Lake that same day. “When they showed us their bluegills, I had no idea what I was looking at,” said Don. “It wasn’t until I was at my son’s doctor’s appointment a couple weeks later that something clicked.”

There was an In-Fisherman Magazine photograph of a guy holding a 10-inch bluegill. “I just remember how happy he looked,” Don said. Then he thought back to the fish from Pelican not two weeks before. “There was not a bluegill close to that small.”

By that Sunday he and Dave were pulling into Pelican, but they weren’t alone. “There had to be more than 600 people fishing,” he said. “Finding a parking spot wasn’t easy. It was a quarter-mile walk to get to the ice.”

They set up near a man whose area was dotted with Red Man chewing tobacco excretions, and watched him catch three of the largest bluegill that Don has ever seen. “He was obviously having a good day,” Don noted. “There was a 25 mile-per-hour wind and neither one of his two 5-gallon buckets where he was throwing fish moved at all.”

Don releases a largemouth bass back into Pelican Lake.

While Red Man never shared his tackle and techniques – the man only glared and grunted at them – Don and Dave made a pact that day to get better at ice-fishing. They even set personal goals: two-pound trophies of Nebraska’s three most popular panfish species – yellow perch, crappie and bluegill – and he wanted to do it on a public Sandhills lake. “I’ve caught several crappie over two pounds, and been close on the other species, but I’m not there yet.”

For a long time, he was convinced he could accomplish this at the Refuge’s system of lakes. Through the years, he upgraded his gear and increased his knowledge to accomplish these goals, asking questions, researching and studying other anglers anytime he could. They were also reading anything they could get their hands on. “I would get In-Fisherman’s ice annual and it was like getting a Christmas gift,” Don said. “There we learned about Dave Genz and Ice Team, and found out that for $25 per year Ice Team would send four publications entirely about ice-fishing.”

A slab crappie is caught and released on a private Sandhills lake.

Eventually, through tournament experience and practice all over the country – including Minnesota, the Dakotas, Idaho, New York, and Canada, he was asked to join Genz’s Ice Team in 2002. In 2009 he won that same tournament that had first skunked him and Dave, then won it again in 2016 on Big Alkali.

“Those years of tournament fishing are funny, and eye-opening, when we look back now,” said Don. “Many of the faces you see on ice equipment nowadays were fishing those same tournaments. We were right in the middle of the ice-fishing explosion.”

However, as the ice-fishing scene has expanded throughout the country, there has been one serious decline that has continued to affect Don. Because of the introduction of carp into the Refuge’s system of lakes, Don’s dreams of finding his 2-pound bluegill and yellow perch on public Sandhills lakes were behind him.

With his years of knowledge, he has pined for the good old Red Man-sized fish that he couldn’t catch when he was getting started but is more than equipped to catch now.
Because of recent plans by the Nebraska Game and Parks Commission, Valentine National Wildlife Refuge and the Nebraska Environmental Trust, he won’t have to wait much longer.

Renovations

A massive renovation project began earlier this year on the Sandhills lakes on the Refuge to remove and keep common carp from these prolific waters.
Native to Europe, carp cloud the water with their bottom-feeding activities, hindering the growth of aquatic vegetation that is the base of the food chain and limiting the productivity of sight-feeding fish such as bluegill, yellow perch, largemouth bass and northern pike.

Don witnessed the ice-fishing explosion firsthand, when popularity increased in the 2000s and manufacturers like Clam and Vexilar took over the ice-fishing world.

Watts Lake was the test subject when its renovation began in 2014, and by the 2018 season, keeper-sized fish were being caught from the lake. Pelican was next. With work starting in 2018, the goal is to return this natural lake – like the other renovation projects on the Refuge – to its heyday.

“These lakes have a unique ability to grow big fish,” said Nebraska Game and Parks Commission Aquatic Habitat Program Manager Mark Porath. “They have great vegetation and invertebrates, which act as great energy packets for bluegill. They can grow like crazy.” Because of these factors, the top-end possibilities are so much higher compared to other waterbodies out there, a fact Don knows as well.

The 2-Pounder

Fish with Don on a private Sandhills lake, one not beseeched with carp, and he’ll passionately point every time he pulls a gigantic bluegill from a hole. “See! That’s the possibility on those public lakes!” he says.

Caught on a private Sandhills lake, Don is convinced bluegills this size will be caught from Refuge lakes after they are renovated.

When the fish is on the end of your line, his excitement is even more. “Get ‘em! Get ‘em!” he calls out, as if it’s 1990 all over again and every fish is a revelation.

In many ways, it is – especially when he thinks about the future. “I want to see bluegill so big you can’t fit them through the hole,” he said. “And when those Refuge lakes are renovated, that’s exactly what we’ll see again.”

And he’ll be there to witness it – probably within eyesight of novice anglers wondering what tackle and technique he’s employing.
All they’ll have to do is ask.  ■