Ice-fishing can result in a memorable outing or a miserable experience. There doesn’t seem to be any in between. It all depends on how well you’re prepared.
Spend just a few hours sitting on a plastic bucket, staring down a hole, freezing your extremities, with the wind spitting snow down the back of your neck and a few measly fish on the ice is not the way to get started ice-fishing. You’re likely to proclaim yourself a full-fledged couch potato after an outing like that and never venture onto the ice again. But with today’s modern equipment – shelters, heaters, tackle and clothing – it’s easier to have a successful and enjoyable day on the ice than ever before. Go prepared, plan accordingly and you may actually look forward to your next ice-fishing adventure. Who knows, you may even come to like ice-fishing. It can make winter go by a whole lot faster.
It doesn’t matter where you live in the northern tier of states, there’s a lake, pond or impoundment within driving distance that offers ice-fishing opportunities. The most commonly sought-after species by ice-fishermen include panfish, like bluegills, sunfish, crappie and perch; and northern pike, walleye and trout. Panfish are probably the easiest for the beginning angler to catch, they’re plentiful and usually willing biters. Panfish are abundant in most lakes and reservoirs, and the equipment required to catch them is minimal. Plus, they’re great on the table.
Before you decide to go ice-fishing you need to take some precautions. Ice thickness and quality is constantly changing so make sure the ice is safe before you venture out. Most experts agree that a minimum of 6" of ice is enough for safe foot traffic for use with ATV’s or snowmobiles. Check with local officials, other anglers and make sure the ice is safe before you venture out. Also, take life-saving gear with you – length of rope, awls or screwdrivers for pulling yourself back onto the ice; a life jacket, ice creepers, a whistle and a cell phone. Hopefully you’ll never need them, but if you do, you’ll be glad you brought them. Make sure you let someone know when you plan on returning and where you’re planning on fishing.
How you dress is going to have a big effect on how comfortable a day you’re going to have on the ice. Pay special attention to your head, hands and feet. If they get cold, your inner core is likely to be cold. Take an extra pair of gloves or mittens. Boots need to be well-insulated for cold-weather use. Dress in layers. If you’re walking out on the ice, you might want to open up your coat and/or take your hat off to let heat escape. Bundle back up once you reach your destination. The same goes when drilling holes. Drilling can be tough work and you can work up a sweat. 90% of your body’s heat loss is via your head so taking you cap or stocking hat off can keep you from overheating. Once in the shanty with the heater going you can take off layers until you reach the right comfort level.
Picking tackle depends on the species you’re targeting. You need to balance your equipment or tackle in order to present baits that are going to interest certain species of game fish. Using the right tackle will allow you to detect bites and catch fish.
Light line and tackle are used for most panfish species. Panfish generally don’t weigh more than a pound so you can use lighter tackle. Panfish also bite very lightly at times, so you need equipment that will allow you to detect light bites and use light line. The norm when fishing panfish is usually 2- to 4-lb. test and generally the lighter the better. My personal panfish outfit is loaded with 3/4-lb. smoke-colored sewing thread. It’s strong enough to handle any panfish. I get more bites using the light line and panfish feel little resistance when they bite. Super-light line allows lethargic winter panfish to suck in tiny baits. The line is invisible in the ultraclear waters of winter too. Several companies now make lines strictly for ice-fishing. Combine the light line with a delicate spring bobber that will detect the subtle bite of a winter panfish.
Of course, to fish with hair-thin line you need equipment that can handle it. Manufacturers now make micro-sized spinning and spincast reels for use with spider-web- thin monofilament. You can buy wispy ice rods, capable of acting like a big shock absorber, to handle the light line. Outfits, which feature slightly stiffer rods, bigger reels and heavier line, are better suited to those targeting game fish like pike, walleye and trout.
Baits used for ice-fishing vary depending on the species. Bluegills and sunfish are bug eaters and can be caught most readily on larva including spikes, wax worms and mousies. Crappies can be caught on larva, minnows or scent-enhanced baits. Bigger game fish are generally meat eaters and are most readily caught on minnows or jigging lures that imitate dying minnows. Trout can be caught on all of the above in addition to roe or spawn.
Tip-ups are another option for bigger game fish. Just as the name implies, the device tips up or a flag goes up when a fish takes the bait. Tip-ups come in various shapes and forms, but all basically work the same way. The line is lowered below the ice and then the tip-up is set or triggered so a flag goes up when a fish grabs the bait. The fish is then fought hand-over-hand without the aid of a reel. Some ingenious devises called Slammers act like a tip-up, but incorporate a rod and reel, which is a big advantage when tangling with hard-fighting fish or when fishing deep water.
