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Several years ago, winter as I knew it ceased to exist.

Growing up in Streator, the cold months were always something to be endured, a time when the frigid north winds forced life indoors. Excursions outside were limited to running to a car after dad warmed it up.

When I was very young, I could be convinced that sledding was fun. But, then, I wised up. If it were so much fun, why weren't grownups doing it?

So, I did what everyone else did. I became part of a popular Midwestern winter crop, the couch potato. I joined the masses who played a waiting game until the appearance of robins at birdfeeders signaled it was safe to venture outside once more.

But, one day the iceman cometh. He was shaped like A.J. Menssen of Bloomington, a friend from the Bloomington Bass Club. He told me how much fun he was having ice fishing with members of the bass club too stubborn to stop fishing just because of a little snow and ice. They were having tournaments. Maybe that's not news in Wisconsin or Minnesota, but for an Illinois boy, dang, if it wasn't outside my comfort zone.

I made a mistake. I went to watch him fish. Soon, I was going to the tackle store for stubby little rods and an auger to cut holes in the hard surface. Since then I've added a flasher unit and even a portable ice shanty. I'm hooked. There are few things more fun on a cold day than heading to a lake, finding fish, catching a bunch of bluegills and crappies and then taking a few home for a mid-winter fish fry.

If you're one of those fair-weather fishermen who spend all winter in the garage gazing longingly at your boat waiting for the lakes to thaw, ice fishing is for you. You'll never view winter the same again. I look forward to it as a chance to experience a few weeks of chilly companionship huddled over holes feeling the kind of fun that only a fish tugging on the line can bring.

Here's a few suggestions to get you started;

Keep it simple. Buy a couple of ice rods that are meant for panfish. Don't get the really flimsy kind. You never know when a walleye or saugeye might decide to inhale the jig. Get one with a sensitive tip and some backbone.

Some people add spring bobbers. As the name implies, they are small springs or thin pieces of metal with a rod eye attached. The line goes through it before you tie on your jig. They increase the sensitivity to show light bites.

Use 2-, 3- or 4-pound line. Thinner line helps when you are using tiny ice jigs.

Augers come from 4- to 8 inches in most stores here. The larger the auger, the bigger the hole, the more ice you must cut through every time you drill. Too much work and you'll hesitate to move when fish aren't biting. That's the absolute worst thing you can do. Four-inch augers are good for panfish but a 6-inch is great for most purposes. My friend Dave Genz of Minnesota, who many consider the father of modern ice fishing, told me if he catches a fish too big for a 6-inch hole he wants to build a house on the spot.

Dress warmly in layers. Cover skin. This is no time to test your ability to withstand hypothermia or frostbite.

Others will go before the ice reaches 4 inches. You won't see me there. And even with 4 inches, beware of hidden springs or places where waterfowl have kept the lake open.

Mike Steffa, operations supervisor at Comlara Park/Evergreen lake reported earlier this week that coves are frozen but there's open water in some places.

Don't fish alone. Carry a rope. Some people wear those inflatable life preservers now. They are a great idea.

Once on the lake, look for places where there are groups of people " and go the other way unless you just want company. Fish avoid too much pressure. If you must fish around crowds, fish the edges off the groups. On reservoirs, seek out points that reach deep water.

The presence of wood, brush piles or other cover is a plus. Small humps can produce big catches.

Expect to drill several holes. Never stay where there are no fish. Best search tactic is to go with friends and divide up an area and start cutting. Watch your flasher for telltale signs of fish.

Small ice jigs and wax worms are a favorite standby. But, not enough people use spoons, which produce crappies and walleyes.

My favorite spots in Central Illinois are Evergreen Lake, Dawson Lake, Lake Shabbona and Lake Shelbyville. Farm ponds can be explosive for big panfish if you have permission.

Time to resign from the couch potato crowd, isn't it?

Scott Richardson is Pantagraph outdoor editor. Phone (309) 820-3227 or e-mail srichardsonyayaypantagraph

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