When winter freezes the outdoor world solid, it’s not necessarily time to hole up by the fireplace. Believe it or not, it’s possible to remain warm, find a frozen body of water, and maybe even catch something for dinner.
Ice fishing presents an opportunity to enjoy the quiet restfulness of winter while still being productive. Many people picture the pastime as a bunch of daft individuals hunkered over dark holes in the ice for hours on end, or even the crazier ones who bring recreational vehicles, complete with satellite dishes and heaters, onto frozen lakes as wintertime housing. The good news is no matter what, if you prepare ahead, you’ll have a fantastic time.
The most important aspect of ice fishing is knowing when the ice is safe.
“A lot of people say four inches, but I feel a lot more comfortable when it’s six inches,” says John Fraley, information officer for Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks who likes to ice fish in his spare time.
Bryan Newman, who frequently fishes during the winter around his home in Sugar Run, Pennsylvania, says, “Look for blue or clear ice. That’s what I like to see. And I drill test holes just to make sure.”
It usually takes a few weeks of temperatures staying in the 20s to form good ice, and longer if your daytime temperatures warm to above freezing. If you’re not sure how quickly the ice is setting up that year, look for other people fishing. Fraley says when you see groups of people out there on a regular basis, it’s a pretty good bet the ice is sound.
Even so, you must always be alert. Ice can often be thin along the edges of the water, and you need to be vigilant about underwater springs and pressure ridges — compression ruptures that occur when the ice heats during the day — because both of these are weak spots. Years ago, my husband, Grant, was fishing on a reservoir that had 19 inches of solid, clear ice. He noticed something underneath the ice, and walked over to investigate. Without warning, he fell through the thin layer of ice formed over the area where a spring bubbled underneath. Thankfully, the ice around the hole was strong enough to hold him as he pulled himself out of the water, but that’s a situation best avoided altogether.
For added precaution, many people wear life vests and carry poles to be able to assist themselves — or others — if they end up in the icy water. It’s also wise to have sturdy rope handy, in order to throw it to a person in trouble.
Most of the time, Fraley recommends against bringing vehicles out on the ice. On very large bodies of water, an ATV might be useful, and they’re usually fairly safe when the ice is roughly 10 inches thick, but it’s hard to see the weak spots if you’re traveling quickly. And trucks are more problematic. Although there are ice fishermen who safely take large vehicles on the ice in the Northern states, there are stories every year about them falling through, oftentimes with people inside. Err on the side of caution when it comes to ice safety.
While talking about ice safety and falling through ice may seem grim, it shouldn’t dissuade you from heading out to catch that winter mess. There’s nothing like pulling a fish out of the hole, and enjoying peaceful time on the ice in between these bursts of excitement.
Part of the enjoyment is being comfortable. Fraley reminds, “Wear a decent pair of boots with good insulation. You are standing on ice.”
Dress in layers, and stay away from wearing cotton because it holds moisture and will chill you. (A saying in outdoor recreation circles is that “cotton kills.”) Synthetic fiber long johns with layers of fleece or wool give you the option to peel off clothes as you warm up. An outer shell of heavy-duty overalls and a heavy coat keep out the wind and moisture (because there is oftentimes water on the ice). Most importantly, don’t forget your hat and gloves. Take them off if you’re hot, but you’ll appreciate them when you’re not moving around much.
Shelter of some sort is also a consideration. “Ice houses are nice,” says Fraley. “It makes all the difference in the world.”
Ice houses serve two functions: They block the wind and make life considerably warmer, plus they shield the hole from light so you can see down into the water.
My husband made a 4-foot-square black box we dubbed “The Perch Palace.” It fit into the back of the truck, and we simply slid it out to our fishing area. It worked great for the two of us, and when the sun came out, the ‘Palace’ warmed up nicely. I don’t remember ever being cold. Now that our family has grown, we use a fold-up ice house. It pops up in minutes, and we secure it to a post set into the ice so it doesn’t blow away.
Once in the dark of the ice house, the water becomes a different world. It glows. It’s a lot of fun to peer into the hole when there’s clear water and watch your jig tempt the fish that swim past. If you don’t have an ice house, you can gain the same effect by draping a tarp over you when you peer down the hole.
While the warmth can be nice, and the view is simply amazing, you don’t need a shelter to enjoy a day on the ice. We spent many days standing or sitting on a bucket or lawn chair while being perfectly comfortable and fishing well.