Tip-ups don’t require your undivided attention, so kids can play and frolic until the cry; "Flag up!" grabs everyone’s attention. It’s then a scramble to the hole where everyone peers down the hole, shouts encouragement and wonders in anticipation of what’s on the other end of the line. Usually, you take turns so everyone has a chance at catching a fish. In between, you can roast hot dogs, make hot chocolate or play games. Take along a shanty to serve as a warming shelter. Tip-ups are a great way to get the entire family involved in a simple form of ice-fishing. Regulations on using tip-ups vary from state to state so be sure to check your state’s fishing guide.
Remember that during the winter the water will be clearer than during the open-water fishing months. Wave action, vegetation, algae blooms and micro-organisms that would normally cloud the water and make fish less spooky in the summer are not a factor in the winter. Fish have plenty of time to inspect your offering under the ice and their lower metabolism makes them even pickier.
Even though it would seem like it would be dark under the ice all of the time, panfish and other game fish seem to be more active early and late in the day. In fact, some of the best winter crappie fishing takes place after dark. Try to plan it so you’re on the ice when these flurries of activity take place. Pike and perch are voracious sight feeders and remain active during mid-day, but walleye and bluegills are notorious for going into a feeding frenzy right at sunset.
One mistake beginning anglers make is they drill a hole and then sit and wait. Instead of waiting for the fish to come to you, a better plan of attack is to go find the fish. Fish in the winter tend to not move very much, so you need to go find them if you’re not having success.
It’s understandable why you wouldn’t want to punch a bunch of holes if you’re using a conventional spud or ice chisel. It’s too much work! At the very least, invest in a good, hand ice drill. A sharp ice drill or auger can go through a half foot of ice in a hurry. And the easier it is for you to make a hole, the more holes you’re going to drill.
When targeting panfish, a 4- or 5-inch hole is adequate. The smaller the hole, the easier it is to drill. Take the time to drill a series of holes before you start fishing. That way all of the commotion will be over and the fish will have a chance to calm down. When you need to move, the holes will already be there. Move every half hour or so until you find some fish.
Augers make the task of drilling holes even easier and are a godsend when the ice is thick. Power augers are perfect for creating 7- to 10-inch holes necessary when targeting pike, walleye and other bigger game fish. The bigger the hole, the easier it is to get a sizeable fish through it. Bigger holes tend to freeze up less quickly, too.
Any auger is only as good as its blades. Pay special attention to your auger and avoid laying it in the snow or on the ice to prevent a build-up of ice on the blades. Lay the auger on the shanty cover, against the snowmobile or across a bucket. Employ the plastic guard when the auger is not in use to keep blades sharp and avoid injury to others.
Shanties or ice-fishing shelters have come a long way in recent years. There are more choices than ever, they’re lightweight, portable and they can keep you comfortable and fishing in the coldest weather. The great thing about shelters is they block the wind. Wind across an open expanse of ice is the fisherman’s biggest enemy. Use a little heater to take off the chill and ice-fishing can be downright comfortable. Often just the sun radiating down on a dark shanty is enough to keep you warm.
Shelters that also serve as a sled are perfect for getting your gear out on the ice and serve as protection once you get there. There are one- to four-man models that are very portable, self-contained and can hold everything from rods and heaters to electronics. They can be easily towed behind a snowmobile or four-wheeler or pulled by hand for moderate distances.
Modern electronics have made it easier than ever to locate fish under the ice. Underwater cameras allow you to actually see the fish under the ice. Flashers and graphs offer similar insights into fish behavior and location. Most serious ice-anglers wouldn’t be caught dead without some kind of electronics. Fishing without them is like fishing blind.
Not everyone who is just getting into ice-fishing can afford a flasher or camera, but if you’re fishing near a group of anglers, someone is sure to have a unit. Most anglers are more than willing to show you how the devices operate, and you can get a first-hand demonstration on how important they are to catching fish through the ice. You can visit your nearest Cabela’s store where a knowledgeable outfitter can show you how they work. Then you can decide if you want to spend the money, which one you should buy and an outfitter can help you with your purchase.
Modern gear, tackle and electronics have made it easier than ever to enjoy the sport of ice-fishing. Get out and give it a try this winter.