LOMBARD – Snow crunches beneath Mike McNett’s feet as he uses a hand auger to drill a hole into the thick ice on the pond at Westmore Woods in Lombard.
The water makes a “slooshing” sound as he retracts the drill and clears away ice fragments bobbing on the surface of the water. It’s a frigid Monday afternoon, despite the abundant sunshine, and McNett, a Lombard resident and USA Ice Team captain, is getting in a few minutes of practice.
Team USA will leave Saturday morning to compete in the 11th World Ice Fishing Championship in Belarus – a country that borders Poland, Ukraine and Russia. The championship, Feb. 18 to 24, is held in the country’s Minsk region in an area commonly used as a Summer Olympics training ground for local rowers.
“If there is any way to bring international countries and people together, it’s fishing,” he said.
McNett, 48, sets the line on his palm rod and lowers the slack below the surface of the pond. The palm rod, which typically measures between just 4 and 7 inches, includes a small indicator and allows an ice angler to sense the smallest bite on their line.
He repeats the steps a couple times before catching a small bluegill and retrieving it from the hole.
In the world championship, speed is the name of the game.
The course is divided into five zones, and one angler from each team occupies a given zone. The two-day competition includes a three-hour heat each day. The total weigh of fish caught per team in the six hours determines the winner.
For McNett, who won the national championship at the 2005 North American Ice Fishing Circuit, the difference between U.S. events and the world championship is the lack of technology allowed on the international level. Fishers are prohibited from using underwater cameras and other high-tech gadgets to locate and attract fish.
“When you go to the world [event], you’re actually going back in time,” McNett said. “You’re using your intuition and [fish] feed to attract the fish.”
Fishers can drill as many holes as they like, but only two can be marked at any point. The active holes are designated with pegs and prior to fishing, teams will “feed” their holes with ground bait to attract the fish.
Teams are prohibited from fishing within the zones during their training days leading up to the championship, meaning it can be beneficial to have a game plan, but also critical to know when to bail on the plan quickly when the fish aren’t biting, McNett said.
Each team member is allowed a spotter on the ice.
“Their eyes are on the rest of the fishers and telling our guy in the US what techniques they’re using,” McNett said, adding that it’s important for fishers to swallow their pride and listen to the spotter when given direction on when to relocate. “Sometimes you can get all the countries on a single school of fish and it will just be who can catch the most.”
Team USA has competed in the world championship each year since 2009, taking home first place in U.S. waters in 2010 in Rhinelander, Wis. and fourth place last year in Wausau, Wis.
Preparation for the event begins roughly a year in advance, when between 50 and 60 anglers compete in open trials to make the U.S. team. This year’s trials will be held March 14 to 16 in Rhinelander.
“It gives the guys who make the team an opportunity to do their fundraising and to tell their bosses that they need the time off,” McNett said.
For McNett, the vice chairman of the United States Freshwater Fishing Federation, the most exciting thing about ice fishing is not competing or coaching, but hosting demonstration events for children and growing the sport, he said.
While he hopes to one day see ice fishing in the Winter Olympics, McNett acknowledged that there are hurdles.
“The hardest part about it is you’re dealing with an animal,” he said.