Trevor Janes was optimistic about the ice fishing season in McHenry and Lake counties after the Christmas weekend cold snap.
Subzero temperatures created 7 to 8 inches of ice in Johnsburg’s Pistakee Bay. A few dozen fishing shacks were on the ice on December 28. Even with warmer temperatures forecast for the New Year’s weekend, Janes thought overnight lows below freezing should keep the ice stable.
In the first week of January, however, the ice did not cooperate with Janes’ plan. His company, Wet N Wild Outfitters, had to take his ice fishing customers to Wisconsin lakes to find enough ice to fish safely until early February.
Janes have returned to Chain O’ Lakes, however, and anglers have also returned to The Hollows, 3804 Route 14 in Cary, said McHenry County Conservation District Marketing Director Caitlynn Martinez-McWhorter.
“It’s never closed, per se. It’s always “at your own risk, with 4 inches of ice or more,” he said. “Most of January the ice wasn’t good enough.”
When the ice is thick enough, fishermen can set up a shanty, but those must be peeled off the ice each night, Martinez-McWhorter said. Although catch and release is encouraged, anglers can also take their catch home.
The peak season for ice fishing in northern Illinois is January and February, Janes said. In a good year, there may be a week or two in December or even March if the weather stays cold where the ice is strong enough to support both people and a hut.
This winter has not been a good year, Janes said. “It’s something we haven’t experienced before,” he said of the terrible ice conditions. “I’ve never had to wait four or five weeks just to get in.”
Most of their guests were willing to travel to Wisconsin, but the ice has been hard this year across the region.
“Illinois has a shorter ice season than other areas of the ice belt,” said Janes, who has been a full-time fishing guide at the Chain O’ Lakes since 2019. The Wonder Lake man grew up fishing here and learned from it. and winter fishing trips in the region.
“We don’t have the ice the ancients talk about,” he said.
When there’s ice to fish, his crew of five starts their day at 5:30 a.m., loading gear into their trucks, feeding them and snacks for the day. They are on a lake at 6 or 6:30 in the morning and have their first customers on the ice by 7 in the morning. From then until 10 a.m., they’re running a shuttle to take customers, many from Chicago but others from around the country, to one of their ice fishing shacks.
“It’s such a unique thing that we have with Chicago, Milwaukee, Madison and Rockford” all close by and with people wanting to fish here, Janes said.
Anglers who live in or visit these cities don’t just want to go ice fishing, he said. “The destination is ‘I want to go ice fishing on the Fox chain.'”
There are 37 species of fish found in the Chain O’ lakes, including bluegill, crappie, catfish, walleye, northern pike, white bass and “chainfamous yellow bass,” Janes said.
Record fish come out of the lakes every year, he said. But with so many homes and private docks surrounding the lakes, access to the water can be a challenge.
One of the easiest places to fish or ice fish is Pistakee Bay from the launch at Oak Park Lounge in Johnsburg. Other access points include Turtle Beach Marina at Chain O’Lakes State Park and the Antioch Canal.
To fish in the winter, anglers need a resident or non-resident fishing license, “warm clothing and a good attitude,” he said.
Kyle Goddard, 27, of Crystal Lake teaches ice fishing lessons for area parks and recreation districts and departments. He recently stopped by the Oak Park Lounge to hand out business cards and build clientele.
He grew up in Hoffman Estates and fished the Chain O’ Lakes with his family. “He could fish before he could walk,” Goddard said.
He has been teaching ice fishing lessons for a park district for seven years and has recently ventured out on his own. He found that many families wanted to find a new way to get out of the house during the COVID-19 pandemic, and ice or open water fishing was one way to do that.
It was something Janes saw, too: More people wanted to go ice fishing as a way to get out of the house over the past two winters.
Janes said his customers are now booking for the 2024 season.
These customers are from all over the United States and are a mix of those who want to keep and eat what they catch and those who catch and release. If they want, they will clean the fish for them, added Nick Nelsen, one of the guides who works with Janes.
“For 99 percent of our customers, it’s a convenience thing” to have the fish gutted and deboned for them, Nelsen said.
Janes, Nelsen and their partners don’t just offer winter fishing guide services. They also maintain a fairly brisk schedule year-round for open water fishing, they said.
“There are lots of lakes here and tons of tourism, … shops and places and great accommodation. Everything about this area is world class and underrated” for fishing tourism, Janes said.