There is no doubt that fishing is its own culture and like any culture, it has its own subcultures. Fly fishermen and bow fishermen come to mind but in the depths of the fishing culture, there are the even rarer fishermen, those bordering on obsession with their particular niche.
While we could be talking about hand fishermen, we aren’t. We are referring to the rare breed of fishermen with ice in their veins. Those who will casually stroll out onto a frozen lake, make a hole, and sit for hours pulling some of the most beautiful perch and walleye you have ever seen. We are talking about Ice Fishermen!
If you want to join the daring ranks of these fishermen and take your turn at the hole to drag up a mess of fine panfish or even the great northern pike, you are going to have to prepare. It isn’t a hobby to dive into without knowing what you are doing. But that’s why we are here. Let’s get you started out the right way.
Deaths from ice fishing are rare with less than half a dozen most years. More die in July from boating accidents. This isn’t to give you a false sense of security but just to illustrate that the hobby isn’t as dangerous as it first seems. But the dangers are there, don’t go onto ice you don’t know will support you.
Just because the ice is strong where you are doesn’t mean it is 10 feet in any direction from where you are. Always check ice before stepping on it. Most people carry a spud bar which serves dual purposes of checking the ice around them and breaking through when they get to their spot.
To keep yourself safe try one of these in order of preference for your first season on the ice, not only will you be safer but you will likely have better results overall:
Get a Guide
Guide services for ice fishing are comparatively cheap than most other guide services. They can show you the ropes and how to stay safe while offering you a sheltered place on the ice in a spot that is very likely to produce fish. Guide services are common in most states that have a large ice fishing trade.
Get a Buddy
Find someone experienced in ice fishing that can show you the ropes and make sure you are doing it right. Some areas in Minnesota it’s hard not to find an avid ice fisherman. While they may not be able to offer you accommodations like a guide service, most experienced people can put you on the fish.
It’s almost impossible to understand the fervor in which most ice fisherman will talk trade with a newcomer. Finding someone willing to take you under wing for a few trips may be the easiest thing you do in life. There are a number of web forums, facebook groups, and local gathering places that are sure to find you the help you need.
Talk to a Local Outfitter
Most fishing outfitters and bait stores in the north will be more than happy to give you details on local ice conditions and recommend places that are worth checking out. It isn’t as good as having someone on the ice with you but it’s a far sight better than going it alone. Be sure to ask about safety recommendations.
If you absolutely can’t get local help, stick to where there are people, test the ice in front of you, and remember these very basic rules:
- Moving water has weaker ice. Unless you have a lot of experience, stay away from rivers and stick to lakes and still water.
- Remember the saying “Thick and blue, tried and true. Thin and crispy, way too risky.” This isn’t a universal rule but it is a good guideline. If the ice isn’t blue, stay off it.
- It is commonly said that ice 2” thick will support a man but 4” is way more comfortable. I will take 6” ice any day just to feel secure. It’s worth the extra effort in making a hole.
- Spring ice is different than winter ice. As the ice begins to rot, it will be much weaker than it would be in the earlier season. Test the ice!
Once you have a plan to stay safe, you can start thinking about gear.
What you Need to Ice Fish
While all fishing is expensive in some way, ice fishing can be done effectively on the cheap. It doesn’t always appear this way because much of what you need, such as clothing, appears expensive. But you don’t need a boat and the rods are much cheaper than a quality bass setup.
The only danger of ice fishing isn’t the frozen water. Hypothermia is a major risk. Dressing correctly in warm layers to keep yourself dry and at a balanced temperature will not only keep you safe but also make the trip a lot more enjoyable. It’s possible you could be on the ice for 8 hours or more but it can be done comfortably if you have proper clothing.
The proper layers for torso and legs are a moisture-wicking base layer, an insulating layer, and a windproof shell layer. For your feet, opt for good, thick socks and waterproof insulated boots. You will need solid, waterproof gloves and something to cover your head including your face and ears.
Wool and Gore-Tex are your friends! Get a good pair of pack boots or my personal favorite, Muck Arctic Pros.
The Rod & Reel
When it comes to fishing, the rod & reel are the ticket items, what we get the most excited about! Well, ice fishing setups are a little underwhelming. The rod looks like a kid’s rod and the reel is usually just a standard spinning reel. But just because it looks like a kid’s rod doesn’t mean you should grab that Snoopy rod you got as a kid and hit the ice.
Ice fishing rods are basically all tip. They are similar to the working part of a bass rod and are very specific to be able to get a good hook set on the slower and more timid bites you get in very cold water. The good news is that a quality setup can be had for well under $50.00.
Many ice fishermen also use Tip-Ups which are a sort of trap but not one that hooks the fish for you. When you get a bite, it will raise a flag and you have to rush across the ice to set the hook. Some you pull the fish in by hand and others have a mounted pole. If you are looking for bigger fish these are handy but for your first time, stick with the old rod and reel.