However, staying warm on bitterly cold days with or without an ice house can be a challenge. We’ve used a propane heater on occasion — if you’re forgoing the ice house, a propane heater can work wonders on chilled hands. You can even put one in your ice house, but make sure there is sufficient ventilation. You can also use a woodstove designed for tent-camping, but with wood, it is especially important to have proper ventilation to avoid issues with carbon monoxide.
“I’ll start a fire on the ice or on the shore,” says Newman. While burning on the ice might seem counterintuitive, there’s typically plenty of ice to prevent hazard.
The easiest way to haul all of your gear is to put it on a sled, although walking across the ice can look like a comedy act if there isn’t sufficient traction. Strap-on cleats work wonders to keep you upright when the ice is as slick as, well, ice.
Once you find your spot on the ice, drill a hole. The least expensive method is using a hand-cranked auger. With sharp blades, it works extremely well. For those who are enamored with the sport, investing in a power auger that makes quick work of any thickness of ice is often the preferred method. They are heavy and noisy, however, and you might want to bring mixed gas just in case you run out. Choose whatever option works best for you. Just drill until you break through, and then use a long-handled strainer to scoop out the small pieces of ice from the hole. Once the hole is clear, you’re ready to go.
Fish are always on the lookout for delectable bait that tempts them to go for a bite. Newman says, “I use what’s called tear-drop jigs. There are also a lot of tiny spoons.”
The advantage to using the spoons, such as the Swedish Pimple or Kastmaster, is that they go right to the bottom. When you’re fishing in 40 to 60 feet of water, as in some of the big Northern lakes, it makes a difference.
The tear-drop jigs aren’t quite as heavy, but they’re colorful, which is an integral part of bringing in the fish. What colors fish respond to varies greatly and depends on myriad factors. If you’re new to an area, or just not sure, check in with a local sporting goods store or bait shop to find out what’s working for others before buying.
When using bait, Newman uses maggots or meal worms. Some people also rely on the standard worms for the smaller panfish. For larger species, such as pike, use minnows, chubs or smelt.
Although you can use any fishing pole, many ice fishers prefer the stubby jigging rig because it is easy to hold with one hand. This jigging technique involves giving the lure a quick tug to simulate movement that attracts the fish. It takes some patience to find your rhythm. When the fish grabs the lure, instead of reeling it up, you usually pull in the line with your hands. Take the fish off the hook, toss it on the ice, and rebait your hook.
Tip-ups are another piece of gear specific to ice fishing. In many parts of the country, you can set a certain number of tip-ups (depending on the local regulations), as well as have several holes with fishing poles. The tip-ups are nice because you bait the hook and lower it to the desired level. Then you can watch them from afar; a spring-loaded flag ‘tips up’ if you’ve had a fish strike. You do need to hustle over to the hole to set the hook (give a quick jerk on the line), and then haul the fish up onto the ice, but tip-ups often mean more fish caught. Besides, there’s nothing quite like hustling over the ice to a tip-up that’s indicating you’ve got a fish on the line.
You can also use tip-ups as a way to clue you in to where the fish are hanging out for the day. “If I see flags start flying, I’ll work the area over with a jig,” says Newman.
“I like to go for the panfish,” says Newman. He often catches perch the size of a dinner plate, as well as plenty of crappie and bluegill. Once in awhile, he’ll land a bass, but notes that they have a strong flavor.
Since panfish often have generous limits, you might end up filleting a lot of them, and being smaller, it can take a number of them to make a good-sized meal. Newman says in his area there’s a limit of 50 fish, which can be a combination of the species.
“It makes for quite a lot of work when you get home,” Newman says, but it’s worth it when the family sits down to enjoy a delicious meal after spending time together on the ice.
It can be a lot of fun to bring your children on the ice with you. Newman takes his daughters, Rebekah and Clara, with him throughout the winter. He highly recommends packing snacks to keep them happy. “That cold makes them awfully hungry,” he says.
For safety, don’t drill large holes when fishing with children because a small child can fall into them. Also, since children can step in and become soaked in even an 8-inch hole, be careful where you place them and be sure to bring an extra change of clothes.
“Keep it in your mind that you need to dedicate the day to them,” Newman says. “Most of the time, you’re going to spend time untangling lines.” He believes the time spent together sharing his passion with his family is more than worth it, especially when otherwise they’d have all been huddled inside.
Read more: Check out GRIT editor-in-chief Hank Will's experience with this luxurious fish house in The Lodge Fish House: Total Comfort on the Ice.
Amy Grisak is a freelance writer living in Montana and loves encouraging readers to spend as much time outside as possible.
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