By Greg Hunt/Isanti County News
Mark Stevens of Stark and Steve McConville of Lindstrom are heating up their pro ice fishing league by stacking up the catch. The two teamed to win the Fox Lake, Wis. tournament Jan. 19—their second league win over the past five events extending back into last season.
The Jan. 19 event was the second on this season’s Wisconsin Ice Fishing League (WIFL) circuit. There will be five events total in the league, closing off with the big finale on Wabasso Lake March 2. There are a couple other Minnesota teams who make the regular run over the border for tournaments.
The two met five years ago at Ice Team tournaments, then they teamed up shortly afterward. Both have been ice fishing most of their lives. Mark moved north of Stark in 1993, and Steve moved to the Chisago Lakes area in 1994.
“Last year, we won at Balsam Lake where it was -12 degrees at takeoff. On Fox Lake, it was a sunny 38 degress on that Saturday, and we didn’t get the big winds you guys had here until we drove home into them on Sunday,” said McConville. Fox Lake is about five hours away, just past Wisconsin Dells.
On Fox, the guys had a couple spots figured out after pre-fishing the lake. But the departures are determined by lottery, and the two were the 22nd team out of 25 to leave the access.
“All the teams we saw were going to the left, and we had our spot over to the right where we pre-fished. And there was only one other team that went to the right like us,” said Stevens.
“It was ‘Free Fishing’ weekend in Wisconsin that weekend, so by 8:30 a.m. there was—no lie—10,000 people on that lake,” added McConville. “And it seemed 80 percent of them were all where those other teams were fishing.”
“It kind of worked out that all the pressure from all those other teams and fishermen pushed the fish out toward us,” continued Stevens, who said they moved once all day—perhaps sliding their base station all of 75 yards at the most (team members must remain within 30 feet of each other).
The way the tournaments work in the WIFL is fishermen combine their 12 largest perch, crappies and sunfish, and that’s what they bring in to the tourney scales. Total weight determines the placings.
“That day, we turned in all crappies. This lake is full of crappies, but the problem is they had a fish kill earlier this winter. So we were catching 7.5 – 9” crappies—nothing too large,” said Stevens. “We have our own scale out on the four-wheeler, so we knew exactly what we had in our ‘keeper bucket.’”
The WIFL tourneys run from 8 a.m. – 1 p.m., adding more of a challenge for the contestants to fish the harder part of day as opposed to the potentially easier late afternoon/sundown stretch. Stevens said 288 total crappies were weighed in by the tourney contestants that day. The difference between 1st place and 11th place was a half-pound.
“Taking first definitely helps the season budget after the payout,” said McConville. “We get by pretty cheap since we shared a cabin with two other teams at Fox Lake.”
“With any tournament, you get the camaraderie where you get invited by others to go fish their local lakes together. We share a lot of things after the tourney,” laughed Stevens. “So you can learn a lot getting into the tourneys.”
The Wabasso finale in March will determine the “Team of the Year” and the top-five placings for the season (with respective payouts for the placers).
The duo’s main sponsors are Clam icehouses and Vexilar fish locators.
“We’re also on the Ice Team pro staff. Ice Team members are essentially ambassadors for the sport through that nationwide service group,” said Stevens. “So if a local group wants to put on a clinic of fishing day for kids, for example, Ice Team members can help out pulling that off. And if we are just out fishing on our own, we’ll help out with tips or hand out CDs from Vexilar about how to use the equipment better.”
McConville added that the WIFL tourneys are all open sign-up, so anyone can try the challenging format.