After the pole, the bait or lures are the next most exciting thing. Like the pole though, your lure options are a little disappointing when it comes to ice fishing. While there are a decent selection of jigs and jigging spoons for ice fishing that do produce fish, the far more common and effective method is to use smaller hooks with live bait.
Your best bet is a decent selection of terminal tackle consisting of hooks from #8s to #3s for panfish, perch and the odd bass and a few 2/0 or 3/0 for pike. You will need sinkers of various sizes, maybe a couple of leaders, and perhaps even a couple of bobbers. That’s it.
Tackle-wise, you can spend less than $10.00 and have everything you need. Maybe pick up a few jigs or spoons just in case and see the local shop for what bait is most effective where you are. Winter fish can be ravenous if the time is right and whatever you give them is likely going to get a good bite but having a heads up from a local can only help.
The Tools and Accessories
Now here is something we can be excited about! You are going to need a few specialized tools to be successful. There are a lot of modern additions in terms of fish-finders and underwater cameras but for your first trip, keep it simple.
The first thing you have to do is get through the ice. For that, you can use a spud bar if the ice is thin but eventually you are going to need an auger. The hand crank kind are very effective, lightweight, and affordable at less than $100.00 and that would be what I recommend. You can invest in a powered auger but for a first time, these $500.00+ tools aren’t necessary.
Spend a few bucks on an ice skimmer which is a blend between a strainer and a ladle. It’s used to keep the ice from refreezing in your hole which is a good way to lose a lure and some line. You could make your own if you wanted or just stir the water every so often but for the price, the skimmer is worth it.
Something to sit on, either a bucket or a camp chair is a lifesaver on the ice. It will kill your back and freeze your cheeks off otherwise. No need to get elaborate, just get something cheap and comfortable.
Many ice fishers use a small gaff hook, especially if they are fishing for pike. There is no way to get a net down in the ice so you will need something to drag those lunkers up. If you are sticking to smaller species, this may be unnecessary
Lastly, you need a method of conveyance to get things out to your spot. It is very common to see a kid’s sled being used for the purpose so feel free to hijack one from your kids for the purpose. Or you can buy one specially built to haul your gear. I prefer the former which is much cheaper and just as effective.
Other tools of the fishing trade can be useful like a hook remover, dip net, bait bucket, fillet knife, and cutting board so take those along too. We all like a well-stocked tackle box and have one at the house so it might as well go along just in case.
If you decide to stick with it, you can add all the gear you want from electronics to heaters and shelters. It’s all up to how interested you are and how much you want to spend. Ice fishing doesn’t have to cost a fortune but it can if you are willing to let go of the money.
How to Ice Fish
Just like regular fishing, if you want to catch fish, they have to be there for you to catch. The only rule that changes between fishing warm water and frozen water is the depth. A lake that has good fishing in the warmer months will have fish in colder months and they will hang around the same areas they prefer during spring and summer.
So, rule #1 is fish the weed beds and obstruction you would fish in the spring. Around the edges of weed beds are especially productive in winter as well as the areas around drop-offs. Avoid places where streams flow into the lake as ice may be weaker there. Unlike warmer months, knowing where you are going to fish up front is vital as changing spots takes a lot of work!
Next, you have to get through the ice as should be apparent. If it’s thin, chip it away. If not, break out the auger and bore a hole. The size will vary depending on the fish you are after but 8” and 10” are very popular sizes. You will want more than one hole, just remember to keep them skimmed to prevent freezing.
You will have to get your line in the water but there is no casting in ice fishing. Just drop it in. If you are using live bait, it can do some of the work for you but a slow jigging motion with very small movements seems to be the most effective. Fish move slower when it’s cold so don’t go too fast or too aggressive with the action on your bait or lure.
Once you get a bite, the principle is the same as any other fishing. Set the hook and reel it in. You do have to be a little more cautions to keep your line off the ice which can have sharp edges that will cause it to snap so keep the tip down while you fight. Some of the winter fish can be great fighters. If its large, don’t try to lift it out with the pole. Use a gaff hook or a fish gripper to get it out.
Repeat until you are too cold or have enough fish. It’s that easy.
Sure, ice fishing isn’t for the faint of heart but you can get into ice fishing in a big way for less money those most people spend on their fishing setups. As a matter of fact, you can get everything you need for less than the cost of a decent fly rod and reel, minus clothing of course.
Clothing is the big challenge and the biggest expense but if you are an avid outdoorsman, there is a good chance you have most of what you will need anyway. If you don’t have it, try to get the best you can. The number one reason that most people say they don’t like ice fishing is that they were too cold. Clothing remedies that.
One thing is for sure, you can’t say you don’t like ice fishing because you don’t catch fish. I have pulled more 2 lb. perch out of the icy depths in mid-winter than I have ever caught bass in the frenzy of mid-spring.
If you have never spent a day on the ice, especially as a part of the ice fishing community, I strongly urge you to give it a shot. It’s worth a few days of your hard-earned vacation to take a trip up to Wisconsin or Minnesota and give it a go. It may not be the most fun fishing you have ever done but I guarantee it will be the most fun you ever had on a blustery winters day!