When he first started, Andy Craver ice fished with a homemade bobber fitted with guitar strings.
Craver, a project coordinator at the MU School of Nursing, said he watched YouTube videos to learn the craft and build his own ice fishing gear.
After several days of sinking his bait into the icy waters at Cosmo-Bethel Park last week, his unconventional tactics worked. He caught 20 fish.
“I’ve reached the daily limit almost every day,” Craver said.
Fishermen from around Columbia have descended on Bethel Lake since Feb. 3, when it was officially opened for ice fishing. Temperatures around Columbia have not risen above freezing since Jan. 30.
Trout lured the anglers away from their warm homes. Around 2,400, 10-to-12-inch trout were stocked in Bethel Lake during the last week of October, according to GoColumbiaMo.com.
Men huddled in groups braced the biting air of Bethel Lake on Saturday as cars whizzed past on Providence Road. Propped up on buckets, they solemnly stared into opaque holes with poles pointed into the chilled water.
Some anglers used regular fishing rods, dug with homemade augers and sat on the ice.
The weight of the 20 or so anglers pushed the ice down, causing the lake water to flush through the holes and creating a sloppy mess on the ice. Footfalls sunk several inches despite the more than 4-inch thick ice beneath it.
Most of the fishermen said they had never ice fished on Bethel Lake until last week.
Craver began ice fishing for the first time nearly two weeks ago. He said he ditched his guitar-string rod for an actual ice-fishing pole later in the week.
Craver said he’s been keeping the fish he catches. He and his wife have been eating fish tacos each night, freezing the extra fish they don’t eat.
On Saturday, he brought his neighbor, Aaron Finkel, with him. On the ice, they talk to each other to stay warm in the 25-degree temperature.
“We tell jokes,” Craver said.
Relying on an auger made from a wooden brush handle and a plastic green folder, Craver dug through a weak spot in the ice. He kneeled over his hole on a baby blue camping mat and relied on wax worms for bait.
Finkel, a stay-at-home parent, joked that he’s been fishing to provide for his family during the cold, winter days.
“There’s an animalistic pleasure to it all,” Finkel said.
Tracy Doyle and his twin sons, Tanner and Troy, sat on overturned white buckets and waited for fish near the banks of Bethel Lake. Tanner and Troy, sophomores at Hickman High School, said they’ve been fishing all week. The Columbia Public School District canceled classes from Tuesday until Friday.
“It’s been pretty sweet,” Tanner Doyle said. “We’ll probably have to go to school a few extra days in June, but you can’t trout fish in June.”
The Doyles weren’t novices. Tracy Doyle used a fish flasher that locates fish and a manual red auger that he bought from a friend. The Doyles also employed rods specifically for ice fishing.
Tanner had caught the most fish in his family after spending an hour on the lake.
“We only keep score if I’m winning,” his father, Tracy Doyle, said.
The Doyles hooked their fish cleanly, but maybe not as many as they’d like. Tracy said he saw some ice fishermen “chumming,” a practice that involves stuffing the hole with bait to attract fish. Tracy said it was illegal but very effective.
Relying on salmon eggs for bait, the Doyles also kept the trout they caught. Later, Tracy said they would clean and smoke the trout in a recipe that involves brown sugar. The process takes nearly 27 hours.
Finally, toward the back of Bethel Lake, a man stood alone. Roger Walker didn’t have any fancy equipment. He broke open a hole with an old ax and used an ultra-light fishing rod, stocking his catch in a worn bucket.
His bait was simple: corn.
Walker, though, had the biggest success story on the lake.
He claimed he caught 30 fish one day, including a 2-pound trout.
“Why’d I stop? I got cold.”