By Susan DeGrane

The parking lot of Henry’s Sport & Bait/Marine in Bridgeport is jammed, and more cars line the streets. Behind the store’s chain-link fence lies a small village of portable ice shanties adorned with bold price stickers. The enticing aroma of turkeys frying in huge cookers permeates the neighborhood.

Turnout for the bait shop and boat dealer’s fourth annual Ice Fishing Extravaganza is unusually good. “We almost ran out of chairs,” says Tom Grose, Henry’s electronics sales manager as well as a featured speaker. “We set up 70 or 80 chairs. In the past, there’d only be 35 or 40 people, usually less.”

The daylong seminar has attracted people from the Chicago area as well as Wisconsin and Indiana. Marvella Thomas, a 60-year-old grandmother who fishes the city’s lagoons, came because she wants to learn more about the sport. Her purple flowered coat stands out in a sea of earth tones and camouflage. “I just want to see how this is done, how to catch the fish, how to safely get out to an area where they’re biting,” she says.

But most of the people here are like Kenny Schneider, die-hard fishermen who refuse to lay down their poles for an entire winter. Schneider’s facing surgery for a torn rotator cuff. “It hurt so bad it got to where I couldn’t lift the pole anymore, so I figured I better do something about it.”

“It’s a very small group of people who fish to begin with,” says Henry Palmisano, the owner of Henry’s. “If you consider what percentage of those people are ice fishermen, it’s an even smaller group.”

There’s no ice to speak of on this early December Saturday. “Normally we’d be out doing it,” says Jim Andersen, 47, of Chicago. “We wouldn’t be here. Most years past there’d already be three to four inches of ice on the lakes by now.” Grose says he knows of one ice fisherman who, frustrated with Chicago’s warm weather, booked a train trip to South Dakota in the hopes of finding some ice.

Inside the dealership Tom Gruenwald, a former U.S. ice-fishing champion and author of several manuals, speaks in semidarkness as strange images appear on a large screen behind him: 12-inch fishing rods with springs on their tips and reels like pizza cutters, giant augers to drill through ice, tiny, colorful lures called jigs, and flashy spoon-shaped baits with names like Swedish Pimple and Weasel.

The brick boat barn is chilly, and the mellow rumble of an outboard motor in the lot penetrates the room as more people enter and seat themselves on folding chairs. This creates little or no distraction for the audience, made up mostly of men plus a few women and kids, all wearing jackets or winter coats. There are no coughs, no sneezes, no pleas from small children to go to the bathroom or explore.

Gruenwald details special methods employed by the Swedish ice-fishing team he competed against in the 1991 World Ice Fishing Championship. Among their secrets are considering the terrain of lake bottoms from the fish’s perspective, using lake maps, switching to smaller line and lures, treading lightly and quietly on the ice, moving around frequently to find the fish, leaving ice chips in the holes to block out sunlight, and using artificial baits and weights to penetrate the water.

Jim Andersen and his sons Jim Jr. and Ron have fished the forest preserves of Du Page and Cook counties for six years. Bangs Lake, just north of Wauconda, is also a favorite spot. “We sort of knew about most of this stuff, but we never considered the ice chips,” Andersen says.

“The maps are important,” Ron, 17, chimes in.

“Yeah, but sometimes you can get a cheaper map, like those from Cook County,” says Jim Jr., 22. “It’s like they’re hand drawn, like they were done in the late 60s or 70s.”

Gruenwald had urged the audience to invest in lightweight garments specially designed to hold in body heat. But the Andersens say they prefer simply to dress in layers and warm up with hot cocoa, coffee, bologna sandwiches, and Little Debbie cakes.

Poppee and Walt Matan, a father and son design team for Custom Jigs & Spins, speak after Gruenwald. They spend an hour telling corny jokes and explaining the uses of jigs with names like Ratso, Rat Finkee, Shrimpo, and Stripper Special. They emphasize the need to vary bait presentation to cater to the subtle preferences of the fish–some are attracted to grubs and maggots that hang vertically, others prefer them served horizontally–and like Gruenwald and the Swedish champions advocate moving frequently to determine where the fish are. As an aside, the men reveal their personal recipe for success: dad sits over a hole as the son drills the openings in the ice.

“Hey, that’s what I ought to do–bring my dad out,” shouts a Willie Nelson look-alike propped against the hull of a fishing boat. “If I could just keep him away from the racetrack.”

The Matans smile tolerantly and move on. While their advice is liberally sprinkled with plugs for their special fishing lures, they do offer some legitimate guidance. “Never go ice fishing in Illinois without a spud bar,” says Walt, referring to a metal bar or pole about the length of a walking stick with a pointed tip for testing the strength of the ice. “And have a rope tied on it to keep it on your wrist,” he adds. “Otherwise, when it breaks the ice, it shoots out from your hand.”

Next up is Chuck Thompson, another accomplished ice fisherman, with more safety tips, like carrying a rope with a wooden handle that can be thrown to someone who falls through the ice, carrying or wearing a set of retractable hand spikes because mittens and bare hands can’t grip the ice, rolling–not walking–in the direction of more solid ice, and if you do fall in, kicking hard to elevate your body.

All the safety talk causes Bill Brannan, 60, of Elk Grove Village, to recall the time he and a fishing buddy fell through the ice two years ago. “If we had been using the spud bar, we wouldn’t have gone through,” he says. Fortunately the two men were near shore, and Brannan’s grandson Carl remained high and dry.

“I watched my friend waving his arms like a windmill, even though he was only about waist deep,” Brannan says. “He tore the hell out of the ice.”

Chilled and shaken, Brannan locked his keys inside his van after stowing away the fishing gear. Carl, then eight, managed to crawl through a half-open window and unlock the doors. Now Brannan, his buddy, and Carl always use a spud bar and carry retractable spikes on a cord around their necks. They even wear inflatable life vests.

Grose is the final presenter of the day. He devotes his hour to the use of high-tech sonar fish finders, which he says have become very popular in the last seven or eight years. But his talk is sparsely attended. The free raffle has ended with several people smiling and carrying away ice-fishing poles, ice-hole plugs, and other specialized tackle, and the fried turkey and sausage gumbo served for lunch has drawn an impressive crowd to the bait shop, which is now doing a brisk business in ice-fishing accoutrements. About 20 or so diehards cling to Grose’s explanations of such matters as leveling the transducers that bounce and record sound off of lake bottoms, but one energetic lad can’t resist playing loud tunes on his jacket zipper.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photos/Lloyd DeGrane.