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Ice fishing is big attraction at winter festival in Antioch

Antioch residents (from left) Laurie Hansen Mike Holstrom Brian Calloway Gary Miller start pack up their gear Sunday after two

Antioch residents (from left) Laurie Hansen, Mike Holstrom, Brian Calloway and Gary Miller start to pack up their gear on Sunday after two days on the ice during the 54th annual Chain O' Lakes Fishing Derby and Winter Festival. | DAN MORAN/SUN-TIMES MEDIA

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Updated: March 11, 2014 6:26AM

In the feast-or-famine world of outdoor recreation, organizers of an ice-fishing event might be the only natives thrilled with a winter like the one Lake County has been treated to in 2013-14.

“There’s over 20 inches of ice out there this year,” said Mike Venet, one of the judges for the 54th annual Chain O’ Lakes Fishing Derby and Winter Festival, looking out at a field of white that passes for Channel Lake in Antioch in February.

“Last year, it wasn’t too bad, but it was all mushy on top — we had snow before the tournament — and the ice was only about eight inches,” added Venet as he and other judges waited on Sunday for the final entries in a two-day competition.

But the seemingly ideal ice conditions didn’t necessarily translate to great fishing. Mike Holstrom of Antioch said his group, which has met in the same spot near the Thirsty Turtle Beach Bar and Grill for more than 20 years, ended the weekend getting skunked.

“Slow,” he said when asked how they were biting early Sunday afternoon. “Very slow, even with the turnout — usually there’s 500 people out here. No fish, not much to speak of. I don’t know why more people didn’t come. We got two feet of ice out here.”

“And the weather’s not real bad,” said Laurie Hansen, packing up the crew’s gear on a sunny afternoon with temperatures reaching about 20 degrees. “I think (Saturday) maybe people got scared with the snow, thinking we were really going to get hit.”

Marguerite O’Connell, who helped organize the event with the Northern Illinois Conservation Club, said the flow of arrivals was heavier on the snow-free Sunday. She added that anything was better than 2012, when a lack of ice during a warm winter meant that the event’s main draw was the auction that traditionally closes the action.

Fishing aside, snowmobilers were having a field day, with Dave Collins of Antioch saying locals have been enjoying gap-free conditions since December.

“I haven’t seen any open water. Maybe by Fox Lake bridge right now, because it’s got kind of a strong current. But other than that, it’s been awesome this year,” he said. “For a while there, it seemed like winter (stunk), and we didn’t get any snow.”

Collins added that after this winter, “I don’t think I’ll have my boat in the water until June if this ice never melts.”

As the 2 p.m. cutoff for fish entries drew nearer, Venet agreed that the action “was a little slower than usual, but the quality of fish was not too bad at all. Size-wise, I would say it’s above-average. We’ve had some of the biggest fish we’ve seen.”

With a 33-and-a-half-inch Northern pike holding steady on the leaderboard, Holstrom said no one he knew was letting the quiet weekend spoil the party.

“We have friends in another shack over there getting a few bluegills, but other than that, you’ve got 100 (lines) up as far as the eye can see but nobody getting any flags,” he said. “But we eat good and we have fun, so that’s what it’s all about.

“Fish or no fish,” added Holstrom, “this is what we do. I wouldn’t miss it.”

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