OKOBOJI, Iowa | Zach Mankle lit a cigarette while sitting on a 5-gallon bucket at the apex of a Monday afternoon in Okoboji.
"This is my first time out here this season," Mankle said. "It's been way too cold before. Today feels like fall."
As temperatures in the Iowa Great Lakes inched past 40 degrees, hundreds of anglers joined Mankle on the ice, thickened to a foot or so, according to most, thanks to a couple of weeks of single-digit and below-zero readings.
"This ice really set in," said Doug Eddy, of Sibley, Iowa. "When you get cold temperatures like that with no wind, you get the ice. We have a good foot now."
Eddy sat at Emerson Bay, joined by several dozen anglers who augered their way to finding bluegills, sunfish, crappie and more.
"They've all decided to go out and catch a ray of sunshine," said Ellie Pavelko, who kept busy with bait orders at Oh Shuck's Bait & Tackle at West Okoboji, Iowa. "It's going wild out there. It's been excellent and there are buckets and buckets of fish coming in."
"We've been busy," added Rich Menken, who sold his share of wigglers and wax worms for anglers visiting Stan's Bait & Tackle of Milford, Iowa. "I was out there (on Emerson Bay) on Monday. We got our limit in bluegills."
Mankle chose spoons for his bait. He worked two lines and kept a pile of perch three feet from his bucket. He decided on a spot in East Lake Okoboji, not far from Smith's Bay, the epicenter for the upcoming University of Okoboji Winter Games.
"There were several guys here this morning, but they may have moved to Emerson Bay or out by Park's Marina," he said.
Mankle said he'd spend Monday and Tuesday on the ice before heading back to work at the Nautical Bar & Grill.
"I like the quiet here," he said, glancing around and seeing nobody else around. "There are no boats, no traffic, no tourists."
He hesitated and restated his thought. "I don't mind tourists, but things get pretty loud where I live by the park," he said. "So, during the summer, I'll fish on the Des Moines River or the Little Sioux River, where it's quieter."
The anglers, snowmobilers and other fun-seekers will descend upon this tourism draw in two weeks, when the 35th edition of the Winter Games commences. And, Mankle will have plenty of work as his place of employment hears the ring of the cash register.
By then, Mankle may have found enough perch for his friends. He was well on his way on Monday, one of the first real busy afternoons on the ice this winter.
"I make perch and walleye chowder once or twice each winter," Mankle said. "And with a female perch, I'll keep the eggs after I fillet the fish. I give the perch eggs to older friends. They like to cook them in their scrambled eggs."
The start of the 2017 ice fishing season, Mankle said, seemed to be more productive, a period in which he couldn't operate two poles at once.
"It was so good last year, you had nonstop fish," said Mankle, who resides two blocks from Arnolds Park Amusement Park.