Howard “The Duck” Underwood hoists a pair of bluegills caught at Iowa’s Lake Okoboji, Underwood’s favorite hard-water fishing destination.
A central Illinois ice fishing pro
Ice fishing tips
Drill. Fish. Move. Drill. Then move again.
That basically sums up Howard “The Duck” Underwood’s ice fishing strategy. “I will move even if I am still catching fish,” he said. “You pop open a hole, you hit the most aggressive fish, which is usually also the biggest fish. Then you move on. It’s like trolling the lake through the ice.”
In addition to moving frequently, Underwood swears by the Vexilar sonar system. “With a Vexilar you can eliminate a lot of water that is useless to fish,” he said.
Underwood fishes with tiny jigs as small as 1/64th of an ounce. And while he prefers Eurolarva maggots (available only via mail order), he also has a tip for making waxworms more colorful. Underwood uses Krazy Dust (sold by just-fish.com), a scented powder that adds color to live bait. The concept is similar to the glowing green nitro worms, only more vibrant.
“Those things really draw the fish out of the weeds,” Underwood said.
Finally, Underwood targets different species at different times. At first light he targets crappie, then moves on to bluegill, then bass, walleye and saugeye. As shadows lengthen he again targets bluegill and closes the day chasing crappie at last light.
Though he’s not quite a Jamaican bobsledder, Howard “The Duck” Underwood said he is an oddity among professional ice fishermen.
“I’m the hillbilly of the circuit,” said Underwood, 38, a Eureka resident who competes on the North American Ice Fishing Circuit.
Underwood’s hillbilly status is born out of the fact that he’s believed to be the most southern participant on a circuit dominated by anglers from Minnesota, Wisconsin, Michigan and other states where ice is a winter-long reality.
That’s not true in central Illinois, where ice fishing is a short-lived, mercurial pursuit. Recent weather proves the point emphatically. Safe ice Christmas week turned to slush in a rush thanks to 60-degree temperatures last weekend. While ice conditions improved dramatically last week and many anglers are again drilling holes, Underwood realizes that could change overnight.
Even so, he has thrown himself wholeheartedly into hard-water fishing. “I’ve picked and chosen the jobs that let you ice fish from December to March,” Underwood said. “One of the struggles for a central Illinois professional ice fisherman is that I have to do some serious, serious traveling,”
All those road trips paid off last month when Underwood and partner Tod Todd of DeKalb (pictured below) placed fifth out of 80 teams competing at the NAIFC championship on Boom Lake near Rhinelander, Wisc. The pair had 32 fish in two days that weighed 12.8 pounds and moved frequently, a tactic Underwood said he learned from ice-fishing guru Dave Genz.
“In nine days of fishing at Rhinelander we fished close to 2,000 holes and I bet we drilled 1,000 of those holes,” Underwood said. “I’ve really had struggles finding a partner that was as into this as me, but Tod and I are a good fit.” Todd runs MidwestAngling.com, an informative fishing Web site.
That finish—Underwood’s best in seven years of fishing professional tournaments—helps make up for the miles he logs each winter.
“There’s been days I’ve driven 10 hours to Alexandria, Minn. to fish four hours, then driven straight back home,” said Underwood, who estimates he drives up to 25,000 miles on fishing trips from December through early March. The closest of nine NAIFC tournaments this year is Feb. 22 at Channel Lake on the Fox Chain O’ Lakes in northern Illinois. Visit naifc.com to learn more.
When the ice allows, Underwood also fishes local public lakes and farm ponds. He lists Lake Storey, Eureka Lake, Banner Marsh, Lake Bloomington and Evergreen Lake as some of his favorites. In fact, after opening presents with his family on Christmas Day, Underwood drilled holes at Evergreen and caught several saugeye in 28 feet of water.
Underwood’s favorite destination is Lake Okoboji in northwest Iowa. “You can sight fish 20 feet down and there’s plenty of big, one-pound bluegill up there,” he said. That’s where son Joel, 7, caught his first fish and is also one of the favorite spots for Underwood’s wife, Jaimie, whose job as a nurse allows her husband to chase his chilly dream of professional ice fishing.
“Without her I couldn’t do what I do,” he said.
OK, but why do it in the first place?
“I love weather that’s basically fit for a duck. When it’s cold, windy, wet or nasty I love it,” Underwood said, explaining in part his nickname. “There’s also less people out. I just really love ice fishing.”
That said, he is well aware of the hard-water fishing’s dangers. Underwood has broken through ice seven times and at one tournament near International Falls, Minn. saw a fellow angler go under after finding a soft spot in a lake that was otherwise covered by 28 inches of clear, hard, frozen water.
“So you can never, ever assume the ice is safe,” Underwood said.
You can assume, however, that Underwood will be one of the first anglers testing the ice.